When you visit Chiang Mai, you may hear people refer to it as the Bangkok of the North. It is a big city, but nowhere near as big as Bangkok. It is the largest city in the north of Thailand. This amazing city is certainly worth adding to your trip itinerary as it’s fun, quirky and unique. Like no other city in Thailand, Chiang Mai usually has tourists falling in love with it and returning many times.
A Little Chiang Mai History
Chiang Mai sometimes written as “Chiengmai” or “Chiangmai”, is the largest city in northern Thailand. It is the capital of Chiang Mai Province and was a former capital of the Kingdom of Lan Na (1296–1768), which became the Kingdom of Chiang Mai, a tributary state of Siam from 1774 to 1899 and finally the seat of a merely ceremonial prince until 1939. It is 700 km (435 mi) north of Bangkok and is situated amongst the highest mountains in the country. The city sits astride the Ping River, a major tributary of the Chao Phraya River.
Chiang Mai is really the city of temples. Boasting over 300 of them in the immediate area! Some of these temples are well known and very spectacular; such as Doi Suthep, perched high up on a mountain in the clouds. Others are just beautiful smaller temples in scenic locations like the Old City. You can’t help but see temples when you visit Chiang Mai.
Arriving in Chiang Mai
It is likely you will arrive by air or rail into Chiang Mai. The airport is just on the outskirts of the city and is a quick trip into the busy areas by taxi, uber or baht bus. There’s many flights into and out of Chiang Mai. Most Thai airlines fly to Chiang Mai as it’s the biggest airport in the North. It is still a regional airport, so don’t expect the spectacle that is Suvarnabhumi! Most likely you will have departed from Don Mueang in Bangkok if coming from the south. The airport receives up to 28 flights a day from Bangkok (flight time about 1 hour 10 minutes) and also serves as a local hub for services to other northern cities such as Chiang Rai, Phrae, and Mae Hong Son. International services also connect Chiang Mai with other regional centers, including cities in other Asian countries.
Train Your Way to Visit Chiang Mai
There is a train service from Bangkok which is overnight. We have not taken this train as the reviews really didn’t encourage anyone to do it! Apparently it is slow, rough and crowded. There’s also been landslides and broken tracks in the North, so that really doesn’t appeal to tourists! However, it can be done if you want the train experience. The state railway operates 10 trains a day to Chiang Mai Station from Bangkok. Most journeys run overnight and take approximately 12–15 hours. Most trains offer first-class (private cabins) and second-class (seats fold out to make sleeping berths) service. Chiang Mai is the northern terminus of the Thai railway system.
Getting Around Chiang Mai
The locally preferred form of transport is personal motorbike and, increasingly, private car. Local public transport is via tuk-tuk, songthaew (baht bus), or rickshaws. Local songthaew fare is usually 20–50 baht per person for trips in and around the city. For groups, the fare per person is less. Tuk-tuk fare is usually at least 60-100 baht per trip (the vehicles are comfortable for two passengers, but some can squeeze in four passengers); fares increase with distance. And of course there is uber. Lately there has been some arguments between uber drivers and baht bus and taxi services. I’m sure it will settle down and find a happy medium so they can all exist together.
Staying in Chiang Mai
It’s easy to be completely overwhelmed by the choice of accommodation when you visit Chiang Mai. When I first looked at places to stay, it occured to me that there really was just 2 choices overall – either traditional Lanna-style hotels or the usual western style hotels. Everything seems to fall into these 2 categories. That’s where I started my decision-making. Most of the traditional hotels will be located in the Old City, but there’s other areas where traditional hotels appear. The second decision was – Old City or not? This can be made easier by reading about the various areas in Chiang Mai below. Once you have that sorted, it can be as easy as – I want to stay in a traditional hotel in the Old City – and off you go to check out the options.
Within your options will be guest-house style accommodation, which is prevalent in the Old City. There’s smaller hotels without the usual swimming pools etc, but they can be very good and very cheap. On the other end of the scale, you can stay in a 5 star hotel with all the bells and whistles. It just depends on what you want to experience. Chiang Mai has alot of hotels, so enjoy planning and comparing before you book anything.
Areas of Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is defined by a square in the middle of the city – this is the Old City. Yes, there’s old buildings and a moat all the way around, but there’s also modern business like restaurants, cafes, bars and hotels. It is a delightful place to wander around. Some stores contain amazing treasures you would never find anywhere else. One store we visited was like an old post office and had lots of paper-related products. I bought a handmade paper album with a sketch of local buildings on the front. There’s also lots of art galleries and artisan style stores in the Old City. It could take days to get around and see everything in here.
Main Tourist Areas
Outside the Old City, Chiang Mai sprawls off towards the mountains it is surrounded by. The tourist area to the east is bordered by the Ping River. Most hotels are on the Old City side of the river, but there’s a few across the other side. This is the area most tourists will stay. Known as the Night Bazaar area, there’s plenty of hotels, restaurants, cafes, bars, massages, shopping and transport. The night life is a bit more active in this area in comparison to the Old City. Both areas have their positive points so it’s really up to you as to which one you would prefer. When we visit Chiang Mai we like to stay in both the Old City and the Night Bazaar areas.
Riverside is another popular area. The other side of the Ping River is becoming more and more populated with hotels and restaurants. It is a little further to get into the Old City but the ambience of the area outweighs this.
Further out, you can stay in beautiful spa-style hotels in locations near to mountains and rice terraces. This would be a good location if you just want to relax and not travel into the busy city too much.
How long to stay in Chiang Mai
The northern part of Thailand is home to many arts and crafts, and Chiang Mai does not disappoint. There’s plenty of artists in action to watch. Many tours take tourists to a variety of different cultural activities and processes including ceramics, umbrella making, silk fabrics, weaving, painting and the list goes on. You could spend weeks exploring all of this! So much on offer to purchase too, and the choices are endless. Chiang Mai is definitely the place for you if you enjoy art.
If you like to shop then Chiang Mai will satisfy you! There’s endless markets and shopping malls all around the city. From big malls like Central Festival to Walking Street Markets in the Old City, you can buy just about anything you can think of. Check out our Shopping page for more information on what you can get and where.
Food Glorious Food!
Eating out in Chiang Mai is an absolute delight. Restaurants and cafes are everywhere and the food is delicious. We enjoyed fabulous meals in lots of different restaurants. The street food is also wonderful value and, just like other Thai cities, it’s everywhere! Some of the higher end restaurants serve amazing food and are definitely worth spending some extra money on, especially if you are celebrating a special occasion. Our favourites are listed on our Chiang Mai Eat page.
You will need at least a week to sample all there is to do in Chiang Mai. Activities for the whole family range from outdoor ziplining to 3D interactive art galleries and everything in between. We enjoyed hanging out with the cats at the Catmosphere Cafe, and taking a cooking school course in the Old City. Out of town you will find many elephant compounds. Please be careful where you decide to go as some of these are not doing best by the animals. We cannot recommend any as we have not been, however, we have read that the Elephant Nature Park is a rescue sanctuary and does not allow riding. We’ve also read reviews saying that there’s overcrowding with tourists and it isn’t a great day out when that happens. Do your research before you commit to one of these places.
Be A Responsible Tourist
On our trip we were taken to a monkey show that we didn’t want included on our tour – but they took us anyway. It was appalling. We love animals and do not like to see them exploited like this. Unfortunately, this is the darker side of Thailand and will continue as long as tourists support them by paying to see it. Please avoid these places and help stamp out cruelty to animals. We have also avoided the Chiang Mai Zoo as reports say the animals are not well kept and the cages are small. We did see the Tiger Temple and were horrified at the tiny areas the tigers are kept in. We will never visit places like this again after seeing it up close.
Whether you stay a few days or a couple of weeks, don’t miss out on all that is Chiang Mai. It’s like no other Thai city. It has elements of Bangkok teamed with the uniquely cultural aspects of the north. Definitely worth spending time here and exploring as much as possible. Visit Chiang Mai and you’ll fall in love forever and keep coming back.