Dozens of young monks robed in orange sit on the floor with their backs to the camera inside a temple.

Chiang Mai

Explore Chiang Mai for it’s rich culture, vibrant night markets, majestic temples, and gorgeous Old Town. An ideal destination for adventure and tranquility.

Nestled in the mountainous region of Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai, often referred to as the ‘Rose of the North’, is a city that has drawn me back time and again. I visited Chiang Mai a handful of times as part of various trips to Thailand over the years, but in 2023 I had the opportunity to settle in the city for five weeks. It meant I could explore the area in depth, revisit old favorites, find some new gems, and update my previous posts. I’m excited to share one of my favorite cities in the world with you!

Airport in Chiang Mai: A Warm Welcome

From the moment you arrive at the airport in Chiang Mai, you’re greeted with a sense of warmth and friendliness that’s characteristic of this vibrant city. Whether it’s the taxi driver making small talk on the way to your hotel or the vendor at the local market greeting you with a broad smile, the people of Chiang Mai have a way of making you feel right at home.

Getting from the airport in Chiang Mai to the city center is quick, affordable, and convenient. Whether you choose the comfort of a taxi, the affordability of a songthaew (red truck), or the independence of a rental car, you’ll find yourself in the heart of Chiang Mai in no time. Here are some options:

Taxi – Your trusty Steed

First up, let’s talk about the most straightforward option – taxis. As soon as you exit the arrivals hall, you’ll find a taxi counter where you can book a ride straight to your destination. The fare is typically around 150-200 Thai Baht (which is roughly US$5-$7, depending on your exact location). The ride to either Old Town or Nimman takes about 10 to 15 minutes. Taxis are available 24/7, making them a convenient option for late-night arrivals.

Grab – the Asian Uber

If you’re more tech-savvy, then Grab, Southeast Asia’s answer to Uber, is a great option. Simply download the Grab app, enter your destination, and voila! You’re ready to go. Grab offers both taxi and private car options. The fare is usually comparable to regular taxis, but promotional discounts are often available. The added advantage is that you can pay either by card through the app or in cash, offering flexibility for travelers

Red Songthaew – An Authentic Experience

If you’re up for a more local experience, hop on a red songthaew. These shared pick-up truck taxis are a common sight on Chiang Mai’s roads. You’ll find them lined up outside the airport. The fare is about 50 Baht per person (US$1.50), making them a more economical option. However, keep in mind that you might have to wait until there are enough passengers going in the same direction. The journey can also take a bit longer as the driver drops off passengers along the way. Still, songthaews offer a unique and authentic way to start your Chiang Mai adventure!

Airport Shuttle – The Budget Option

For the budget-conscious traveler, the airport shuttle is an excellent choice. The shuttle bus runs every 30 minutes from the airport to different parts of the city, including Old Town and Nimman. The fare is only 40 Baht (just over US$1), making it the most affordable option. However, it might not be the most convenient if you’re traveling with a lot of luggage or if your accommodation isn’t near a shuttle stop.

Car Rental – The Independent Traveler

Last but not least, for those who prefer to set their own pace, car rentals are available at the airport. Several international and local car rental companies operate from the airport. While this option offers the most freedom, it’s also the most expensive. Also, remember that traffic in Chiang Mai can be hectic, especially during peak hours.

Chiang Mai Old Town: A Step Back In Time

One of my absolute favorite places in Chiang Mai is the Old Town. Enclosed by ancient city walls and a moat, the Old Town offers a delightful blend of history, spirituality, and Thai culture. As you wander the narrow lanes, you’re transported back in time. There are quaint cafes, historic temples, boutique hotels, and local markets dotted around, offering endless opportunities to indulge in some delicious Thai cuisine, shop for local handicrafts, or simply sit back and watch the world go by.

Walking through the Old Town’s lanes is like stepping into a living museum. The area is laid out in a grid, much like it was when it was first established over seven centuries ago. The city walls and moat, although partially crumbled and restored, still lend an air of ancient majesty.

Old Town streets themselves are lined with traditional Thai houses, some of which have been converted into guesthouses, cafes, and shops. The charm of Old Town lies in these everyday scenes: monks collecting alms at dawn, locals peddling street food, artisans at work, and school children in their uniforms giggling on their way home.

An orange robed Thai monk is seen from behind as he approaches a temple holding a black umbrella over his head for shade.
A monk approaches a temple in Chiang Mai.

Let’s not forget the numerous small galleries and craft shops dotted around the Old Town. These are the perfect places to pick up a unique souvenir, from handmade silver jewelry to traditional Thai silk. Remember, when you buy local, you’re supporting the artisans and helping keep these traditional crafts alive.

For those seeking some rest and relaxation, there’s no shortage of spas and massage centers offering traditional Thai massage. There’s nothing like a soothing massage to rejuvenate your senses after a day of exploring!

And if you’re looking to delve deeper into Thai culture, there are plenty of opportunities to enroll in a cooking class, meditation session, or even a Thai language course.

Nimmanhaemin: Where Tradition Meets Modernity

A short ride from the Old Town brings you to Nimmanhaemin (or just ‘Nimman’),, the trendy, modern neighborhood that’s become the city’s hub of creativity and innovation. Nimmanhaemin is a stark contrast to the Old Town, but equally enchanting in its own way.

The area is packed with chic cafes, modern art galleries, and stylish boutiques. It’s also home to Maya mall, a multi-story mall that’s become a go-to spot for shopping, dining, or catching a movie. And then there’s One Nimman, a cultural shopping complex where you’ll find an array of local crafts, fashion, and mouth watering street food.

But amidst all the modernity, Nimmanhaemin hasn’t lost touch with its roots. You’ll find traditional Thai elements tastefully incorporated into the contemporary setting, whether it’s the Lanna architecture or the local ingredients in the fusion cuisine.

Chiang Mai Temples: Soul of the City

The Old Town’s crowning glory is undoubtedly its almost 40 temples, locally known as ‘wats’. Scattered throughout the area, these wats are a testament to Chiang Mai’s spiritual heritage and architectural grandeur. Each temple has its own unique charm and history; sacred spaces that offer a tranquil retreat from the city’s hustle and bustle.. These are some of my favorites:

Wat Pra Singh – Temple of the Lion Buddha

One can’t visit Old Town without making a stop at Wat Phra Singh, the Temple of the Lion Buddha. The golden stupa, intricately carved teak wood buildings, and the serene Buddha images are a sight to behold.

Wat Chedi Luang

Another must-visit is Wat Chedi Luang, home to a massive chedi (stupa) that was once the tallest structure in Chiang Mai. 

There is a 50 Baht (approximately US$1.50) entry fee per person. Women are not allowed inside the first temple building, but everyone is allowed in all the other buildings in the temple complex. It gets very hot walking around the various Old Town temples, so it’s nice to know that there’s a lovely cafe (called Araksa) located at the back of the Wat Chedi Luang complex which has a little pond and a lovely, shady outlook.

Wat Chiang Man

Wat Chiang Man is the oldest temple in the Chiang Mai Old Town – over 725 years old! The gardens are beautiful, as are the massive carved elephants on the Wat’s stupa.

Wat Chai Mongkol

Backing onto the river, Wat Chai Mongkol is a special place for worshippers to release fish and birds while reciting prayers. River cruises leave each hour and tickets can be purchased from the boat-turned-cafe on the river. The cafe is a delightful place to sit with a coffee or a cold drink while you catch a cool breeze and watch the world go by. And you don’t have to release an animal or go on a cruise to access it.

Wat Phan Tao

The Wat Phan Tao temple houses some of the city’s most beautifully preserved murals. Just superb and well worth a visit! The level of detail and intricacy is simply breathtaking. Take your time to have a wander around and see the ancient stories played out on the walls.

Wat Umong Mahathera Chan

A true hidden gem! Wat Umong Mahathera Chan doesn’t get as many tourists as some other temples. (No idea why because it’s lovely!) And good for me because it meant I had the place almost all to myself. The grounds are well manicured, there’s plenty of shade, and the public toilets are clean.

Wat Sri Suphan – the Silver Temple

The Silver Temple is located just outside and to the south of Chiang Mai’s Old Town walls. This area is the silver district, so keep look out for shops selling beautiful silver wares. Wat Sri Suphan is absolutely stunning and a must-see! Its main temple is made entirely from silver which shimmers in the sunlight during the day. At night, it’s lit up with gorgeous colored lights that dance across its facade. The intricate carvings that adorn the temple’s walls – inside and out – are unmissable and unmistakable. It really is like something out of a fairytale.

Like most of the city’s temples, Wat Sri Suphan has clean, accessible public toilets – after you pay 5 Baht.

A corner view of the intricately carved and highly ornate silver temple in Chiang Mai.
Wat Sri Suphan – the Silver Temple – just outside the Old Town walls in Chiang Mai.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Known locally as simply Doi Suthep, this temple is located about 7.5 miles (or approximately 12kms) from the center of Chiang Mai. Doi Suthep is actually the name of the hill on which the temple sits, and it’s one of the city’s most sacred temples. The view from the top of the hill looking over the city is amazing so it’s well worth the trip.

You can get to Doi Suthep by red truck (or ‘songthaew’ – a shared local taxi) or take a Grab car (like Uber).

Night Markets: A Shopaholic’s Dream

For those with a penchant for shopping, the Chiang Mai night market is a veritable paradise! The most famous is the Sunday Walking Street Night Market in the Old Town, where the streets come alive with stalls selling everything from handmade jewelry to locally made crafts and clothing. It’s also a great place to try some local street food. And let’s not forget the Night Bazaar, which operates every evening and is a great place to pick up some souvenirs.

Colorful upturned paper umbrellas hang from the roof as we look out across a street in Chiang Mai lined with market stalls selling clothing.
Chiang Mai night market

On the subject of markets, don’t forget about the lesser known but very good Jing Jai markets. We spend an enjoyable few hours wandering around them.

A Food Lover’s Paradise

Speaking of cuisine, a trip to Chiang Mai would be incomplete without mentioning the food. From the best khao soi (a northern Thai curry noodle soup) to sweet mango sticky rice, the city’s culinary scene is a treat for the tastebuds! There are countless street food stalls, local markets, and high-end restaurants offering a range of Thai and international cuisine. As a foodie, I can vouch for the fact that Chiang Mai has something to satiate every palate.

To wash down all that delicious food be sure to check out my rooftop bars in Chiang Mai guide for all the best spots.

Chiang Mai: A Haven For Digital Nomads

Over recent years, Chiang Mai has emerged as a popular destination for digital nomads. With its affordable cost of living, reliable internet, visa options, and a plethora of excellent co-working spaces, it’s not hard to see why. The city offers a perfect balance – the comforts and conveniences of a modern city, along with the charm and relaxed pace of a smaller town.

A Gateway To Nature

One of the things that keeps drawing me back to Chiang Mai is its proximity to nature. Just a short drive from the city center, and you find yourself amidst lush mountains, tranquil waterfalls, and serene hot springs – perfect for hiking!

Additionally, Chiang Mai is also a great base for exploring the wider region of Northern Thailand. From joining a trek to a hill tribe village to visiting the ethereal White Temple in Chiang Rai, there’s no shortage of adventures waiting just beyond the city limits.

Chiang Mai Festivals: A Rich Tapestry of Culture

I can’t talk about Chiang Mai without mentioning its vibrant festival scene! If you time your visit right, you might be lucky enough to witness some of the city’s most enchanting celebrations.

Songkran Festival

The biggest and most important annual festival in Thailand is the captivating Songkran Festival – the Thai New Year. During the Songkran Festival, Chiang Mai – and cities and towns all over Thailand – turn into a giant water fight!

You can catch the next Songkran Festival from 13-15 April 2024.

Yi Peng Lantern Festival Chiang Mai

The Yi Peng Lantern Festival is a glorious sight as thousands of lanterns are released into the night sky to celebrate the full moon! Held in the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar on the night of the full moon, it usually falls in November. The English translation of “Yi” is two, and “Peng” means full moon day.

Specific to Northern Thailand – and Chiang Mai, in particular – the Yi Peng Lantern Festival is extra special!

The next Yi Peng Lantern Festival is on 27-28 November 2023.

Loy Krathong Festival

Visitors confuse the Loy Krathong and Yi Peng Festivals because they’re held at the same time of year. Loy Krathong is to give thanks to the water goddess for a good harvest. It is celebrated by lighting candles, placing them in little lotus-shaped boats made from banana leaves, and floating them down the river. People all over Thailand celebrate the Loy Krathong Festival, but only in Chiang Mai are candles released into the Ping River.

The English translation of “Loy” is float, and “Krathong” means container. Some of the Krathong released are beautifully ornate and can also carry flowers, incense, and even little trinkets as offerings.

Catch the Loy Krathong Festival next on 28 November 2023.

Chiang Mai Flower Festival

Held annually at the beginning of February, the Chiang Mai Flower Festival is a glorious sight!

Poy Sang Yong

Poy Sang Yong celebrates the rites of Thai boys’ – aged between 7 and 14 years – as they transition into monkhood. The annual celebration takes place between mid-March and mid-April in most temples around the city.

The Charm of Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai has a rich history, vibrant culture, delicious food, and friendly locals. It has a way of endearing itself to anyone who visits. It’s a city that offers something for everyone, whether you’re a history buff, a food lover, a nature enthusiast, learning about muay thai in Chiang Mai or a digital nomad.

As a frequent visitor, I know first-hand that Chiang Mai has a unique charm that’s hard to resist. It’s a city that invites you in, makes you feel at home, and leaves you with a lifetime of memories. If you haven’t visited Chiang Mai yet, I highly recommend adding it to your travel bucket list. Chiang Mai never disappoints!

And so, until we meet again in the ‘Rose of the North’, happy travels 🙂

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is Chiang Mai so famous?

Chiang Mai is so famous because of its stunning temples, bustling Old Town surrounded by ancient walls, and natural beauty. Additionally, the areas just outside of Chiang Mai are home to over 100 elephant sanctuaries. Chiang Mai – often referred to as the Rose of the North – has thriving silver and handicrafts industries, and is an excellent base for hill tribe treks.

Is Chiang Mai better than Phuket?

Chiang Mai is very different from Phuket so it is difficult to compare them. Whether Chiang Mai is better than Phuket will likely come down to personal preference. Chiang Mai is a landlocked province in Northern Thailand very close to the Myanmar border. Chiang Mai city is surrounded by ancient city walls. Not too far outside the walls lie the mountains of Northern Thailand – rugged and beautiful. On the other hand, Phuket is Thailand’s largest island which lies to the south-west of the country, on the Andaman Sea.

What is Chiang Mai known as?

Chiang Mai is called the Rose of the North. Isn’t that beautiful? Chiang Mai is the largest and most populated city in Northern Thailand; once you’ve visited, you will understand why.

Is Chiang Mai worth going to?

Chiang Mai is definitely worth going to when you visit Thailand! The city is packed full of fabulous sights and activities to keep any active traveller busy. Chiang Mai boasts ornate temples, spectacular waterfalls, vibrant markets, elephant sanctuaries, excellent hiking and hill tribe treks.

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