As a popular destination for backpackers, Bangkokians, and luxury travelers from around the world Chiang Mai doesn’t disappoint. There is something for everyone here and it’s just waiting for you to get out and explore it! So whether you are a first timer, or planning a trip to your favorite city, test yourself to try something new! This mini guide to Chiang Mai will help you prepare for your trip.
Chiang Mai is the cultural hub of Thailand and as such you can’t go fifty feet without finding a shop, stall, or booth selling locally made handicrafts. The weather can be divided into three seasons. The cool season runs from November to February which is followed by the hot season March until June. The rainy season is July to October, but do not let that deter you from visiting! There are two festivals that are a must see – Songkran (Thai New Year – April) and Yi Peng (aka lantern festival – November,) but if your travel takes you there outside of those times, you will still have an excellent time. Let’s get to the good stuff.
The City of Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai, is a walled city and was founded in 1296 on top of an older city. The famous brick walls are now mostly gone, but some areas still stand so you can get a feel for what it must have been like. The old city, the part within the brick walls, is surrounded by a moat. Mostly at night, fountains come alive in the moat to help with aeration and provide decoration. The city has expanded drastically over the years to a population (suburbia included) to around a million people. Therefore, Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city. Despite its rapid growth, Chiang Mai still maintains a small town feel. Temples abound and are found everywhere and are exquisitely maintained.
The Food in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is in Northern Thailand so that means that the food is different than the south. Expect to find homemade sausages with heavy doses of herbs. Khao soi (brothy soup with cooked and fried noodles and sometimes curdled blood) is a local favorite, along with traditional favorites of mango sticky rice, papaya salad, and red curry with rice that are common in central Thailand. You can still find it, but coconut milk isn’t a main ingredient in the north like their counterparts to the south.
If street food is your thing, all you have to do is follow your nose. There are standing night time spots at both North Gate, South Gate, and the Night Bazaar. More weekend oriented pop up food markets happen around the university and Central Festival in Nimman area. Add high season into the mix, and you will see the number of street vendors by the Wororot Market explode. Beyond that, the number of local spots are endless. If you need something different than Thai food, the expat culture has crafted a great culinary scene of its own ranging from really good Mexican food, to Indian, to Sushi. I recommend the The Salsa Kitchen for Mexican and Misora Sushi Bar & Bistro in Think Park for Sushi. The Shopping in Chiang Mai
Did I say Shopping? I meant to say shopping, shopping. There are markets galore. You have the must see tourist markets that include the Night bazaar, Saturday Walking Street, and Sunday Walking Street. Ensure your first visit is over a weekend. Then you have more locally geared markets that include Wororot, “Little China,” The Chiang Mai Complex market (also a good food stop.) Honestly, there are too many to name. Once you get through the big three, challenge yourself to get to more local markets. I enjoy these the most because they are set up for the local, not the tourist. Keep your eyes peeled as you are whipping around town and you will spot canvas covered stalls all over the place just waiting for you to explore it. Things to look for in Chiang Mai markets include textiles, handicrafts from the hill tribes, and one of each of the fruits that you can’t identify just so you can try them.
Food markets are also everywhere and range from the very common open air fresh farmers market feel, to the western geared super market Rimping. If you plan on renting long term like I did, you will not have a problem outfitting your kitchen with cheap but extremely useful utensils. Make your list of kitchen needs and head over to Wororot Market and the nearer backpacker friendly Sompet Market. Get your spices there as well before paying for them at the western stores.
The Coffee Culture in Chiang Mai
I don’t believe I’ve ever come across a city that has as many coffee shops as Chiang Mai does. They are as popular with the locals and with the tourists. Coffee is a major crop in Thailand. Northern Thailand alone produces over 50,000 tons of coffee a year with the majority of coffee being Arabica which by the way is AMAZING. The country initiated a plan in the area of Northern Thailand that borders Laos and Burma to plant coffee as a replacement for the opium the area was known for. The plan was successful and today the production of the bean is ranked the 18th largest in the world. Needless to say, you can stay highly caffeinated if you so desire. Coffee shops range from hipster organic slow brew types to good old fashion plain cup of coffee. There are some great coffee shops out there, and I suggest you explore them!
Nightlife in Chiang Mai
Like any good city, there is something for everyone here. You can live it up with the backpackers within the old city listening to American cover songs. Mix it up with the locals at night clubs like the Warm Up Cafe in Nimman, or head on over to the even more hip area, The Harbor. If alcohol is your thing, it is good to know that Thai’s are into bottle service. You can certainly buy drinks by the glass but many clubs are set up for bottle service so expect that individual drinks will be slightly more expensive.
Night clubs not your thing? They haven’t been mine for a while now but I still manage to have a great time in Chiang Mai. If you are like me, and you want to listen to good live music without having to vie for position at a table or feel like you just got packed in a sardine can with fifty of your closest friends….in oil, there are spots for you too. In Nimman, I like the Drunken Flower. Just outside of Nimman, I go to The Mellowship for jazz. Inside the city, The North Gate Jazz Co-Op is still the best. A ton of restaurants will offer live music as well, but these are my go to’s.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
Again, it depends on your type of travel and what kind of situation you like to be in. I’ve seen all sides from hostel, long term apartment rental, to luxury hotel – you can find whatever it is that you are looking for within any type of budget. If it is your first time in Chiang Mai, check this link out for further detail. I default to the Nimman area because I find it convenient. I puts me closest to coffee shops, places to work, nightlife, and is walkable.
What to do in Chiang Mai
Outside of eating, shopping, drinking coffee and walking/scootering around to see all of the temples, you won’t get bored. You are within a short drive to waterfalls, lakes, hiking areas. You can do some more serious road trips up to Chiang Rai or Pai. Take a cooking class. Go help the elephants (note, I said help, not ride, please do not ride the elephants.) Learn Thai. Go to a Monk Chat and speak with the monks. Get a massage or twenty. Grab a movie for about $3.00 USD. Meet people. Your possibilities are endless.
Suggestions and Tips for visiting Chiang Mai
If you know how to ride a scooter – rent one, this will make you much more mobile. That being said, be careful! Riding a scooter in this city is like playing frogger. The number of cars in the city has grown since a subsidy came out a few years ago that made it easier for locals to afford a car, and it is a scooter city. The mix between the cars, scooters, and tourists trying to ride the scooter like a local can get pretty dangerous. If you haven’t experienced Thai traffic, hold off on renting a scooter until you get the feel of how the road rules work. As an example, at a red light, scooters go to the head of the line. That means that you will have scooters whipping in between and around cars to get to this position.
Venture down all the little side sois. (Soi = road) These look like alleys, but their curvy bends lead you to the most excellent discoveries. Bring your camera. Use it.
If traveling in the rainy season, bring a poncho and buy an umbrella when you get there. Rainy season isn’t awful. Sure it will pour for about 20 minutes, but then the sun will come out. Just be prepared. The best way to gauge upcoming rain is to look to the mountain. The rain typically comes from that direction. If it is raining on the mountain, you’ve got about 20 minutes to find a dry spot to wait it out.
The biggest tip of all though is to enjoy yourself! After all, that is entirely the idea.
What are your favorite things in Chiang Mai?