Chiang Mai is the largest city in the north of Thailand and a distinct contrast to Bangkok. The climate is cooler, the pace less frenetic and the city easier to navigate than the Thai capital. Songkran (Thai New Year) and Loy Krathong (celebrating the end of the rainy season) are celebrated nationwide, but there aren’t many better places than Chiang Mai to witness them. There are also numerous other local festivals celebrated with great enthusiasm in Chiang Mai which has gained the nickname, ‘Rose of the North’.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is full of excellent, good value accommodation. Despite its popularity as a tourist destination, you generally get more for your money compared to Bangkok, Phuket or Ko Samui. Getting a room shouldn’t be a problem if you haven’t booked in advance, but for Songkran and Loy Krathong hotels and guest-houses tend to fill up quickly and advance booking is strongly advised.
Visitors should note that Chiang Mai is the name to both the city and the province so be careful when booking accommodation to ensure you actually get what you want. I’ve listed some areas below to help you decide the best location for your stay depending on your individual requirements.
The Old City
The Old City district is quite distinct being surrounded by a moat and the reconstructed remains of the city walls. There is an abundance of guest houses dotted amongst the sois (lanes) of the old town, with the heaviest concentration being around the Thapae Gate area which is very popular with backpackers and independent travellers. There are also some pleasant mid-range boutique hotels in Chiang Mai’s Old City as well as top class places like the Rachamankha.
Night Bazaar and Riverside
The Night Bazaar area is considered by most visitors and residents to be the downtown area of Chiang Mai with plenty of activity during the day and night. This area has the old town to the west and is bordered by the Ping River to the east. Much of the accommodation here is in the mid-high range with less emphasis on budget travellers.
To the west of the Old City, the upmarket Nimmanhaemin Road area is home to a good selection of hotels. This area has an excellent array of restaurants, cafes and coffee shops.
Chiang Mai countryside
There are some lovely resorts and hotels situated in the valley of Mae Rim and Mae Sa to the north of the city. These are ideal for those seeking to enjoy the countryside, but there is limited public transport to or from the city in the evening.
What to see and do in Chiang Mai
If temples are your thing, then Chiang Mai is the place for you. Within the old city alone, there are over 30 temples with the most famous two being Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang. The old city is a lovely place to walk or bicycle around, wander in and out of the sois and generally laze away the day. The holiest temple of the area (and the north of Thailand as a whole) is situated high on a hillside overlooking the city. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep makes for a wonderful short trip out of Chiang Mai and is not to be missed if you’re visiting the area. A short distance away from Doi Suthep are the beautiful royal gardens at Bhuping Palace while the Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens are also recommended.
Chiang Mai regularly features in lists detailing the best cities in Asia to visit and is one of those places that has a great vibe that can be difficult to explain to people who haven’t yet been. Arts and culture are prominent in the city and there is a thriving music scene with jazz, blues and traditional Thai music all well represented.
The Chiang Mai countryside is fantastic for outdoor adventures such as trekking, rafting, mountain-biking, and ethical elephant experiences. You could take in a river cruise along the Ping River or dine out at a khan toke dinner show.
Chiang Mai is also famous for its shopping and handicrafts with many tourists heading for the Night Bazaar. A better option in my opinion, is the excellent Sunday Walking Street Market in Chiang Mai’s old town district where a vast array of stalls set up temporary encampment every Sunday. You’ll find far more local people here and I find the atmosphere is more relaxed and enjoyable than the Night Bazaar. Warorot and Lam Yai market are also worth a visit for an authentic Thai experience.
Food and drink in Chiang Mai
All around Chiang Mai city you will find countless restaurants and local stalls serving up tasty and inexpensive Thai food including local specialities like khao soi.
Two of the best areas for street food can be found in the evening at Chiang Mai Gate and Chang Phueak Gate (North Gate). For something more upmarket but still good value, check out long-standing favourites on the Ping River, The Riverside and Good View.
The Saturday and Sunday Walking Street Markets are as much about food as they are shopping, and both are highly recommended. Favourite restaurants of mine in Chiang Mai include SP Chicken near Wat Phra Singh and Tikky’s Cafe in the Santitham area to the north of the Old City.
Best time to visit Chiang Mai
In the table below I’ve listed the average temperatures and amount of rainfall during the year for Chiang Mai. I’ve also detailed some other factors to consider including humidity levels, geographical location and local festivals which all may have a bearing on when you wish to visit Chiang Mai. Please note that Chiang Mai is the name of the city and province; temperatures in the countryside and mountains (particularly at night) tend to be cooler than the city.
The mountains and valleys of Chiang Mai province provide the area with a more distinct separation of seasons than other parts of Thailand. In fact, if you tell people from Bangkok or the south that you are going to Chiang Mai, they’d almost certainly say ‘nao‘ (cold) as if it were some frozen Arctic wasteland (any temperature below 75F seems to qualify as freezing to many Thai people!) It’s true that temperatures in the villages high in the mountains can be cold at night during the cool season, but the city of Chiang Mai and the surrounding valley enjoys warm/hot days and pleasantly cool evenings for much of the year.
November-February sees relatively low humidity, comfortable temperatures and low amounts of rainfall. Festivals in the cool season include Loy Krathong and the Yi Peng Lantern Festival (November) and the Chiang Mai Flower Festival (February). Visitors to Chiang Mai in the cool season may find a light jacket or shawl useful in the evenings when temperatures can chill off.
March-June can be extremely hot at times with temperatures hovering around 40°C. March often sees the worst of the haze which can affect large parts of the north of Thailand as farmers burn their crops and the smoke is trapped in the low-lying valleys. April sees thousands of Thai and foreign tourists descend on the city to celebrate the world-famous Songkran Water Festival which heralds the Thai New Year.
July-October is low season in terms of tourists which also means bargains to be had in terms of accommodation and flights. Rainy season has the advantage of seeing the countryside at its greenest and waterfalls in full flow. It doesn’t rain every day and even when the heavens do open you can expect to see plenty of sunshine in between the showers.
Humidity levels in Chiang Mai and surrounding areas are noticeably lower than Bangkok and some of the southern resorts in the Gulf of Thailand and on the Andaman Coast. Nevertheless, the humidity level during March-November can be high usually peaking in May.
How to get to Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is 750km (470 miles) north of Bangkok. Journey times are just over and hour by air, 11 hours by bus and 13 hours by train. Located in a valley, Chiang Mai is 310m (1,000 feet above sea level) and is surrounded by hills and mountains including Doi Inthanon which at 2565m is the highest peak in Thailand.
Transport in Chiang Mai
An abundance of songthaews and tuk-tuks make getting around Chiang Mai relatively easy although you may have to negotiate fares. The international airport is only a ten minute car journey away from the Old City and the city is also served by the railway which links to Bangkok. Local and inter-city bus services connect to the Thai capital as well as other popular northern Thailand locations such as Chiang Rai and Pai.