Chiang Mai: A Complete Guide

Set amongst magical misty mountains in Thailand’s magnificent North, Chiang Mai is a beautiful and vibrant city.

The former capital of the Lanna kingdom, it offers visitors a wealth of glorious sights, sensational food, and unique Thai history and culture to explore.

Chiang Mai has a matchless, laid back charm that can be found nowhere else in Thailand, and a visit here is a must for anyone travelling around the land of smiles.

Here’s what you need to know before you visit…

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Bangkok to Chiang Mai

At a mere 700 kilometers distant, there are a multitude of ways to get to Chiang Mai from the bustling city of Bangkok…

By Air

A flight of just over an hour from Bangkok will take you to Chiang Mai International Airport, from where it is easy to jump in a taxi or tuk tuk which will get you to the city center in around 10 minutes.

There are multiple flights available daily, mostly with low cost airlines that usually won’t set you back more than around $40. Book in advance to get the best deals on flights.

chiang mai thailand

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By Train

A cheap way to get to Chiang Mai from Bangkok is by train.

It takes rather longer than flying — between 12 and 15 hours depending on the number of stops — but it is a fun way to travel and gives you the opportunity to get a good view of the countryside as you pass through at a leisurely pace.

There are around six trains daily, and you can choose the class that you want to travel — the most expensive being sleeper class. Prices cost between 800 and 2000 THB.

By Bus

Also affordable — and with a journey time between 9 and 12 hours a little quicker than the journey by train — the bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is a good option for travelers on a budget.

Up to twelve buses depart from Bangkok’s bus station in Mo Chit each day, and prices vary from 450 and 900 THB depending on the class of bus you choose.

Chiang Mai Weather

As Chiang Mai is situated in the north of Thailand, the weather can be a little cooler than elsewhere in the country and follows distinct seasons.

That said, even in the cool season temperatures can still reach an extremely agreeable 30°C. The cool season runs from December to February, and is arguably the best time to visit the Lanna capital.

Following the cool season, from March to June or July is the hot season, and sometimes the heat can be stifling, shooting up to a sweltering 40°C.

Finally the rainy season from July to November is still warm (averaging at around 32°C) but can at times get very wet indeed. Showers rarely last long however, and shouldn’t affect your visit to a great extent.

Things to Do in Chiang Mai

Doi Inthanon National Park

chiang mai mountains

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This national park sprawls over 482 square kilometers, and boasts the eponymous Doi Inthanon mountain — at 2565 meters the highest mountain in Thailand — as one of its major attractions.

The park is swathed in lush tropical vegetation, dotted with magnificent waterfalls and impressive rivers which are popular for white water rafting and other activities.

This area is also a haven for a cornucopia of animal, plant, bird and insect species, which attract thousands of nature lovers each year.

>>> Read our complete guide to Doi Inthanon

Wat Phra Doi Suthep

things to do in chiang mai

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Nestling high above the city amongst the lofty peaks of Doi Inthanon mountain, is Wat Phra Doi Suthep — an impressive temple which is held up as one of the most sacred by the Thai people.

This ancient temple was built in the late 1300s to hold a bone relic from the Buddha, and the architecture and the mountain setting are nothing short of breathtaking.

A magnificently carved staircase mounts 300 steps up to the temple building with its glittering golden central spire and elaborate murals — and even a replica of the infamous Emerald Buddha statue.

A charming shrine dedicated to the white elephant who served to transport the sacred Buddha relic up the mountain to its temple home.

Chiang Dao

chiang mai trekking

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The small but charming town of Chiang Dao gives its name to this jungle region just an hour or so from Chiang Mai.

The town lies at the base of an imposing limestone mountain which boasts one of the largest caves in Thailand, the opening to which is watched over by a temple.

The caverns are a popular day trip destination for visitors to Chiang Mai, as is the surrounding forest and wildlife sanctuary which is abundant with flora and fauna.

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and Elephant Nature Park

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Situated 60 kilometers from Bangkok, this unique elephant rescue project provides a sanctuary for maltreated elephants, as well as aiding cultural preservation and rainforest restoration projects in the local area.

To help fund these projects, the team at Elephant Nature Park welcome visitors and volunteers for short visits or overnight stays where they can meet the elephants and bathe and feed them- it’s a unique experience not to be missed.

Old City

what to do in chiang mai

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The Old City of Chiang Mai is surrounded by ancient walls and a moat and is the true heart of the city.

There is an profusion of things to experience here, and it’s possible to spend many days exploring the cultural and historical riches on offer.

There are a wide array of beautiful temples within the walls, including Wat Phra Singh — famous for its elaborately carved building decorated with glittering mosaics, and the stunning Lion Buddha idol that is kept here.

Wat Chedi Luang is equally atmospheric, with an enormous ruined Chedi which was once the largest in Chiang Mai.

Other temples worth visiting also include Wat Phan Tao, a magnificent teak temple which was formerly used as a royal palace. It features a huge prayer hall with towering teak columns, and a facade carve with intricate Lanna designs.

Dating from the late 13th century, Wat Chiang Man is Chiang Mai’s oldest temple and is of great historical interest.

The city’s guardian images are enshrined here, and it’s also home to the oldest known Lanna Buddha image.

Bo Sang Village

8 kilometers southeast of Chiang Mai lies Bo Sang Village, where you can watch local artisans at work creating traditional handicrafts.

The main highlight are the colourful umbrellas and parasols, of which the creation process is truly fascinating to watch.

Warorot Market

best market in chiang mai

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Situated on the banks of the Ping river in Chiang Mai’s Chinatown, Wararot Market is where you can rub shoulders with the locals who come here to shop for anything and everything including fruit and vegetables, fresh meat and fish, decorative items such as wood carvings and ceramics, plus electronic goods, fashions, and jewellery.

This large and popular market is probably the oldest and one of the most authentic markets in Chiang Mai. It’s a great place to grab a bargain.

Bai Orchid and Butterfly Farm

In Chiang Mai’s Mae Rim district you’ll find the exotic Bai Orchid and Butterfly Farm, where multihued butterflies swoop and flitter amongst the lush tropical foliage and striking, elegant orchids.

Thousands of orchids are grown here, and it’s even possible to buy one to take home (travel restrictions permitting).

Sunday Night Market

chiang mai sunday night market

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The Sunday Night Market (otherwise known as the Walking Street Market) stretches all the way from Tha Phae Gate down the full length of Ratchadamnoen Road in the centre of the city.

The eclectic range of items on offer are mainly handcrafts, and include clothes, carvings, jewellery, artwork, and souvenirs.

The Sunday Night Market is also a good place to come to see some fabulous free entertainment in the form of street musicians, magician, dancers, and more.

Chiang Mai Canyon

chiang mai attractions

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This former quarry has been given new life by being filled with water and turned into a attractive spot for locals and tourists who come here to swim in the refreshing waters, sunbathe, and for the thrill seekers it’s even possible to take plunge into the waters by cliff jumping (there are different height levels depending on experience).

Situated about 45 minutes drive out of the city, it’s well worth making the trip here to benefit from the calm, natural environment and the chilled atmosphere.

Wiang Kum Kam Underground Ancient City

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Looking like something straight out of Tomb Raider, and dating to somewhere during the 8th century, the Wiang Kum Kam Underground Ancient City is purportedly the earliest historical settlement in the Chiang Mai area.

It’s situated a few kilometers south of Chiang Mai, and many interesting archaeological treasures of the Mon settlers such as ancient inscribed stone tablets, sculptures and ceramics — and of course the ruins themselves — are displayed here.

Hill Tribes

thailand in june

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Chiang Mai province is well known for the local hill tribes who, due to their remote locations on the tropical hills, have remained relatively isolated and as a result have guarded their way of life and retained authentic ancient customs, traditions, and costumes.

Many tour operators offer hill tribe tours, which allow you to visit the tribes and witness their individual ways of living.

There are six main hill tribes that can still be seen today, amongst whom are the Karen Long Neck tribe, who stretch their necks using large golden bands, the semi-nomadic Akha peoples who build their houses from bamboo and thatch, and the Hmong who are famed for their colourful embroidered clothes and handicrafts.

Chiang Mai Night Safari

The idea behind the Chiang Mai Night Safari is to give visitors an exciting wilderness adventure within the city.

Set around a lake and divided into three different zones, trams take passengers to get up close to different wild habitats where giraffe and zebra, elephants, tigers, lions, bears and rhino can all be seen.

There are also some pleasant foot trails (with less dangerous wildlife) which make for a nice way to while a few hours.

Womens Correctional Institution Massage

It might not seem very likely, but one of the best massages you can get in Chiang Mai is by women prisoners.

In fact it makes a lot of sense. As part of the prison’s rehabilitation plan, the female inmates are taught professional massage skills and as part of their training offer their services to paying customers at a very reasonable price.

Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

best markets in chiang mai

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As night bazaars go, the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is one of the best. The vibrant atmosphere and staggering amount of products available for sale makes this market one of the biggest tourist draws in the city, and with good reason.

The quality of the items for sale does vary, but as well as knock off designer goods and copied DVDs you can also get your hands on tailored Thai silk clothing and luxury antiques as well as the latest Thai fashions, jewellery, fine handicrafts and artworks.

Haggling is expected here, and if you play your cards right you can land a really good deal.

Chiang Mai National Museum

History buffs will find plenty of interest at the Chiang Mai National Museum on the outskirts of the city.

Recently renovated in 2017, this museum exhibits artefacts from Chiang Mai’s Lanna period. The museum building itself has been built in the Lanna style, and features a tiered roof, and the artefacts on display include carvings, sculptures, jewellery and other relics.

Best Hotels in Chiang Mai

Baan Boo Loo Village

hotels in chiang mai

Hidden in the old city, Baan Boo Loo Village is well situated for some of the city’s best sites including Wat Phra Singha and Walking Street Market.

This quaint little 3 star teak house hotel set on stilts has been created in an authentic Thai style, with woven fabrics and carved wood furniture.

All rooms feature a living area and luxury en suite bathrooms, and many have individual balconies looking out over the gardens.

There’s also a communal kitchen area where the hotel owners invite guests to participate in a Thai cookery class.

  • City centre location
  • Free WiFi
  • Communal lounge and kitchen areas
  • Bar

what to do in chiang mai

Anantara Chiang Mai Resort

bangkok to chiang mai

Anantara are well known for their luxurious resorts, and 5 star Anatara Chiang Mai is no exception.

Located on the banks of the charming Ping river, this romantic resort is set in beautiful gardens, and all rooms and suites feature private balconies and en suite bathrooms.

A dip in the rooftop pool with cocktail bar is the perfect way to relax and unwind after a day seeing the sights, or alternatively experience a full pampering experience at the luxury spa, or take a cookery, yoga or Thai boxing class.

  • Rooftop pool
  • Cocktail bar
  • Choice of two restaurants featuring east Asian and Indian cuisine
  • City centre location close to main attractions
  • Stylish modern decor
  • Free WiFi

what to do in chiang mai

Ping Nakara Boutique Hotel And Spa

where to stay in chiang mai

The 5 star Ping Nakara Boutique Hotel And Spa is the ultimate in elegance.

Set in a glorious colonial style mansion with lush tropical gardens and a tranquil swimming pool, the nineteen opulent rooms and suites are decorated with hand carved furniture and feature en suite bathrooms.

The Nakara Spa offers Ayurvedic spa treatments for holistic health and relaxation, and the hotel restaurant and bar dishes up the highest quality traditional Thai recipes for the ultimate fine dining experience.

  • Central city location in close proximity to major sites of interest
  • Swimming pool
  • Bar and restaurant
  • Spa and wellness centre
  • Free WiFi

what to do in chiang mai

Hyde Park Chiangmai

chiang mai weather

Inspired by London’s Royal Hyde Park, the 4 star Hyde Park Chiang Mai is a sleek, modern hotel with leafy tropical gardens, two magnificent swimming pools, and a restaurant serving delicious International and Thai cuisines.

Just a few kilometres outside the walls of the city in the chic modern part of town, the hotel is well positioned for many sights and attractions.

Luxury rooms and suites are decorated in warm, earthy tones, and feature balconies with beautiful views, en suite bathrooms and large flat screen TVs.

  • Fitness centre
  • Restaurant and bar
  • Swimming pool
  • Free WiFi

what to do in chiang mai

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Featured image is by Rodney Ee (CC BY 2.0 licence)



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