Chiang Mai is one of the best cities we visited in South East Asia. It’s extremely kind locals, beautiful scenery and laid back vibe makes it an ideal place to hang out for at least four days. If we had it our way, we would have stayed for two weeks. There is so much to do and see! The walls of the Old City still exist, and we spent most of our time exploring within the walls where there are tons of cafes, shops and activities. The best thing about the small one square kilometer Old City is that you can’t get lost because you’ll eventually find the walls or a moat. Make sure to give yourself at least a day with no rigid plans to just walk around and enjoy the city!
How to Get There
The easiest and best way to get to Chiang Mai would be on a night train. Whether you are coming from Bangkok like we were, or somewhere along the way, it takes a while to get there so sleeping through the trip is the best use of your time. We bought our tickets at the Bangkok Railway Station the day before to be safe, but you can probably go the day of if you are travelling in low season. Cost for tickets was around 880 baht per person. When buying your tickets, you are asked for top or bottom. If you’re travelling as a pair, choose a top and bottom. Two seats facing each other turn into bunk beds in the same area, so you stay in the same part of the train.
This was our first night train, and while we were a little skeptical at first, it turned out to be a great experience. You can buy a dinner with a drink for around 170 baht if you did not bring food with you. It is also a great place to meet people as most people on the train are backpackers. A conductor comes around and makes your beds for you around 8:30 pm and the train car becomes similar to a dorm room. We made some great travel buddies, then had a surprisingly good sleep and woke up in beautiful Chiang Mai.
If you’re coming from Chiang Rai, an X class bus (A/c, leg room and free water) is 169 baht. The trip takes about 3 hours, but it’s a windy mountainous road! You’ll be thrown around a bit.
Where to Stay
- Top North Hotel – If you are looking for something a little nicer with wifi, a pool and an included breakfast, then Top North is a good idea. We paid 800 baht for one night before deciding we wanted something cheaper (we were also splurging for Alex’s birthday). The room was clean and the staff were nice. The breakfast was…okay. Cold eggs, toast and some floppy fruit and lettuce, plus a mountain of pad thai if you can eat that sort of thing in the morning! It’s located just inside the Old City east wall on Mun Mueang Road, just south Rachadamnoen Road. You can book a room at Top North Hotel online here.
- D.N. House – We moved here after Top North. D.N. House is located on Rachadamnoen Road Soi 1. Very basic rooms and a very tiny ensuite bathroom but relatively clean. Wifi was a little weak but functional! The staff were super nice and helped us out with directions. Cost was only 350 baht per night. You can’t book D.N. House online, but we recommend you to go book in person!
- Baan Ja Ja – Our friends stayed in this hostel while we were there, and it’s also on Rachadamnoen Road Soi 1. Very basic rooms with ensuite bathroom, but clean as well. Wifi there was a little better, and the hostel had a nice sheltered common room with couches and hammocks to chill in. There were two computers and a printer you could pay to use. Cost was 450 baht per night. You can book Baan Ja Ja online here.
What to Do
- Wat Phra That Doi Suthep – This is a must see temple while you’re in Chiang Mai. Sitting atop Doi Suthep (Suthep Mountain) is a temple and Buddhist monastery that houses a piece of the Lord Buddha’s shoulder bone brought there by the legendary White Elephant. Not only is it an incredibly sacred and spiritual experience, but it also gives you one of the most stunning views of all of Chiang Mai. To get there, you can hire a Songtaew to drive you up the mountain, and from there you can climb the 309 steps up the beautiful Naga staircase to explore one of the best temples we saw in Asia. Entry is 30 baht.
- Wat Chedi Luang – In the heart of The Old City lies one of the oldest temples in the area, boasting that it once housed the famous Emerald Buddha. While enjoying the majestic beauty of the ancient temple, you can enhance your experience and understanding of Buddhism by participating in Monk Chat. Monks and novices take time out of their day to sit and meet with you under the trees near the entrance/exit. They explain Buddhism, answer any questions you have and really make you think.
- Sunday Walking Market – If you are lucky enough to be in Chiang Mai on a Sunday, don’t miss a chance to walk Rachadamnoen Road and take in the hustle and bustle of the biggest market in the city. Full of beautiful souvenirs, kind locals and absolutely delicious food, bring some money and your appetite for a great night!
- Baan Chang Elephant Park – The opportunity to hang out with rescued elephants for a whole day of feeding, bathing and riding is not one to be missed. This park is devoted to recouping elephants rescued from circuses, abusive owners and other harmful tourist companies and giving them happy and healthy lives. With its amazing staff and loveable elephants, this was by far one of the best experiences we had in Chiang Mai. It cost 2900 baht per person, so it was more expensive than most parks, but worth it since they treat their elephants properly.
- Night Bazaar – For some night shopping and exploration, we ventured outside the walls of the Old City to check out this vibrant night market. Night markets are great for grabbing a bite and a drink from a bunch of different food stalls and doing some souvenir shopping. Located east from the Old City on Chiang Klan Road just south of Tha Phae Road.
- Lady Boy Cabaret – For a fun night out, we tried the Lady Boy Cabaret located in the Night Bazaar. A 200 baht entrance ticket gets you one free beer as well. We’re warning you now, the males in your group may get heckled or touched by the ladyboys that are serving and performing, but it’s all in good fun. It’s a crazy and colourful show, but drinks are expensive so have a few before or wait until their “5 minute happy hour intermission” for half priced drinks.
What to Avoid
- Abusive Animal Parks – Chiang Mai is one of the tourist hubs for unique opportunities to interact with animals (mainly tigers and elephants). However, there are a lot of organizations that have been known to abuse their animals in various ways. PLEASE do your research before getting involved with ANY of these companies. We are no experts, but we know that no elephant should be ridden with a seat or anything other than bare back so watch out for that!
Where to Eat
- Angels Secrets – This cute and quirky cafe located at the end of Rachadamnoen Road Soi 1, is by far one of the best places we ate in all of Asia. They have a huge selection of delicious foods and smoothies (seriously it took us thirty minutes to decide) and it is run by some very kind locals. Plants make up two of the outer walls, and with its incredibly chill vibe it’s like you’re sitting in a garden. We got “Chiang Mai’s Favourite Dish”, Khao Soi. It is a slightly spicy dish with egg noodles, veggies and meat all sitting in a delicious coconut milk curry sauce. Grab a book or a few friends and spend some time there!
- The Good View Bar and Restaurant – On a night out, we ventured across the Ping River to this waterside hangout. It was very busy, filled with laughing people and featured live music which included top 40s music sung by locals who may or may not have known the exact words (in a funny, entertaining way). The great staff did their best to speak with us in English and it had a huge selection of yummy food! To get there continue along Tha Phae Road heading east, cross the bridge and turn left; you’ll hear the music!
- Zoe In Yellow – It is THE bar for backpackers in the area. Complete with an awesome dance floor and outdoor patio, it plays familiar music and is a great place to get drunk and make friends. Drinks aren’t too expensive and there are tons of cheap food stalls in the area when you start getting hungry (we’re talking 30 baht Pad Thai cheap). Located on Ratvithi Road, we definitely recommend spending a night there with friends.
- THC Rooftop Bar – Cool reggae bar just outside the east old city wall. Laid back vibe and relatively cheap drinks, it offers a cool view over top of the city. Walk across the actual bamboo floor and sit on some comfy cushions with friends and enjoy the view!