Chiang Mai, Thailand - travel guide tips from an insider af Brian Hansen
Chiang Mai has it all
On round trips in Chiang Mai in Thailand one most often visits the Karen people (better known as the long necks) and spends the evening at the night market in the popular tourist district, east of the old town. This is also how I first became acquainted with Chiang Mai, so of course it is also included in this travel guide to Thailand.
The city is an ancient capital as well as a cultural and commercial center for the Lanna Kingdom. Chiang Mai is rich in culture, history and not least scenic areas.
Chiang Mai has it all: top-class international cinemas, shopping malls like in Bangkok, a gigantic selection of cozy cafes and restaurants. Here is the beautiful nature just outside the city.
It is also in this area that you meet a population where you quickly recognize the true kindness and helpfulness that the Thais are known for. As long as one behaves respectfully, of course.
Use Chiang Mai as a base
I would definitely recommend spending a little week in Chiang Mai. Use the city as a base to explore the nearby mountain areas that are actually located all around Chiang Mai.
The city is located in an elongated valley between beautiful mountains. Alternatively, you can also take a couple of nights in the mountain areas and make your own little round trip. Remember that there is entrance at national parks and at several of the temples.
Experiences in Chiang Mai
There are many options, where you basically rent a car with a driver, leave early in the morning and return in the late afternoon.
If you come to Chiang Mai during periods of public holidays - Thai holidays - then you need to be prepared for traffic a bit à la Bangkok. Therefore, it is often a good idea to leave early.
Get around with a Songthaew
When you go around Chiang Mai, you can use the local 'Songthaew' to great advantage. In the central part of Chiang Mai, they are red and they are stopped by waving them to the side. It typically costs between 20 and 30 baht per person to drive in the city, so it is cheap and efficient.
Songthaew has no fixed routes; you simply drive where the customers want. But it is a good idea to be prepared for the fact that the driver does not necessarily understand English, so have a translation ready. Also, not everyone is used to looking at maps, so it should be a clear and distinct destination.
I would NOT recommend anyone to try driving themselves! It is associated with great risk, and if an accident happens, it is always the foreigner's fault.
Go to the lesser known Saturday market
Every Saturday there is a market that transforms the central part of the old city into a very lively pedestrian street that clearly surpasses the ‘night market’ that many come to Chiang Mai to see.
The Saturday market is filled with local artists, mountain tribesmen and representatives of the huge handicraft production that is around Chiang Mai.
… And the big market Kad Luang
There is also the amazing Kad Luang (The Big Market), which is both a market for fresh food, clothes and gold and a place for good local experiences. If you are visiting Kad Luang, then it is obvious to stay in the area and visit Thamel Coffee.
You enter through a store and up a small staircase, and an international Asian environment will open up. They have super good food, coffee and healthy drinks.
An evening visit to the old Riverside restaurant just off the Ping River is also a must. A super good and very popular place. Super delicious Thai and international food at good prices. There is often live music, where you can also get a good insight into the pretty good music scene that is found in Chiang Mai.
Visit the many temples
In addition, there are many exciting historical sites. There are temples like Wat Umong temple and meditation center as well as Wat Lok Moli. A super beautiful, small temple by the north wall.
Temples like the great beautiful Wat Pra Sing and Wat Chedi Luang Worawihan, are very central in the history of the city and definitely worth a visit.
When you get a little up in the heights, a visit to Wat Prahat Dio Suthep is definitely a must too.
Chiang Mai Old Town
Chiang Mai's old town is surrounded by a moat and a city wall, both of which are reasonably well preserved. The old town is 1 km2 and it is interesting to walk around the old town.
It is a good idea to buy a local SIM card so that you can have signal and internet access from your phone - also just to be able to use Google Maps.
Remember that both for city walks, visits to shopping malls and especially in temples, it is expected that you are nicely dressed. That means no beachwear in Chiang Mai.
The hot springs east of Chiang Mai
The hot springs in Sankampang are an amazing experience. Especially on the weekends, a lot of Thai families come and have fun. The Samkampang area also houses a giant handicraft area, where you can see, among other things, how to make handmade umbrellas in good old Lanna style. It's very souvenir-like, but still a really good experience.
It can really be recommended to continue east through beautiful agricultural areas to Ban Mae Kampong, which is a small village in the mountains that makes great coffee. There are also some pretty good restaurants in this part of Chiang Mai, such as the organic Oh Ka Jhu that can be recommended.
Doi Inthanon west of Chiang Mai
Doi Inthanon is an absolute must and you should leave early. It is best to drive from the city around kl. 5:30. Doi Inthanon is Thailand's highest mountain, and on the way down you should stop at Wachirathen Waterfall. It is also a good place to enjoy a little grilled pork or chicken with traditional sticky rice.
Op Luang National Park can easily be visited in conjunction with Doi Inthanon if you are fresh. The park is located southwest of Chiang Mai and is ideal for an afternoon visit. It is a prerequisite that you feel like hiking and maybe also are fresh on climbing quite easily. They have a beautiful walking route which takes about an hour. If you climb up to the vantage point, it's all worth it.
Head to Chiang Dao north of Chiang Mai
Chiang Dao is an impressive mountain located 80 km north of Chiang Mai. It is perfect for you who like to go trekking with accommodation. It is also for you who want to experience the different ethnic groups without having to go to a tourist trap, or on a longer trip close to the border with Myanmar.
Are you into trekking?
Trekking is in my opinion Chiang Mai's biggest attraction. A good start is to book the program via Chiang Dao Nest, they have both accommodation and the absolute best trekking trips.
Often - especially in December - it is completely cloudless here, and after a full day of trekking, it is an unforgettable experience to lie on a bench outside in the evening. With a cool Chang beer and looking directly up at the Milky Way with no light pollution at all, this is a magical feeling.
A two-day trip to Doi Angkhan is definitely one of the highlights of Northern Thailand. You reach an altitude of about 1900 meters in a fantastically beautiful nature. Accommodation can be booked at, for example, Doi Angkhan Nature Resort close to one of the royal agricultural projects. But remember to book well in advance as it is a highly sought after area.
Where are you going to live?
The town of Travelmarket you can easily and clearly find your hotels. But it's always good to get some insider tips on where you should actually live. Therefore, I have described a few hotels below.
If you want to live in an area where it is not purely tourism based, I definitely recommend the west town. A bid here could be Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew. It is a super good centrally-located hotel, which is part of the shopping complex Kad Suan Kaew.
There is a lot of conference activity on site, and in terms of guests, a lot of Asian and American guests come by. The place has one of the probably most undisturbed and “rural” swimming pools in Chiang Mai city.
Kad Suan Kaew itself is home to many different activities. Ranging from dance school and bowling center - mostly for Thai teens - to Harris Fitness Center and a sea of fine Thai restaurants serving indoors streetfood in a good and clean way.
Stay in the mountains
A slightly longer hike in the mountains is definitely also recommended. For my wife and I are Belle Villa Resort, only about 50 minutes drive west of Chiang Mai, one of our favorite getawayplaces.
In addition, there are many options, depending on need and economy, to stay overnight in Chiang Mai. It is also possible to rent an apartment. However, they typically have to be rented for at least 3 months, but since they are available from 7.000 baht up to 50.000 baht per. month, then it can well be considered - especially if you are considering taking a long-term vacation in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai can definitely be recommended. Really good trip!
What to see in Thailand? Sights and attractions
- The White Temple, Chiang Rai
- Doi Inthanon National Park, Chiang Mai
- Wat Arun, Bangkok
- Damnoen Saduak - The Floating Market, Bangkok
- Railay Beaches, Krabi
- James Bond Island, Phuket
- The Great Buddha, Phuket
- Khao Sok National Park, Surat Thani
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