Have you heard of Chiang Mai? Although the beaches are usually the main attraction in Thailand, Chiang Mai is as lovely as the islands. Over there you find the best hostels, the best Thai food, and the best vegan food in Southeast Asia (ok, maybe tied with Balinese cafés).
Because of that, Chiang Mai became my favorite city in Thailand. And it wasn’t even on my first itinerary. And just like that, out of the blue, I ended up falling in love.
I spent 10 days in this lovely town. I learned to cook pad thai, visited elephants, went to a lot of temples, and I even found time to party.
Chiang Mai now has a special part of my heart, and I hope you love it too.
So here it comes, a Chiang Mai travel guide to help you find accommodation, cool attractions and a lot of other tips on my favorite city in Thailand.
HOW TO GET THERE
Visiting Chiang Mai was a spontaneous change I made on my itinerary. I heard the best reviews of the city from about 10 backpackers, so when I was deciding where to go after Ao Nang I chose Chiang Mai.
The best way to get to Chiang Mai from Krabi is by plane. From Bangkok and some other parts of the country, it is also possible to get a train or a bus.
I bought my ticket 2 days before and used Skyscanner. Even on short notice, I ended up paying only 75 dollars in a flight through Air Asia.
TRANSPORTATION IN CHIANG MAI
Most temples and night attractions in Chiang Mai are in Old Town, which is considered the “historical” part of the city.
Outside of Old Town, there are fewer tourist attractions, and the architecture changes considerably. I only went outside of it to visit some vegan restaurants.
My beautiful hostel lent bikes for free, and I found out how great it was to just walk around by foot or bicycle in Old Town. As I am not great riding bikes I chose to walk. And I walked a lot.
A great tip to not get lost is to use Maps.me, which is an app that offers offline maps. Therefore, you won’t even need an internet signal.
You can also get tuk-tuks easily, even late at night. I was shocked by the safety in Chiang Mai, even alone I felt very safe walking around.
When it rained or I needed to go somewhere farther I took a Grab. As I mentioned in previous posts, Grab is like an Asian version of uber. It was very cheap to go anywhere.
That is how I went from the airport to my hostel in Old Town, and I advise you to do the same.
WHERE TO STAY IN CHIANG MAI
Chiang Mai is full of cute hostels. Even though my friend suggested me a great one, I was very confused when I was booking my accommodation.
You should prioritize staying in or near Old Town. It is where most temples, cute coffee shops, and night attractions are. It is definitely the best place to stay.
Prices are great (around 10 USD a night), and their quality is remarkable. The options are way better than the ones I found in Phi Phi and Railay.
As always, I suggest you use Agoda to find the best prices.
I already knew I wanted to stay at Lullaby hostel because I had heard from 4 different people that it was the best hostel in Thailand. Even so, I booked through Agoda.
Lullaby is incredible. Their beds are extremely comfortable (very thick mattresses and cozy blankets). The dorms are super dark and the AC works pretty well (you are gonna need it, trust me). I slept like a baby while I was there.
They offer female dorms and private rooms. I always prefer to stay in female dorms because I feel safer.
The bathrooms are super clean, and the decor is beautiful. Showers are inside individual cabins with a lot of space and the water pressure is incredible.
They also host different events including “cook your own food”, where they teach you to make Pad thai and other traditional dishes. The owner is always around, making sure everything is going smoothly.
I truly recommend Lullaby, it was without a doubt the best hostel I stayed in Thailand.
WHAT TO DO IN CHIANG MAI
Temples, temples, and more temples
When I think about Chiang Mai, I think temples. There are more than 300 Buddhist temples.
There are some famous ones, like the White Temple and Doi Suthep. But it is very cool to adventure through the streets of Old Town and to visit different temples, observing the daily life of locals and monks.
It is worth mentioning that you should always be respectful. It is disrespectful to enter temples with knees or shoulders showing, so wear a long skirt or a traditional pair of Thai pants. Besides, you should wear flip flops or shoes that are easy to take off, since it is forbidden to enter the temples wearing shoes.
Oh, and some parts of the temple are forbidden for women. And it is important to respect their culture, even when we don’t agree with it. So, pay attention to the signs in front of the temples.
I took a couple of days just to walk around Old Town and visit different temples if you have the time I suggest you take at least one day to do just that. It is worth it, I promise.
Walk with monks in the morning
Guys, I can’t begin to explain how much I loved to walk around the streets and see a lot of monks. It was incredible.
Even more incredible was to wake up early and walk around with them while they collect their alms for the day.
The lightning at sunrise, combined with the amazing vibe and energy made that one of the best moments I had in Thailand. It is a must do in Chiang Mai.
You don’t have to hire a tour guide, just show up at Doi Suthep around 6 am. However, if you want to, there are agencies that offer tours including the walk and a visit to the temple.
Another cool interaction, that I didn’t get to do, is to talk with a monk. Some of them speak English, so it is possible to schedule a talk in the temples. I am surely doing that on my next visit.
Thai cooking class
The hardest part of writing this post is that every attraction was my favorite one. I loved attending the cooking class.
There are a lot of different types of classes, offered by cooking schools or locals. There are longer and shorter classes as well as vegan and vegetarian menus.
I took a class our hostel receptionist suggested, at a place called Siam Rice. It was offered by a local, at her residence, with vegan and vegetarian options.
I chose the most complete class and learned to cook 7 different dishes. Oh, and we got to taste every single dish after we cooked it. So a good tip is to go with an empty stomach.
It was incredible. The sole fact of being in a Thai house made it already an authentic experience. Our teacher even took us to a local market in Chiang Mai early in the morning so we could choose and buy our ingredients.
I was lucky to take the class with only two more girls, which made it feel like a private class. I learned how to make spring rolls, pad thai, sticky mango rice… it was a very cool experience!
I super recommend this experience. You get a certificate at the end, as well as a little book of recipes so you can cook when you go back to your country. And you also get to help a local family (if you choose a place like Siam Rice).
Muay Thai class
I tried to keep active during the trip. And even though I walked a lot, I also tried to find other activities I could do.
Training Muay Thai in Thailand was another very authentic experience that I loved.
I was walking around Old Town when I found a Muay Thai gym, I asked them the cost and went back on the same night to train.
The instructor did not speak English, nor any of the girls that were training (it was an all-girls class). I was able to train using a lot of mimic and some few words we both understood. It was a lot of fun, the girls trained hard, but it was not that hard to follow.
I took a week of classes and I deeply recommend it!
Get a Thai massage
To go to Thailand and not get a massage is a crime, for real.
You don’t even need to be a lover of the Thai technique (a little more intense than most). There are styles for all tastes. And the best part of it all is that it is very cheap.
In my opinion, the best places to get a massage in Southeast Asia are Chiang Mai and Ubud. So you have to try a massage when you are in Chiang Mai.
I got a massage almost every day while I was in Chiang Mai. I would get a “head, shoulders and feet” massage, and it was paradise on Earth. Even remembering it makes me relax.
You can choose the massage you want, for how long you want.
Nonetheless, you can vary on how deep you want the massage. I don’t like the ones that hurt too much, so I always asked for just a little bit of pressure.
Be careful, because if you ask for a strong one it will be very strong. In some places, I saw some bizarre techniques with the knees and walking on someone’s back.
I was lucky enough to find a very cool spa near Lullaby, which was both cheap and wonderful. But Chiang Mai is full of nice spas, I’m sure you can easily find a great one.
Visit Elephant Nature Park
Guys, don’t visit elephant sanctuaries. They will all say they treat the animals in a more “human” way, that they are rescued and a lot of other things. But the truth is very few actually respect the elephants.
I can only guarantee the authenticity of Elephant Nature Park. They are not a “sanctuary”, but an organization that rescues and recover elephants that were found in abusive situations.
The animals are not tied up by ropes and no chains are used. They explained that in a lot of places the caretakers pinch the animals to make them do tricks. It is horrible.
At Elephant Nature Park the elephants walk freely through the park and do whatever they feel like. It is very cool to be around those animals and observe them.
Before we get in touch with the animals we learn how to make them a medicine ball. It is a bunch of green bananas, dates, salt and some other ingredients that provide essential vitamins to the elephants and force them to drink water.
Elephant Nature Park is a sort of a famous park, and the visits are limited to short groups (for the animals’ sake), so you should probably book ahead. You can do that through their website.
They offer a bunch of different experiences. You can spend an entire day with the elephants, help take care of them and spend a short period of time there as a volunteer. The most basic experience cost 2500 Baht. It is a little more expensive than most sanctuaries but it is definitely the most ethical and respectful way of seeing these majestic creatures.
Zoe in Yellow Bar
I went to the Yellow bar every single night. It is in the middle of Old Town and it is the go-to place for tourists.
I met a bunch of great people there, and it is an amazing place to make friends, dance and get some drinks.
It is important to remember that, as a solo female traveler, it is crucial to be cautious. Be careful with your drink! I would always order a Smirnoff ice or something like that, so I could keep the bottle sealed and protected.
They close at midnight and everyone goes to other clubs, such as Spicy and Warm Up Café. I went to Spicy and had a lot of fun.
Oh, and don’t accept invitations (especially from other locals) to go to after parties at local places. That is how they usually scam tourists. What happens is that they take you to a very creepy place, telling you that is going to be free and fun, and they end up charging a lot to let you leave.
Thailand is super safe, but it is still important to be careful, especially if you are alone.
Eat a lot, eat well and eat cheap
Remembering Chiang Mai makes me hungry. For real. Food was extremely delicious.
As you know, I am a vegan, and one of my favorite things about Chiang Mai is that it is a paradise for vegans.
I went from a great restaurant to another, and the prices were super cheap. Way cheaper than at the beaches.
I am working on a vegan guide to Chiang Mai, but I can already tell you that most restaurants are incredible. And they have a lot of options, from traditional Thai food to western menus. Oh, and the street food is also amazing!
If you are also a vegan, don’t forget to check my guide to traveling as a vegan.
Complementing the eating advice, I also recommend you to visit a night market at least once when in Chiang Mai. The most famous one is on Sundays, but it is worth it to visit the other ones too.
I visited the Sunday Night Market twice and loved it. It is a bunch of tents on the street offering food, souvenirs, fake clothing…
The smells are amazing, as the sounds and the vibe of the people walking around the tents and temples.
The Sunday market happens on Rachadamnoen Road, the main street of Old Town.
I recommend you go to the market with an empty stomach because you are probably going to eat a lot. Oh, and the prices are great, so you can eat and shop on a budget.
However, if you are planning on buying traditional Thai clothing (like those fluffy pants) I suggest you don’t do it at the market. Unless you bargain a lot, it is way cheaper to buy these things in local stores during the day.
Pai is an even smaller city than Chiang Mai, and it is 3 hours north from it.
A lot of tour agencies offer vans to Pai daily (almost every hour), and it costs around 200 Baht. Some people go by scooter, and a lot of those people get into accidents.
That is because the road is full of curves and very complicated to drive around. So, if you don’t have a lot of experience on motorcycles, I suggest you avoid going by yourself. I saw some pretty ugly accidents.
Pai is really cute and touristy, and if you have the time it is definitely worth the visit.
If you have some flexibility to choose when to visit Thailand, it is nice to know that there are some pretty cool festivals in Chiang Mai. My favorites are Songkran and Yee Peng.
Songkran is the Thai new year, and is also known as the “Water Festival”. It happens every year from the 13th to the 15th of April. It is one of the funniest festivals to participate, but you have to go prepared to be wet.
During Songkran, no one is spared, and it is practically impossible to keep yourself dry for more than an hour. Everyone gets wet on water fights.
So you should already know that, during this period, the best thing to do is not carry electronics and money around with no plastic protection. They sell protective necklaces everywhere, so invest in one of them. A friend of mine lost her cell phone because she didn’t do it.
Apart from these “details”, the festival is incredible! Everyone goes out wearing colorful clothes and it is a very happy environment.
Songkran happens all over Thailand, but it is more intense in Chiang Mai. Over there it happens in Old Town, and the party concentrates in front of Tha Phae Gate.
Oh, and it is important to emphasize that in Chiang Mai the festival goes a little longer. It is already impossible to be dry from the 12th until the 16th. So, if you are around be prepared.
This one is a dream I still plan to make a reality. It is a beautiful celebration also known as “Lamp Festival”.
The act of releasing lamps to the sky has a symbolic reason. It symbolizes leaving the infortunes behind, and the Buddhists believe that if you make a wish while you do it, it will come true.
Besides the lamps, there are a bunch of other cool things going on during Yi Peng. Dance concerts, fireworks… the town becomes even more beautiful than it already is.
Yi Peng is already on my bucket list. And I advise you to do the same.
VISIT CHIANG MAI
After visiting Chiang Mai I confirmed everything I had heard from other backpackers. It is an incredible city.
And that is the reason a lot of expats choose Chiang Mai as their home. I would definitely live there for a while, and I only left because I still had a lot of traveling to do through Southeast Asia.
I know a lot of people don’t have much time to travel, and Chiang Mai often gets left out in most Thailand itineraries. But I promise: you have to visit it.
If you have any questions or advice, don’t forget to leave it in the comment section!
See you soon.