Panoramic view of terraced rice fields in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Your Trip to Chiang Mai: The Complete Guide

••• Anuchit Kamsongmueang / Getty Images

The capital of an expansive, independent Lanna Kingdom that maintained a separate identity till the 19th century, Chiang Mai retains a unique culture that is both a part of Thailand and yet separate from it. As the urban center for Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai goes beyond its roots as a Lanna heartland to become a destination for digital nomads, an example for world ecotourism, source of high-quality handicrafts, even a noted foodie stop for world-hopping gourmands!

For first-time visitors, Chiang Mai can be hard to make sense of at first glance: before planning your trip, read the information we’ve provided below.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: Between November and February, Chiang Mai experiences the lowest overall temperatures and humidity for the year, making this period the best time to visit. This time of year also coincides with festivals like Loi Krathong and the Chiang Mai Flower Festival.
  • Language: The majority of people speak Thai, with older and rural folk speaking Lanna (the Northern Thai language) as a first language. Local English proficiency is all right for workers in the city’s service industries, but don’t expect to be understood the further you venture out to the countryside.
  • Currency: The local currency is the Thai Baht (THB), with its value hovering around 33 baht to the U.S. dollar. You can convert money at one of Thailand's many banks.
  • Getting Around: The best way to go places in Chiang Mai is by riding the songthaew, the cheapest way to travel in the city. Red songthaew (rod daeng, Thai for “red car”), are the most common type, running throughout the city; other colors can go as far as neighboring provinces.
  • Travel Tip: Chiang Mai is an excellent jump-off point for exploring the rest of Northern Thailand, with easy transport access to Mae Hong Son, Chiang Rai, and Pai. The city of Chiang Rai, for instance, is just a three-hour bus ride away.
Couple visiting Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Matteo Colombo / Getty Images

Things to Do

The Chiang Mai experience begins at the Old City and radiates out to the countryside into your choice of adventures. From buying Thai handicrafts to climbing waterfalls to browsing through night markets, Chiang Mai offers different travel experiences to suit a wide variety of tastes.

Consider the following experiences when you’re planning a trip to Chiang Mai.

  • Walk inside the Old City: This 370-acre walled district houses the oldest part of civilized Chiang Mai, along with many of its finest temples, restaurants, and attractions. Set your own itinerary on foot, and you’ll discover many of the Old City’s hidden gems.
  • Buy Northern Thai handicrafts: Many Thai handicrafts sold in Bangkok and abroad originate from the handicraft specialty villages outside Chiang Mai city. Cut out the middleman and visit villages like Bor Sang (for mulberry-paper umbrellas) and Ban Tawai (for hand-carved wooden crafts) to buy Thai artisanal crafts straight from the source.
  • Experience an ethical animal encounter: The wilds around Chiang Mai also host a number of ethical elephant sanctuaries that permit care activities like feeding or bathing the animals, but no riding or abuse of the pachyderms in their care.
  • Visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep: Chiang Mai’s most sacred temple is set on a mountain slope some 10 miles from the city center, at an altitude of 3,500 feet above sea level. Despite the distance, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep remains a singular must-visit temple: take in the culture, the crisp mountain air, and the gorgeous views of the city from above.
  • Shop at Chiang Mai’s night markets: The O.G. Night Bazaar is still going strong, but it’s getting some serious competition from the weekend night markets in the Old City. These night markets have everything—cheap souvenirs, jewelry, home furnishings, and as much Thai street food as you can eat!

Explore more things to do in Chiang Mai with our full-length articles on the top things to do in Chiang Mai, top shopping stops in Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai’s nature parks, and the top temples to visit in Chiang Mai.

What to Eat and Drink

The former capital of the independent Lanna Kingdom is the best place to try Northern Thai food—a regional cuisine with close links to Lao, Burmese, and Yunnanese Chinese food traditions.

Don’t be fooled by the foreign influence, Chiang Mai’s cooks have perfected the use of local ingredients to create something completely unique to the province, and is completely tied to the Chiang Mai tourist experience today.

You can’t say you’ve visited Chiang Mai until you’ve had khao soi (flat egg noodles in a coconut-based curry), sai oua (Lanna sausages) and som tam (papaya salad); in fact, these dishes have become iconic all-Thai dishes in their own right!

Explore our full-length articles on the foods to try in Chiang Mai and the best restaurants in Chiang Mai to try them.

Where to Stay

As one of Thailand’s most popular tourist destinations, Chiang Mai offers tourist accommodations for every budget, from backpacker-friendly hostels to five-star resorts.

Look through Chiang Mai’s individual neighborhoods for a hotel, hostel, or resort that fits your needs: budget guesthouses and boutique hotels in the Old City; mid-to-high-end boutique hotels in Wat Ket; and luxury, mid-range, and economy hotels around the Night Bazaar, among others.

Beyond city limits, you’ll find a cool assortment of mountain resorts promising eco-friendly stays with nature encounters as part of the mix. The Anantara Golden Triangle, for instance, sells overnight stays in their Jungle Bubbles, where you can sleep in transparent hemispheres next to roving bands of elephants!

Getting There

Most international visitors fly in to Chiang Mai via Chiang Mai International Airport, located only 3 miles from the Old City. From Chiang Mai, you can take buses, trains, or domestic flights to other parts of the country, including Pai, Mae Hong Son, and Chiang Rai.

Citizens of over 60 countries (including the U.S.) can visit Thailand (and Chiang Mai) without a visa for up to 30 days. Check with the Ministry of Tourism for any rules changes before planning your trip.

Talking to Buddhist monks in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Hugh Sitton/Getty Images

Culture and Customs

Cover up in Buddhist temples: Thailand’s Buddhist temples, as a rule, require modest clothing from its visitors; any skimpy clothing signals disrespect for the monks. Cover your shoulders and legs when visiting active Buddhist temples, whether you’re in the Old City or visiting Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

Tipping is not necessary: As a rule, service personnel do not expect tips from their guests. If you do feel authentic satisfaction with their service, tips will not be discouraged.

Don’t lose your temper: Showing strong emotions is a big no-no in Thailand. The locals prize saving face above all, so they smile and stay cool even when they have every reason to blow their top.

Read these articles about tipping in Asia, Thai temple etiquette; dos and don’t’s to observe in Thailand, and table manners in Thailand.

Money-Saving Tips

Stay at a hostel: Thai hostels and budget hotels are great deals for scrimping travelers; chosen well, your hostel will have just the right amount of comfort, with walking-distance access to local tourist sights. Many budget hotels in the Old City fit this description—for not a lot of dollars per night, you can sleep well and explore the Old City’s sights from your doorstep.

Learn to ride the songthaew: Red songthaew run all around the city, costing as little as 30 baht (around $0.90) per ride. They don’t follow set routes but will take a general direction where they’ll pick up and drop off passengers on demand.

Look for free stuff to do: In several Old City temples, for instance, you can sign up for “monk chats” where you can ask questions about the local religion and culture; and the monks get English-language practice. Win-win!

Eat local: Go where the Thais go to eat in Chiang Mai, generally, food courts or eateries where they serve only local food. You’ll be fed delicious Northern Thai food at a fraction of the cost of a comparable meal at a touristy restaurant.

Buy a local SIM card for phone and mobile internet use: Using Chiang Mai’s cellular and 4G network is just a matter of buying a local SIM card and slapping it into a compatible handset. You can choose from a variety of cellular providers in Chiang Mai—the top three brands (AIS, DTAC, and True Move) can be found at almost every convenience store around the city.

For more details on saving costs in Chiang Mai, read our articles on how much money you’ll need for a trip to Thailand and what $100 buys in Southeast Asia.

Article Sources
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  1. Encyclopedia Britannica. "Chiang Mai."

  2. Tourism Authority of Thailand. "Language & Culture." Jan. 9, 2020.

  3. Tourism Authority of Thailand. "Thailand Currency."

  4. Royal Thai Consulate - General. "List of Countries – Allowed 30-Day Stay Without a Visa ( For Tourism Only) – Passport MUST be valid for at least six more months."