Looking for travel tips and things to see and do in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand?
I visited Chiang Mai many moons ago (we’re talking 1993) so I asked a fellow British travel nut Mathew Barby to be our Chiang Mai guide as part of our World’s Best Travel Destinations series because he was there recently. Lucky boy.
Here Mathew answers spills the beans on the very best things to see and do in Chiang Mai, including where to shop, what to eat and how to get the most of your trip to Chaing Mai.
Editor’s note: I’ve updated this guest post to remove images and references to tiger visits and elephant riding. As tempting as it may be please avoid these experiences when you visit Chiang Mai. You can find out why in Who Cares About Animal-Friendly Travel?
Now let’s get on with the interview and find out about the best things to do in Chiang Mai. Don’t worry, you won’t miss elephant riding at all because you can still enjoy a very special elephant experience while you’re there.
Why did you go to Chiang Mai, Thailand and how long did you spend there?
Whilst travelling across East Asia I stopped off in the beautiful city of Chiang Mai, located in the North of Thailand. I’d wanted to visit Chiang Mai for some time and it just so happened that me and my travel companions were arriving just in time for Songkran (Thai New Year), which is famous for its amazing atmosphere.
We spent just over two weeks in Chiang Mai and I wish we’d stayed longer. We squeezed in as much as we could during our stay but Chiang Mai is definitely on my list of places to revisit.
Why do you rate Chiang Mai in northern Thailand as one of the world’s best travel destinations?
Chiang Mai is the perfect destination to gain a true insight into the Thai way of life. The city also has an eclectic mix of different atmospheres from one place to the next; more so than I have experienced in any other place that I’ve travelled to.
One minute you can be surrounded by beautiful temples subtly inhabited by wise, old monks; the next you can be thrown in amongst busy, vibrant markets filled to the brim with some of the most stunning displays of horticulture, art and handmade goods imaginable.
Alongside all of this, Chiang Mai hosts some of the best national parks in Thailand and amazing wildlife.
Beautifully hand-crafted soap in the shape of flowers at the Anusarn Market, Chiang Mai.
So what are the best things to do in Chiang Mai, Thailand?
There are so many things to do in Chiang Mai. I could sit here all day typing up places to go and things to see! As a middle-ground I’ll try to narrow it down to the top five things to do in Chiang Mai:
1. Spend a day at the Dante Elephant Camp. This experience in itself has to be one of the best in my entire life so far. You can spend either a half day or full day (I’d recommend the latter) looking at the camp, learning how to look after the elephants, walking with elpehants and then bathing them in the river. It will set you back around 2,500 Baht ($85) but it’s worth it! (Editor’s note: Please avoid elephant riding which can damage elpehant’s spines and choose a tour company like Isan Tours which offers elephant friendly and cruelty free experiences.)
3. Get a suit tailored at Viengping Collection, just to the East of the Old City. I managed to grab myself a couple of beautifully made, custom-fit shirts for around $10 each and they were better quality than ones I had paid ten time more for back home!
4. Have a beer at the Rooftop Bar. This place has an amazing atmosphere at night with great views of the city.
5. Visit Wat Sri Suphan, the amazing temple made from silver in the South of the Old City. From Chiang Mai town you can hop in a tuk tuk that will take you there for around 50 Baht ($1.50).
Me inside one of the beautiful Chiang Mai temples.
Where should I stay?
Chiang Mai has a wide selection of different accommodation that can fit all sorts of budgets. If you’re looking for a really beautiful, quiet and relaxing resort then the Lanna Mantra hotel could be the one for you. I stayed here for a few nights with my partner and it was amazing. There is an infinity pool overlooking the Ping river, the rooms are really spacious and it’s only a 10 minute taxi journey to the city centre, costing 200 Baht ($6.50). You are going to spend anywhere between 1,500 and 3,000 Baht ($50-100) per night for a double room here.
If you want something a bit more backpacker-friendly then take a trip over to either Baan Thai Resort or B.M.P Resident (which has a pool with a diving board and slide!) and you can get double rooms for around 600 Baht ($20) a night.
What and where should I eat in Chaing Mai?
There are two really good and cheap little restaurants that we found during our time in Chiang Mai that you have to visit. One is called Jai’s Restaurant and the other is Bombay Bus Stop Cafe. They are right next to each other down a side-street a stone’s throw from the Chiang Mai Gate of the Old City.
Also, make sure you visit the Anusarn Market late one night where there’s a whole host of amazing street food and great restaurants and bars with awesome food.
Any good shopping opportunities for souvenirs and where can I buy them?
If you’re looking for a really unique souvenir then you have to visit the Wat Sri Suphan, the silver temple I mentioned. The monks there hand-craft silver trinkets and you can pick up some cool stuff.
Then visit the Sunday Walking Market in the middle of the Old City. This is an enormous, beautiful market with everything you could want from a market. We picked up some great little wooden elephant souvenirs to remind us of our time in Chiang Mai.
Stunning artwork on display at the Sunday Walking Market in Chiang Mai.
Does Chiang Mai, Thailand have any special events that I should know about?
We were lucky enough to be in Chiang Mai for the Songkran Water Festival, the northern traditional New Year. It happens in mid-April and is something that you really have to experience.
The whole city erupts into life and you literally can’t walk down the street without someone throwing a bucket of water over you or chasing you with a water gun. The atmosphere is amazing and it’s really good fun.
Water hoses at the ready during the Songkran Water Festival!
What’s the best way to get around?
Due to the compact nature of the city, tuk tuk’s are the best method of transport. If you’re in the city centre then you shouldn’t be paying more than around 80 Baht ($2.50) to go anywhere else around the city so be sure to barter with the drivers!
Is Chiang Mai off the grid or is it WiFi friendly?
Chiang Mai is pretty WiFi friendly. I managed to get WiFi at most restaurants and all of the places we stayed. You’re not going to get the best signal in the world but it is definitely enough to send some emails or get on your Facebook feed.
When should I go? Are there any times of the year to avoid?
The best time to visit Chiang Mai, purely for the fact that you will get there during the Songkran celebrations, is throughout April. The weather is great (it can hit around 40 degree Celsius!), the vibe in the city is electric and you will avoid the rainy season which is between May and September.
How did you get there? Are there any other options?
I’ve travelled two different ways up to Chiang Mai and it really depends on your own personal preference and budget. The first time I went via plane from Phuket Airport (South-East Thailand) which cost me around 4,500 Baht ($150) and it took around 2 hours. I even got served an in-flight meal which was great.
If you’re looking for a lower budget option then you can get a sleeper train direct to Chiang Mai from Bangkok that takes around 14 hours and will only cost you around 800 Baht ($26). It was actually really comfortable and you get your own little bed to sleep on. Even if you’re not that fussed about money, this option can still be great.
Laura enjoying her seat on the night train that folds down into a little bed to sleep in, complete with a curtain for privacy.
Can you share a secret travel tip?
Try to befriend a Thai national during your time in Chiang Mai. If you are friends with a Thai person then you will get tuk tuks, souvenirs, food and drink for half the price that you would pay on your own. A very beneficial friendship!
My best memory of Chiang Mai, Thailand is… ?
It has to be spending the day with elephants. Both me and my partner, Laura, have said that this was one of the best experiences of our entire lives. Just being able to be amongst the giant animals was a privilege in itself, but actually bathing them and learning about them was out of this world.
Playing in the river with the elephants in Chiang Mai.
What would you most like to see and do in Chiang Mai?
About Matthew Barby
Matthew Barby is the owner of the Melted Stories travel blog. Matt was born in the UK and has a passion for travelling to new places across the world. Alongside this, Matt is a lover of technology, music and online marketing. You can get in touch with Matt via Twitter or Google+ and follow Melted Stories to stay up to date on all of his latest experiences.
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