Chiang Mai has become Thailand’s unofficial capital of coffee, Yogis, hipsters and a laid-back life. This city in the North will make you fall in love with Thailand. I think it is probably what Bangkok used to look like 20 years ago – just with many more cool bars, restaurants and cafés. If you plan a trip to Southeast Asia, I definitely recommend to spend a few days there.
Facts about Chiang Mai
Best Time to Visit
Thailand knows two seasons: hot and hotter. The hottest period is between April and June (with temperature reaching up to 40 degrees Celcius), the rainy season lasts from May until October. Therefore, the best time to visit Chiangmai is between November and March. I recommend to pack some scarves or jumpers for inside as air-conditioning turns most places into ice boxes.
I would recommend to spend about three days in Chiangmai.
The local language is Thai with its own script. However, in Bangkok it is usually not a problem to get around with English. Most of the street signs are also translated into English script.
Currency, ATMs and Payment Ways
Thailand’s currency is the Thai Baht (THB), with an exchange rate of 30 BHT per 1 EUR / 34 BHT per 1 USD. ATMs are very common in the busy areas (stick to the ones by the big local banks such as Siam Commercial Bank, Krungsri Bank or Kasikorn Bank). Credit cards are widely accepted in restaurants and malls but carry some cash with you for smaller places (very often there is a mininum charge of BHT 300-500 for credit cards). Taxis do not have any credit card options.
Public transport is very limited in Chiangmai. There are plenty of taxis which can be flagged down at the street. Make sure to ask the taxi driver to turn on the meter. Alternatively, download the Grab mobile app – the local Uber app. Uber does not work in Thailand.
A popular alternative is the Songthaew (also called Road-Daeng, Red Taxi or Red Truck). These are red trucks with two rows (= song thaew) with fixed routes through the city. For about BHT 30 (EUR 0.90, USD 1), you can hop on and hop off along its route.
During my trip, I walked most of the time when I explored the Old City. (The weather was not too hot.)
Water and Street Food
Do not drink the tap water, carry some bottled water with you. Also be careful with food from street stands and always listen to your body. Very often, our bodies are not used to the way of cooking, hygiene standards or ingredients when we travel to a foreign country, especially with hot climates.
Most importantly, wear appropriate clothing when visiting temples and other sights. This means covering your knees and shoulders. You will not be allowed to enter without being covered but the bigger temples usually have covers available to borrow against a deposit which you will get back later.
Thais do not shake hands. When you greet with “Sawasdee kha” or say thank you “Kop khun kha” put your hands together as if you are praying.
In general, there is no tip in Thailand. However, I always check if there is a service charge included. If not, I leave a tip (10%) equivalent of what would have been the service charge if I was satisfied with the service. I also leave tips at smaller places even if they have a service charge because I want to support the staff.
I recommend to explore the Old Town of Chiang Mai. There are temples in almost every street.
My favourite was the “Hidden Temple” called Wat Ched Lin. We discovered it by accident because we asked a local for directions and he pointed out that this temple is very special. It has a bamboo bridge leading to the monastery.
One of the main temples is Wat Chedi Luang which dates back to the 14th century. I really liked to see the old, yet intricate structures and sculptures.
Wat Phra Singh has an impressive gold pagoda and a beautiful park.
This contemporary art museum is a must. The founders Jean Michel Beurdeley and his late wife Patsri Bunnag, together with their son Eric Bunnag Booth, wanted to share the private collection they built together over 30 years. Apart from an interesting collection, I found the name quite interesting: MAIIAM is a play on words: “Mai” in Chiang Mai means “new city”. The second part is a tribute to Eric Bunnag Booth’s great grand aunt “Chao Chom Iam”, a royal consort to King Rama V, who lived during a time when Thailand came into modernity. Together MAI IAM means “brand new”. (122, Moo 7 Tonpao Amphoe San Kamphaeng)
This beautiful building is home to many small boutiques with really nice products from the region in and around Chiang Mai. Avoid the department store starting on the first floor – it is a maze without exits and average branded products. (Nimmanahaeminda Road)
The area around Nimmanahaeminda Road and the Old Town itself offer great finds – from pottery, to jewellery, fashion and accessories. Even if you are looking for furniture, you can find it in Chiang Mai.
Studio Naenna is an organisation empowering local female artisans. The main location is a bit outside of Chiangmai in a beautiful house. You can not only shop for handmade scarves, accessories and apparel but also experience how the products are made. Right in front of the house there are indigo trees, you can watch the women hand dye the fabrics and sew them. (138/8 Soi Chang Khian, Huay Keow Road)
Treat yourself with a fancy dinner at David’s Kitchen. David, the owner, welcomes each guest in person. The food is Western – it reminded me of family dinners at fancy restaurants in my childhood. Especially the chocolate mousse based on a recipe of David’s aunt took me back to the nineties. (113 Bamrungrad Road)
Kanjana Kao Soy is an open air place which is really simple but the Kao Soy is one of the best in town. (7/1 Rachadamnoen Rd Soi 5)
Kao Soy Nimman is nice for a quick Kao Soy lunch when you need a break from shopping at Nimmanhaeminda Road. (Even though the Kao Soy cannot beat Kanjana’s. (22 Nimmana Haeminda Rd Lane 7)
If you need a restaurant to convince you that it is possible to have a delicious vegetarian-only meal, head to Anchan Vegetarian. Their food is so tasty, I am sure it will convince even the biggest meat lovers. The cashew fried rice was delicious. So was the crispy banana flower salad. (Nimmanhaeminda Road, Soi Hillside 2 (opposite soi 13))
Overstand serves very nice breakfast – their special of sourdough bread with olive tapenade, tomatoes and egg was delicious. The layered muesli was also nice – ask for no juice on top though. (19/3 Ratchamanka Soi 2)
Ristr8to was the best place coffee-wise. As it has become really popular, the place gets very busy. They also serve their signature coffee in glass skulls. I liked that their coffee was strong and that they had options such as piccolo lattes and cortados. A must visit. (15/3 Nimmanahaeminda Road)
Graph Café in the Old Town is a really cute place. Coffee is delicious and they only have three tables. The area around it is lovely with landed houses and small lanes. (25/1 Rajvithi Lane 1)
Akha Ama La Fattoria is perfect for iced coffee lovers and for a break in between the temple hopping. Definitely try their oatmeal cookies. I am not a big fan of American-style cookies but these ones are delish! (175/1 Rachadamnoen Road)
As it was directly next to the hotel, we enjoyed a drink at The Faces. The interior was really lovely and it is a great place to chill out. (33 Soi 2 Prapoklao Road)
Phor Liang Meun Terracotta Arts Hotel is a fairly new boutique hotel conveniently located in the Old City. I really liked the area around the hotel: right outside there was a typical Thai street market. On the other side, there was a beautiful residential area. The hotel has a beautiful pool and the terracotta feel was just really dreamy.
I booked directly via the hotel and the rate included the airport transfer as well. (36 Prasing Soi 2 Phrapokklao Road)
How to Get There
There are flights from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airports at almost every hour. Chiang Mai has an international airport. Therefore, you can also fly directly into Northern Thailand. Alternatively, the night train from Bangkok to Chiangmai is also popular among tourists. However, considering that air fares are very affordable, I recommend flying over the train as it saves you time.
More about Thailand
All information as of the date of publishing/updating. We cannot accept responsibility for the correctness or completeness of the data, or for ensuring that it is up to date. All recommendations are based on the personal experience of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received by the recommended places above.