The First-Timers Guide to Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is a popular tourist destination in Northern Thailand that offers a never ending array of activites and sites. It’s one of those locations that you could return to time and time again and still have plenty of new experiences. If you’ve set your sights on Thailand, you would be greatly missing out if you skipped this magical city. Take my word for it, you’ve got to see it!

I’d recommend spending 6-7 days there at a minimum. You’ll want plenty of time to explore the markets and partake in the numerous activities and tours. With that said, it would be impossible to see and do it all your first time there, so I wanted to provide you with a guide to help you get the most out of your first visit!

Need to know:

The city has a unique setup that can be confusing if you aren’t aware of it. Basically there are two parts: old city and everything outside of old city. The old city is a small square town surrounded by a moat. It has entrances (gates) on all four sides that are referred to as North, East, South and West gates. Often times, directions will be given in reference to these gates. Here’s a map to help you better understand:(Everything inside of the blue square is “old city”.)cnx-city-map


Where to stay:

Chiang Mai isn’t huge, but you will want to be sure to stay somewhere near the main attractions. I’d highly recommend staying in an accommodation located by the South Entrance. This allows you the ability to walk to the night market, Sunday Market and the bustling bar scene. There is no shortage of lodging options, however I stayed at Thailand Wow hostel and had a great experience with it.  Hostels will cost you $4-8 per night.

What to do:

Rafting or other outdoor activities– Chiang Mai is an adventure mecca! You can bungee jump, trek, raft, mountain bike and pretty much anything else your heart desires. I went rafting and absolutely LOVED it. The wilderness is breathtaking and your guides will provide you with all sorts of local insight. Stop by any travel agency or just talk to your hostel to choose what activities suit you best. WARNING: There are tons of elephant riding tours, please don’t sign up. If you’d like to learn about these gentle creatures or even interact with them, do some research in order to pick a socially responsible rescue center or sanctuary.
Monk Chat– This is a MUST DO! If you have any interest in Buddhism or even just bettering your own life, you need to take 2 hours out of your evening to talk with a monk. The Monk Chat program allows tourists to talk with Monks who are learning English at the local university. It takes place Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 5:00pm-7:00pm at the Wat Suan Dok temple. And better yet, it is completely FREE!! For more information, read my post on my experience (coming soon).
Markets- This city is chalk full of amazing shopping and food markets. There are 3 that I would highly recommend checking out. The daily Wararot Market is located just a short ride outside of the old city, on the east side, and offers a little bit of everything. It’s a favorite among the locals and has food stalls, clothing and even an indoor component. For a cheap bite to eat at night, head to the street food market on Bamrungburi Road (South Gate). And lastly, every Sunday there is a Walking Street Market located inside old city spreading all the way down Rachadamnoen Road. It’s huge, so get there early to avoid the crowds! It starts around 5:00pm.
Motorbike Rental- If you are a confident rider, you can rent a bike and ride all the way to the mountain to check out the various temples, viewpoints and waterfalls. It allows freedom, obviously, but is also a great way to explore the area! Remember that they drive on the left side of the street…
Temples- There are tons of great temples here, but in my opinion you should stick to just 3 or 4 your first visit. My two favorite were both located on the mountain; Wat Suthep and Wat Tung Yu. Wat Suthep is definitely touristy but is beautiful in its own right and offers breathtaking views of the city. Wat Tung Yu is much less visited and is tucked away in the forest, but is absolutely enchanting.
Pampering- After all that walking and exploring, you are sure to need a massage. How about getting a massage by a female inmate? Located inside the old city, you are able to get the full spa treatment while providing work experience for women prisoners who are close to release. They give excellent massages and you are supporting a great cause!
Nightlife- If this is your cup o’ tea, I’ve got a few great recommendations for you! Start your night at THC Rooftop bar, where you will find dozens of backpackers sitting on the bamboo floor. It’s got a nice rasta feel to it and has decently priced drinks. Its cozy venue makes this a great place to meet new friends! After grabbing a few drinks here, you should head down the street for some dancing at Spicy, which is one of the only clubs open after 1:00 am. The music is fun and the drinks are cheap, just keep in mind that sex tourism is in full swing here.

How to get around:

Walking– Within the gates of the city (inside the moat), you can easily walk everywhere. It will only take about 25 minutes to walk from one side to the other. Outside of the gates, I found most of the main attractions were close enough that you could walk, at least one way. As I mentioned above, staying near the south gate with allow you very close proximity to a number of Chiang Mai highlights!

Songthaews- These red long covered trucks offer a very inexpensive ride to almost anywhere in the city or surrounding area. It’s pretty simple- flag one down on the side of the road, talk to the driver to make sure they can take you where you want to go, negotiate a price, then hop in the back. It shouldn’t cost you much more than 15 or 20 baht (about 50 cents). This is a great option if you are traveling with a large group, as you can fit 15 or so people in the back!

Tuk-tuk- Similar to the songthaews, a tuk-tuk (motorcycle taxi) is a cheap way to get around the city. It only fits 2-4 people, but will get you directly to your desired location rather than making stops. You can expect to pay 40-60 baht for a ride around the city, but still make sure to negotiate your price before getting in.

Motorbike- This is a great option if you plan on being out all day long or if you are going outside the city limits. You can rent a bike at one of the hundreds of rental shops for around 250-300 baht per day. That’s only $9 usd! Just don’t be a dummy… Take pictures of the bike before you leave, buy insurance, wear a helmet and make sure you know how to drive one of these bad boys!

Budget Tips:

  1. Walk everywhere. Most of the main attractions in the city are within a 30 minute walk.
  2. Eat street food. There are plenty of tasty restaurants in town, but avoid going out to eat every night. You can find a delicious and authentic meal for under $2 on the streets! Grab lunch at the Wararot market and dinner at the east gate night market.
  3. Rent a motorbike. If you plan on doing a bunch of site seeing in one day you can save a few bucks by renting your own transportation rather than paying to hop on and off of local transport.
  4. Compare prices for tours. You can save big bucks by doing a little research when planning your tours. Walk around town to the different travel agencies and see if you can’t barter the price down a bit!
  5. Visit the free temples. Chiang Mai is dotted with temples, but some come with a hefty entrance fee. Pick one or two that you MUST SEE, then opt for the lesser known temples with no fees. My favorite temple ended up being one that we found on a whim down a dirt road, so don’t be afraid to explore!

Well there you have it, your very own guide to Chiang Mai. Enjoy your visit, even if it is just a virtual visit!


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