Although Chiang Mai means ‘new city’, the capital of North Thailand is in fact very old. Founded in 1296 by King Mengrai, it was once the capital of the Kingdom of Lan Na (‘million rice fields’), which in its heyday of the 14th-15th century occupied large parts of modern-day Laos and Myanmar. It was incorporated into Siam early in the 20th century and these days is a popular destination for tourists, not only for its proud history, but also for the chance to explore the northern hills and meet some of the brightly dressed ethnic groups such as the Lisu and Akha who live there.
Chiang Mai’s Old City is clearly defined by remnants of the city walls, gates and bastions that are surrounded by a functioning moat. The narrow lanes of the Old City are a joy to stroll through, and a walk from the northeast to southwest corners is a good way to get a feel of the city (see A Stroll Through Chiang Mai’s Old City). Along the way are some of the city’s oldest temples and several museums that offer a good introduction to Chiang Mai’s long history.
Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Chiang Man are the most important temples and all are located in the Old City, though there are also many other atmospheric temples in the backstreets that are rarely visited by tourists. The best-known temple of all is Wat Doi Suthep, located near the top of the hill that overlooks the city. Locals say that if you haven’t visited Doi Suthep, you haven’t really visited Chiang Mai.
North Thailand has a strong heritage of traditional crafts and many visitors are keen to see the production process of ceramics, lacquerware, silk weaving or woodcarving, which is easily done in workshops along the Sankamphaeng Road, also known as the Handicraft Highway. These local crafts also make great gifts for friends back home.
Shopping for local crafts is great fun, especially of you practise your bargaining skills. There are several shops that specialize in different crafts around town, but to see all there is on offer, head to the Night Bazaar on Chang Klan Road near the river, or one of the weekend walking streets. Wualai Road, running south from the Old City, is closed to traffic on Saturday afternoons and evenings, while Ratchadamnoen Road, between Tha Pae Gate and Wat Phra Singh inside the Old City, is pedestrianized on Sundays. The walking streets are hugely popular, so be prepared for crowds.
Another great attraction of Chiang Mai is its classes including cooking, massage, Thai dance, jewellery- making and meditation, offering visitors the chance to head home with new skills. It’s also an excellent base for arranging adventurous activities such as elephant treks, white water rafting or mountain biking. Hundreds of tour companies compete for tourist dollars by offering tempting itineraries that include several stops and experiences in a day.
Northern Thais are famed for their laid-back ways and the relaxed pace of life is infectious, to the point where many visitors who plan to stay just a few days end up spending weeks either in the city or touring the northern hills. Over the years, the city’s range of accommodation has expanded to offer good-value lodgings for every budget, ranging from a bunk bed in a dormitory to a pool villa sprawling over hundreds of square metres. The city also has a high ratio of restaurants and bars to number of inhabitants, and besides places specializing in Northern Thai cuisine, there are also plenty of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Italian, Mexican and French restaurants. Since many of Chiang Mai’s visitors are young and energetic, many bars feature DJs and cheap booze to keep them happy.
The high season in North Thailand is from November to February, when clear skies, sunshine and relatively low humidity are virtually guaranteed. At this time of year, the weather in the north is preferable to other parts of the country, with temperatures getting down as low as 10 or 15 degrees Celsius.
However, this is also the time when many hotels are booked up, prices are hiked up and tourist attractions can get crowded. By visiting Chiang Mai at any other time of year, you can save money on discounted rooms and enjoy sights without big crowds, though the weather may not be as pleasant.
If there’s one time to avoid in North Thailand, it’s from late February to late March, when a choking haze sends PM10 levels rocketing to dangerous levels, and both locals and visitors alike need to wear protective face masks. The haze is caused by burning off stubble in the fields and has been getting worse year by year.
The rain season, from May to October, can be a good time to visit as it’s also low season, but rain usually comes in brief downpours and the countryside looks lush, particularly the bright green rice paddies from July to October.
Be aware of travelling during major holidays here, as Thais love to travel and local accommodations can be booked solid. If you come during the Songkran Thai New Year, from April 13-15, all resorts outside of Bangkok and all transport will be booked for weeks in advance. Other holidays include the King’s Birthday on December 5th, and the western New Year holiday for 4-5 days from the end of December.
For the most part, you’ll need light and quick drying clothing, though in the winter months (December-January) it can get quite chilly at night, so make sure to pack a sweater for this. Sweaters can also be useful on overly air- conditioned buses or planes.
Chiang Mai is not as dirt-cheap as it used to be famed for. In fact, you can spend a lot and quickly here, but depending on your style of travel, there are plenty of different options, and it also depends when you go.
If travelling during the high season, from November to February, count on
spending at least $20 for a room for two at the lower end of the spectrum. At the other extreme, there are plenty of five-star hotels and resorts that cost upward of $300. Backpackers still can find dormitory accommodation for under $10, while those willing to spend $50, will find plenty of decent options. It pays to travel as a pair in Chiang Mai, as room prices are for the room, with few discounts for single travellers.
If you eat street food throughout your trip, you’ll be hard pressed to spend more than $5 per day, it really is that cheap, but in tourist restaurants in the resorts, a very average meal will cost around $20 for two, including drinks. Gourmet restaurants can cost upwards of $100.
For budget travellers, a cheap hotel in the tourist areas, plus meals in restaurants, transport, and a sight or two, plan on spending around $60-80 for a couple per day, although this can be halved if headed to lower end accommodation and by having some meals on the street.
For mid-range travellers, $100-120 will cover a nice place to sleep, excellent meals, transport, a massage or spa treatment here or there, and a few happy hour drinks.
For luxury travellers, staying in five-star hotels, eating out in high-end restaurants, and travelling via private car or taxi, plan on spending at least $300 a day if not much more.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in local currencies.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than 100 baht per person
$$ => Tickets 100-300 baht per person
$$$ => Tickets 300 baht per person
$ => Rooms less than 1500 baht for a double
$$ => Rooms 1500-4000 baht for a double
$$$ => Rooms 4000 baht for a double
$ => 300 baht per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => 3-500 baht per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => 500 baht per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than 1000 baht per person
$$ => Tickets 1000-1500 baht per person
$$$ => Tickets 1500 baht per person
Chiang Mai International Airport is served by over a dozen flights a day
from Bangkok, and also has services to several other domestic
destinations. It is also connected to a growing number of international
destinations, such as Hong Kong, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
Despite the amazingly cheap fares offered by budget airlines such as
Lion Air, many visitors choose to travel between Bangkok and Chiang Mai
by sleeper on the overnight train, which allows some views of the
countryside and saves a night’s accommodation in a hotel.
The cheapest way from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is by bus, which takes
around 8 hours, but drivers are not always reliable and fatal accidents
There’s a very limited system of bus lines in Chiang Mai but these are
irregular and most visitors use either tuk-tuks, the ubiquitous ‘silors’
(red pick-up trucks) or meter taxis to get around. Most taxi drivers
will not use their meter, so it’s necessary to agree on a fare before
If you’re staying in town more than a few days, it’s worth considering
renting a motorbike, which can cost as little as B100 a day and gives
ultimate freedom to explore the city and surrounding countryside. This
is not recommended if you are not an experienced rider, however, as
accidents are all too common.