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Chiang Mai should be on every Thailand itinerary and is a must-visit destination when exploring the northern regions. From the incredible food produced using local ingredients procured from the markets to the religious retreats found in the mountains, Chiang Mai can be a laid-back affair or a Thai adventure full of activity.
We have been to Chiang Mai several times and return most times we are in Thailand. With the main metropolitan area housed with ancient city walls and with trendy neighbourhoods popping up on the environs, there are lots of things to do in Chiang Mai. Here is our ultimate itinerary for making the most of your time in Chiang Mai….
Best time to visit Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is a great place to visit most months of the year and the city has 3 distinct seasons: cool, hot and rainy!
Cool season (October – February)
This is the best time to visit Chiang Mai with pleasant and dry temperatures. It is also peak tourist season so accommodation prices will be a bit higher.
Hot season (March-April)
This is the hottest time of year to visit Chiang Mai. It is also the least preferable as it is ‘burning season’ which is when local farmers burn the fields and forests, so air pollution in the city is very high.
Rainy season (May-September)
During these months there are less visitors to Chiang Mai but it isn’t really a bad time to visit. Accommodation prices are slightly lower and the heavy rain usually only comes in short downpours in the morning, with the rest of the day being warm and sunny.
How to get to Chiang Mai
If you are visiting Chiang Mai from Bangkok as part of your Chiang Mai itinerary then there are three different ways to get there: either by bus, train or plane.
By plane: This is the easiest and quickest way to reach Chiang Mai. The city has a small international airport that serves budget airlines such as Air Asia, Thai Smile and Nok Air, with direct routes from Bangkok, Phuket, China, Hong Kong, Seoul and Doha. The flight time from Bangkok is 1 hour 20 minutes and there are regular flights throughout the day – check SkyScanner for the best times and air fares. If you book far enough in advance you can get fares that are just as cheap as taking the train!
By train: The train from Bangkok takes somewhere between 12 and 15 hours and is a good option for travellers who are more environmentally minded, have plenty of time on their hands and are travelling on a budget. We would recommend taking a night train over a daytime one, as the daytime trains only have seating, whilst night trains have air-conditioned sleeper berths (1st class is private, 2nd class is a shared unit).
By bus: Travelling from Bangkok to Chiang Mai by bus is very cheap and takes around 10 hours with both day and overnight options available to book. There are several companies that operate that route – the ones that are usually recommended include Bangkok Busline and Lignite Tour. Water and snacks are normally included in the ticket price.
Use 12Go Asia to research public transport timetables and book tickets. Book far in advance to avoid disappointment.
Getting around Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai old town is fairly compact and easily walkable, but if you need to get somewhere quickly or anywhere across town then we recommend hailing a Songthaew (a taxi truck). Simply wave one down in the street and tell the driver where you want to go and they will tell you the fare. This is a shared ride but the prices are super cheap (usually 30 baht per person).
Tuk Tuks are also found in the city and are the second most common mode of transport in Chiang Mai – they are a little more expensive than Songthaew’s, costing 60 baht upwards per trip.
Alternatively you can request a Grab taxi (a bit like Uber). Grab is widely used by both tourists and locals across Southeast Asia, and the fares are really cheap! Download the Grab app and use the code GRABCKTRAVELS to earn a free ride when you sign up.
Festivals in Chiang Mai
Flower festival (February)
On the first weekend of every February a three day Flower Festival is held in Chiang Mai, with parades, street markets, concerts, and amazing floral displays.
Songkran festival (April)
Songkran is the Thai New Year’s national holiday and a huge multi-day water festival is held every year on the 13th- 15th April throughout Thailand. The streets become a huge giant water fight with water guns, and there are stages with music and a parade.
Yi Peng and Loi Krathong festival (November)
This festival is otherwise known as the Lantern Festival and involves releasing paper lanterns into the sky to symbolise letting go of misfortunes. The festival is held on the full moon of the twelfth lunar month, normally in November. Advance booking is recommended for accommodation as the city is very busy at this time.
SIM Card and Internet
Having data on your phone whilst exploring Chiang Mai is super handy especially if you plan on using the Grab taxi app. SIM cards are cheap in Thailand and have generous data allowances. They are available to purchase in airports, malls and 7-Elevens (bring your passport along for identification purposes). Alternatively you can prepay online and collect a SIM on arrival to Thailand – just remember to make sure your phone is not locked to your local network provider before purchasing one.
If you do not want to change your SIM then renting a pocket WIFI device with unlimited high speed internet access might be for you. We have used portable WIFI’s several times on our travels and love the ability to connect both our devices to it at the same time. Pre-order one online with Klook for collection when you arrive in Thailand at either Suvarnabhumi or Don Muang Airport in Bangkok.
Chiang Mai accommodation
We have visited Chiang Mai several times in the past few years and have twice stayed at the gorgeous 99 The Heritage Hotel. This 4 star boutique hotel is set in a colonial building in the old town just across the street from the epic Wat Phra Singh temple and a short walk away from the weekly Sunday Walking market (more on this later). The rooms are beautifully decorated and facilities include an outdoor pool, fun group activity classes and complimentary snacks and drinks.
Here are some other accommodation suggestions for all budgets:
Family Home Hostel
This hostel is highly rated and located a short walk away from the old town. Check out prices and availability for Family Home Hostel.
The Islander Chiang Mai
Highly rated Thai style hostel with rooftop area. Located 2 minutes away from the famous Saturday Night Market. Check out prices and availability for The Islander.
Hostel with rooftop lounge, reading nooks, computer working areas and greenhouse lounge. Check out prices and availability for Haus Hostel.
Mid range hotels
Highly rated hotel located a 10-minute walk from Chiang Mai Night Bazaar with outdoor pool. Check out prices and availability for Rimping Village.
Amata Lanna Village
Beautiful 4-star resort located a short drive from Chiang Mai old town. Check out prices and availability for Amata Lanna Village
3-star hotel with pool, restaurant, garden and buffet breakfast. Check out prices and availability for Villa Sanpakoi.
X2 Chiang Mai Riverside Resort
Luxurious hotel set on the banks of the majestic Ping River with rooftop gym, spa, pool and bar that overlooks the river. Check out prices and availability for X2 Chiang Mai Riverside Resort
Anantara Chiang Mai Resort
Hotel with minimalist Asian design, located along the banks of the Ping River with a spa, cocktail bar and pool. Check out prices and availability for Anantara Chiang Mai Resort
Ping Nakara Boutique Hotel & Spa
Hotel set in a colonial-style building with outdoor pool, a restaurant and lobby bar. Just a 5-minute walk to the Night Bazaar. Check out prices and availability for Ping Nakara Boutique Hotel & Spa
Weekend walking street markets
Every weekend from around 5pm on a Saturday and Sunday, Chiang Mai holds an evening market where a huge stretch of road is closed to traffic creating a temporary walking street. Here you will find hundreds of market stalls, wide range of street food and some entertainment.
We personally preferred the Sunday walking market held at Tha Pae to Ratchadamneon Road, and would recommend timing your Chiang Mai trip to coincide with this day if possible. It is a very popular attraction and can get very busy – we found it a bit more relaxing to visit around 8.30pm onwards when the crowds have calmed down.
Saturday’s smaller Wualai Walking Street is also worth a visit too and has a great range of locally-made products and has a bit more space to walk around.
Chiang Mai itinerary: Day 1
Explore Chiang Mai Old City
Start your first day of your Chiang Mai itinerary by soaking up the sights in the old town and visiting some of the many historic attractions and temples. The 1.5km square old town is located inside the medieval city walls and has over 300 temples! Here is a round up of some of the best places that we recommend visiting;
Check out this Chiang Mai city and temples half day tour. Don’t fancy walking? Check out this Private Tuk Tuk Tour of City Temples With Pickup >
Tha Pae Gate
There are four gates to enter the Chiang Mai old city, and the main gate is Tha Pae Gate – one of the most famous landmarks in Chiang Mai, dating back to the 13th century. Lots of food vendors are located by the gate too.
Wat Phra Singh
known as “The Monastery of the Lion Buddha”, this is an an active temple, with hundreds of monks living there. The temple complex features classic Lanna architecture, gilded rooftops, golden chedis and an elegantly decorated assembly hall.
Wat Chedi Luang
Huge ruined Lanna-style chedi restored by UNESCO in the 1990s.
Wat Jet Lin
Simple, tranquil Buddhist temple with a lily pond, bamboo bridge, ornate carvings and cafe.
Wat Chiang Man
This wat is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai. The temple complex has lots of different styles of architecture and is surrounded by stone elephants.
Note: make sure you dress appropriately when visiting the temples – wear clothing that covers your knees, cleavage, midriff and shoulders.
For lunch we recommend you try the famous local dish – khao soi noodles. This northern Thai dish is made with wide rice noodles in a coconut milk curry-based broth, served with either chicken or beef and is absolutely delicious!
Get a massage
After a long day of sightseeing treat yourself to a massage! You will find many massage parlours that offer a variety of massage packages and spa treatments around the old city. Check out these Chiang Mai spa massage experiences on Klook >
Dinner / evening
In the evening head over to Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar (if the weekend markets are not on). The night bazaar runs every evening from 6pm to 10.30pm and you’ll find street food stalls, local and international chain restaurants, travel agents, souvenir, clothing and craft stalls, music and other entertainment. The stalls spread out over several blocks and sidewalks at the intersection of Chang Khlan Road and Loi Khro Road.
Chiang Mai itinerary: Day 2
Elephant Nature Park
For the second day of your Chiang Mai itinerary we recommend heading out into the countryside to visit some rescued elephants. Elephant Nature Park is the most famous rescue sanctuary but there are several parks in the region that you can also visit (make sure you do your research before to ensure you are visiting an ethical sanctuary). Check out the elephant experiences on GetYourGuide, Viator and Klook.
Elephant Nature Park is an award winning rescue and rehabilitation centre, home to dozens of elephants who have been saved from mistreatment in the entertainment or logging industry. On a visit here you will get to see these gentle giants up close, help feed them and learn more about the work the volunteers do.
We booked a full day trip to Elephant Nature Park for around 3,500 THB per person, which includes transport to and from your hotel and a buffet lunch. We would recommend booking your day trip here far in advance, especially if you are visiting during peak seasons.
Check out these other elephant sanctuary day tours
Evening / dinner
In the evening head over to the Chang Phuak night market at the North Gate for dinner. The famous Cowboy hat lady has a stall here called Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak, and the food is considered so good that she has been featured on one of Anthony Bourdain’s TV shows. For 30 baht you can order a delicious plate of stewed pork leg over rice served with an egg and Chinese broccoli.
After dinner take a short walk over the The North Gate Jazz Co-Op – a laid-back venue that hosts a regular lineup of live jazz artists and is a famous Chiang Mai institution. Doors open at 7pm and bands start playing at 7.30pm, but arrive early if you want to get a seat as the crowd spills out onto the sidewalk later on.
Chiang Mai Cooking Class
For the third day of your Chiang Mai itinerary we recommend taking a cooking class then visiting a mountain temple!
Chiang Mai has heaps of culinary schools and it is a really fun way to spend half a day and learn how to cook authentic Thai dishes.
We booked a half day cooking class at Thai Farm Cooking School for 1200 THB per person which includes hotel pick up/drop off. This school is located in the countryside just outside of the city and has some great online reviews.
The class starts with a trip to a local market where you will learn about basic Thai ingredients, and a tour around the beautiful and tranquil grounds of the school. You then get to prepare and cook around 5 classic Thai dishes and eat them all at the end! Read more about our day at the Thai Farm Cooking School >
Check out these Chiang Mai cooking classes:
Here is a short video we made about our cooking class experience at Thai Farm Cooking School:
After you are dropped back into town at the end of your cooking class, make your way over to Doi Suthep temple. Located 40 minutes outside of Chiang Mai old town, this mountain temple has some gorgeous golden pagodas and amazing panoramic views of Chiang Mai (which would look amazing at sunset). From around 6pm you can experience the monks chanting which is a very spiritual experience.
To get there ask your hotel to call a taxi for you, or if you are on a. budget, head to the Chang Pauk Gate where Songthaew’s leave for Doi Suthep (they will drop you at the Zoo and then you take another one to the temple). A shared Songthaew will cost 60 baht one way per person. Doi Suthep Temple entrance fee is 30 baht.
Alternatively you could book onto this 4-Hour Wat Umong and Doi Suthep Evening Tour which starts at 3pm (make sure you check with the cooking school that you will back in the city in time for this pick up).
If you are an early riser you could visit Doi Suthep first thing in the morning when the crowds are much lighter, and then do a full day or afternoon cooking class afterwards. Check out the Doi Suthep, Wat Umong & Wat Pha Lat Sunrise private tour which starts at 4.30am – perfect for a peaceful visit without the massive noisy tour groups!
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Morning food tour
If you are a food fan then we recommend booking a food tour for the fourth day of your Chiang Mai itinerary!
We did a 4 hour morning tour with a company called A Chefs Tour and explored restaurants and local markets a little off the beaten track. The tour costs $55USD per person and includes 20-25 tastings of northern Thai snacks, dishes and drinks such as khao soi noodles, papaya salad, dumplings, Thai crepes, Thai sausage and coconut cream desserts.
A Chefs Tour also offer night food tours which include a visit to the Cowboy hat lady that we mentioned earlier. The tour starts at 5pm and is a good option if you would prefer to do a different activity during the daytime.
Here is a short video we made about our food tour with A Chef’s Tour:
Check out these other Chiang Mai food tours
Afternoon – Nimmanhaemin
The food tour with A Chef’s Tour finishes around early afternoon in the Nimmanhaemin district. This is the trendiest part of Chiang Mai that is filled with hip cafes, live-music lounges, fashion boutiques, malls, bars and restaurants.
Spend a couple of hours exploring the area and grab a coffee at Ristr8to, where they serve up award winning lattes in quirky test tube glasses or glasses that look like skulls. Nearby Maya Mall has some shopping options too.
Day trip to Doi Inthanon National Park
For the final day of your of your Chiang Mai itinerary, take a full day trip to Thailand’s highest point at Doi Inthanon National Park. There are many things you can do here including visiting the twin pagodas of King Bhumiphol and Queen Sirikit of Thailand, hike through lush green forests, visit a local hill tribe and admire some beautiful waterfalls.
We booked onto a small group tour called Doi Inthanon with Pa Dok Siew Nature Hike with The Travel Hub for 1,600 Baht per person. The tour takes you to some of the main iconic spots, followed by a 2 hour walk off the tourist trail through rice paddies and forests.
The tour is a full day activity and you will be dropped back at your hotel in Chiang Mai at around 5pm. Alternatively you can hire a private driver for around 3000 Baht. You get to travel in a private air-conditioned car and create your own itinerary. Take a look at Tripadvisor forums for private driver recommendations.
Tip – Doi Inthanon is situated at a high altitude and is generally a bit cooler than Chiang Mai city so bring an extra layer!
Other group tours to Doi Inthanon National Park
Other Chiang mai day and night activities you might like
Flight of the Gibbon
Fly through a primal Thai rainforest with a full day eco zip line journey. Click here to book your Flight of the Gibbon: Chiang Mai Eco Zip Line Adventure
Traditional Khan Toke Meal and Cultural Performance
Explore Chiang Mai’s largest wet market before experiencing a traditional northern Thai dinner and a variety of hill tribe dance performances. Click here to book your Traditional Khan Toke Meal & Cultural Performance
Grand Canyon Water Park
Visit the biggest inflatable water park in Chiang Mai, with multiple activities including canoeing, kayaking, zip lining and wakeboarding. Click here to book your Grand Canyon Water Park Ticket.
Caving and Jungle Kayaking
Enjoy a kayaking tour and discover the Northern Thai jungle. Click here to book your full-Day Chiang Dao Caving & Jungle Kayaking
Jungle Horse Trekking
Explore the untouched jungle and mountain area around Chiang Mai on the back of a Himalayan mountain horse. Click here to book your Jungle Horse Trekking Full-Day Tour
Afternoon Tea at the Four Seasons Resort
Enjoy an afternoon Tea set served by the pool overlooking the misty mountainside. Click here to book your Afternoon Tea
Discover the charms of Chiang Mai’s Old City on a 4-hour bike tour of the back lanes. Click here to book your Historic Old City 4-Hour Bike Tour
Chiang Mai Night Safari Park
Get close with wild animals in an enclosed tram ride at night. Click here to book your Chiang Mai Night Safari Park ticket
ATV and Buggy Riding Experience
Enjoy an off-road buggy extravaganza that will take you up into the rainforest and through some true off-road terrain. Click here to book your ATV and Buggy Riding Experience and Tour
Other Thailand posts you might like
- Top things to do in Chiang Rai
- Top things to do in Bangkok at night
- Bangkok on a Budget – Backpacking in Thailand
- A Thai cookery class ‘with a twist’ in Bangkok’s flower market
- Exploring Bangkok at night by Tuk Tuk
- Pak Khlong Talat Flower Market in Bangkok guide
- Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok – the ultimate guide
- Visiting Mahanakhon Skywalk – Bangkok’s Newest Observation Deck
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