PeaceJoyAustin

Cheap, free, and local-endorsed things to do in beautiful places

Chiang Mai

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  • Historic city with over 300 temples
  • Chiang Mai’s Old City is surrounded by a moat and portions of a wall remain
  • Halfway between a big city and small town vibe with beautiful nature nearby

Metro Population: 1.5 million (#2 in Thailand)

When To Visit: November-March if possible

Climate: Hot and mostly sunny year-round, with a wet season July-October and especially hot temperatures April-June

Thailand’s 2nd largest city is popular among tourists and has a large expat population, but it remains a wonderful showcase of Thai history, food, and culture. The gorgeous golden Doi Suthep temple sits on a hill overlooking the city and there are seemingly temples on almost every corner in the Old City, a moat-surrounded central portion of the city teeming with landmarks and businesses. Peaceful Chiang Mai is the perfect antidote to Bangkok’s crowded, polluted streets and overwhelmingly urban vibe.

Photo: Doi Suthep

Where To Go in Chiang Mai

The cheapest way to get around town is by taking songthaews, red trucks with benches in the back that blur the line between bus and taxi and can be flagged down on any major street. You can negotiate a price with them for where you’re going; they will probably pick up other people with different destinations along the way.

Chiang Mai Old City

Wat Chedi Luang: Usually teeming with monks, Wat Chedi Luang has a huge, architecturally stunning interior with a giant Buddha statue and impressive murals on the walls. Free

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Wat Chedi Luang

Wat Phra Singh: In addition to its elegant main temple, Wat Phra Singh has several smaller temples which are fun to explore. There’s also a large historic bell-shaped structure that marks the original temple. 20 baht

Massage: You can’t leave Thailand without trying a Thai massage! There’s tons of massage parlors in the Old City, including many that do “fish massages” in which you dip your feet in a tank filled with tiny fish who apparently eat away your dead skin. Whichever you choose, you shouldn’t pay more than 200 baht.

Greater Chiang Mai

Doi Suthep: Chiang Mai’s iconic golden temple that is one of Thailand’s most sacred sits on a mountain in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park overlooking the city. It’s a 30 minute drive from the city – along the way, there are several viewpoints at which you can stop. I recommend Wang Bua Ban Viewpoint, which has a tranquil creek you can explore. After that, be sure to stop at Wat Phalad, a small temple a few feet down a side road which connects to many hiking trails that allow you to enjoy the peace of the forest. Once you arrive at Doi Suthep itself, take the grand staircase to the top (there is a funicular that will take you for a fee but take the epic walk if you’re able :)) Once inside, you can explore the magnificent temple grounds which literally glitter with gold and check out its beautiful statues, candles, and architecture. If you see a monk in a temple, stop and he may give you a blessing in the form of sprayed water. You can catch some more city views if you walk around the back of the temple. 30 baht

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Doi Suthep

Wat Sri Siobhan: The most underrated temple in Thailand, this exquisite silver temple (which sadly can only be entered by men) is stunning inside and out – it’s a must-see even if you can’t go in. For a small fee, you can talk to a monk and get advice on life 🙂 Free

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Wat Sri Siobhan

Wat Umong: A large 700-year-old temple on the outskirts of the city. The temple used for worship is average-sized and doesn’t have any especially distinctive architecture or décor, but the surrounding grounds (including a large lake) are huge and really fun to explore. Check out the bell-shaped historic temple and wander through its underground hallways through a narrow cave openings to find several mini prayer spots and statues.

Chiang Mai Gate: A partly preserved centuries-old gate on the south end of the moat with dozens of food vendors. 

Chiang Mai Night Market: There’s hundreds of vendors set up selling souvenirs, handcrafted items, food, and more at this popular nightly market. Be sure to haggle!

What To Eat In Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai restaurants and fast casual eateries popular with locals where you can get a full meal for under $15 (often under $10). I always highlight vegan or vegetarian options – cutting down on the amount of meat you eat is by far the #1 way you can reduce your environmental impact and contribute less to animal cruelty.

For a list of specific Thai dishes to try, please see my Thailand page.

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Khao soi at Labkai

Labkai: With fancier décor than most eateries in the city yet pretty low prices, Labkai is a great spot for dinner! It’s located in the trendy Nimmana Haeminda area which you can walk around after. Order Khao Soi – the most famous dish in the Chiang Mai area (chicken leg in a yellow curry sauce). Su Thep, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200. +66 98 545 5863

Mr. Kai Restaurant: In the heart of the Old City near the city’s most popular wats, Mr. Kai serves a variety of dishes (including some of the best curry in town) in a laid-back setting. 17/2 Chang Lor Rd, Tambon Phra Sing, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50100. +66 85 623 5338

Pad Thai 5 Rod: A local-recommended spot for the best pad thai in town! It’s hidden on a side street and I didn’t see any other tourists there. They have many varieties of this iconic dish from which to choose and you can watch them make it on a big griddle. Chang Moi Mueang, Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai.

Street Vendors: You can’t leave Chiang Mai without trying street food! To avoid getting sick, stick to vendors that other people are buying from (less popular vendors might leave food sitting out all day) and observe the vendor’s hygiene (if they touch food without gloves or after touching cash, move on to a different one). And in general, be sure to not consume any tap water or ice that may have come from tap water (always ask). Food stands are all over the Old City; the greatest concentration of them is found at Chiang Mai Gate.

Ask a Local! Some of the best food in Chiang Mai is served at restaurants that don’t have English names and are impossible to find on the internet. Ask locals you meet for recommendations on non-touristy restaurants at which they enjoy eating.

7-11: This may seem like a ridiculous recommendation, but 7-11 will be your best friend in Thailand! They’re on almost every corner and are the cheapest place to buy water, snacks, and even quick meals.

Chiang Mai Nightlife

Chiang Mai bars, lounges, and clubs that are popular with locals and meet one or more of these criteria: A) Unique, unlike anyplace you’ll find in another city B) Fun and lively, sure to be a good time C) Beautiful decor or view

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The nightly ladybody show at Ram Bar

Ram Bar: Chiang Mai’s most popular gay bar. It’s a small, colorful spot with very friendly servers and bartenders and primarily tourist/expat clientele. The bar puts on a free 1.5 hour “cabaret” / ladyboy show nightly (except Sunday) at 10pm and it is phenomenal! The dizzying variety of performers, costumes, dances, themes, and music was an incredible sight to see and I can’t recommend it enough. The songs are mostly just American tunes but they’re good ones. 6 Chareon Phrathet Soi T. Chang Klan Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50300. +66 85 034 5607

THC Rooftop Bar: Walk up some dark, narrow stairways to this Jamaican-themed bar with reggae, floor cushions for seats, and a great view of the city. It’s an awesome place to chill out and/or watch the sunset. Si Phum, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50300

Bus Bar: Located next to the river and featuring (you guessed it) a large red old-school double-decker bus with tables inside and on top. There’s a nice view of a colorfully illuminated bridge that’s right next to the bar. Charoen Prathet Rd, Thesaban Nakhon Chiang Mai, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50100. +66 84 173 3113

Nearby Side Trips from Chiang Mai

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Bangkok

Sticky Waterfall: Just over an hour from Chiang Mai, accessible via songthaew, motorbike, or taxi. Mineral deposits make this remote and off-the-radar waterfall situated deep in a forest very easy to walk on and climb over – an unforgettable experience! Read more.

Pai: This backpacker-dominated town accessible via a 4 hour bus or van ride from Chiang Mai is about as far from authentic Thailand as you can get, but it’s situated in a gorgeous mountain area with rivers, hot springs, and so much tranquility.

Chiang Rai: The stunning White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) is the main draw to this city 3 hours north of Chiang Mai.

Bangkok: You can’t visit Thailand without spending time in Bangkok! The country’s dominant city is filled with modern skyscrapers, historic temples, and easily the best street food in the world. From Chiang Mai,  you can take a ~$30 1-hour flight or a 12-15 hour overnight train for $9. Read more.

 

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