When I think about it now, I am amazed at how naturally we walked kilometres through the streets of Chiang Mai’s Old Town feeling so familiar, as if we had been there forever. During our trip to Northern Thailand, we stayed in Chiang Mai for four days (plus the eco-lodge experience in the mountains), during which we visited the main temples and went on excursions in the surrounding area, but if I had more days, I certainly would have known how to fill them because there is no shortage of things to do and see in Thailand’s largest northern city.
I found Chiang Mai extremely liveable, full of life during the day and quiet at night, just the way I like it. Nice people for real, not just because you are a tourist, where yes you haggle, but always with a smile, never disrespectful. People with whom you can talk about different cultures, habits and why not, even problems in the country. People with whom it is easy to get on the same wavelength.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
The best area to stay in Chiang Mai is within the Old City. You can walk around and explore the centre and have everything nearby. It will also be easy to find songthaew and several agencies that organise excursions.
We stayed at The Wing Lanna Hotel, slightly off the centre, but on the same road leading to Wat Phra Sing and about a ten-minute walk from the Silver Temple. The rooms are very spacious, with comfortable beds and above all a very large bathroom with a shower in a separate room (which is not a given in northern Thailand!). The hotel also has a small pool with free towels, perfect for cooling off from the Thai heat. In the mornings, tea, coffee, juice and biscuits are available to guests…it’s not much, but it’s free! In the surrounding area, however, there are also several cafés and a 7-Eleven where you can possibly get a snack to eat at the hotel’s tables.
Right next door there is also a laundrette and a little further, a thai massage parlour!
Getting around the city
In the Old Town of Chiang Mai is easy to get around on foot, but renting a bicycle could also be a good idea to optimise time and the streets are not very busy. If you leave the Old Town, however, the traffic increases considerably, and so do the distances. You are sure to find plenty of songthaews, the famous red small truck with ‘open’ rear benches that are especially useful for going to popular destinations, perhaps by creating a group with other travellers heading to that area.
If you prefer to travel in a regular air-conditioned car, you can download the Grab app, thanks to which you can set the destination, know the fixed price immediately and wait for the first available driver to accept your request.
You can also request a private driver through Grab and by booking him at least a day in advance, he will only cost you 2,000 baht for the whole day (12h) and can even take you out of the centre!
However, to register with Grab you need a Thai number, I recommend buying an Airalo e-sim and entering the code MICHEL5108 you will receive a $3 discount for your first e-sim.
What to see and do in Chiang Mai in 3 days
In my opinion, 3 days is the minimum to visit Chiang Mai, to get the most out of it, walking around the city streets and indulging in at least one Thai massage. On our northern Thailand itinerary, we spent 4 nights in Chiang Mai, one of which was at the Chiai Lai Orchid, in the mountains of this province, where we came into contact with elephants in a sustainable way (more about this in a dedicated post soon).
The other 3 nights we stayed inside the Old City, and visited the main sights in Chiang Mai, but if you have the chance to stay more days, there are many more things to do and see, as well as wonderful hikes in the surrounding area.
Many travellers also choose to do a day trip to Chiang Rai, but I would personally recommend that you dedicate at least one night to this other city, and focus on the many sights of Chiang Mai during your stay here.
Day 1: Temples and markets in Chiang Mai
Most of the things to see in Chiang Mai are concentrated around and within the Old City, a square surrounded by walls within which generally traffic-free streets branch off, very pleasant to walk around. Spend a whole day exploring the Old City, discovering the various temples scattered everywhere and end the day in one of the night markets, among street food and stalls of all kinds.
Chiang Mai’s temples are in the Lanna style, the ancient kingdom of northern Thailand, and there are so many of them. To enter the buildings, shoes must be taken off and appropriate clothing is required, with shoulders and legs covered up to below the knees. The unmissable temples in Chiang Mai in my opinion are:
- Wat Phra Sing – the most important and revered temple in Chiang Mai, built in the 14th century when Chiang Mai was the capital of the Lanna kingdom and is a perfect example of this architectural style. Here you will find the revered Lion Buddha, an elevated library and a gilded chedi with elephants emerging from its four sides
- Wat Chedi Luang – its ancient chedi was originally 82 metres high, but in 1500 it collapsed due to an earthquake and has remained like this ever since, half-ruined but extremely fascinating. It was actually partly restored in 1990 thanks to funding from Japan and Unesco, but although this was not enough to restore it to its former majesty, it still remains clearly visible from different parts of the city.
- Wat Lok Moli – located just off the north side of the Old City and one of the oldest, it is perhaps the one I liked best for its somewhat Tomb Raider-like atmosphere, with the ancient stone stupa and the greenery surrounding it.
- Silver Temple – a spectacular silver temple located just off the south side of the Old City. Very rich in bas-reliefs and decorations on all sides, it is very reminiscent of the colourful temples of Chiang Rai (and like those it is definitely newer!).
Chiang Mai is also full of night markets that are held in various parts of the city depending on the day of the week. The Saturday Night Market takes place every Saturday, not far from the Silver Temple and seems to be one of the most interesting with lots of choices of food, products for sale and entertainment. Unfortunately, due to rain, I was not able to see it in person.
On Sunday evening, the main street of the Old City, from the East Gate to Wat Phra Sing, is literally invaded by the immensity of stalls at the Sunday Night Market. Besides shopping, you can also treat yourself to a foot massage like this, on the street, for a truly ridiculous price, 60 baht for 30 minutes!!!
If you visit Chiang Mai during the week, the most famous market is the Night Bazar, which is also huge and where you can find really anything and get great bargains.
If you want to see a daytime market, frequented mainly by locals, then make a note of Warorot Market: on the ground floor you’ll find lots of dried fruit and fresh food (it’s not really suitable for those with a sensitive sense of smell….), while on the upper floors there are clothes and cosmetics shops.
At this link, you will find a map of the temples I liked best and the night markets, to be visited depending on the day of the week.
Day 2: Visit the Doi Suthep and Thai massage
For your second day in Chiang Mai haggle with a songthaew, those little red vans that will surely have honked at you as you stroll through the city streets offering you a lift, and get a ride to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (also called Doi Suthep for short), one of the most famous and visited destinations in northern Thailand.
In four people, we paid a total price of 500 baht for the round trip and stop at Wat Pha Lat. Consider that up to eight people fit on a songthaew, so if you manage to join other travellers, you could share the trip. The journey takes about an hour and the last part is on a winding road up the mountain…if you get carsick, bring some gum or candy because the drivers are quite reckless!
Doi Suthep is the name of the mountain that towers above Chiang Mai, on the summit of which, according to the legend, the white elephant died, having been entrusted with the miraculous duplicate of a relic of the Buddha of legend. At the place where the elephant died after his free roam with this relic, one of the most sacred temples in northern Thailand was erected.
The Wat Phra That Doi Sutep complex can be accessed either by a ropeway or a beautiful 300-step staircase through the vegetation. We went up by funicular because it was pouring down at the time and the staircase was practically a waterfall, but walking down it, I can tell you that it is not at all heavy and above all it is very scenic with the two Naga snakes with mosaics flanking it.
Admission to the temple costs 30 baht (50 baht with the funicular) and there is also a viewing terrace from which to admire the city. Obviously not on rainy days -.-. Rain aside, the temple is very beautiful, although it was the place where I found the most people on the whole trip, and the glitter of the gold-covered stupa and the many golden statues and inlays shine through the grey sky. I am sure that on a sunny day, this place is something indescribable!
At the foot of the steps is a small village with small restaurants and shops. I honestly found the prices here lower than in the city, and the shopkeepers were more willing to haggle!
On the way back, stop at Wat Pha Lat, a beautiful temple surrounded by nature and crossed by a small river. I personally loved this temple and liked it much more than its famous neighbour. Wat Pha Lat is surrounded by nature and you can breathe in peace and spirituality and it is very pleasant to get lost in its paths, which also connect to the Monk’s Trail, a hiking trail that goes all the way into town. What’s more, from here we were finally able to catch a glimpse of Chiang Mai as the sun had come out in the meantime!
The visit will take you a good half day and once back in the centre, you could continue exploring the temples in the old city or treat yourself to a nice Thai massage. There are plenty of centres, some even more luxurious, and prices generally start at 250 baht for a one-hour Thai massage. I recommend the Women’s Massage Centre by ex-prisoners, where ex-prisoners find employment and thus have a chance to reintegrate into society. All the women are very nice and can speak basic English to give you instructions. You will first have your feet washed and offered slippers, after which you will change into the comfortable clothes they provide and after the massage, you will be offered a small bottle of cool water. As an alternative to the one-hour Thai massage, you can also choose the full two-hour version, but also foot massage or head-shoulder-neck massage.
Day 3: Bor Sang Village San Kampaheng (or cooking class)
On the third day, take a Grab (around 180 baht) and head to Bor Sang village, the artisan village where Thailand’s famous paper umbrellas are made.
According to legend, a monk saw people making umbrellas out of mulberry bark during a trip to Burma, and on his return, he taught the villagers how to make them. Today, Bor Sang is the main centre for the production of these umbrellas, and at the Umbrella Making Centre one can watch the artisans intent on their creation, from the preparation of the bamboo frame, to the mulberry paper covering, to the final decoration with beautiful paintings.
Originally, paper umbrellas were given to monks on the occasion of important celebrations, but then they spread to ordinary people…and I couldn’t resist and bought one too!
The Umbrella Making Centre can be visited free of charge and there are also photographs and newspaper clippings from the visit of important people, with special emphasis on Princess Diana’s visit.
A stroll through the village streets teeming with small shops and we are ready to head back into town, where we continue our exploration of the old town and treat ourselves to another massage before retrieving our luggage and travelling by night bus to Bangkok and then Koh Kood.
If you’re into handicrafts, I recommend continuing to explore the San Kamphaeng Artisan Village, where you can observe and buy more unique pieces made by local artisans, from ceramics to silk clothing, from wood-carved products to gems and paintings. In short, if you are looking for authentic, handmade products but at an affordable price, this is the place to be!
And to relax a bit after so much shopping, you can go (again using Grab) to the San Kampaheng hot springs: a park where boiling hot thermal waters flow in which you can dip your feet. One of the most popular activities here is to cook eggs in the boiling waters, a bit like what happens in some Japanese onsen towns, but you can also choose to soak in a hot tub, either private or shared. I will tell you about the details of this experience in a dedicated article soon.
If handicrafts don’t interest you, you could opt for a cooking class: Thai food is exquisite and Chiang Mai is the home of the delicious Khao Soi; the possibilities of taking part in a cooking class are really numerous and if you want to learn how to reproduce the flavours of Thailand once you return from your trip, this is definitely an interesting thing to do in Chiang Mai.
Nearby of Chiang Mai
Apart from the many things to do and see, Chiang Mai is also an excellent base for excursions in the surrounding area. There are plenty of nature treks in this part of Thailand, such as those to Doi Inthanon, the National Park that includes Thailand’s highest peak. Or perhaps in the provinces of Lamphun and Lampang, where Wat Umong and Wat Prachan Mae Tha are located respectively.
You’ll also find plenty of packages to do the Chiang Rai and Golden Triangle day trip, although personally, I’d recommend dedicating two days to the area, stopping in Chiang Rai for one night.
Even staying in Chiang Mai province, however, there is no shortage of excursions to do. We chose to spend a night at Chiai Lai Orchid, an eco-resort in the mountainous area of Mae Wang where a Karen tribe lives and where you have the opportunity to interact with elephants in an ethical manner. A unique and unforgettable experience, where I would have liked to stay longer, and which I will tell you about in another article soon.
Another recommended excursion from Chiang Mai, which can also be done in half a day, are the Sticky Waterfalls, very special waterfalls where you can walk on porous rocks that don’t slide and climb up the falls with your feet submerged in water! This is also where I lost (and miraculously found working after an hour in the water) my iPhone….but that’s another story.
From the aforementioned San Kamphaeng hot springs, you can then reach Mae Kampong, a village in the mountains where temperatures are always lower thanks to its particular location. A pretty street dotted with small shops and cafés, where you can sample the tasty grilled sausages typical of this area.
In short, there are plenty of things to see and do in Chiang Mai, my map is actually full of placeholders that I have not mentioned in this article and I hope to have the chance to visit on a future trip to Chiang Mai 😉
I hope you found the article useful, if you’d like you can buy me a coffee or simply share it on social, every little gesture is appreciated!
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