Chiang Mai is the third city in Thailand we have visited. We flew here straight from Bangkok in September and spent 7 nights. Despite being the largest city in Northern Thailand, it feels manageable and laid back, in part due to far less traffic and a smaller city center than its southern counterpart, Bangkok. Here is the practical information we observed in our time there.
Setting the Scene
We arrived to the small Chiang Mai International airport and took a short cab ride to our Airbnb, admiring the distant mountains out of the car window. As soon as we dropped our luggage and started exploring our neighborhood of Nimmanhaemin we were in love. Dozens of sois (side streets) were waiting to be explored, where we would find speciality coffee, Thai massages, boutiques, ice cream, Thai food, bars and more, all next to each other in low-rise buildings with mismatched store fronts, which lend themselves to a feeling of quaintness about the neighborhood.
Among all of this are signs for luxury high-rise condominiums coming soon, being built along the main road and some of the sois. These signs and visible construction give you a sense that the feel of the neighborhood - and city - will be changing, but for now, you just want to enjoy a cold Chang beer and a bowl of noodle soup while people watching locals, tourists and students from the nearby Chiang Mai University.
The “old city” of Chiang Mai refers to the historic square city center surrounded by a defense wall and moat, dating back hundreds of years. The square shape is a hallmark of the ancient Chinese pattern for a capital city, unlike oval cities like Bangkok in central Thailand. Four of the original gates remain, one on each wall, to combine with over a dozen current total possible entrances into the old city. The city center is a hodgepodge of one-way streets, dead ends and curving alleys, full of locals and tourists who are eating, shopping and living their lives in the roughly 3 square kilometers of historic land, where you can’t go a block without seeing a Buddhist temple.
Chiang Mai is working towards becoming recognized by UNESCO as a Creative City, which involves promoting and incorporating creativity and innovation into the economic and social structures of the city to increase development. In our few days in the city, the creative goals were clear to us through beautiful street art, many handmade crafts, similar to what you might find on Etsy, being sold in stores and markets, and the many young entrepreneurs we met. The lax business regulations, at least compared to New York City, allow more flexibility in getting a business started. For example, we met an ice cream shop owner and a baker who each make their product at home and then bring it to the store, a practice that would not be allowed in New York, what with its commercial kitchen requirements and such. We drank a great pour over coffee at a shop that was basically run out of the owner’s front porch of his home. You don’t see these opportunities for entrepreneurship everywhere, but it is apparent in Chiang Mai.
Based on the number of aesthetic clinics we walked by, Chiang Mai seems to be a popular destination for cosmetic treatments. Despite the growth of modern culture, the clinics still seem to stand in contradiction to the history and authenticity of the city.
Specific to our experience visiting Thailand, US citizens do not need a visa but Indian citizens do, which you can receive and pay for upon landing at the airport for 2,000 baht or about $56 (this increase went into effect September 2016).
Money & Tipping
The Thai currency is called baht (THB) and currently $1 is about 35 baht. Coins are in 1, 5 and 10 baht and bills are in 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1,000 baht. Many places we frequented (street food, coffee shops, casual restaurants) only take cash. Some businesses that do accept cards may have a minimum.
We always travel with a Charles Schwab debit card, which reimburses ATM fees. This leaves us free to withdrawal when we need to and not carry around unnecessary extra money or hunt down currency exchange offices. ATM fees in Chiang Mai are a hefty 200 baht (just under $6!) per transaction, so having an account with Charles Schwab saves us a lot of money.
Tipping in Chiang Mai is not the same as in the States, that is to say it is not customary or expected; however, it is appreciated although probably mainly practiced by tourists. There’s no need to tip at street food vendors, but in restaurants, especially the nicer they get, leaving a few baht behind is welcomed. Make sure to check if service charge is already included, which it may be at some pricier bars and restaurants. As for taxis and tuk tuks, giving the exact amount due is just fine but if you pay with 100 baht on a 96 baht fair, for example, don’t wait for change.
You can buy international stamps at any store that sells postcards. At the post office they cost 15 baht per stamp, but these shops will up-charge to 17 baht. Mailboxes can be found on the streets.
It’s much appreciated by locals if you can speak a word or two of Thai. Always begin your interactions with a greeting, whether when getting into a songthaew or entering a restaurant, lest you risk coming off as brusque.
Note that the end of a sentence changes whether you are a man or a woman speaking:
- krab if you are a man speaking (pronounced kap)
- ka if you are a woman speaking (pronounced k-ah, sometimes enunciated with a long aahhh, as if you’re getting your throat checked with a tongue compressor at the doctor’s office)
- jao is more traditional than ka for women specifically from Chiang Mai. Use this when being formal.
The two words that got us around everywhere are:
- Sawatdee* (pronounced sa-wa-dee) krab/ka: hello/general greeting as well as goodbye
- Khorb khun (pronounced cob-koon) krab/ka: thank you. You can also shorten it to “Khorb”.
*Fun fact: The word sawatdee is not originally Thai and has its origin in the Sanskrit svasti (meaning “well-being”). The word sawatdee was heavily promoted during the dictatorial regime of Phibubsongkhram during the 40s as part of a wider set of cultural edicts. Today, along with the wai, the bow you may see accompanying a verbal greeting, it seems synonymous with Thainess.
We visited Chiang Mai in September, which is during rainy season (July - October). It was very warm during the days but cooled down to a more comfortable temperature at night. Rain was always in the forecast, but for the most part it only rained for a short period in the evening, as if on a schedule, ranging from a drizzle to a thunderstorm. The rain doesn’t stop anyone from getting around or food vendors to keep serving, if they had a cover to their stall. Carry an umbrella just in case.
The other seasons are hot (March - June) and cool (November - February), when highs are in the 80’s, but lows can reach to the 50’s.
Day to Day
During rainy season in Chiang Mai, when we visited, It’s hot and humid during the day (90’s) but cools down to a more comfortable temperature at night (70’s or 80’s). After some research on how conservative the city is, I felt comfortable packing shorts, tank tops (similar) and lightweight summer dresses, without concern of whether they covered my knees or shoulders (unless visiting temples, more below), and am glad I did considering the warm days. We noticed many fashionable men and women, even though some sacrifice being cool for long sleeves and pants, but during the day I didn’t feel out of place in casual, lightweight clothing. Comfortable walking shoes were a must for both me and Prem, especially as the heat wore us down.
For the Ladies
Something I implemented on this trip, which I’ve read many other female travelers do, was to pack a sports bra (similar) for day to day exploring - so much more comfortable in the heat than a regular bra!
At every street market you will find cute dresses, tops, skirts and pants for only a few USD each. Save some room in your suitcase!
More conservative attire is required for visiting temples. On these days I wore skirts (similar) or dresses that covered my knees, and if my shoulders were exposed I carried a scarf that I could easily drape on and off. If you’re a female and not covered, temples will lend or rent you robes or shawls, so it’s up to you whether you prefer to come prepared or wear a shared coverup. When entering temples you are asked to remove your shoes, so ones that slip on and off easily are best.
Chiang Mai nightlife is much more laid back than in Bangkok and we didn’t come across any dress codes, especially since we stayed near Chiang Mai University where most bars were pretty casual. Our drink of choice was a cold bottle of Chang, which ranged from 85 - 105 baht ($2.45 - $3) for a big bottle (about 2 glasses worth) at restaurants.
In Asia I’ve found that you’re lucky if a bathroom has toilet paper and/or soap, even in some nice cafes or bars, and forget about paper towels, which are viewed as wasteful. At tourist attractions, such as markets and temples, you can usually buy tissues at the bathroom entrance for 2 - 5 baht (a few cents in USD). I always grab extra napkins from restaurant tables and throw them in my bag in case I have to BYOTP. The antibacterial gel comes in handy when a bathroom has no soap or when you’re eating street food, where there is surely not a sink nearby.
As for water, you never want to be stuck without it, especially given the heat and all the exploring and eating. No one drinks the tap water here, so in Chiang Mai we popped into a 7-11 (they’re as frequent as Starbucks in New York City) every couple of days for a big jug of Nestle Pure Life (about 40 - 50 baht or $1.20 - $1.40, while a 16 ounce bottle will cost 7 baht) to ensure a full supply in our Airbnb for both drinking and brushing teeth. We always carried a smaller bottle or two while walking around, refilled from the big jug at home. Most coffee shops we stopped in offer self serve filtered water, which we also took advantage of.
The Chiang Mai International Airport is pretty small and not far from the city at all. The airport offers taxi rides into the city for a flat-rate of 160 baht (about $5). Now that we know better, we would hop in a songthaew (see below) for much less.
We got around primarily in songthaews, which are shared taxis in the form of red pickup trucks converted to add a roof and benches in the truck bed. There are tons of red songthaews driving around Chiang Mai, ready to be flagged down. Other colors follow a specific route that we didn’t learn in our time there. At the most basic level you wave a songthaew down, tell them where you’re going, hop in the back, where there may or may not be other riders, press the “stop” button when nearing your destination, and pay the driver when you get out. Here are a few specific tips:
- Destination: your driver most likely won’t speak English. Show your destination on a map or name a landmark near your end point, such as one of the many temples. If you are specific about your destination (sometimes we were general and just gave the name of our neighborhood) you won’t need to push the “stop” button when you are near; they will pull over.
- Cost: Within city limits (which, admittedly is slightly vague) a songthaew ride should cost 20 baht ($0.58) per person. If, after giving the driver your destination, they say OK and you know it’s within expected geographical boundaries, hop in. If they say OK and quote you a higher price, negotiate until you get down to 20 baht per person; most likely they are trying to take advantage of you being a tourist, but once they recognize you know how the system works they will back down (if they don’t, let them go and try another). If you know it’s a far ride, such as to the airport (40 - 60 baht) or opposite sides of the city, be nice and pay a little more.
Tuk tuks are also everywhere but a little more expensive than a songthaew. The plus side is they’re more direct since they won’t be pulling over to pick up other passengers. Make sure to negotiate your fare before the driver takes off, and don’t take a ride with anyone who wants to show you his aunt’s silk shop that’s the best in the city, or anything similar - could be a scam and not worth the risk.
If we stayed for longer we would rent a scooter to get around. Without too much traffic in this city, it seems like a comfortable mode of transportation.
Chiang Mai is trying to be bike friendly. I say “trying” because, although the infrastructure is in place with bike lanes in the city center and a (limited) bike sharing service, there are not enough bikers on the road yet to ensure drivers are comfortable with this mode of transportation. The bikers we did see were a mix of locals and foreigners, taking advantage of the light traffic.
We didn’t see any metered taxis but we’ve read there are some. Grab is a car service app, similar to Uber or Lyft, specific to countries in Asia. One benefit is you have the option to pay in cash. The downside is, the app kept crashing when we were trying to sign up.
Look out for a full list of the foods we ate in Chiang Mai and where we ate them coming soon.
Street food in Chiang Mai is not an all day affair like it is in Bangkok. You can find stands here and there throughout the day but the food vendors really come alive at the night markets. You can find vendors selling savory foods, sweet foods, drinks such as juices and Thai tea, and fruit, both fresh and dried.
As when eating street food anywhere, look for a busy place with high turnover and try to avoid ordering food that has been sitting out but instead opt for woks, grills and hot broths where your food is made to order.
Most street food signs are in Thai, so take a look at the cooking station, other customers’ tables or food pictures, if they’re part of the menu, to get an idea of what’s being served.
Thai people like their food sweet, so don’t be surprised to see locals add a spoonful of sugar to their savory soup! Sugar is almost always on the table as a condiment.
Temples are everywhere you turn in Chiang Mai, especially in the city center where there are about 30 within the roughly 3 square kilometers; there are over 300 in all of Chiang Mai. Unlike in Bangkok, where we visited temples in a deliberate manner, in Chiang Mai we realized it was much easier to just walk around and stumble upon temples as we passed them. We either observed from the outside or ventured in if we felt more intrigued. Some are free and the ones we stopped at that did charge were 20 - 40 baht ($0.57 - $1.14) per person.
Elephant Nature Park
One draw for many who visit Chiang Mai is the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for rescued elephants that is about an hour outside the city. We highly recommend reserving a day for this surreal and memorable experience. Book in advance on their website. Look out for a post on what to expect during your visit to the park, based on our experience.
There seems to be a market every night in Chiang Mai. This is when the street food really comes alive and you can do some inexpensive shopping (such as elephant pants for $3 to match all the other tourists). Some of the markets are:
- The Night Bazaar: this is open nightly along Chang Khlan Road, to the east of the city center, and its vendors mainly sell all the same type of souvenirs and clothing usually aimed at tourists.
- Anusarn Night Market: right off of The Night Bazaar, at Anusarn Sunthorn Road, you’ll find this indoor/outdoor space selling crafts and souvenirs as well as food courts.
- Kalare Night Market: this is also right off The Night Bazaar, at Chareonphrahet Lane 6. This is similar to above.
- Ploen Ruedee Night Market: we stumbled across this market on our way down Chang Khlan Road to the Night Bazaar. It’s trendier than the others, with a young crowd, international food vendors, a beer stand and Justin Bieber blaring from the speakers. Live music was being set up for later in the night.
- Saturday Night Walking Street Market: this market begins at Chiang Mai Gate, the south end of city center, and continues southwest along Wualai Road, which becomes a pedestrian street. This is not as big as Sunday night, below, but you can enjoy similar foods and goods. There are some offshoots of food areas, but a large majority of food vendors are set up across from the south wall along Chang Lor Road.
- Sunday Night Walking Street Market: in the early afternoon vendors start setting up along Ratchadamnoen Road, in the city center, starting from Thapae gate, and soon this street, and surrounding ones, become pedestrian only. Shop, eat and get an inexpensive half hour foot massage.
- Maya Lifestyle Shopping Center Market: come evening, vendors are setting up handmade crafts and food outside the front entrance to the mall area. It’s small, friendly and accessible making it a pleasant experience. We happened to stumble across it and can’t find much information on whether it’s a regular market or not, but worth checking if you’re in the area one night.
If your body is aching from all the walking around in the heat you’re in the right place. You can find almost as many inexpensive Thai massage places as you can temples, with a list of services posted outside and massage therapists ready to bend and stretch your limbs, or you can go for a more luxurious option that may cost a little more but is probably more hygienic.
Thai massages are very different from Western massages; expect a lot of pulling, pushing and stretching your body into positions you didn’t know they could go into. This isn’t for everyone, and if it’s not for you, you can opt for just feet or just head and shoulders. In Chiang Mai we got two massages. One was a foot massage along the street at the Sunday Night Market; there are chairs set up at least every block, offering a half hour for 80 baht ($2.30). Since they’re set up on the street, resources are limited and it probably wasn’t the cleanest (is that a fresh towel or recycled from your last customer?) but it was still relaxing to people watch while getting some relief from all the walking around.
The other was at a Vanalee Spa, in our neighborhood. We opted for a half hour foot and half hour head, back and shoulders, which ran us 250 baht each ($7.21). When we entered we removed our shoes and were given slippers. We were led past the front desk into a room to have our feet scrubbed. We were then led upstairs to a private room with 2 mats and given loose clothing to change into. After the hour massage, we changed and went back downstairs to find a tray of tea, cookies, fruit and sorbet waiting for us. This type of service was a pleasant surprise after our much more low-key massage in Bangkok for the same price.
We stayed in Nimmanhaemin, which is about 1 mile from Old Town, the city center. We really enjoyed this neighborhood thanks to the abundance of cute sois full of coffee shops, restaurants and bars. Like the rest of Chiang Mai, it’s not overly crowded and we could easily get around. Chiang Mai University is in this neighborhood, so you will find students as well as locals and foreigners. Maya Lifestyle Shopping Center, a large mall complete with food court, luxury movie theater and rooftop bars, is in the area as well. The city center is also great for exploring but felt a little more touristy.
We rented an Airbnb. In our search on the site it seemed almost all rentals are in high rise luxury buildings. We got lucky with a very homey and comfortable apartment right in the middle of Nimmanhaemin.