Guide to Chiang Mai
How to get there
From Bangkok you can take an overnight bus for 12 hours for $10-30 depending on the company. I paid $25 for a ‘VIP’ bus with a meal included, and it definitely wasn’t worth it. The only thing VIP was the fact we got a blanket and a small water. The ‘meal’ was a chocolate milk… so just save your money and get the cheap bus it’s just as bad.
You can also take a flight for $30 with AirAsia. I chose the bus because it saved a night of accommodation, and the flight didn’t save much time when you take into consideration transport to and from the airport.
I would recommend staying anywhere in the main square of the city. It isn’t too big to walk from one to the other. It would be preferable to stay in the North East (where the nightlife is) or the East (where the markets are) of the city square.
I stayed at Chada house and this was $8 for a private room with a private bathroom. This was conveniently located near the nightmarkets which was good. However there were better places our friends were staying that were cheaper and had more of a social scene. Deejai is a cheap hostel that has a pool, bar and great restaurant for guests. Diva’s also had a great restaurant and bar connected to it, which I drank at most nights before going out.
Things to see and do
1. Discover the local markets
If you arrive early in the morning from the overnight bus you will see loads of local fresh food markets in the South East of the city centre. These vary with food, clothing and local ingredients.
2. Do a cooking class
There are a lot of different companies that organise cooking classes, however there is one that is outstanding. Da’s Organic Farm Hut is the best cooking class in town and is about $30. You are first picked up and taken to a local market where Da explains all the different ingredients and products that he buys.
You are then taken to his farm in rural Chiang Mai. This is a beautiful place and is where he grows all his own herbs and vegetables.
You then are guided to cook 4 meals, and get a choice of 4 options for each one. It’s a nice small group of 7 and at the end you get to feast on your creations!
Da then gives us all a lantern to let off into the empty night’s sky- a perfect end to the day.
3. Go to the night bazaar!
This is a huge night market on every night in the East of the city centre. It has absolutely everything and you can walk around and get lost for hours!
4. Go to an elephant park
There are many day tours that involve elephants and all are quite different. Some are elephant parks where you learn to train and wash them where the elephants are free, and some are elephant shows. They are all great depending on what you want to do, however can be expensive ($40-$80).
5. Do a trek into the wild
There are an abundance of treks you can do for one day through to a week that are a great experience. This was the one thing I regret not doing as they aren’t that expensive (around $30).
6. Indulge in massages
There are massages everywhere in Chiang Mai! There are many massage parlours in the open on the street that vary in times and are very reasonably priced. You can also get a massage by a prison inmate at the Women’s Prison through their rehabilitation program. Alternatively, you can do a massage course yourself! These range from one day to a week and you learn full body Thai Massage (I still use mine!). It’s pretty easy and a very relaxing day.
7. Visit Wat Phra Doi Suthep
I spent two full days discovering the the Doi Suthep area and it is incredible. This is a 20 minute drive from the city and is elevated 1676m. There is one road that is hard to find (have a good map), but once you get onto it you drive all the way up and it features many sights along the way. One of the most impressive things to see is the Wat Phra. Walk up the 300 steps and wander around and enjoy the temples bright golden appearance. Make sure you enjoy the view down below, totally worth the $1 entrance fee!
8. Phra Tamnak Phu Phing
Visit the Royal Palace and Gardens a short dive away from the Doi Suthep Wat. This is where the royal family stay in winter and is full of beautiful gardens, lakes, fountains and buildings.
9. Visit an authentic village and coffee shop
Past the Royal Palace is a fork in the road where it signs Doi Pui camping ground. Veer right towards this and pass the camping ground. 3km down a dirt track you will find a super authentic village. In between this is a coffee plantation wooden hut on a cliff.
Make sure you stop to have some home brew coffee and enjoy the spectacular views of the valleys underneath you. There aren’t many tourists that come here and it is very tranquil. This was my favourite place in Chiang Mai!
On the way back down to Chiang Mai city, stop off at the two waterfalls- they’re gorgeous!
10. Go to a Muay Thai fight
This is something you should see while in Thailand, but doing so in any other place (Phuket, Koh Samui, Bangkok) you will get ripped off and made to pay $40 for a ticket(!!!).
Chiang Mai has a smaller stadium inside a shopping centre with bars. They try to sell you tickets at the front and you get escorted to a seat at the front of the one of the bars to watch. However we realised you could just go to a bar and have a drink and you are still only 10m away from the ring.
The place to be as a backpacker is Zoe’s in Yellow. This is a square with four or so bars, ranging from all different genres and crowds (reggae, nightclub, hip hop and house). This is where all the young people swoop to and a lot of locals too. This goes on until 4am or so most nights and is so much fun!
How long to stay
I would recommend staying in Chiang Mai no less than a week! There is so much to see and do culturally and it is a lot cheaper than the south of Thailand to stay. Any less than this and you would not even see half of the place!