Venturing to Chiang Mai from Bangkok was something like going from hell to heaven. Not that I would class Bangkok as hell, or even class Chiang Mai as heaven, but the difference between the two is just amazing! Where Bangkok and the southern beach resorts like Phuket and Pattaya are hectic, hot, crowded and chaotic, the northern capital of Chiang Mai is cooler, more laid back, more spacious and relaxing, just a great place to chill out and get the real vibe of Thailand.
In this destination guide:
- Chiang Mai – the essentials
- Getting to Chiang Mai
- Where to stay in Chiang Mai
- What’s around Chiang Mai
The ancient capital of the Lanna Kingdom in Thailand, Chiang Mai is a historic walled city with most of its ancient walls and moat still intact, if a little the worse for wear. It’s really two cities in one – a quiet, charming and character-filled inner city within the old walls, and a bustling, commercial and hectic outer city beyond the walls. In total, the city is home to over 170,000 people. It’s also a great launch pad for exploring northern Thailand, including the golden triangle and the Mekong River port towns. The laid back northern city of Chiang Rai is just three hours away by car or four hours by bus.
Chiang Mai – the essentials
- Chiang Mai is in northern Thailand, about 700 km north (NNE) of Bangkok. Driving time is about 12 hours. Flying time is about 2 hours.
- Chiang Mai is about 350 metres above sea level, surrounded by some of the highest mountains in Thailand, so the climate is often a little cooler and more pleasant than Bangkok.
- Doi Suthep (north-west of the city about 10km) and Doi Inthanon (south-east of the city about 40km) are two of the biggest nearby mountains.
- The “old city” of Chiang Mai is located inside the remains of a city wall, surrounded by a moat. There is a lot more of Chiang Mai outside the walls.
- The Sunday street market is located inside the walls of the “old city”, but the Saturday Market and the Night Bazaar are both outside the walls.
- The Ping River runs through the city, north of the “old city”, and is the location for many of the city’s top hotels and guest houses.
- Chiang Mai is modern city but has a lot of history and culture – the city was founded in 1296 and was once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom.
- Chiang Mai sits on an ancient trade route, so it still has a strong tradition of hand crafts including timber products, wood carving, jewellery and umbrella-making.
- Chiang Mai is a great destination for environment lovers – almost 70% of the province is covered in mountains and forests. Doi Inthanon, near Chiang Mai, is the highest mountain in Thailand.
- The districts surrounding Chiang Mai have many (over 1000) hill tribe villages – the largest being at Omkoi, Mae Jam, Chiang Dao and Mae Ai. The hill tribes include the Karen, Lahu, Hmong (Meo), Lisu, Lua, Akha, Mien (Yao) and Palong tribes.
Getting to Chiang Mai
If you’re arriving in Chiang Mai by plane (direct internal connections to Bangkok, Phuket and Mae Hong Son, plus direct international flights to Kuala Lumpur, Luang Prabang, Myanmar, Taipei, Seoul and Singapore), the airport is about 3 km south-west of the city centre and well serviced by flat-fee airport hire cars that charge you 120B to go almost anywhere in Chiang Mai with up to 5 passengers. You’d be crazy not to use them.
Some of the cheapest flights into Chiang Mai are with Thai Air Asia from KL, Bangkok or Phuket. Air Asia charges around 1100B for a one-way flight from Bangkok and it only takes an hour or so to get there! Another popular way into Chiang Mai is by train from Bangkok’s Hualamphong railway station. The train ride from Bangkok takes about 12-15 hours and costs you 150-200B for a seat or 500-600B for a sleeper berth, depending on which train you catch. Some of the trains even have air-conditioned sleeper berths. More info on train connections can be found at http://www.railway.co.th/home/srt/timetable/northlinetxt.asp?lenguage=Eng.
The train station is also around 3km from the city centre, in Charoenmuang Road, and a songthaew to the city should cost you around Some people even opt to get there by bus (not an option I’d be too keen on, but an option anyway). It’s about a 12 hour bus-ride to Chiang Mai from the Moh Chit bus terminal in northern Bangkok, although some of the VIP buses do it in 9 hours. Cost is around 500-600B. If you are arriving by bus, you’ll end up at the Arcade Bus Station which is a 20-30B songthaew ride from the Tha Pae Gate (the centre of Chiang Mai).
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
Guesthouses in Chiang Mai
There are so many hotels and guest houses in Chiang Mai that it would take a whole website just to describe them all … so that’s what we’ve done. We’ve reviewed many of the most popular guest houses and boutique hotels in Chiang Mai, including:
- Baan Nud Kun – pitched as a “green guest house” with lush gardens and a big recycling program. Rooms from 500Bt per night.
- Elegant Lanna – a smaller, less classy but nevertheless extremely friendly and clean 4-star boutique guest house just outside the city wall. Can cop a bit of noise from a local nightclub at times, but if this is a problem just ask for a lower floor room. Cost is around 450Bt per night for a double room with breakfast.
- Sawasdee Chiangmai House – an excellent, very clean and comfortable guest house inside the old city walls, run by Sam and his niece. The epithets from guests written all over the foyer walls tell you how popular this place is, but you will pay about 1400Bt per night for a double room.
- Pat’s Klangviang – a mid-range guest house striving for boutique status with just eight rooms starting from around 1100Bt per night.
- Baan Hanibah – a mid-range B&B near the Tha Pae Gate with rooms from about 800Bt per night.
- Dreamcatchers BNB – a modern, boutique B&B a little way out of town but with beautiful gardens and stunning rooms starting at 1400Bt per night.
- Pak Chiang Mai – Another modern boutique guest house, great for a bit of luxury when you’re on a long trip, with rooms from about 1800Bt per night.
There are, or course, lots of other great guesthouses and BNBs in Chiang Mai. We’ve barely scratched the surface! Some of the other really popular boutique places are:
- Sleep Guesthouse – 2 stars in Moon Muang Rd Soi 7, in the old city, from 1000Bt
- BaanBooLoo Traditional Thai Guest House – 5 stars on Intawaroroj Rd, around 4500Bt
- Vanilla Place Guest House – 4.5 stars from 456 reviews, on Charoenprated Rd, from 1100Bt
- Galare Guest House (4 stars from 230 reviews, on Chareonprathet Rd, from 1100Bt
5-star hotels in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai has a great range of very classy 5-star hotels offering top quality accommodation and much better room rates than Bangkok. Here’s just a few to start out with.
In the Old City:
Rachamankha Hotel – in the Old City on Rachamankha Road, great architecture and landscaping, great service, courteous staff and friendly owner, built like a stately Chinese home. From around 8000Bt per night.
Near the Night Market:
Dusit D2 Chiang Mai Hotel – on Chang Klan Road close to the Night Bazaar, very friendly staff, awesome food, don’t judge it by external appearances as the inside is a very pleasant surprise. From around 4800Bt per night.
On the Riverside:
Rati Lanna Riverside Spa Resort – the former Sofitel on Chang Klan Road near the Ping River, large balconies, quiet and peaceful, excellent facilities, large suites (120 Sq.m), nice breakfasts. From 7200Bt per night.
137 Pillars House – a stunning lanna style resort hotel with incredibly spacious rooms, outdoor shower and veranda – more like a spa retreat than a hotel. From around 15000Bt per night.
Anantara Chiang Mai Resort and Spa – minimalist design, mountain views, teak floors, private balconies or courtyards – even rainshowers in the bathrooms. From 14500Bt per night.
Ping Nakara Boutique Hotel & Spa – colonial styling, hand-made furniture, beautiful architecture, feels like you’ve gone back in time to grand colonial days.
Sireeampan Boutique Resort and Spa – a tropical resort style hotel near Chiang Mai Zoo with exceptional staff and very personal service – a destination in its own right. Rooms from 13200Bt per night.
Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi – stunning resort hotel on 60 acres close to the craft villages, elegant teak decor, spa baths and large terraces and even free bikes to explore the grounds.
What’s in and around Chiang Mai?
- Things to do in Chiang Mai
- Markets and shopping in Chiang Mai
- Lisu Lodge Hill Tribe experience
- Saturday street market – Wu Lai Road
- Sunday street market – Ratchadamnoen Road
- Tiger Kingdom
- Wararot day market
- Mae Ping elephant camp
- White Meo hilltribe village
- Doi Suithep
- Chiang Mai night bazaar
- Chiang Mai night safari
- The Golden Triangle
- Chiang Rai
- Pai – the hippy town
A traveller’s view of Chiang Mai
In this video, traveller Richard Randall takes us on a walking tour through the Chiang Mai Night Market to see what’s for sale and sample the amazing street food.