Chiang Mai – The Rose of the North.
What a city! Chiang Mai is Thailand’s northern capital and often referred to as the ‘Rose of the North’. A laid back city that is a charming mix between old and new, Chiang Mai pleasantly surprised me.
Chiang Mai was founded in 1296, as the capital of the independent Lanna Kingdom until 1558. The Old City quarter still retains traces of walls and moats from its history as a cultural and religious centre. Within the Old Quarter walls you’ll find over 300 Buddhist temples!
When to Visit.
Peak season in Chiang Mai is from October to April, when the weather is mostly dry and cool (until March/April when the temperatures start to soar!). It was very hot when we were there (33-35 degrees with high humidity), but I felt there were plenty of ways to find refuge in the shade at most temples, so don’t let it completely deter you.
Tip: If you are going around the time of Songkran, be sure to book your mode of transport to the city in advance. We almost lost a day in Chiang Mai because all the buses were full from Sukhothai. It was just lucky we managed to get on a bus 30 minutes before it left (who knows how!).
Where to Stay.
The best place to stay in Chiang Mai is definitely within the four walls of the Old Quarter (the square area in the map below). It doesn’t particularly matter where you stay exactly, as the Old Quarter is quite small. You can walk anywhere within the walls in about 15 minutes.
We stayed at Junior Guesthouse on Soi 1 off Rachapakinai Road (near the North gate basically). We paid about $23 AUD for a standard private room with A/C and a fan for three nights. The location was good, the staff were lovely and always helpful, but the bed was not the most comfortable (you’ll get used to this throughout Asia).
I think it was a little overpriced for what was offered, however it was right after Songkran and many other guesthouses with concerning reviews were charging more. I think we got the best deal we could.
Whatever your goals for travelling to Chiang Mai, I am confident that this small, bustling city can fulfil it. Here is my recommendation for your ideal 4 day itinerary* in Chiang Mai.
*this itinerary assumes you would arrive on day one, somewhere around mid-morning or early afternoon.
First things first, check in to your hostel or guesthouse and throw your bags in your room. Take a minute to freshen up. I know how gross you can feel after any sort of travel (even the short routes!). Ideally, you’re staying within the Old Quarter. If not, jump on a tuk-tuk or a songthaew and head into the Old City.
Here, you can easily wile away the rest of your day exploring some of the hundreds of temples, stumbling across delicious street-food stalls serving amazing Pad Thai for lunch, sipping coffee at cute cafes and popping in to those cute clothing stalls. The Old City has it all. Even just wandering the hundreds of side alleys is adventurous and interesting!
Some of my favourite stops within the Old City were:
Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chedi Luang was probably my favourite temple within the Old City. Built in 1441, this ruined Lanna-style chedi is insanely beautiful and still holds incredible energy. The sprawling compound around the stupa is filled with smaller temple structures and buddha statues. Entrance is only 40 THB! Take your time to wander around this gorgeous temple.
The ruined Lanna-style Chedi has so much energy! Within every doorway sits a Buddha.
Wat Chedi Luang is also home to a replica of the Emerald Buddha and the Reclining Buddha. You can find them housed in smaller temples behind the Chedi.
Wat Chiang Man
Chiang Mai’s oldest temple, dating back to 1296 with the Old City’s founding; it was the first temple built in the new city. Wat Chiang Man is a small, beautiful temple. I felt as if I could take a seat in the back corner and dream the day away. The entrance is free! (bonus).
The old Elephant Chedi and the newer large Viharn.
A temple with a retractable bridge… hello blissful meditations!
I’d read about the Terracotta Garden on The Wandering Blonde’s site (absolute blog crush, check her out) before our trip to Chiang Mai and knew I had to get here. This cafe is a cool respite from Chiang Mai’s hot April sun, with lush trees covering almost the entire patio area. The garden is also home to hundreds of terracotta sculptures of different styles and cultures.
The iced mocha was delicious, the shade welcome and the gardens, beautiful.
Are these heads creepy or what!?
When you’re done exploring the Old City, or it’s getting late (the latter will probably come first), head off to the night bazaar. As per all night markets across South East Asia, the product offering is generally the same every three or four stalls. But I always find it interesting to see what you mind find hidden among it all. I think Chiang Mai’s is one of my favourite Night Markets!
You can also eat dinner at the bazaar from a small street-food stall segment. We chose a few different things from different stalls and unfortunately we were disappointed, but some of the other food looked amazing! It was really hard to choose on our backpacker budget.
It looks nice and close to the Old Quarter, but the walk was a bit far for our tired legs.
If you’re not completely exhausted by this point, wander on down a few streets in the area of the Night Bazaar and you will find massage parlour after massage parlour. Go on and treat yourself… you deserve it. A Thai massage will cost you around 200 THB (prepare for a beating), or an oil massage will cost you around 300 THB. There are also plenty of massage parlours in the Old Quarter if you want to save this for another night (or have two or three like we did!).
A tuk-tuk from the Old Quarter to the Night Bazaar will cost you around 60 to 80 THB.
There are so many elephant experiences you can have in Chiang Mai. There are tonnes of elephant sanctuaries and parks within an hours drive of the Old Quarter. You can choose to go through your hotel in booking one if you aren’t willing to book in advance due to loose travel plans. Or you can organise this one thing out of your whole trip!
Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is by far my top recommendation. Not that I can comment on other parks or sanctuaries, but our hostel owner said it was her favourite and she always recommended her guests go there first. I also had an absolutely amazing day with them.
They’re an elephant sanctuary dedicated to creating a beautiful oasis for physically and mentally distressed elephants who have been rescued from logging industries, street begging, tourism (riding camps) or the circus. They also personally rescue the elephants themselves. You can read more about my unforgettable experience with the Elephant Nature Park here (and see tonnes more pictures!). But go ahead and book yourself the full day. You won’t regret it!
Seriously.. get your butt here.. like, yesterday!
One of my favourite ways to see a new place is to grab a scooter and explore! Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is probably Chiang Mai’s most well-known temple. It lives within the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, at the top of the mountain. Not only is it an amazing temple, it’s also a beautiful, scenic ride up. It’s only 16km from the Old Quarter, about a 30 minute scooter ride and a 110 cc scooter should do the trick to get you up there.
Entry to the temple cost 35 THB, and you’ll have to climb up 300 odd steps, flanked by the intricately designed, mystical Naga serpent. If you’re injured or not fit to climb the stairs you can take the lift (winner!). The temple sees insane crowds, so expect it to be busy! But it is honestly worth it.
Don’t forget to dress appropriately. You won’t be able to enter the main chedi (the big golden one you came to see!) if you are not covered up. If it’s a hot day, bring some long pants to chuck over your shorts or change in the washroom at the top of the stairs.
The temple’s golden hue is literally blinding… bring eye protection!
Visiting the temple is probably only a 2 – 2.5 hour round trip. You can visit the Huai Rap Sadet waterfall on your way back down the mountain. It’s apparently quite popular and very pretty. Entry is 300 THB. (It blows my mind that people can charge entry to a waterfall, and yet they’re doing it all over the world).
While you’ve still got the scooter, head back to the Old Quarter, grab some lunch and explore some more. Get to those temples you missed on your first day. Ride around and check out the different shops and stalls both in and out of the Old City walls. If you didn’t get to explore any temples on your first day – now’s your chance!
Learn from my mistakes… Take a cooking class!!! I am so so disappointed we didn’t do one in Chiang Mai. It really is all my fault. I stupidly booked our flights to Hanoi a day too early, so we lost a day in Chiang Mai. I thought we would end up doing one later down the track in Vietnam, but turns out we prefer Thai food and wish we’d learnt there. And you can always do another one down the road in your travels anyways (so jump at the opportunity basically!).
I can’t recommend a particular place, but there are tonnes of them offering really cool looking itineraries for the day. Some even show you their markets and daily regime. Ask your hostel to book their favourite one!
Here are a few more tips to consider for your time in Chiang Mai:
- Day One and Day Three of this itinerary can easily be combined if you only have three full days to explore Chiang Mai. Get up nice and early, grab your scooter and go explore! If you’re exhausted at the end of the day, save the Night Bazaar for another night.
- Scooter hire should cost you around 200 THB. I’ve heard of some dedicated bike shops trying to charge foreigners more. So either call them out on it, or go through your hostel. Chances are they will have their own to rent you.
- Also, don’t be surprised if they ask for your passport as damage deposit. Politely decline and ask what the cash deposit would be. We left 3000 THB and had no issues getting the money back when the bike was returned undamaged.
- Tuk-tuk’s and songthaew’s are both cheaper than Bangkok or Southern Thailand. Make sure you barter them down by at least half to begin, and then meet them halfway. It’s not unusual to receive 20-40 baht off the original asking price. Keep the bargaining light and happy.
- Eat the street food! We had some of the most amazing street food in Chiang Mai (pictured below). Wander around, examine the cooking conditions (is it clean? is the meat in a glass cabinet or does it appear to be in a fridge etc.) and go for it. We’ve not had any problems with food so far (touch wood!) because we’ve simply used our gut feeling.
All in all, I know you’re going to LOVE your time in Chiang Mai. Its small city vibe with mixtures of old and new at every turn will have you wishing for more time there in an instant.
Have you been to Chiang Mai? I would love to here your experiences… things you loved/hated and things I’ve not included in this itinerary. Feel free to leave a comment below 🙂