CHIANG MAI couldn’t be more different to its southern cousins. Don’t expect white beaches, Full Moon Parties or limestone rocks up in Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is located inland and has a completely different feel to the south of the country. If culture, adventure activities, amazing street food and beautiful Wats are you thing, it’s somewhere you should definitely visit.
I headed to Chiang Mai after 3 weeks in Cambodia, looking forward to the relative ease of travelling in Thailand again, and the city definitely delivered.
Chiang Mai is cheap, it’s chilled out, and full of everything you need. There are heaps of other travellers there, the locals are really friendly and it feels incredibly safe.
For a different perspective on Chiang Mai, take a look at Adventurous Kate’s post on the city.
Getting to Chiang Mai
Getting to Chiang Mai is very straightforward. From Bangkok simply catch an overnight bus. These can be booked at any travel agency or through your guesthouse. The journey takes about 10 hours, and buses leave daily between 7 and 9pm. My bus ticket cost 550 Baht (£12), but prices vary depending on who you buy your ticket from and when, so shop around. I took the 1st class VIP bus with aircon, blankets and a toilet. 2nd class buses are also available, which are cheaper, but take longer and don’t have the same facilities.
Certain travel agencies on Khao San Road will promise a VIP bus for a cheap price, which will almost invariably result in you being carted onto a cramped minibus. As such, it’s better to book through a trusted guesthouse. Some buses will drop you off at a guest house on arrival in Chiang Mai, where you’ll be pressured to book in at an expensive price. Simply decline and leave, then catch one of the city’s red songathews to the hostel or hotel of your choice. (Shared taxi trucks which cost about 20 Baht per journey)
If time is of the essence you can fly into Chiang Mai. Prices can be less than 1000 Baht from Bangkok with cheap domestic airlines such as Air Asia. International flights to other Asian cities are also available. Another possibility is catching the train.
1) Unleash your inner monkey at Jungle Flight
If you’re scared of heights, then this may not be for you!
Jungle Flight was something that I unexpectedly loved. As a bit of a wuss when it comes to hardcore adventure activities, I didn’t plan on abseiling down 40 foot drops in the middle of the jungle, but I was eventually cajoled into it by some people from my hostel. (Spicy Thai Hostel – which I couldn’t recommend more. It was easily my favourite hostel in Thailand. Check their website out here.)
Set in some seriously stunning surroundings, Jungle Flight includes ziplines, abseiling, a canopy nature walk and a tasty lunch afterwards.
It’s an all day activity, up to 6 hours including transport to and from Chiang Mai. They will arrange a pick up from your hostel or hostel once you book. (Book in advance) Make sure to bring outdoor shoes, loose clothing and suncream.
Have a look at Jungle Flight’s website, here. It’s not the cheapest activity, coming in at a tidy 2,200 Baht (£48) but I highly recommend it and thought it was worth the money. The staff were attentive, friendly and absolutely hilarious. I also got a free t.shirt afterwards!
2) Chill out in one of Chiang Mai’s beautiful parks
Chiang Mai has heaps of stunningly beautiful parks. They’re home to yoga classes, couples strolling around and vendors selling cheap snacks.
After a hectic few weeks in Cambodia it was great to just lie down and relax on the grass. the parks are also a fab place to people watch Chiang Mai’s inhabitants. As a university city, its population is quite young, and most people are happy to have a little chat with you.
3) Touch a tiger at Tiger Kingdom
This one is a pretty divisive activity. I didn’t meet many people who’d visited Chiang Mai who didn’t go to Tiger Kingdom, but as with anything involving animals in Thailand, there’s a big deal of controversy over how ethical Tiger Kingdom is.
You can get up close to tigers of various sizes and ages, ranging from cubs to fully grown adults. Cost varies according to age.
420 Baht (£10) gets you 15 minutes in an enclosure with the largest tigers at the centre, while 10 minutes with the newborns is 620 Baht. (£14)
A guide is with you at all times, and will ensure that you behave correctly around the animals.
I didn’t see any cruelty going on at Tiger Kingdom during my visit, and the animals actually seemed pretty lively – enough to make me a bit jumpy! The workers there insisted the tigers aren’t drugged, they’re simply more placid because they’re handraised and well fed, but it’s hard to know if they’re telling the truth.
Getting to Tiger Kingdom takes about 15 minutes from the centre of Chiang Mai. You can hire a tuk tuk to take you there, wait for you, and bring you back. Food and drinks are available at the Kingdom but are quite pricy, so it’s a good idea to bring your own. You can also pay to have professional photographs taken with the tigers by a photographer, which costs 299 Baht (£6.50) I didn’t do this, but the guy I went with did, and they looked amazing.
4) Visit the temples
Chiang Mai is chock full of temples. You can’t walk around the city without stumbling upon another beautiful Wat.
The most famous temple is Wat Phra Doi Suthep. The trip is easy enough, and takes about 30 minutes from the city centre. It’s located at the top of the winding mountain road to Doi Suthep, so I recommend taking a taxi. The views from the top over the whole of Chiang Mai are mindblowing.
It’s quite a walk up the 300 steps to the Wat itself, so bear that in mind if you have problems with mobility, although there is a lift up, which costs 30 Baht.
Wat Chedi Luang is another beautiful building, and I actually preferred it to Doi Suthep. It also has the advantage of not being at the top of a mountain!
5) Make a trip to Pai
Chiang Mai is a great launching pad for a trip up to the hippy commune that is Pai. Minibuses leave daily and cost around 300 Baht. (£6.50)
Check out my post on what you can do in Pai here.
Other things to do in Chiang Mai
- Visit the Night Baazar to pick up a bargain or eat some great street food.
- Spend some time at an elephant conservation park. Patara Elephant Farm and the Elephant Nature Park are both highly recommended.
- Chiang Mai is famous for its yoga retreats. If you’re a yoga fanatic, or simply want to give it a try, you’ll be spoilt for choice.