Chiang Mai is one of the most famous cities in Thailand. While many opt for the famous beaches of Thailand, a growing number of tourists head North for the mountains. If you spend more than a few hours in Chiang Mai, it’s quite simple to understand why.
We’ll discuss everything you need to know about Chiang Mai. You’ll learn about the best time to visit, nearby attractions, the best restaurants, the best accommodations, and why Chiang Mai has been dubbed the digital nomad capital of the world.
Why on earth would somebody skip the beautiful beaches of Thailand to head for the mountains? Between the food, the warmness of the local people, access to affordable accommodations, and a small-town feel, you’ll wonder why tourists spend any time at the beach at all.
Digital Nomad Capital
Digital Nomad website ‘Nomad List’ consistently ranks Chiang Mai in the top cities in the world for location-independent workers. Just last year, multiple sites ranked it as the best city in Asia for digital nomads. So why do so many people congregate in this Thai mountain town?
For starters, Chiang Mai has a huge number of social groups that cater to the community of travelers. They are constantly hosting dinners, outings, karaoke nights, meetups, and how-to meetings. If you’re not careful, you could easily spend an entire week inside a Western bubble without truly getting to see the real Chiang Mai.
Most location-independent travelers chose Chiang Mai because it is inexpensive. You certainly won’t break your budget here. That’s true whether you stay for a week or stay for a month.
Low cost is a huge attraction in Thailand, but this is especially true for the city of Chiang Mai. The cost of living is one of the lowest in the entire world. In many cases, cities can begin to develop a poor reputation if their cost of living gets too low, however, the charm and class of Chiang Mai are certainly not low. In fact, they represent half the appeal!
If you visit the city of Chiang Mai for one month, you have several different price ranges to accommodate your needs. You could opt for a budget room and realistically spend less than $200/month. Alternatively, you could stay in a fully serviced hotel room (complete with a frequently visiting maid) for closer to $500-$600/month. Like anywhere, you can find discounts if you decide to stay for longer periods of time.
It’s not just accommodations that are affordable, even transportation is decently priced. Motorbike rental can end up costing as low as $2/day if you rent for the month. Albeit, you’ll likely get a bike that reflects that low price. If you spent a wallet-busting $3/day for the month, you can get a bigger bike that’s likely to be new.
These higher quality bikes are well worth the price. We will dive into the safety aspect of nicer bikes in the next paragraph, but these fancier bikes often pay for themselves in terms of fuel costs. Newer bikes are more fuel-economical. They give the driver way more bang for their buck in miles per gallon (kilometers per liter, here in Thailand).
You will be driving a vehicle around town that doesn’t have doors. Your safety is genuinely in danger every single time you get on the bike as road regulations in Thailand are non-existent. If you spend a bit more on a higher quality bike, you’ll have more quality brakes, faster acceleration, and working rearview mirrors – all things that have the potential to save your life in certain situations.
The most beautiful cost savings of all in Chiang Mai, Thailand is surely the low price of food. A Pad Thai at the right place costs anywhere from $1 – $2 USD. I would even venture to say that this food is significantly better than the Pad Thai you could order at a pricer restaurant in Bangkok.
The food throughout Thailand is quite famous amongst Western travelers. Most visitors are enamored with the local street food scene in Thailand. Those that are too scared to try food that isn’t cooked in a fancy restaurant have taste buds that are living just as large. After all, there are countless Michelin restaurants throughout Thailand.
There are likely several delicious Thai restaurants near your home in the Western world. However, chances are that very few of those eateries offer Northwestern Thai food. In the same vein of country grandmas being the best cooks in the United States, those that live in the mountains of Thailand offer the best culinary treats, as well.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard of Pad Thai and Green Curry, but the Chiang Mai specialties are lesser-known. I believe that this is a travesty. Khao Soi, also known as egg noodle curry, is arguably the best dish in Thailand and the restaurants that try to sell this in Bangkok often don’t do it justice (except for Bangkok’s Cabbages & Condoms – they specialize in Northwestern Thai food).
Khan Toke is a bit more on the adventurous side but certainly worth the experiment. Sai Oua, also known as grilled sausage with herbs, is a fantastic street food option. The pigs/hogs they raise in the countryside are certainly taken care of better than the average pig in Bangkok – you can tell in the taste.
Chiang Mai also has a few Burmese dishes as they are only a few hours away from the border. Last but not least, you have to try the Larb Kua – a spicy meat salad. All of these dishes cost less than a $5 bill. You’ll be screaming next time you order Thai food in the states – because it won’t taste nearly as good and it’ll cost 5x the price.
Chiang Mai is full of delight for those who enjoy a good meal. If you’re not the adventurous type (it’s disappointing how many people visit Thailand and don’t venture outside of fried rice), Chiang Mai has hundreds of Western jaunts that serve Instagram-worthy fruit bowls, burritos, pizza, hamburgers, and everything else you could imagine back home.
It’s not only Western tourists who visit Thailand, though. Millions of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean tourists visit Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai, and the islands. As such, you can expect to find restaurants that serve Korean barbeque at absolutely unbelievably affordable prices. A Korean barbeque buffet for two people (with beer) could cost less than $20 USD.
Western restaurants typically cost more than their local Thai counterparts, but the price is still significantly below what one would find in the United States. These places are boutique and delicious. If you’re not careful, you won’t expand outside your comfort food and try Thai food that will change your life.
Some people call it ‘smoky season’, while others refer to it as ‘burning season’. Either way you spin it, it’s brutal on your lungs. Every year around early March, the air quality takes a sharp turn for the worse in the communities in and around Chiang Mai, Thailand. In a country that’s known for pollution masks and poor air quality, Chiang Mai actually goes a step beyond that. It’s dangerous.
While this might seem trivial if you’re only there for a few days the reality is much more serious than that. The smog is sometimes so strong that you’re unable to see past 100 feet in front of you. Visitors get rashes and those with asthma find they need to refill their inhalers often.
Here’s what happens – the farmland surrounding Chiang Mai is often intentionally burned once a year. The farmers do this as a way of bringing out nutrients in the soil to better help their crops in the coming year. However, a lot of these farms are rubber plantations. Is there anything worse that a city could choose to burn?
Sometimes these fires are unintentional and in these cases, are akin to California’s frequent wildfires. The intense haze often doesn’t disappear until rain drives out the smog. Unfortunately, the rainy season is several months after the beginning of March – so the burning season often lasts 2-3 months.
The local community use fires for quite a few activities actually. Some light fires to promote the growth of specific mushrooms. Others use fires to entrap wild hogs that might damage their crops in the future. While the burning might have some positive impact on various locals, it’s seriously damaging for everybody else.
It’s easy to dismiss these warnings are trivial. However, a simple Google Images search will quickly prove my point better. An image speaks a thousand words, and neither of us is interested in writing several thousand words on this subject (especially when one considers all the other beautiful things that Chiang Mai offers). Do your due diligence and try to avoid this area during March and April.
Chiang Mai is a very religious city within a very religious Buddhist country. There is no shortage of beautiful and stunning temple architecture within the city. One of the most famous (and most holy) of the temples in Wat Phra That Lampang Luang.
This temple is considered sacred because it is believed that the Buddha visited this temple 2,500 years ago and gifted a single piece of his hair to the temple. This gift is still enshrined within the temple’s compound. The temple itself was built in the 13th century and every artisan restoration effort uses classic materials and techniques to ensure authenticity. This religious serves as a shining example of traditional Lanna temple architecture.
Another famous temple near Chiang Mai is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (Wat Doi Suthep for short). While not within the city, the drive on this mountain road is somewhat of an adventure itself. If you’re uncomfortable driving through a winding and steep highway, take a songthaew to the temple. Once you arrive at the temple’s parking lot, your journey has just begun. Now you will need to hike up a 309-step climb in order to reach a 500-year-old temple structure.
Wat Chedi Luang is a great temple if you don’t want to trek very far away from the city center. Luang translates to ‘very big’, which is quite fitting giving the sheer size of this structure. You can find Wat Chedi Luang smack dab in the middle of the Old City, which is just a brisk walk away from the most popular markets and attractions in Chiang Mai. Like many of the other temples around Chiang Mai, this one is quite old.
Wat Umong is another ancient temple in Chiang Mai, however, this building certainly looks a bit more rustic than many of the others. The temple itself is a beautiful compound, however, the highlight of this attraction is the religious tunnel that snakes its way underneath the building. It’s a must-see (and pictures usually turn out great down there).
Chiang Mai is a popular tourist destination for animal lovers. Unlike many of the elephant experiences in other cities, Chiang Mai takes substantial efforts to make their elephant attractions ethical and friendly. In fact, they do such a great job that most visitors claim the parks that don’t allow elephant rides actually offer more.
In many cases, you can go swimming with elephants, you can bathe them, and you can feed them bunches of bananas. All are arguably more fun than sitting on top of the creatures. Do some research on the park before you visit to better grasp your understanding of the animals. They are considered sacred in Thai culture.
Thai coffee shops are quite popular. As Chiang Mai has become increasingly known as a city for digital nomads, the coffee shop offerings are growing more and more hipster by the day. Our personal favorite coffee shop in Chiang Mai offers a fun animal-centric twist. Catmosphere is the name of a popular cat cafe in the city. It’s a must-see.
As a pro tip, try to bring a gift bag into the cat cafe. Like cats anywhere, these ones are curious about every object that enters their space. If given the opportunity, many will fight over the opportunity to jump inside your bag or box. You can even buy various cat treats to lure the kitties your way.
When I hear of this tribe, I can’t help but think of a community of Californian women named ‘Karen’, However, the real truth is significantly more interesting and fascinating. Just outside of Chiang Mai lives a tribe of refugees from Myanmar. These women wear coil around their necks and as they age, they add an additional ring.
Over time, these rings push against their chin and the steel coils gradually elongate their necks. This is seen as a sign of local religious beauty and those with the longest necks are seen as the most desirable and beautiful. The community is beyond kind and they are incredible artisans, as well.
Get a Massage from a Felon
The local Chiang Mai prison is working on a rehabilitation program that sponsors vocational training for women trying to reintroduce themselves as functioning members of society. This massage experience is far from traditional, however, the masseuses are trained in traditional Thai massage techniques. If nothing else, this place is worth a visit for the story you can tell your friends.
If you prefer for a non-felon to rub your back, there are countless massage parlors and spas throughout the city. Many are extremely affordable given their experience level. You’ll never want to pay for a massage in the United States again. It’s worth noting that many of the massage parlors take a hefty portion of their worker’s income, so make sure you give a good tip.
All in all, Chiang Mai is a beautiful representation of Thailand. Between the beautiful temples, the kindness of the local people, incredible food, and a variety of activities and attractions, there’s an obvious reason why so many visitors never end up leaving. If you’re interested in visiting the digital nomad capital of the world, we recommend making the second half of your trip flexible in case you decide to stay for a bit longer. We wouldn’t blame you if you did!
What is the main religion in Thailand?
The primary religion in Thailand is Buddhism. While there isn’t an official religion in Thailand, a large majority follow Buddhism. The only law regarding religion pertains to the King of Thailand – it is mandatory that he follows Buddhism. Islam is the next most popular religion (mainly in the South) and Christianity is third.
What are the best non-beach cities in Thailand?
While most tourists visit Thailand for the beautiful beaches, the most popular mountain town in Thailand is Chiang Mai. Other popular cities that don’t offer a beach include Chiang Rai (located in Issan), Pai (something of a hippy commune), and Bangkok (a wild and exciting time).