Thailand’s beautiful city of Chiang Mai, sometimes called the Rose of the North, is a must-see destination in Southeast Asia. It provides a perfect mix of things for travelers to experience. From the divine food to lively street markets, the charming moat that surrounds the city to its overall affordability, Chiang Mai won’t disappoint. Read on for some travel tips to make your Chiang Mai Thai adventure a smooth and enjoyable one.
1. Know That Chiang Mai Works For All Budgets
One of the most attractive things about this northern Thai paradise is that it’s attainable for multiple types of travelers. Those who want to backpack and stay in hostels can expect to pay just $25 a night for a private room and around $5 USD for traditional dorm-style accommodations. Luxe travelers can enjoy the upscale hotel offerings, like the $400-a-night 137 Pillars House or the boutique Ping Nakara Hotel and Spa for around $200 per night. There’s even a Four Seasons in the pretty rice fields outside the city. Visitors looking to spend something closer to $100 a night can also find plenty of mid-range options as well as home rentals from Airbnb and Vrbo.
On my visit to Chiang Mai in 2018, I was also struck by how cheap the activities, attractions, and restaurants were. Plus, many of the famous temples are free to access and the city is walkable, which saved on transportation costs. Some other noteworthy affordable experiences were the well-known Thai massages as well as custom-made suits. It made for a lovely trip since we weren’t stressed about spending too much in this very approachable spot. This could make Chiang Mai an attractive option for a multigenerational trip as well, since it rests at an attainable price point for travelers in many stages of life.
2. Be Sure To Eat Khao Soi
This famous noodle dish is synonymous with Chiang Mai. Sometimes spelled kow soy, visitors should sample multiple versions of the egg-noodle-and-curry concoction. There are a ton of spots that offer khao soi, but I’ll share some favorites. Anthony Bourdain’s pick was Laap Kao Cham Chaa, while I enjoyed Khao Soi Khun Yai. There are also numerous food stalls around the city, including near the Night Market, that offer the dish as well as countless other restaurants. Since culinary exploits are such a huge part of embracing local culture while traveling, it makes sense to try Chiang Mai’s most famous dish.
3. Take A Cooking Class
Another stellar way to get to know the cuisine of any new place is by taking a cooking class. Chiang Mai is a popular spot to do so since it’s the heart of northern Thailand. A friend recommended Siam Rice cooking school to me since she had enjoyed it so much, and I have to say, I had a wonderful experience there. Cooking class night was one of my favorites of my whole two-week Thai itinerary. We made pad thai, coconut chicken soup, massaman curry, mango sticky rice, spring rolls, and, of course, khao soi.
The chef guide conveniently spoke English, too. And, for an added dose of fun, the class began with a tour of the local fresh food market to see all the options and to pick up ingredients (and Chang beer) for our dinner. Additionally, for solo travelers, a cooking class can be an excellent way to meet other tourists and make friends.
4. Don’t Miss The Temples
One of Chiang Mai’s claims to fame is that it is home to hundreds of beautiful temples. On any trip to the city, travelers should plan to explore at least a handful of them. There are tons of options to choose from, so I’ll just share my favorites. The striking golden Wat Phra Singh is the most visited temple in the city and is home to the famed Lion Buddha image. Another winner is the so-called Elephant Temple, or Wat Chiang Man, which is the oldest in the city. Wat Chiang Yuen has a large Buddha statue and is outside the Old City walls, while Wat Sri Suphan is the well known Silver Temple. Another favorite was the sprawling forest complex at Wat Umong, which provides a verdant break from the city and always has monks walking around its pathways.
Pro Tip: To be respectful of these religious and cultural sites, make sure your shoulders and legs are covered before visiting. I simply carried a large pashmina/scarf in my bag and threw it on when necessary. Some temples will have scarves or clothes the public can rent or use as well, but I was happier to have my own. Also be aware that the so-called Silver Temple does not allow women inside its main structure, which attendants and signage will repeatedly announce.
5. Avoid These Two Things: Wine And Durians
One major bummer of my Thai trip was the fact that wine was so expensive. Since there’s a huge import tax on wine throughout the country, it was the only thing that didn’t make sense to drink. One exception I made was on a date night at David’s in Chiang Mai. This fine dining establishment is a bit of a splurge, but their wine prices were the most reasonable I found in the area.
Another common thing to shy away from is the durian fruit. Commonly found at local markets and shops, this round-ish, yellow, semi-spiky fruit is popular in the area. However, it smells so terrible that many hotels will fine you for having one on their premises.