Summary: This blog shares a budget travel guide for Chiang Mai, Thailand with a DIY itinerary that is good for 3 to 5 days; estimated budget is 3,360+THB per person which covers expenses for entrance, food and transportation only. All needed details for each Chiang Mai top attraction are laid out in the post including operating hours, entrance fee, location and information on how to get there. Further, the Chiang Mai blog is intended for first-time backpackers and budget travelers, either solo or traveling in group.
CHIANG MAI AT A GLANCE
The word is out, the province of CHIANG MAI is one of the most beautiful tourist destinations in the world, or “most livable” if you want to ask the expats and digital nomads who have already occupied a good percentage of the total population in this large city. On a personal accord, if there is ever been a place I would like to go back time and again, it is definitely Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Well, it is the one destination that I felt strongly connected with nature. It is where I aimlessly walked through a dense forest; welcomed by enormous waterfalls only to be put off by its wild, gushing cascades as my feet came close to appreciate its might. It is where I was lifted to highlands where my eyes met an expanse of sprightly decorated horizon; where I exchanged sweet cheers as I bathed among elephants in the muddy waters of its nature park.
It is the one journey where my admiration for culture intensifies experience after experience, day after day. It is where I was enforced to live within the walls of the Old City only to find enjoyment as I marvel at the intricacies of its ancient temples, as I trade beaming glances with the locals, as I feel the exotic breeze of the past while I walk through the original quarried stones of its backstreet village, as I insatiably crave for Khao Soi meal after meal at the food market, as I yearn for another November after having to witness the glistening golden hues of a well-lit night sky during the lantern festival.
The unique appeal of Chiang Mai is overwhelmingly inescapable. To miss it in your backpacking excursion would be a total letdown.
QUICK FACTS AND TIPS ABOUT CHIANG MAI
Here are few facts and tips to consider when traveling around Chiang Mai, Thailand.
- The province of Chiang Mai is the unofficial capital and the center of culture, trade and commerce of Northern Thailand. It lies 10 hours away from Bangkok by bus and sprawls to an extent of 40 kilometers making it the 2nd largest city in the country. Almost 70% of its land is covered with forests and mountains.
- The center of activity in Chiang Mai is the Old City, a historically significant area surrounded by walls and moat that stretches a radius of about 2.5 kilometers. It is home to a number of historic temples and some of the major cultural interests in the region.
- Chiang Mai has a population of around 1.5 million people that consists of 200,000 expats and digital nomads.
- Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand, is located in Chiang Mai.
- The best time to visit Chiang Mai is during the months of October through April when the weather is most pleasant and major cultural festivities happen: lantern festival in November, Christmas, Chinese New Year, and Songkran in April. During this period, which is also the peak season in Chiang Mai, travelers are highly advised to book train tickets and accommodation ahead of time. Note: Burning season in Chiang Mai, Thailand where most of its highlands are covered with smog including parts of Doi Inthanon happens every February to April before the Songkran Water Holiday Festival. Consider this when you visit the province.
MONEY SAVING TIPS FOR CHIANG MAI
- Bargain on souvenirs and other items at the public market.
- Save on transportation by renting a motorbike or taking a public transportation (songthaew and tuktuk) when going to places outside the Old City.
- Instead of paying a good amount for a temple hopping tour inside the Old City, do it yourself. The temples are only a walking distance from each other and mostly are free of charge. Get a map of the temples and use a Google map app to find them.
- Eat at a local food market. The foods are cheap and pleasant to the taste. Don’t take my word for it. You give it a try!
- Take advantage of the happy hour if you want to go for drinks. That is how you enjoy a night out without breaking a bank.
- Find other travelers to share expenses with if you plan to charter a transport (a car or songthaew) to Doi Inthanon, or in any area at the highlands.
USEFUL PHRASES WHILE IN CHIANG MAI
A good number of locals in Chiang Mai understand English. But the better way to communicate with them is by using basic Thai phrases that they could easily understand. Here are some that proved to be useful.
Hello – Sawatdii
How are you? – Sabaaidii mai?
Thank you – Khop kun
Can you speak English? – Kun pood paasaa anggrit dai mai?
How much? – Taorai?
Where is – Yoo tee-nai
Do you have wifi? – Mee wifi mai?
I’m vegan – Gin jay
To sound more polite, males should add ‘khap’ at the end of a sentence and females ‘kha’. Example: when you are a male saying “Hello.” – “Sawatdii khap.”
CHIANG MAI FAQs
How many days to spend in Chiang Mai? – A full 3-day itinerary would be enough to cover the major attractions in Chiang Mai. One day to spend inside the Old City, another at the highlands and one more day to spend at an elephant sanctuary or a cooking class. But if you can extend your stay to a week or a month, it’s more preferable. Chiang Mai is livable. It will never be a waste of time spending days to get a full swing of its cultural and local vibe.
How is the mobile data and signal strength? – Mobile connectivity is not a problem in Chiang Mai. When I went to the highlands and the forest areas of Doi Inthanon, I had a full signal strength and a good data connectivity using a local SIM card.
Is it safe to travel? – It is, without a doubt. Unlike Bangkok that is touted with scammers, Chiang Mai has a friendly and giving locale. It is pretty secure and safe to tourists, even to a female traveler. However, it is still recommended to know the areas you are heading and the company you will be with to be sure.
What is the power socket used in Chiang Mai? – All of Thailand uses types A and C socket which have two holes that can support flat and round prongs.
What time is sunrise and sunset in Chiang Mai? – For golden hour chasers like me, sunrise is around 6:10AM while sunset falls mostly at 5:40PM.
GETTING AROUND CHIANG MAI
The best way for a smooth experience in getting around Chiang Mai is to select accommodation within the Old City. At least by that, you can go on foot if you want to check out the temples, go to a local market or to any point of interest within the walled town. From there, if you decide to go outside of the Old City, you can take a public transport either a tuktuk (a three-wheeled vehicle for short-distance trips) or a songthaew (a red pick-up truck for town-to-town trips). Minimum fare is around 10THB for both transport.
Uber and Grab taxis are also available in the area. However, a more cost-effective option is to rent a scooter (if you know have the license) or bicycle. You can rent them at least for a day (150THB for scooter and 50THB for bicycle) at any rental service found in the Old City. Make sure to bring your passport and a 500THB cash for the security deposit if you plan to rent.
In getting to the highlands, you can use a rented scooter or charter a car, or in my case, a songthaew. A full-day trip to Doi Inthanon on a songthaew costs around 1,500THB. You can arrange it with any driver around the Old City.
HOW TO GET TO CHIANG MAI
Here are options in getting to Chiang Mai.
Getting to Chiang Mai By Air
Chiang Mai has an international airport located 10 minutes away by taxi ($5 charge on a metered taxi) from the city center that serves domestic flights and direct out-of-the-country trips departing from China, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Taiwan.
For traveling Filipinos, there is no direct flight from Manila to Chiang Mai. You can take a flight to Bangkok from AirAsia, CebuPacific or Philippine Airlines and go by another plane or by land trip (if you have the time) to Chiang Mai.
Getting to Chiang Mai By Land
- From Bangkok, Thailand – You can go to Chiang Mai either by train or bus. Go by train if you want to experience a more peaceful time at night as you sleep and more scenic sights along the way. The Bangkok (or Hua Lampong railway) train station where you will embark on takes trips as early as 8:30AM, travel time is close to 12 hours. Click this link to know more details about the train number, type, departure time and fare. On the other hand, go by bus if you want a shorter travel time (an estimated 10-hour journey). Buses are available at Khao San road which can be arranged by your hotel or at Bangkok (Chatuchak) bus terminal. Trips go as early as 6:00AM. Visit easybook.com for the available buses, schedule and fare. For both trains and buses, you can go to their respective station to buy a ticket. It is highly advised to book ahead especially if it is peak season.
- Other provinces in Thailand like the neighboring Chiang Rai, Golden Triangle, Chiangkong, Maesai, Maesot, Phuket, Nan, Phayao, etc. also have direct bus trip to Chiang Mai through the Greenbus company. Check out their website for the schedule and other details: greenbusthailand.com.
- From Luang Prabang, Laos – Bus companies like Naga Travel and Naluang take direct trips to Chiang Mai for about 20 hours. You can buy an online ticket at 12g0.asia for 1,400+THB.
- From Vientiane, Laos – You can go by bus to Chiang Mai in a joint trip which takes for about 16 hours in total. The first bus will stop at Udonthani where you would transfer to another bus bound for Chiang Mai. Ticket is around 400+THB for the first bus and 650+THB for the second. Purchase the joint trip ticket at 12g0.asia.
TOP ATTRACTIONS IN CHIANG MAI
Here are 10 top tourist destinations in Chiang Mai that you can cover in an itinerary for 3 to 5 days.
KLOOK has a discounted tour to the Elephant Sanctuary. Check out the details and some testimonials from travelers using either of the links: Elephant Jungle Sanctuary or Elephant Day Care at Chiang Mai Mountain Sanctuary.
TWIN STUPAS OF DOI INTHANON
HERE IS A DISCOUNTED DOI INTHANONN NATIONAL PARK TOUR FROM KLOOK.
WAT PHRA THAT DOI SUTHEP
HERE IS A DISCOUNTED GUIDE DOI SUTHEP & CHIANG MAI CITY TEMPLE TOUR FROM KLOOK.
WAT CHEDI LUANG
BO SANG VILLAGE
WAT PHRA SINGH
WAT SUAN DOK
MAE YA WATERFALL
TOP THINGS TO DO IN CHIANG MAI
Here are top things to do and activities that are worth a try in Chiang Mai.
CELEBRATE THE LANTERN FESTIVAL
First of all, the lantern (or light) festival in Chiang Mai comes in two forms: the sky lantern or Yee (Yi) Peng festival and the water lantern or Loy (Loi) Krathong festival, which are both celebrated on the same day during the full moon of the second month of the Lanna lunar calendar. It varies for each year. In 2018, it is celebrated on November 23. The festival is highly anticipated and would always take the virtual world by storm causing a flood of photos of the visually mesmerizing lanterns all afloat on the waters and in the sky.
Nawarat Bridge is the most popular public place where locals and some travelers gather together to celebrate both festivals. It is located 15-minutes on foot to the west of the Tha Phae gate of the Chiang Mai Old City. At the bridge, water and sky lanterns are sold from 20THB to 50THB depending on its beauty and size.
Aside from the free event which happens at the Nawarat bridge, a private gathering on two different venues is arranged by a group of monks for locals and foreigners. The photos you are seeing on the internet are taken from these events where thousands of people release the lantern to the sky at the same time. The ticket for these events are usually sold 2 to 3 months before the festival through this website: yeepenglanternfestival.com, with 2 different ticket prices. The higher-priced ticket crowds 4,000 people and usually happens at Mae Jo University, while the lower-priced gathers around 2,000 people at Dai Soket. The ticket price already includes transportation, food and the lanterns. Check out the website for further details.
VOLUNTEER AT AN ELEPHANT SANCTUARY
There is a big debate on which among the elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai is ethical and does really observe proper care of the elephants, which I leave for the reader to research. My experience was with Elephant Jungle sanctuary. They were strict at no riding policy, were polite and fun especially during the orientation, and for the most part been ethical, not until after the activity when all volunteers got rested that I noticed some caretakers poking the elephants with a sharp object for them to keep moving. It was hard to look at so I’m not fully a sold out at recommending the sanctuary.
GO ON A TEMPLE HOPPING ADVENTURE
Whether it’s the ancient wats inside the Old City or the unique and elaborately adorned temples outside, going on a temple hopping adventure is a must-do in Chiang Mai. The temples are the representation of the Thai culture which speak volume of their heritage and history. Don’t be afraid to be “templed out”. Each temple reaches out differently to travelers. I promise you, all of them are worth a visit.
Things to note while going around temples in Chiang Mai:
- Dress properly. Wear clothes that cover your shoulders, midriff and knees.
- Take off your shoes upon entering the temple.
- Respect the culture and behave accordingly.
- Ask permission when taking photos of the monks.
TAKE A WALK AROUND THE OLD CITY
The Old City is the center of activity in Chiang Mai. Taking a walk to get lost around its food market, coffee shops, ancient temples, massage parlors, night bars is simply an experience you cannot pass. Start at Tha Phae Gate, the first of the 4 gates of the walled city and breeze through each point of interest as your map dictates. Do it during early morning or late afternoon. It will be fun and pleasing to the senses.
HERE IS AN AFFORDABLE CHIANG MAI CITY & TEMPLES HALF DAY TOUR FROM KLOOK.
EAT KHAO SOI
Khao Soi, a coconut curry noodle soup, is a staple in the north, especially in Chiang Mai which costs for about 30 to 50THB per dish. Not getting a taste of it would be a total let down. Find the best Khao Soi at the weekend night market, at Khao Soi Wulai near Wat Lok Molee temple along Wulai Road or at Khao Soi Khun Yai located at Sri Poom road.
WANDER AROUND DOI INTHANON NATIONAL PARK
The national park of Doi Inthanon is hands down the most scenic place in Chiang Mai. Go on a tour and wander around its lush tropical forests dotted with majestic rivers and waterfalls. Visit its grand stupas installed in a beautiful garden of flowers. See its wildlife through the nature trails. It’s a full day activity that can make you appreciate the body of work that is nature.
HERE ARE DISCOUNTED TOURS FROM KLOOK:
- Mama Noi Thai Cookery School
- Chiang Mai Segway Adventure
- Chiang Mai Adventure and Orchid Farm Day Tour
- Chiang Mai Street Eats
- Chiang Mai Historic Old City Biking Tour
- Doi Suthep Trekking Half/Full Day Tour
Search for more discounted tours in Chiang Mai using the Search Box below. Type “Chiang Mai” and click “search”
CHIANG MAI SAMPLE ITINERARY
Here is a sample of a full 3-day DIY itinerary which assumes a party of two and will set back a budget of 3,360+THB per person, excluding expenses for accommodation, souvenir and other incidentals.
Things to note for the sample itinerary:
- I rented a bicycle for my temple hopping adventure which costs for about 50THB.
- I chartered a songthaew to Doi Inthanon National Park which costs around 1,500THB for a full-day tour. We were 3 and shared the expenses among ourselves.
- You can replace the afternoon activity on the 3rd day with a cooking class or allot it for the lantern festival if you happen to visit the place during the festivity.
|Temple Hopping 1||9:00AM||50THB|
|Wat Suan Dok||–||–|
|Wat Phra Singh||–||–|
|Temple Hopping 2||01:00PM||–|
|Wat Chedi Luang||–||–|
|Bo Sang Village||09:00AM||20THB|
|Back to Old City||11:00AM||20THB|
|Doi Inthanon National Park||1:00PM||1,500THB|
|Visit the Stupas||–||–|
|Sunset at the Viewing Deck||–||–|
|Back to Old City||7:00PM||–|
|Back to Old City||12:00PM||–|
|Monk Chat session||2:00PM||50THB|
WHERE TO STAY IN CHIANG MAI
Choose to stay in the Old City to freely access most of the major attractions in Chiang Mai. Here is a mix of budget to luxury stays that you can find in the area. Tip: Secure your accommodation ahead when travelling during the lantern festival.
Triple s hostel
Address: Si Phum, Mueang Chiang Mai District
Check rate and availability here
About A Bed Hostel
Address: 248, 53 Manee Nopparat Rd, Sriphum, Amphoe Mueang
Check rate and availability here
Address: 24 Prapokklao Lane 7, Tambon Phra Sing, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai
Check rate and availability here
Mid to Luxury
Baan Khun Krub
Address: 160 Ratchapakhinai Rd, Tambon Si Phum, Amphoe Mueang
Check rate and availability here
Villa Thai Orchid
Address: 1/1 Tambon Si Phum, Amphoe Mueang
Check rate and availability here
Rich Garden House
Address: 8 soi 10 Siphoom road
Check rate and availability here
EXTEND YOUR TRIP
Check out other major destinations in Thailand:
More DIY travel guide for Asia destinations:
- Kuala Lumpur Budget Travel Guide
- Johor Bahru Budget Travel Guide
- Siem Reap Budget Travel Guide
- Singapore Budget Travel Guide
- El Nido Budget Travel Guide
More travel posts:
- Best Temples in Angkor Archeological Park
- Top Free Attractions in Singapore
- Bangkok-Siem Reap Cross Border Guide for first-time travelers
- Singapore-Malaysia Cross Border Guide for first-time travelers
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