CHIANG MAI, THAILAND BUDGET TRAVEL GUIDE (with itinerary, top things to do and expenses)

About to release the lantern to the sky! 🙂

UNDERSTANDING CHIANG MAI


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.

Why so?

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.

Designing the paper umbrella at Bo Sang Village.

QUICK FACTS AND TIPS ABOUT CHIANG MAI


Here are few facts and tips to consider when traveling around Chiang Mai, Thailand.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Chiang Mai has a population of around 1.5 million people that consists of 200,000 expats and digital nomads.
  4. Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand, is located in Chiang Mai.
  5. 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.

Yi Peng lantern festival at Doi Saket.

MONEY SAVING TIPS FOR CHIANG MAI

  1. Bargain on souvenirs and other items at the public market.
  2. Save on transportation by renting a motorbike or taking a public transportation (songthaew and tuktuk) when going to places outside the Old City.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

A stupa near the viewing deck at Doi Suthep.

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.”

Elephants at the sanctuary.

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.

A songthaew, or the red taxi.

KLOOK tour services offer transfers around Chiang Mai using a private car or shared van at a discounted price. Check each link for details:

Klook.com

HOW TO GET TO CHIANG MAI


Here are options in 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.

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.

A monk at Wat Chedi Luang during the blue hour.

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.

ELEPHANT SANCTUARY

Probably one of the highlights for most travelers in their visit to Chiang Mai is to take part in a day activity inside an elephant rescue center where you will be asked to feed and bath the animals. There are a number of elephant sanctuaries to visit, but the most prominent and ethical, on a personal note, is the Elephant Nature Park. Take a visit on their website to freely explore the details of the sanctuary.
Rating: 5/5

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

The “Roof of Thailand” as they call it. Doi Inthanon National Park stands 2565 meters above sea level. It’s massive in scale and in attractions. Pay tribute to the 2 great holy relic pagodas that face each other. Appreciate wildlife and nature around its thick forests. Chase some of its enormous waterfalls. Enjoy a cold morning mist. Go to its viewing decks and savor a lush vegetation that extends to the limits of the horizon.
To get to Doi Inthanon, the most preferred option is to go by renting a car or a scooter (which can be chilly if you go in the morning so make sure to wrap yourself in a jacket.) or join a mini-van tour. If you are a solo traveler and want to take a public transport, you can ride the yellow-colored songtaews at the Pratu Gate in the Old City which stops at Chom Thong at the southeast side of the park. From there, you will transfer to another songtaew which goes to Doi Inthanon headquarters. Total travel time would take for about 3 hours. Entrance fee to the park is around 300THB.
A friendly note: It is highly suggested to go to Doi Inthanon on a private or chartered transport. The park is exceptionally large and attractions are too distant from each other if you go on foot. It will be taxing and would cost much of your energy. Plus, getting back to the town on a public transport would entail a lot of waiting time as drivers would tend to wait for more passengers.
Rating: 5/5

KLOOK offers a convenient and affordable tour around Doi Inthanon. Check out this link:  Doi Inthanon National Park

WAT PHRA THAT DOI SUTHEP

It’s golden through and through! Doi Suthep of Chiang Mai is a Theravada wat that sits pretty comfortably 1685 meters high. It enshrines a shoulder bone said to be from Buddha which makes the temple one of the most sacred in Thailand. At its base, visitors are welcomed by two long serpents that outlines the sides of a 306-step staircase leading to the golden inner courtyard of the temple. A section of Doi Suthep is a viewing deck which provides access to a full view of the city that makes for a perfect vantage point during sunset. Entrance is 30THB, and an additional 20THB if you want to take the lift instead of climbing up the staircase. Operating hours is from 7:00AM to 5:00PM.
Visitors are required to wear long pants and proper clothes and must take off their shoes upon entering the temple. If you plan to visit at noon, it’s advised to bring a pair of socks to avoid feeling the scorching heat of the sun on your feet.
To get to Doi Suthep, take a songthaew at the old town that goes to Chiang Mai Zoo for 20THB. From there, take another songthaew to Doi Suthep for another 20THB. Travel time is around 40 minutes. Songthaew to Doi Suthep is also available at Wat Phra Singh for 40THB. In getting back to the town, freely take the same transport at the base of the temple. Fare is 80THB.
A word of caution: This place has become touristic nowadays. Avoid coming over on a weekend or during holidays.
Rating: 4.5/5

For a guided tour, check out the discounted offer from KLOOK using this link: Doi Suthep-Chiang Mai City Temple Tour

WAT CHEDI LUANG

The ruined Lanna-style Wat Chedi Luang is a towering 80-meter ancient temple at the heart of Chiang Mai Old City. It is one of the most important temples in the region for its historic narrative. The best time to visit the temple is during late afternoon when the sky would start to hover its beautiful blue and golden hues making a perfect backdrop to a beautifully lit Wat Chedi Luang. Entrance fee is about 40THB. Operating hours is from 6AM to 8PM.
Wat Chedi Luang is located at Prapokklao Road which is only a 20-minute walk from anywhere around the Old City.
Rating: 4/5

BO SANG VILLAGE

The umbrella village of Bor Sang or Bo Sang is a haven of paper umbrella-making craft which has become a cultural symbol of Chiang Mai. The village is located 9 kilometers east of the Old City and can be accessed on a songthaew from Warorot market for 10THB. The highlights of visiting Bo Sang village is getting to experience a beautiful display of paper-umbrellas and parasols in different sizes and shades at the showroom area and to witness the creativity and skill of the craftsman at the workshop as they go through the delicate process of making the paper umbrellas.
Rating: 3.5/5

WAT PHRA SINGH

The most complex of the temples inside Chiang Mai Old City, Wat Phra Singh is astoundingly beautiful with its several ornate buildings in the Thai Lanna architectural style. It’s vast in capacity and has become a major monastery providing shelter to more or less 700 monks.  The temple is located at Ratchadamnoen Road, which would only take a short walk to get at if you are inside the Old City. There is no entrance fee if you want to walk around the temple grounds. The main assembly hall, however, has a 40THB admission fee for foreigners. Operating hours is from 6AM to 6PM.
Rating: 4/5

WAT SUAN DOK

The flower garden temple or Wat Suan Dok is another 14th century temple which showcases a cluster of whitewashed mausoleums. The temple has a principal pagoda that is well-suited for meditation retreat and monk chat session which is usually available from 5PM to 7PM on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. It is located next to the Hill Tribe Products Promotion center, 1 kilometer outside the Old City from the Suan Dok gate. You can there on foot or by a bicycle with the help of the Google Map app. Entrance is free. Operating hours is from 6AM to 7PM.
Rating: 3.5/5

WAT UMONG

The 700- year old temple is different from the many major temples in Chiang Mai. It is located in a forest and is mostly composed of underground tunnels. People come here for a meditation retreat and monk chat which is available on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 5:30PM to 7:30PM. The complex has also a mini-zoo which is often flocked by hundreds of doves. The best time to visit is during early morning when the tunnels are struck with beautiful sun rays. The entrance to the temple is free.
As of late, there is no public transport that goes to Wat Umong from the Old City. One must charter a private transport to get to and away Wat Umong. In my case, I rent a bicycle to get to the temple since it’s only 2-kilometers away from the Old City.
A word caution: The locals and monks that frequent the temple is not as tolerant of visitors as that in the temples inside the Old City. One is advised to behave and be respectable in the most possible way.

Rating: 4.5/5

WACHIRATHAN FALLS

Considered as the second major waterfall and one of the most fascinating sights around Doi Inthanon National park is the Wachirathan falls. Its cascades run through an impressively designed mountain slope and sprinkles a mist that often makes for a good canvas of a well-painted rainbow. Wachirathan is only a few steps from the main road which makes it the most accessible among the waterfalls in Doi Inthanon National Park.
Rating: 4/5

MAE YA WATERFALL

The 30-storied Mae Ya Waterfall is yet another stunning point of interest around the national park of Doi Inthanon. It is popular among tourists and considerably the most beautiful among the waterfalls in Thailand for its gorgeous cascades that slide through layers upon layers of mountain slope that stretches for about 200 meters high. Getting here on foot from the main road would require extra lookout as the path is quite steep and bends steadily side to side.
Rating: 4.5/5

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

Friends celebrating the Yee Peng 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:

  1. Dress properly. Wear clothes that cover your shoulders, midriff and knees.
  2. Take off your shoes upon entering the temple.
  3. Respect the culture and behave accordingly.
  4. Ask permission when taking photos of the monks.

TAKE A WALK AROUND THE OLD CITY

The Tha Phae Gate at 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.

If you opt for an arranged tour, KLOOK offers a Chiang Mai City & Temples Half Day Tour for a discounted price. Check the link for details.

EAT KHAO SOI

Inside Warorot market.

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

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.

CHIANG MAI TOUR PACKAGES FROM KLOOK


KLOOK, the leading platform for travel and tour package booking, shares a variety of discounted tour packages for Chiang Mai. If you are looking for ease in transport and affordable travel packages, check out these:

More Chiang Mai tour and private transfer (car or van) at a discounted price are offered by KLOOK, use the search box below:

For Philippine users, use the promo code: PHHOLIYAY500 in booking to avail of P500 discount for a minispend of P10,000.

Klook.com

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:

  1. I rented a bicycle for my temple hopping adventure which costs for about 50THB.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

DAY ONE

Activity Time Budget
Breakfast 8:00AM 50THB
Temple Hopping 1 9:00AM 50THB
Wat Suan Dok
Wat Umong
Wat Phra Singh
Lunch 12:00PM 100THB
Temple Hopping 2 01:00PM
Doi Suthep 120THB
Wat Chedi Luang
Dinner 6:00PM 100THB
Socials 8:00PM

DAY TWO

Activity Time Budget
Breakfast 8:00AM 50THB
Bo Sang Village 09:00AM 20THB
Back to Old City 11:00AM 20THB
Lunch 12:00PM 100THB
Doi Inthanon National Park 1:00PM 1,500THB
Forest Trek
Chase Waterfalls
Visit the Stupas
Sunset at the Viewing Deck
Back to Old City 7:00PM
Dinner 8:00PM 100THB

DAY THREE

Activity Time Budget
Breakfast 7:00AM 50 THB
Elephant Sanctuary 8:00AM 1,700THB
Back to Old City 12:00PM
Lunch 1:00PM
Monk Chat session 2:00PM 50THB
Dinner 6:00PM 100THB
Socials 8:00PM

A stupa at the grounds of Wat Umong.

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.

For Backpackers

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

Hostel Lullaby
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

Find the best Chiang Mai hotel deals and compare prices using the search boxes below: 




Booking.com

The principal pagodas at Wat Suan Dok.

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