Backpacker’s Guide to Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai wat

Today’s guest post comes from traveller/writer/photographer Laurence Norah, who spends much of his time musing on his travel and photography blog: Finding the Universe. He’s happiest behind his camera viewfinder on top of a mountain, or enjoying a chilled beer somewhere. If you bump into him, say hi, and steer him away from the edge…

Chiang Mai is northern Thailand’s largest city and is, for many, the perfect place to arrive for a few days and leave after a few months.

With a cooler climate, plenty of attractions, a huge variety of food, a bustling expat community, and city life that is generally more laid back and leafy than other Thai cities, it’s not hard to see the appeal, or understand why so many expats have chosen to make this Thai city their home.

Here are some suggestions for how to pass a few days in this chilled out northern spot, including ideas on sleeping, eating and exploration.


Chiang Mai is very easy to wander around. The majority of the sights are inside the moated old city, which features four main gates at the primary points of the compass – these make for great meeting points if catching up with friends.

Other attractions, such as the night bazaar, are to the east of the city, and the majority of the accommodation options in Chiang Mai are focused either in the old city, or just to the east and south of the walls.

What to Do


Like most places in Thailand, Chiang Mai has no shortage of temples for you to get your temple vibe on. Here are a couple of the must-see temples in Chiang Mai to get you started:Wat in Chiang Mai

  • Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep: If you only make it to one temple in Chiang Mai, it should be Doi Suthep. This sits on Doi Suthep hill to the northwest of the city, and offers tremendous views across Chiang Mai. Good for a sunrise view, if you’re the early sort. The cheapest way to get here is to grab a songthaew, or covered pickup truck, from the north gate area, which should cost in the region of €1 – €2 per person each way.
  • Wat Chiang Man: This is Chiang Mai’s first temple, built around seven hundred years ago. The main highlight is the elephant chedi, which features fifteen life sized elephant sculptures as support. You can find it just near the north entrance inside the old city walls.

Other highlights of Chiang Mai

If you’re all templed out, don’t worry, Chiang Mai has more to offer. There are two more things that you really must see whilst you’re in town:

  • The Night Bazaar, Chang Klan Road: just to the east of the old city, the night bazaar runs every night and offers keen shoppers an experience they’re unlikely to forget. From local crafts and handiworks through to sparkly looking sunglasses, you’re going to find something to meet your needs. And there’s always tasty street food to keep your strength up!

Night market in Chiang Mai

  • The Sunday Night market: a staple in Chiang Mai for ten years now, the Sunday Night market has to be seen to be believed. Stretching from the east gate to the centre of the old city along Ratchamanka road, and spilling over onto numerous side markets, this is a must-visit if you’re in Chiang Mai. Plus, the food is amazing as well – with some of the finest ice cream I’ve ever had the privilege of eating. As the name suggests – it’s on every Sunday night.

Ice cream in Chiang Mai

What to Eat

Talking of eating, Chiang Mai has no shortage of options. Being so popular with the expat community means that you can find food options from all over the world.

There are however two dishes that you absolutely must try when visiting the city, the specialties of the region. These are:

  • Khao Soi: Khao Soi is a Burmese influenced northern Thai dish consisting of curried noodles with trimmings. You can pick a bowl up for around €1 a go (or more at the fancier establishments), and this is a real must eat in Chiang Mai. Flavours of coconut, crispy noodle, curry, and whatever broth or meat you choose to have it with. Delicious!
  • Sai Ua, or Northern sausage: Literally translated as stuffed intestine, this is one food dish that definitely taste better than it sounds. It features a variety of herbs and spices, as well as red curry paste. It’s a spicy mouthful alright, and should be available at around €0.20 from street vendors.

Where to Stay

Chiang Mai has no shortage of accommodation options to meet every budget need, and given its popularity, prices remain competitive with beds starting at around €2.50. In the busier season of November – February, and particularly around the famous Yi Peng lantern festival in Oct/Nov, it’s wise to book ahead as the best spots can fill up quickly.

One of our favourite spots to stay at in Chiang Mai was the little Parami Guesthouse, about a kilometre east of the old city walls on Charoen Rat Rd. This was a small, eight room affair, with private en-suite rooms going for around €5 per person at time of writing.

Need a place to stay? We have hostels in Chiang Mai from €3.71pppn @ Green Tulip House.

Where to Go Next

Chiang Mai makes a great base for exploring the attractions of northern Thailand. Ideas include:Dragon in Chiang Mai

  • Take a day trip to the Doi Inthanon national park, home of Thailand’s highest mountain. Perfect for visiting hill tribes, sampling coffee, and taking in epic waterfall after epic waterfall.
  • Head on up to Chiang Rai and the golden triangle. Spend some time learning about the history of opium production, visit the wacky white temple, and even pop across to Laos for an hour or so.
  • Get your adrenaline surging with one of the countless adventure activities available in the region. From white water rafting to zip lining – the only thing holding you back will be your budget!
  • Go relax in the even more chilled out town of Pai. There’s not much to see, but there’s a lot of nothing to keep you busy!

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