This page has a little information to aid you if you are planning a trip to Chiang Mai. Remember, we are a family of five, and we travel mostly to eat. We were in Chiang Mai for about a little over a month. If your trip to Chiang Mai is significantly longer/shorter/with a different focus, you may have a very different experience.
Chiang Mai Weather
We were in Chiang Mai in mid-July, again in mid-August, and again for most of November of 2015. The weather was warm, but not nearly as hot as Bangkok. It was slightly more pleasant in November, but Chiang Mai is a fairly pleasant place for most of the year. We certainly had a bit of rain while we were there, but not enough to really put a damper on our plans. Maybe enough to warrant buying an umbrella. If you go trekking in the mountains it can get chilly even in the middle of July. If you are a wimp (like we are) you may want a sweater for some evenings in the winter.
Note: it is best to avoid Chiang Mai in the spring time as this is when the farmers burn their fields. We haven’t been there ourselves during this time, but we hear it is extremely unpleasant.
Getting to Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is the transportation hub of northern Thailand. When heading to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, our favorite method is the train. We usually pick up the overnight train which will cost you somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 baht (a bit over US$20) per person (depending on what kind of berth you get). Outside of the busy season (November –January) you can usually just head to the train station a week (or often even a couple of days) ahead of time and buy tickets. During the high season you may need to book ahead. The one and only time we booked tickets early, we used a company called 12 Go Asia. We paid for the tickets online via credit card, and picked the physical tickets up at their office at the Bangkok rail station an hour before the train departed.
The trains are fairly comfortable. We always book 2nd class sleepers. I am a bit over six feet tall and I am only slightly cramped. The cars are set up as two seats facing each other with either an open space or a table between them at the start of the journey. Later on, a railway worker comes around and converts them to beds. If you can sleep while being rocked by the motion of the train, you should be able to get a good night’s sleep.
Food is sold on the trains, both set meals as well as snacks and water. We usually try to bring a good stash of food along with us as well. The trains are very often late. Sometimes very late, so make sure you are prepared or you could find yourself on a “hunger train.”
The other main way into Chiang Mai from Bangkok is to fly. A variety of cheap airlines now go back and forth between Chiang Mai and Bangkok. On our last stay, we ended up not being able to get the train we wanted. Flights were barely more expensive than the train tickets so we flew.
Note that most flights from Chiang Mai fly into Don Muang Airport, not the main Thai international airport of Suvarnabhumi. So don’t plan to fly from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and then immediately catch your flight home. The two flights probably leave from different airports.
If traveling to and from Chaing Mai within northern Thailand, you will likely use bus, minivan, or songtaew. Most travelers spend most of their time in northern Thailand in a minivan, and they are cheap, fast and frequent. However, if you are prone to motion sickness bring a good deal of Dramamine and a plastic bag. Northern Thailand’s roads are twisting mountain roads and the minivans move as fast as they are able.
Songtaews, pickup trucks with a covered bed and two rows of benches in the back, make a fun and very cheap way to get around, and they may be your only option if you want to get off the beaten track. You will be traveling mainly with locals if you take songtaews. I love this method of travel. It seems very intimidating at first, but the Thais are very helpful. Ask your hotel where intercity songtaews leave from, head there, and just tell the first person who comes up to you where you want to go. You will probably get there . . . and if you don’t you will have an excellent story! Songtaews can get extremely crowded on some routes on weekends and holidays. You may end up riding on the roof like I did.
Busses are also cheap, and again, while Thai bus stations can seem intimidating, the people will help you out. You pay after you get on the bus, and you need to make sure you have small bills . . . don’t try to give a bus driver a 1000 baht note.
There are a variety of sim card options in Thailand. I used AIS, and my wife used D-TAC. Both had pretty good coverage, and both have a variety of packages. It is easiest to go to a cell service shop and get set up initially. You can then buy top ups at 7-11. I used a 7-11 top up to put 300 baht credit on my card each month which gave me about 4 gigabytes of data. You can put more credit on to pay for calls and texts as you go.
Almost every guesthouse and hotel has free wifi, but most of it is bad. I had better wifi in rural China than I ever did in Chiang Mai.
Sleeping in Chiang Mai for the Cheapskate Family
We stayed at quite a few different places while we were in Chiang Mai.
The White House. Located in the old city, a short and easy walk to the Thapae Gate. We paid about 500 baht for a double (plus 50 baht extra for our extra person). We had AC, and in theory we had hot water . . . although we never managed a hot shower. Not a bad basic and cheap guesthouse.
Ban Jaja. Also located in the old city, very near White House. We paid 500 baht for a double with AC, 400 for without AC (we stayed a couple of time and used both AC and non-AC—AC was nice but not really necessary). A super friendly and very helpful auntie runs the front desk in the evenings. There is a very nice small garden area out front complete with hammocks and fans. A great place to read. The wifi worked well enough to stream Netflix. This was probably our favorite of the guesthouses we stayed at in Chiang Mai.
Anodard. Located in the middle of the old city. Anodard is not a guesthouse, but rather a large hotel. Many might call it characterless, but it is large and therefore more likely to have rooms if you show up late without a reservation. It even has a swimming pool (although we never got around to using it). We paid 800 baht for a room that just barely fit all five of us (it had two double beds that no one would call generous).
Good Vibes Home on AirBnb. We took a travel break for two weeks in Chiang Mai, staying in a house we booked on AirBnb outside the old city. While the wifi had trouble if all five of us wanted to use it at the same time, we loved our stay here. It gave us a different feel of the city. We found a very local food courtyard where we had super cheap and super delicious food. While it was well beyond walking distance to the old city and all of its food and entertainment, we generally didn’t have trouble flagging down a songtaew for a ride into town (for 50 baht per person). It was also great to be in a house for a little while.
For the old city, just walk.
You are not likely to find many metered taxis here. The way you get around is in pickup trucks with benches bolted into the back. They are called songtaews (“song” means two and “taew” means rows). The ones that get you around Chiang Mai are red (yellow ones are intercity). You can find them waiting on corners in the old city or driving around. Just wave one down and let the driver know where you want to go. There may already be people in the back, or the driver may stop and pick up others after he picks you up. Think of songtaews as a cross between a taxi and a bus. The standard fare within the city center is 20 baht per person (but always ask before you get in). You can also hire them for the day to go to Tiger Kingdom, Doi Suthep, waterfalls, etc. Bargain hard. Cost will depend on where you want to go. Most hotels can give you an idea of what you should be shooting for.
What to Do
This is usually where I write about food, but Chiang Mai will get a dedicated food post.
Go for a temple walk. The old city of Chiang Mai is covered in temples. Grab a map, put on a pair of comfortable shoes and take a walk. If it is a nice day, take a book and find a shady spot to sit and relax for a while. Some of the wats (such as Wat Chedi Luang, or the Silver Wat) have organized “monk chats” where you get to talk with a monk (he gets to practice his English and you get to interact with a monk).
Make sure you cover your shoulders and knees when you visit wats (you may see tourists who break these rules, but please don’t follow their bad example).
Tiger Kingdom. We love this place. Look into it to check and see if it fits within you view of ethics. The tigers here are certainly not drugged (they run and jump and play). You can spend time with little ones (if this is your goal don’t go in the middle of the day when all the little ones want to do is nap), medium ones, and big ones. A variety of packages exist. Check here (http://www.tigerkingdom.com/) for information.
Trekking. Lots of trekking can be done in the hills around Chiang Mai and it is one of the main draws of the region. When we went, I used Lonely Planet’s message board (the Thorn Tree) to get recommendations, but that was years ago. Check there for up to date information. Honestly, it is probably better to base yourself in Mae Hong Son (or Laos) than Chiang Mai if you want to see the places that aren’t super-crazy-hardcore over-touristed.
Note: please don’t visit “long-neck” villages. The long-neck tribes are not native to Thailand and are only brought there as a tourist attraction. Many are little more than slaves.
Walking Markets. Parts of Chiang Mai are set aside for walking markets on Saturday and Sunday. You can find lots of souvenirs/travelers’ clothes here. Go early. The markets get stupid crowded. Stupid crowded! Like you can’t even move. We make sure we are done with them by 6:30 at the very latest (we only go for the food). Most of the shops will be set up shortly after 5, so get in and start your shopping. At the Sunday market, if you go early you will get to see the whole town come to a standstill when the loudspeakers play the Thai national anthem. The Thais will sing. The tourists will film the whole thing. It is fun.
The Sunday Walking Market is one of our favorite places to eat in the whole of Thailand (and therefore the world).
We had a great time at Art in Paradise in Chiang Mai. This is an interactive art museum where you actually step inside the artwork. My wife and I had just as much fun as our kids did here.
I don’t really dig massages, but my wife does. She says Chiang Mai has the best price to quality ratio for massages in Thailand.
Travel agents all over the city will sell you trips to spend time with elephants, go whitewater rafting, and zipline.
The Night Market is only necessary if you miss the walking markets.
Chiang Mai is one of my favorite cities in one of my favorite countries in the world. So please vist and have a great time. Because travel.