The Ultimate 2018 Chiang Mai Travel Guide: Backpackers Edition

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Chiang Mai Travel Guide: Everything You Need to Know

Walking around town, you’d never be able to guess that Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s largest cities. Situated north of Bangkok (inching towards Myanmar and Laos), Chiang Mai is everything that Bangkok isn’t.

Relentless traffic and skytrains are replaced with footpaths and bicycles. Muggy, smog-filled air morphs into crisp breezes and clear skies. A stone’s throw away from the city center you can explore a countryside dotted with waterfalls and hikes.

If you’re looking for a more cultural experience, Chiang Mai is one of your best options. You get the benefits of being in a mid-sized city alongside a more traditional way of life. Chiang Mai also serves as a great base for branching out to explore more rural villages and hill tribes.

What we love the most about Chiang Mai is its mixing-pot approach to modernization. You can leave the old city to find a mall and even the occasional high-rise building. Meanwhile, you’re surrounded by temples, buddhist monks, and traditional northern dishes. Put simply, Thailand’s northern capital is a must-see for any backpacker making their way through Southeast Asia. That said, let’s get right into the Chiang Mai travel guide!

Chiang Mai Lanterns

Fast Facts

  • Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s largest provinces, second only to Bangkok
  • Backpackers flock to the “Old City”, which is the square area surrounded by a moat
  • Roughly three-hundred Buddhist temples are housed within Chiang Mai
  • More than thirteen percent of people living in the province are members of hill tribes
  • Doi Inthanon—Thailand’s highest mountain—is only two hours from the city

When to Visit

Considering that we live here, we’re willing to say that it’s always a good time to be in Chiang Mai. And in many ways, that’s true. While the time you visit will affect your trip, Chiang Mai’s charm is here rain or shine. In other words, don’t stress!

The most popular time to visit Chiang Mai is during the winter (November through February). The temperatures are at their mildest and the rain is almost non-existent. As long as you don’t mind the bigger crowds, Winter is one of the raddest times to visit. Remember to bring the right clothes—the days can get up to thirty degrees while the nights remain chilly.

March through May is another great time to visit us, but can get a bit more inconvenient. This is the hottest time of the year and also happens to be the burning season. Chiang Mai is home to most of Thailand’s agriculture, so farming patterns have a major impact on the city. Beginning in March, farmers clear their fields with fire. While it’s not a major nuisance, it does mean spending more time inside when the winds blow in our direction.

If your budget minded, June through October may be your best bet. It’s the middle of monsoon season, and you’ll be seeing a lot of rain. Luckily, that’s never stopped us from having a great time. Because of the “bad” weather, the crowds dwindle and prices drop!

Getting Around

When you’re on a budget, sorting out transportation can be tough. While it’d be nice to travel for free, it’s just not possible. On the bright side, Chiang Mai has endless transportation options (some of which are the cheapest in Thailand)!

Walk / Bike Around the City

In Chiang Mai, you can never go wrong with a good ‘ole fashioned walk through the city. The Old City is on a grid system, and full of markets, temples, and restaurants. It’s easy to spend hours exploring the streets, and one of the best ways to get Insta-worthy pictures.

Bicycles are also popular in Chiang Mai, and a whole lot safer than a motorbike. You can rent one for the day for as little as fifty baht. Because traffic isn’t too crazy in the Old City, it’s easy to navigate. And you can even make your way out of town if you’re not too hungover!

Hail a Songthaew / Tuk Tuk

Songthaew translates into “two rows” (song meaning two and thaew meaning row). Walking around Chiang Mai, it’s easy to spot the bright red trucks with rows of seats in the back. Wave at one, and they’ll stop to ask where you’re going.

You hop on and will pay anywhere from twenty to sixty baht depending on distance. If others are in the car, it can take a bit longer since the driver has multiple stops to make. But when you’re taking a cross-town trip for twenty baht, you just can’t complain!

Tuk Tuks are a bit less common, but you’ll still find the occasional one driving around. They can be a bit more expensive (usually thirty to one-hundred baht), but come with the added benefit of being the only passenger. That means you can get where you’re going a whole lot faster with some cooler selfies along the way.

Our tips would be to know how much a trip should cost, travel in packs, and keep an eye on the clock. Because you’re a tourist, you may not get the best prices. It’s completely normal—and expected—to haggle a bit, so be aware of how much the local woulds pay. And with price in mind, you’ll save a lot of money if you travel in a group rather than solo. You’ll also score lower prices if you don’t travel at peak times (like when the bars close or right after lunch).

Hire a Motorbike

While we can’t condone hopping on a scooter if you’ve never been on one, Chiang Mai is a great place to get a feel for motorbiking. Most scooters will cost anywhere from two to three hundred baht for the day. It may seem like an unnecessary expense, it gives you the freedom to explore the nearby mountains.

More often than not, you’ll need to leave either your passport or a cash security deposit. Before you leave, be sure to take pictures of the bike. If the owner claims you damaged it later on, you can compare it to the pictures you took when you first got it.

Aside from the safety, there are financial risks when renting a motorbike in Chiang Mai. First, you can face a decent-sized fine for riding without a helmet, so be sure to always put one on (even for short drives). Second, you’re taking a risk if you drive without an international license. The police run regular checks, and you could be fined around four-hundred baht without one.

See the Sights

Catch the Morning and Noon Alms

Buddhist tradition calls on young Thai monks to collect alms each and everyday. The novices, usually between eight and twenty years old, carry small brass bowls to collect “offerings”.

These Alms range from money to fruit and even small snacks. Collecting Alms is meant to help the monks along their journey of reincarnation. It ensures a better next life or fewer reincarnations to reach nirvana.

Always ask your hostel for the most up-to-date information, but alms are generally given anywhere between sunrise and 8am. We personally recommend checking out the courtyard near the Three Kings Monument.

Hop from Temple to Temple

No trip to Thailand would be complete without visiting more temples (known as “Wats” in Thai) than you can count. Aside from being an amazing cultural experience, temples are worth the trip simply for the architecture and art work. If temple hopping is up your alley, Chiang Mai is the perfect spot—it’s home to nearly three-hundred of them! And because Chiang Mai is so easy to navigate, you can reach them on foot, motorbike, or bicycle.

We’d recommend checking out Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh, and Wat Chiang Man. They’re the oldest in the city and offer the most interesting histories. But if you’re trying to dodge the crowds, Wat Umong is outside of the Old City in a more secluded, jungle-like environment.

Chat with the Local Monks

chiang mai monks

If you’re like most backpackers, Thai monks may seem a bit intimidating to approach. They’re a centerpiece of Thai culture and religion, and deserve the utmost respect. As a result, it can be difficult to find out how to learn more from them. Luckily, Chiang Mai offers a solution with its daily monk chats!

All around the  city, there are opportunities to sign up for a super informal chat with local monks. You’ll get to sit around a table and learn about Buddhism, and maybe even share a bit of your culture. It’s a great chance for you to learn more about Thailand, but also an opportunity for younger monks to practice their English skills.

Adventure to Nearby Doi Inthanon

Doi Inthanon is referred to as the roof of Thailand. As the highest point in the whole country, it offers some amazing views! You’ll also get a chance to explore nearby Pagodas built in honor of the King and Queen’s 60th birthday by the Thai air force. Only an hour’s drive from the old city, you can’t miss this opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of backpacking.

Check out the Elephant Sanctuaries

Any good backpacker knows that elephant “sanctuaries” can be a nightmare for the elephants. However, we’re happy to say that Chiang Mai is home to many well-run sanctuaries. Do your research beforehand to make sure your sanctuary is reputable. The cheapest option is not always the best (or most ethical) one.

What to Eat

Northern Thai dishes are some of the most unique in the whole country! While you can still find traditional pad thai, expect influences from Burma, Laos, and China. Northern cuisine also makes use of vegetables, mushrooms, and herbs that are local to its cooler, wetter climate. And for those of you who hate spice, you’ll be happy to find that Northern Thai food leans more towards salty.

Khao Soi – Yellow Egg Noodle Curry

It's no surprise khao soi made it into our Chiang Mai travel guide - it's one Thai dish you can't skip on your backpacking trip.

No trip to Chiang Mai is complete without one (or ten) bowls of Khao Soi. Unlike massaman, red, or green curries, Khao Soi isn’t served with rice. Instead, each bowl is filled with egg noodles, making it one of the more unique curries in Southeast Asia. You’ll most often find it served with chicken or pork, as well as shallots, mustard greens, chilli paste, and lime wedges. With a coconut milk and chicken stock base, Khao Soi is one of the creamier curries available.

Kanom Jeen Nam Ngiaw – Stewed Tomato and Pork/Beef

Kanom Jeen Nam Ngiaw comes from northern Thailand’s Shan hill tribes. You can easily spot it at any restaurant. Most often, it’s beside the Khao Soi, and it looks like a deep red broth with rice noodles and slivers of meat. It’s traditional to top it with cabbage, pickled greens, bean sprouts, cilantro, and fried garlic. It has a smoky and tart flavor, and is one of the spicier dishes available.

Sai Oua – Northern Thai Sausages

These sausages are perfect to grab at one of Chiang Mai’s many night and weekend markets. They look like sausages just back home, but taste nothing like them! You’ll spot them all over the place with a grilled red outside and a golden brown inside. They’re seasoned with lemongrass, kaffir leaf, chillies, and galangal. Personally, we love Sai Oua with a big helping of sticky rice (and/or a can of beer).

Nam Prik Ong – Tomato Chili Dip

Feeling unhealthy and hungover? Nam Prik Ong is the perfect solution! It looks like a thick pasta sauce back home, but is seasoned a bit differently. In place of Italian ingredients like basil, it relies more on garlic and minced pork. Traditionally, it’s served with cabbage, beans, okra, cauliflower, or eggplant to dip. We even like dipping our Sai Oua in it! The only downside is that you won’t find it at street vendors—you’ll have to venture into a restaurant.

Where to Stay in Chiang Mai

Lucky for you there is this amazing place called Slumber Party that is located right in the middle of Chiang Mai! We are within walking distance of each major attraction and can make your trip a blast. Come sleep with us in Chiang Mai, we won’t disappoint!

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