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Chiang Mai Travel Guide

Orientation, Eating, Attractions, Nightlife, and Markets

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Chiang Mai Travel and Culture

A cultural dance performance in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Photo be Greg Rodgers

Thailand's beloved northern capital of Chiang Mai attracts nearly 2 million foreign tourists a year -- double the entire metropolitan area population of just under one million people!

Even with horrendous traffic, the vibe and pace of life in Chiang Mai is far slower and more relaxed than that of Bangkok. The mountain setting can be felt even when you can't see the green surroundings.

Chiang Mai is widely considered a cultural hub; you'll encounter more beautiful temples than you have time to explore. A multitude of cooking, massage, and language schools are available. The large population of artists, writers, and creative types -- both Thai and foreign -- who have settled in Chiang Mai have caused the city to be considered for UNESCO Creative City status.

Orientation

While the city sprawls far beyond, most of the tourist action in Chiang Mai is centered around the 'old city' or within the city walls. Forming a perfect square, a moat surrounds the old city; Tapae Gate on the east side of the square could be considered the epicenter and focal point for tourism.

Tapae Road, the major artery into the city, runs east through the gate to the Ping River. Thanon Chang Khlan branches off of Tapae Road and is located about a 20-minute walk outside of the gate; there you will find Chiang Mai's touristy-yet-famous night market as well as many shops and restaurants.

The inner parts of the old city away from the moat roads are a confusing tangle of small sois (streets) and shortcut alleys that are sometimes home to pleasant cafes and out-of-the-way places.

Getting Around in Chiang Mai.

Anyone reasonably fit can get around Chiang Mai easily on foot, although the broken sidewalks can get busy with pedestrians, street carts, and random obstacles. Alternatively, you can jump inside one of the many circulating songthaews (truck taxis) or grab a tuk-tuk.

You can walk from Tapae Gate to the night market in around 20 minutes. Some temples and sites outside of the city will require transportation. If you're comfortable with driving in the traffic, renting a scooter is a cheap way to get around. Bicycles can be rented from many of the guesthouses.

Chiang Mai Accommodation

From family-run guesthouses tucked away on quiet streets to high-rise hotels, accommodation in Chiang Mai varies widely in budget and quality. You will generally find many more inexpensive places to stay around Chiang Mai than in Bangkok or the islands in Thailand.

The Songkran water festival and the Loi Krathong festival both bring Chiang Mai to full capacity; finding a room in the old city can be nearly impossible if you do not book in advance!

  • Compare Prices for backpacker guesthouses in Chiang Mai.

Eating in Chiang Mai

With so many cooking schools, creative people, and Lanna/Burmese influences, it's no surprise that you'll find great food around Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai has an abundance of vegetarian eateries, organic juice shops, and lots of international food options.

Perhaps the cheapest and most enjoyable way to experience local food is to eat street food from the many markets and carts. Try the large market area and many carts located along the moat in the southeast corner of the city. You'll also find street food all along Moon Muang -- the main road just inside Tapae Gate.

Markets in Chiang Mai

  • The Night Bazaar: The night market is held each evening on Thanon Chang Khlan outside of the city moat, however, don't expect much more than high prices and pushy people on a very crowded sidewalk. The bazaar starts up around 5 p.m. and finishes at 11 p.m.
  • Weekend Markets: The weekend markets in Chiang Mai are crowded, but just as many locals come out to socialize and to walk aimlessly while grazing on small treats and snacks. Even if buying souvenirs isn't your thing, you'll still find street performers, cheap food, and a lively atmosphere. The Saturday market is held on Thanon Wualai on the southern edge of the old city and runs south outside of the walls, while the Sunday market starts at Tapae Gate and runs into the old city. The Saturday market tends to be a little more local oriented as fewer tourists accidentally walk up onto the market.
  • Warorot Market: Warorot Market is located outside of the old city near Thanon Chang Moi and Tapae Road, around a 20-minute walk outside of Tapae Gate. You'll find practically no tourists and much lower prices on local goods between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Negotiation is pertinent for not getting scammed at the markets! Read the ins and outs of markets in Asia and how to negotiate prices.

Chiang Mai Attractions

While you can spend days just exploring Chiang Mai temples for free, lots of activities can be booked for attractions outside of the city; the price always includes free transportation.

From the zoo and multiple theater/dinner shows to more extreme adventures such as the Gibbon Experience zipline or Jungle Bungy jump, you'll probably run out of time and money before you can see them all!

Trekking and visiting hilltribe villages are popular activities to do in Chiang Mai; various treks into the mountains can range from easy, one-night trips to longer adventures.

Chiang Mai Nightlife

Chiang Mai isn't exactly a 'party' city. While some clubs get special permission one way or another to stay open later, city ordinance states that bars shut down at 1 a.m. You cannot purchase alcohol from minimarts after midnight, and the sitting areas around the moat as well as the large square at Tapae Gate have been declared 'no alcohol zones' with heavy fines.

You'll find an unusual proportion of 'gogo' bars or 'girly' bars scattered around Chiang Mai with a few retired expats in each playing pool with Thai girls. Solo men may be approached for a relationship which typically begins with buying the girls a drink.

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