Everything you need to know about visiting Chiang Mai
Are you the type of person who craves adventure and aren’t afraid to get your hands dirty when you travel? Does the idea of trekking up lush green waterfall-strewn mountain ranges pique your interest? If so, do we have a trip for you – we are talking about the historic city of Chiang Mai in Thailand!
It’s a beautiful part of the world but it’s not exactly the best place to travel any time of the year. Unlike in North America where we have the four seasons (summer, spring, winter, and fall), Chiang Mai has only three seasons: The rainy season, the hot season and the cool season.
The Best Time to Travel to Chiang Mai
During our spring months in America from March to June, it’s the hot season in Chiang Mai. That means that most days, the temps climb over 100 degrees (around 104°F). If and when it cools down, it only cools down to around 80 degrees. If that’s a bit too hot for you to handle, avoid traveling to Chiang Mai in spring.
The rainy season spans the second half of our summer and into early fall from July to October. It’s called the rainy season for a reason – in those short months, the city averages nearly 10” of rainfall. Not ideal for people planning a vacation where they can go romping around outdoors.
Actually the best time to travel to Chiang Mai is during our winter months from November to February where temperatures stay between 59 degrees and 77 degrees – deliciously comfortable temperatures. It barely rains over the cool season and the humidity is at its lowest. You’re looking at blue skies and sunshine most days.
In fact, that’s when most visitors come to Chiang Mai which is also why you’ll pay more to get there and while you are there over those months. If you are trying to pinch pennies on this trip, you could chance it and go in late October or mid February. Prices go down in late October before tourist season begins in earnest and nearing the end of the cool season you’ll find cheaper flights and accommodations. Beware though, you could also run into some of the bad weather of those seasons.
Two of Chiang Mai’s biggest festivals happen in November and February too. In November, the Loi Krathong Festival celebrates the Thai lunar calendar. People make a wish while launching a small container of food and leaves on their nearest waterway – lake, river, or pond. Simultaneously, you have Yi Peng happening in Chiang Mai where you can let go of bad juju over the last year by launching lanterns into the sky on the twelfth moon.
In February, the Flower Festival shows off native white and yellow chrysanthemums as well as a type of rose you will only see in Chiang Mai at the Suan Buak Haad public gardens. The cool season is ideal for weddings and honeymoons too because of the pleasant temperatures, lack of rain, and clear skies.
Starting to think this is the adventure trip you’ve been dreaming about? If so, pump your brakes a bit. There are several things you need to know about traveling to Chiang Mai before you book your flight. For one thing, you’re going to Thailand so you’ll need a passport if you are coming from the U.S.
The good news is that if you are a U.S. citizen, you only need a tourist passport to get into the country, not a visa – as long as you have a return trip ticket that is. Secondly, you’re going to have to prepare all kinds of different gear for your trip.
Chances are you are going to be doing a lot of hiking, walking, climbing, and being outdoors.
You’ll need to pack like you would for spring here in the U.S. Some days you may need shorts and a tee while others you’ll need a jacket and long pants. Make sure you pack hiking boots, good sturdy sneakers, maybe even bicycle gear if you plan on navigating the city by motorbike (a popular option in Chiang Mai for tourists).
How to get to Chiang Mai
Once you get to Bangkok, our advice is to fly to Chang Mai. If you catch a private bus, a government bus, or even a tourist bus, chances are you could die or get in a bad accident. It’s true. The roads are muddy and treacherous during the rainy season causing mudslides that more frequently than you want to know ensnare at least a few tourists every year.
At the very least, you might get pick-pocketed or held up and robbed. The safest route to Chang Mai is through the CNX Terminal at the airport in Bangkok to Chang Mai International Airport! It’s a quick hour and a half in the air and you can find airfare as low as $50 on one of many daily flights.
How to Get Around in Chiang Mai
Getting around Chiang Mai is an adventure all of its own. It’s not like NYC where you see yellow cabs everywhere that you can hail down and have them take you wherever you want. There are many more options than the yellow cab! You will see taxis at the airport, but not just meandering up and down the streets.
There is no real public transportation system to speak of. To get around Chiang Mai, you have to piece together a bunch of different means for getting from one place to the next. Here are your options:
1. Jump on a Red Truck –
Locals call it the Road-Daeng or the Songthaew. It’s a big red pickup truck where the truck bed has been covered and tricked out with two bench seats inside. It’s Chiang Mai’s yellow cab, although they come in green, white, blue, red, and yellow. The colors matter—blue songthaew will take you southbound, white ones will take you east, yellow ones go north, and green ones will take you northeasterly toward Mae Jo. The red ones will take you around the city like a NYC taxi.
2. Flag Down a Tuk-Tuk –
Next to the songthaew, the tuk-tuk is the other way most people get around Chiang Mai. It is the best choice if you are in a hurry (songthaew will make multiple stops on a route). Tuk-tuks cost 30 baht more (60 baht, about $2) per trip than a songthaew (30 baht during the day, about $1.00). Tuk-tuks travel over longer distances than songthaew, costing you up to $5 for a trip that’s far away.
3. Ride a Samlor –
Think of the Samlor as a sort of rickshaw but with three wheels being driven by old people. Taking a Samlor is like taking a horse and buggy ride through Central Park – it’s a purely tourist thing to do and not the best way to get from A to B. But it’s perfect if you just want to ride around Chiang Mai and take in the sights. Costs about the same as a songthaew but you should really tip your driver at least 10 baht.
4. Hire Private Transpo –
Believe it or not, Chiang Mai has its own version of Uber called GRAB. You can download the GRAB app and call for one of three private vehicles: The GrabCar (a private car), a GrabTaxi (like your standard taxi service), or a Grab RodDaeng (hire your own private songthaew). You’ll pay more for a private taxi or car – about $10 roundtrip.
5. Rent a Scooter –
You could make life very easy on yourself getting around Chiang Mai, if one, you are traveling solo, and two you have an international driver’s license. If you’ve never driven a scooter before, don’t try it in busy, bustling, walkable Chiang Mai – you could hit somebody. You have to be very careful too. Most rental shops will require your passport as a deposit or you could pay a $100 deposit (3,000 baht). Most rental places won’t check your driver’s license, but if you get stopped by the police and you don’t have an international or Thai driver’s license, you’ll probably get fined…but it’s only like $3 or 200 baht. A two person scooter will only cost you about $6 per day and frees you up to travel to other cities easily and quickly.
6. Rent a Bike –
For a fourth of the cost of a scooter (50 baht), you could rent a regular old two wheeler bicycle to get around. There are even city bikes for rent for a few coins. Your hotel may even offer free bike rentals. You can stop where you want, when you want, and for however long you want this way. There are bike tours where you go on bike with a tour guide to visit temple ruins and travel from village to village.
7. Rent a Car –
All of these options are great if you are traveling solo or with one other person. If you are on a family or group excursion, it may be easier just to rent a sedan or SUV for your 4 day trip. It will cost you anywhere from $30 per day (1,000 baht) for a 5 seater to $100 per day (3,000 baht) to rent a van.
When using local drivers, be careful not to get hustled. Most fares are negotiable which means they may try to overcharge you if you don’t know what to expect. For instance when you hop on a songthaew and tell them where you want to go, your driver will tell you how much it will cost you. It may be more or less than everyone else on the songthaew. You’ll either have to haggle or just roll with it.
If you ride on a samlor, songthaew, or tuk-tuk, you may have to share with others, which means you’ll be making stops on route to your destination. Your hotel can arrange a taxi or driver for you. A good piece of advice is to ask your taxi driver for their card or number – get two or three – so that when you are out and about, if you want to call a cab (remember, they are not cruising around the city and can be hard to find), you have a direct line to one.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
Old City is close to everything. It’s only ten minutes from the airport and gives you an up close view of the ancient “Old City” quarter – a “crumbling 700-year-old fortress wall and pretty moat forming a perfect square right in the heart of the city.”
Right outside of your hotel door, you will find dozens of Chiang Mai’s famous boutiques, massage parlors, street markets, and ancient temples. You won’t find a Hyatt Regency or a Holiday Inn with a huge resort-style swimming pool, but you’ll find very nice places to stay.
Riverside hotels in Chiang Mai are closer to luxury resort accommodations and an excellent option even though they are not in the city square. You have a lot of waterfront hotels and restaurants to choose from and it’s a little less noisy and crowded than the Old City square.
4-Day Chiang Mai Itinerary
For your 4-Day Chiang Mai excursion, we found an action-packed private tour that will take you through jungles and mountain passes in the Chiang Dao region, along the way visiting several ancient Thai villages. There you’ll interact with indigenous hill tribes including the Karen people, Palong, Akha, and Lahu. The tour costs about $175 and includes two nights in a hotel and you’ll sleep in a bamboo hut for two nights!
You should have your own backpack and gear but the tour will provide you with a backpack if you don’t have one. This trek is not for the faint of heart. You’ll be walking, climbing, and hiking for hours at a time, so make sure to factor that in as you are putting your group together.
Day 1: Stroll around Old Chiang Mai
Day one starts off nice and easy. You’ll meet at your hotel with the tour operator by 6:30pm. You’ll meet and greet the group in the lobby of the Wangburapa Grand Hotel or something sort of like it. Make sure you bring your passport with you.
You have your choice of going off with your tour guide and strolling through Old Chiang Mai, going off on your own, or resting up in the hotel for Day 2. Keep in mind that this is not an all-inclusive tour. Any food or trinkets you buy are all on you. Rest is a good idea on Day 1 but it would be a real shame to miss all that the Old City has to offer.
Day 2: Meet the Villagers in Palong Village
Each day starts at 8am in the lobby of the hotel where your guide will come and grab your group to begin the day’s journey. Day 2 starts with a trip to the market to grab some eats for the journey on your way north toward Chiang Dao. That’s when the fun really starts.
You’ll travel by bamboo raft down the Mae Tang River, taking in the scenery before hopping in a tour van to Akha Village. There you’ll start a one hour hike to the village of Pang Deng Nai in Palong. After learning about the village, you’ll learn how to cook and then enjoy authentic Thai cuisine before bedding down in a bamboo hut in Pang How.
Day 3: Hike to Waterfalls in Hill Tribe Village then Eat in Huay Bong
Third day, you’ll wake up with the roosters and then eat a native Thai breakfast before taking off for a two hour hike to a waterfall. There you’ll have time to kick off your shoes, strip down to your bikinis or speedos before getting in the water. During that respite, you’ll have lunch and then off you go again.
This time, you’ll be walking for up to four hours as you hike over jungle trails while your guide gives you the lowdown on all the plant and animal life around you. When you get to Huay Bong, you’ll rest, chat, and eat with the villagers there. At dinner time, you’ll help prepare the meal while sitting around a campfire before again bedding down in a bamboo hut for the night.
Day 4: Last Stop – Thakilek Village
On your last day in Chiang Mai, you’ll leave Huay Bong heading for Karen village in Thakilek. Along the way you’ll visit a spirit temple before meeting the Karen peoples. After that it’s time to head back to the city where you’ll stop by a local restaurant for lunch. Finally, you’ll be transported by Songthaew back to the hotel where a nice long trip to the spa will be a just reward to celebrate the end of your Chiang Mai adventure.