Chiang Mai, located in the mountains of northern Thailand, is one of Thailand’s most beautiful cities. What makes it so famous and so beautiful is its atmosphere, its architecture, its culture, its temples, its markets and its old town full of life and colour. Chiang Mai, also known as the ‘Rose of the North’, is a charming, historic city and a great starting point for off-the-beaten-track experiences with the locals and ethnic communities of northern Thailand.
After spending my first few days in Thailand in Bangkok, I landed in Chiang Mai for an indeterminate period without much of a programme. I liked it so much that I ended up staying for over a week. You’ll probably find a ton of information on the internet about what you can’t miss in Chiang Mai, so I thought I’d share a few tips on how to get off the beaten track and discover Chiang Mai in a different way, through its authentic markets, its hidden and lesser-known temples, through trekking and hiking in the heart of the countryside and, above all, by meeting the locals…
In a nutshell: How to spend a few days in Chiang Mai off the beaten track
Découvrir la vieille ville de Chiang Mai et ses magnifiques temples cachés
Vivre l’expérience des festivals traditionnels et le Sunday Night Market
Partir sur le sentier des moines jusqu’au temple Wat Doi Suthep
S’aventurer dans les quartiers locaux en dehors de la vieille ville
Partir en randonnée et dormir chez l’habitant (communauté Karen)
Mes bonnes adresses & les infos pratiques
Discover Chiang Mai’s old town and its magnificent hidden temples
Far from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a rather peaceful city, with no real horns, and a unique atmosphere that makes you feel like you’re on holiday by the sea, when you’re actually in the middle of the mountains. Chiang Mai’s old town is definitely a big favourite for me! Surrounded by ramparts and a moat, Chiang Mai’s old town is a historic enclave brimming with hundreds of magnificent temples, craft shops, markets, cafés and Thai life. You can spend one or more days visiting the most famous temples, but you can also lose yourself in the streets in search of the smaller, hidden temples, which are just as beautiful!
I found it very pleasant to wander around the old town, which can be visited on foot. There really is something unique about Chiang Mai compared to other cities in Thailand. You can have great experiences close to the locals by eating in the street (street food), going to the local markets…
As well as the city’s iconic temples, there are hundreds of lesser-known temples, some of them very small, but just as fascinating and beautiful. I loved getting lost in the narrow streets and discovering these temples, where I was almost always alone. So keep your eyes peeled
- Wat Phra Singh, the temple in the centre of the old town to discover early in the morning
- Wat Suan Dok, where you can watch the monks perform their daily rituals
- Wat Chedi Luang
- Wat Si Suphan, the silver temple
- Wat Pha Lat, also known as the Jungle Temple. Set in lush natural surroundings, this temple offers a peaceful atmosphere and a beautiful waterfall nearby. (I talk more about it later in this article).
- Wat Umong, a Buddhist temple nestled in the forest and famous for its tunnels and statues
- Wat Suan Dok, a Buddhist temple with magnificent white stupas and a beautiful sunset
- Wat Pan Ping
- Wat Phantao
- The smallest temples to be discovered on a stroll through the streets of Chiang Mai… Keep your eyes peeled!
Experience traditional festivals and the Sunday Night Market
Chiang Mai is also renowned for its traditional festivals and markets. Some festivals, such as the Yi Peng Lantern Festival in November or the Flower Festival in February, are very well known, while others are less so and bring together a huge number of locals. For example, the Umbrella Festival in Bo Sang is an event where locals celebrate the local craft of colourful umbrellas, or the Tam Boon Khan Dok, a Buddhist festival celebrated in local temples where locals offer flowers to show their gratitude.
But throughout the year it’s the markets, including the Sunday Night Market, and the food markets that are most popular. These can be found throughout the city centre, as well as outside the old town. The further away you get from the old town, the more authentic and less touristy the markets become.
I recommend that you ask your hotel or local people about current events and, if you get the chance, don’t hesitate to attend one. It’s a unique experience and a great way to interact with the local communities.
Follow the monks’ trail to Wat Doi Suthep temple
This is one of my favourite moments in Chiang Mai. An early morning hike along the Monk’s Trail to Wat Pha Lat temple, nestled in the jungle, and Wat Phrathat Doi, the temple that dominates the city on the mountainside. This magnificent hike was recommended to me by the hosts at my hostel and I set off very early one morning with Clara, another traveller, to give it a try…
We set off at around 6am, in the semi-darkness, arriving 45 minutes later at Wat Pha Lat temple, rewarded by a magnificent sunrise over the whole of Chiang Mai, in an absolutely magical atmosphere. We were practically alone to enjoy this moment, surrounded by nature and birdsong. After this first stage, we continued on to Wat Phrathat Doi temple. This second part of the hike was more strenuous, so you need to set off before the heat (and with enough to eat and drink). It’s a great way to get away from it all and discover Chiang Mai! I’ll share all the practical details below.
- Starting point for the hike along the monks’ path: this way (can be reached easily by scooter as long as you return on foot along the same path, otherwise you can be dropped off by Grab).
- There is only one path, so you can’t get lost on it
- To reach the first temple, look for the itinerary here
- I advise you to hike to the end only with suitable footwear and water.
Venturing into local neighbourhoods outside the old town
Beyond the old town, you can explore the authentic districts of Chiang Mai to discover the daily life of the locals. I stayed for 2 days in the Nimmanhaemin district, known as Nimman, to enjoy all the cafés where many digital nomads gather. The area is quite popular with Thais and Koreans alike. There are trendy boutiques, art galleries and the famous trendy cafés.
You can also visit the Wua Lai district, renowned for its lively night market where you can buy unique handicrafts and interact with local artisans. Finally, I also recommend getting out of the old town to visit the Warorort night market (see here).
Trekking and staying with local people in a Karen community
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that this is something that’s close to my heart when I travel: meeting the locals, discovering the cultures and taking the time to build authentic exchanges. Wherever you travel, you can get close to the locals in 1001 ways. So I set off with a small local agency that organises treks in the Mae Wang national park, home to a number of ethnic minorities, including the Karen people (originally from Burma but who have lived in northern Thailand for centuries). For two days, accompanied by a guide, I set off to walk through the villages and nature of Mae Wang with another family of travellers to experience one of the most beautiful moments of my trip. We passed through mountain villages, terraced rice fields and bathed in natural waterfalls. In the evening, we slept in a small mountain village with a Karen family with whom we shared a meal and a lot of laughter. It was a moment suspended in time, during which we discovered the culture of the mountain tribes. All in all, it was an incredible two days, which you can read about in my article “Meet the Karen tribe of Thailand”!
The article is available in French at the moment
By getting off the beaten track, you can create unique memories and enjoy a memorable adventure in Chiang Mai.
My top addresses in Chiang Mai
I really recommend going to the street markets to eat (especially in the evening)
There’s a street food market every evening in the south of the old town (just outside the gates).
Otherwise, here are a few nice addresses:
My Secret Cafe in Town
Vegan Society Restaurant
A brand new, clean youth hostel – Centrally located and close to everything
Double rooms also available
See on Booking
Chada Mantra Hotel
For comfortable, luxurious accommodation in a peaceful, bohemian neighbourhood
See on Booking
One of the best places for a massage in Chiang Mai is:
Women’s massage Center by ex prisoners
(See here on Google Maps)
Big favourite and really good prices
Practical information about Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is the largest city in the north of Thailand and also has the best transport links in the whole region. From Bangkok, it’s easy to reach Chiang Mai by bus, train or plane… (But I’d advise you to take the train for a more authentic experience, as there are also overnight sleeper train journeys). The night bus journey is quicker and has the advantage of being able to be booked at the last minute.
- By train: Night trains must be booked well in advance (min 2 weeks). The best way is to book on the 12Go.asia website.
- By bus: Several companies
I stayed in Chiang Mai for over a week, but most travellers will spend a few days there.
I really think that you have to dare to get out of the city and explore the surrounding area, get out into nature, have a more local and authentic experience so I really recommend staying in the Chiang Mai area for 5 days to get the chance!
- On foot: The old town is easy to visit on foot, as long as it’s not too hot…
- By Grab: This is Thailand’s “Uber” and the advantage is that you can order a car-taxi or a scooter-taxi which goes faster and costs next to nothing.
- With Songthaew: Songthaew are red pick-ups that work like shared taxis. For 20 to 50 baths per person, you can travel on the main tourist routes. It’s not always easy to understand where the stops are, but it’s easy to find out if you ask the locals!
- By scooter (hire): If you have an international motorbike licence, you can hire a scooter and move around the region very freely. The price is 200 baths (5.40€) or 250 bahts (6.80€) a day. I rented a scooter for a few days and I loved being able to get around as I pleased, but I would only recommend it if you know how to drive a two-wheeler and if you have the right licence because there are a lot of police checks…
Thai cuisine is famous the world over, and Chiang Mai has a thriving culinary scene. There are many cooking schools offering half-day or full-day courses. If you fancy the experience, you can sign up for a Thai cooking class to learn how to cook traditional dishes. I didn’t have the opportunity to take a cooking class, as I was staying with a local for more than 2 days (I’ll tell you more about it soon), but here are the recommendations I received once I was there:
- Thai Farm Cooking School
- Smile Organic Farm Cooking School
- Zabb E Lee Thai Cooking School
The elephant is the symbol of Chiang Mai and many tourists come here precisely to meet the famous pachyderm. It’s a subject that deserves an article of its own (which I’ll publish soon), as Thailand as a whole still promotes many activities involving elephants…
What you need to be aware of is that the “ethical”, “green” etc. centres are not actually “ethical” and exploit elephants for tourism.
It would therefore be best to avoid taking part in any activity involving animals.
If, on the other hand, you just want to go to a rehabilitation centre to observe the volunteers working there, I can recommend a small local address 🙂 Leave me a comment and I’ll get back to you!
Any questions or comments about Chiang Mai?
Leave me a message below and I’ll be happy to reply 🙂