Chiang Mai 12-Step Guide
Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand and is known for its abundance in Buddhist temples, vast jungle brush, and northern spicy Thai food that will make you sweat. Follow this guide to get all the best tips and places to go during your stay!
This guide is broken up by region, all centering around the Old City in Chiang Mai.
North of the Old City
Banilah Guest House: ( http://www.banilah.com ) This family run boutique guesthouse is located just north of the Old City where most of the visitors stay. I preferred to stay a mile outside of the square and I’m extremely happy with the decision. Although a mile from all the “action” this was a perfect place to get away, and being a little outside of the city, extremely well priced.
The rooms were decorated to perfection and the staff friendly and accommodating! A quaint peaceful getaway from the city madness. The ladies who run Banilah are definitely the standout stars of this place. They are so resourceful and help you with everything from restaurants, to massages to activities. They let you know all the city secrets on where to eat, shop, sight see, eat, hike, and eat more. In this area, there are great food markets, cheap clothing stores, and all around better deals on everything. Staying here gave me some insight into the lives of the everyday people living in Chiang Mai. When you get a little out of the touristy areas, you stay a couple days and before you know it you’re waving to the family at the fruit stand everyday.
*A quick, odd but nonetheless humorous fact: The ladies at Banilha have a ton of cats running around their lobby. They’re all on leashes, which is actually really bizarre but oddly amusing. They really don’t affect the guesthouse, they’re just there. This is simply a heads up to anyone who’s deathly allergic.
Thanin Food Market: This market is great for produce, prepared meals and experiencing all sorts of northern Thai food. Spring rolls are 2 rolls/15 Baht. That’s about .25 cents (USD) each. “I’ll take 8 orders please.”
I especially enjoyed the fresh section of the market. Fresh fruit, vegetables, and spices all over the place.
The seafood area was a little smelly, but hey what can you expect? The live fish kept jumping up out of their little crates into the next one over, they leaped back and forth from bucket to bucket over and over again. I don’t know what they were doing but I was hooked, my eyes were stuck. I couldn’t get enough of the jumping fish. *The market is open daily from early morning until 8pm.
Clothing Shopping: Right around the Thanin Food Market there are some killer clothing stores. There was an abundance of vintage stores selling the most invaluable items.
These vintage types of clothing stores featured classic American brand clothing, like those sassy cut off Levi shorts, for under $2 USD! They also carried very trendy dresses, accesories, leather purses, hats, and much more. The inexpensive prices were dangerous-I left with a bag that was 20 pounds heavier than before. *I bought this striped jean jacket! Plus sunglasses, a hat, and a tote bag! I was happy.
Chicken and Rice: Located near the Banilha guesthouse (just a mile north of the Old City) there is an outdoor “restaurant” that serves chicken and rice for 30 Baht.
You can find chicken and rice all over Thailand but this place is the shiznit. It’s not so much a restaurant as more of an outdoor food stand with tables that are covered by linens. If you go east from the “Chiang Mai View Hotel”- a more well known hotel than the petite Banilha Guesthouse, it’s on your right; and coming from Banilha, it’s on your left. We were intimidated at first because the menu is just a couple items only written in Thai…and we were the only westerners in sight. This place was so authentic there were NO tourists anywhere, pretty crazy for such a touristy city like Chiang Mai.
When we sat down we had no idea what to order, HOW to order, or if we were even in the right place. So we just sat a table and looked at the lady walking around, then paused..immediately she knew what we wanted. She smiled said something in Thai and walked away. We decided to go with it, it was only going to cost a dollar or two whatever it was. Everyone had the same thing. Within minutes we had a delicious treat on our table…tender, moist white chicken shredded over rice with a side of fresh cucumbers. The best part was when they bring you chicken broth that you put on your plate as you please. I always would end up savoring mine for the end and just slurping the broth down by itself.
*All around Chiang Mai the street food is delicious! I never felt weird about eating street food once. I never felt sick or anything like that, but do be cautious and make sure you feel comfortable about where you’re getting your food.
Rent Motorbikes: Motorbikes in Chiang Mai are some of the cheapest you will find in Thailand. Many places offer a 24-hour rental for 250 Baht. However, you can definitely get that down to 150 Baht. *Don’t rent them through your hostel; they usually can’t negotiate because they’re using a third party rental company. You can almost always get a better deal bargaining with someone on the street. Motorbike rentals are everywhere!
*Be extremely careful when driving the bikes. One of the main causes of injuries in Thailand is motorbike accidents. In a city like Chiang Mai it can be overwhelming, not to mention scorching hot with tons of traffic. There are people everywhere walking and driving in the streets. If you can get it down, renting a bike will be fun and cost efficient for getting around the city. But, always be careful. Also, don’t forget to fill up! Last thing you want is to be stranded in the jungle. Always carry extra cash! It’s kind of lame, but it costs just as much to fill up as it does to rent the bike. Remember that when calculating expenses. Still, for 300 Baht total for bike rental and gas, it’s a great deal!
*One more note: Always watch out for uncovered exhaust pipes! If you’re not careful you can leave with a “Thai tattoo” as the locals call it. I received my first Thai tattoo in Chiang Mai, it was not fun, or fun to look at…
Inside the Old City Square
Monday Night Market: This night market is out of control. Anything you want from Thailand you will find here. This is one of the few touristy cities of Thailand that can match the prices is Bangkok. The food stands and the art was my favorite part.
I walked around the market eating, eating, and doing more eating. I would walk around paying 30 Baht/per dish (less than $1 USD) just eating whatever smelled good as I passed each food stand. I tried as much food as I could, eating everything. My favorites were the shrimp pad thai and a spicy papaya salad, yummy. I probably would’ve invested in some artwork and clothes if I had some more resources to bring it all home. Next time.
Muay Thai Fight: I highly recommend going to a Muay Thai fight while in Chiang Mai. Although they are all over Thailand, here they have nightly fights. No matter where in the city you’re staying, if you eat at a restaurant or walk around I guarantee a promo guy will hand you a flyer for a Muay Thai fight. The fights are held right in the Old City and cost about $10 USD.
The first few fights are staged, that’s boring. Then next they usually have a comedy fight; our comedy fight was four men all fighting with blindfolds on. *Finally, then lastly, they hold the main event. This fight is real! The real fight we saw was a native Thai man fighting a white New Zealand Kiwi. The Kiwi surpassed the Thai guy by a long shot! The whole event is a great way to meet people from around the world. We all drank beer and cheered for our favorites all night long. It was a solid night out.
Massages: For a massage that will cost you $3 head to the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison Massage Center downtown in the Old City. The prison offers very inexpensive massages as part of their rehabilitation program for inmates. The women receive their hard earned money once released from the prison. For the most part they’re friendly and just looking to get their life back on track. Only a few of the women bite…ha ha.
Outside of the city, north and west of the Old City
Wat Phra Thai Doi Suthep Temple: After Bangkok and visiting Angkor Wat in Cambodia, I’m sorry to say it, but I was a little templed out. In a city with over three hundred temples, I felt a little guilty we didn’t do more but we chose to tour only one. We chose to do Wat Phra That Doi Suthep located up on the hillside.
The drive up is beautiful and exhilarating. The cheapest way to get up to the temple is by renting motorbikes. You might keep thinking you’ve missed the temple because the drive is a little far up. However, once you make it there you will know! When you finally do get there you will find souvenir, clothing and food tents lining the streets.
That’s when you know you’re there. We literally got off the motorbike every five hundred yards to see if it was the tempe because there were cars parked at stops all along the road. When we finally got to the top it was obvious, very obvious.
Make it a point to wear or bring comfortable shoes and something to cover your legs and shoulders for entering the temple.
*It’s usually extremely hot, so might be better just to bring a scarf for your shoulders. There are also about twenty flights of stairs on the hike up to the temple entrance so tennis shoes or closed-toed shoes are probably best.
Waterfalls: Some tourists visit Chiang Mai and go on a “Jungle Trek” where you visit various waterfalls, or one waterfall and do some rafting, etc…Check out my post on the treks for more details: http://www.heelstohikingboots.com/2014/07/17/jungle-trek-in-chiang-mai-pros-and-cons/
Personally, I believe it could be better to take your own motorbike into the jungle yourself. There are plenty of waterfalls and cool jungle hikes you can do on your own. Most of the maps of Chiang Mai show you were there are waterfalls and how to get to them. *The best waterfalls are Mae Sa and Mae Ya. Both are located north of the city in Mae Rim. Mae Sa is much closer and definitely the more visited of the two.
Elephant Reserves: Elephant riding in Thailand is inevitable with companies and individuals everywhere offering elephant rides. Don’t go on an elephant!
Most of these elephants are abused and poked with a stick for several years until their skin starts to look like it’s deteriorating. There are plenty of options for seeing elephants and even helping them up close and personal. Trip Advisor suggests the Patara Elephant Farm or Maesa Elephant Camp. These camps offer a full introductory and educational insight into the lives of elephants. You can also do overnight stays at elephant sanctuaries. *My friend did a two night stay the Elephant Nature Park in Chaing Mai. She volunteered and worked with the elephants, from babies to grown adults. She said it was a once in a lifetime experience.
Chiang Rai: While in Chiang Mai make it a point to check out Chiang Rai. I’m so disappointed I didn’t have time. Check out this picture of the spectacular white temple, Chiang Rai.