Discover Chiang Mai
An important cultural centre and the unofficial capital of northern Thailand, this ancient city is full of lush, mountainous landscapes and rich historical sites. A small yet cosmopolitan city, Chiang Mai offers a sharp contrast to busy Bangkok and to the beach resorts down south. The surrounding countryside offers captivating views, secluded hill tribe villages, and unforgettable encounters with elephants.
Chiang Mai means new city in the northern Thai dialect, but the name betrays a 700-year-plus history. As the former capital of the historic Lanna kingdom, the city is intimately tied with the northern Thai people or Thai Yuan (ไทยวน). Chiang Mai was built to defend Lanna from Burmese and Mongol excursions but ultimately fell to Burma in 1556. With the recapture of the city by the venerated king Taksin, the city, and its kingdom were incorporated to Siam in 1775, constituting the basis for a unified Thailand.
Buddhism, specifically the Theravada tradition, constitutes the main creed of Thailand. Chiang Mai is no exception, its temples combining Burmese, Sri Lankan, and Lanna Thai styles. In total, over 300 temples large and small can be found around Chiang Mai, yet no visit to this city is complete without a trip to the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, or Temple of the White Elephant, in nearby Doi Suthep (Mount Suthep), the most sacred in the area.
The relative isolation and distinct history of Chiang Mai contributed to the emergence of a distinct regional culture. The northern Thais refer to themselves as khon mueang (ฅนเมือง) and to their language as kham mueang (คำเมือง), and frown upon the designation Thai Yuan, preferring the term Lanna Thai in English. Lanna heritage is embedded in every facet of the local culture, even as the process of Thaification in the past century has discouraged some practices, such as the use of the Lanna script.
- PDA frowned-upon
- No touching (especially in head).
- Showing soles of feet or pointing with feet considered indecent and rude.
- No public raging or loss of face.
- Respect elderly and monks (who are not allowed to touch women).
Chiang Mai is located 700km north of Bangkok, in the mountainous area to the north of the country, 318m above sea level. The city and surrounding areas experience a tropical savannah climate, with year-round hot temperatures (moderated slightly by altitude), and rain from May to October.
Chiang Mai sits on a chain of rolling foothills that eventually link to the Himalayas. The steepest peaks in Thailand are found north of this region, including Doi Inthanon, the highest in Thailand. The Ping River, a tributary to the Chao Phraya, passes through the city.
Lush green landscapes alternate with rice paddies to form the visual mosaic of the surrounding Chiang Mai province. National parks and trekking to hill tribe villages have become a popular tourist attraction, as well as elephant reservoirs. The Chiang Mai Zoo, Thailand’s oldest, also houses a wide range of fauna, albeit in captivity.
Before you go
- Language: Thai, or Siamese, a language of the Tai–Kedai family closely related to Lao.
- Currency: Thai baht (thb)
- Time Zone: Indochina Time, utc+7
- Voltage: 220
- Electric Socket: Type A/B/C
- Local network sim cards are widely available and work on any unlocked phone in the gsm network.
- Prepaid cards sell for as little as $3 in convenience stores.
- A $15 card will get you a month’s worth of internet data and talk time.
- ATM's are widely available and they charge approximately $5 to every withdrawal with a foreign card.
- Usually no more than 20 notes or 20,000 baht can be withdrawn at once.
- Foreign exchange can be converted at banks and moneychangers at competitive rates.
- Khao soy: A soup-like dish of fried egg noodles and a curry-like base.
- Sai ua: A grilled sausage made of minced pork, herb, and red curry paste.
- Khan tok : Also referred to as a Khantoke which consist of glutinous or sticky rice, rather than the “fluffy” rice eaten in the rest of Thailand.
In general, tipping is not customary in Thailand but feel free to show appreciation through small gratuities for great service.
- Taxis: Both Thais and expats commonly round up the fare to the nearest multiple of ten (e.g. a 51 baht fare would be rounded to 60 baht).
- Restaurants: It is customary to leave behind any loose change in coins as a tip or larger tips of 5%-10% in high-end restaurants
- Hotels: Tipping is not expected. Good tips include 20-50 baht for the porter who carried your bags up to your room, or 20 baht left under your pillow for the cleaner.
Suggested Vaccinations: hepatitis A and typhoid
Safety: Be wary of people offering free help. Chiang Mai is mostly a safe and liveable city, with little risk of being assaulted anyways a number of scammers from Bangkok have sadly made their way here. Keep your valuables safe at all times, and avoid visiting political events or rallies.
- Tourist police: 1155 (English-speaking operator).
- Local police: 191
- Chiang Mai Ram Hospital: 8 Boonreungrit Rd, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand. Tel: (+66) 53 920 300
- McCormick Hospital (Private): 133 Kaewnawarat Rd, Thambol Watket, Amphur Muang, Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand. Tel: (+66) 53 921 777
- Hello (in general): Sa-wat-dee
- Excuse me. / Sorry: Koh-tohht
- Thank you: Kob-khun
- You’re welcome: Mi-penrai
- Good morning/evening: Sa-wat-dee-krahp
- Goodbye: Baai-baai
- How much is this?: Rak-ha-tao-rai
- Cheers! (Toasts when drinking): Chai-yoh
- Bon appetit: Kin-hi-aroy
- Where’s the toilet?: Hong-nahm-nyu-nai
- Help!: Choo-wai-doo-wai
- I understand: Kao-jai-lao
- I don’t understand: Mi-kao-jai
How to get into this area, and how to get around it!
Both domestic and international flights to Chiang Mai arrive at Chiang Mai International Aiport, which is 3km from the city. The airport is one of the busiest in Thailand, particularly the Bangkok route which flies by the hour. To get to the city, airport taxis are available and charge a flat fee of 160 baht ($4.5) for up to 5 people.
The Arcade Bus Station, on the city’s northeast outskirts, offers buses to and from outside Chiang Mai province, and consists of two terminals. There are plenty of atms, an internet café, and small food vendors. Buses to/from Bangkok (Mo Chit bus terminal) cost between 400-800 baht. A government bus will take 12 hours and stop along many townships, whereas a first-class private bus will cut the trip to 9 hours.
Chiang Main Train Station, about 3km east of the city, connects Chiang Mai with Bangkok and, from there, with the rest of peninsular Southeast Asia. Same-day tickets can be bought on-site as well as advance tickets through an official booking office. Avoid touts and “helpful” people walking arounds, most of them agents in disguise. Overnight sleepers from Bangkok take around 12-14 hours and have air conditioning. Day trains are also available.
Chiang Mai has very few local buses, so people usually get around in songthaews (covered pick-up truck, red in colour) which charge around 20 baht within the city and 40-60 baht to locations outside. Drivers usually quote tourist prices in excess of 100 baht, just haggle with them as locals usually do not pay over 40 baht. There are fixed-route songthaews in colours other than red. Tuk-tuks (motorised rickshaws) are quicker and more convenient, albeit noisy and more expensive. Expect to pay 50 baht for a short hop and 100 baht or over for longer distances. Prices are per person.
Although taxis in Chiang Mai do not roam the streets, they can be booked by phone (give a call 20 minutes in advance) and offer rates that are usually cheaper than tuk-tuks for groups. Advertised rates are usually 150 baht for any location in town, which is quite economical for a group of 4. If you are concerned about safety, particularly at night, save the numbers of several taxis as tuk-tuks do not have seat belts (or doors!).
Renting a motorcycle is a popular way to explore Chiang Mai. No international license is not required to rent a bike, and several small, automatic bikes (110/125cc) rent for as little as 150 baht/day. Discounts are offered for rentals of a week, or a month. Please be aware that riding without a helmet can earn you a fine of 500 baht. Motorbike rentals can be arranged by the hotel, which can keep your passport instead of the vendor, adding a layer of security. Most vendors also accept a photocopy of your passport with a 3,000-5,000 bath as a deposit.
Things to see
The top locations to visit in this destination.