A Complete Backpacker’s Guide to Chiang Mai, Thailand

Done the whole Europe thing and ready to conquer South-East Asia next?

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  • 31 July 2018
  • • 8 min read

Done the whole Europe thing and ready to conquer Southeast Asia next? Otherwise known as Thailand's northern capital, Chiang Mai is one city that you cannot exclude from your Kingdom itinerary. This city has it all. Partiers can drink the night away at the many bars and venues around town. Adrenalin junkies can get their fix on an epic day trip. Culture vultures can visit the historic temples or try their hands at a Thai cooking class. Whatever it is that you want to see and do, this city is sure to please. Whether you allot an entire month to this northern gem or (sadly) a handful of days, we are here to help you create the most epic, Chiang Mai itinerary with our complete backpacker's guide to the city.

Hiking trail outside of Chiang Mai © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson


Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 by King Mengrai. In the late 13th century, when the Lanna Kingdom was still in its infancy, King Mengrai decided to relocate the capital city. Heavy flooding forced him to move the principal town from Wiang Kum Kam, so he set up what became Chiang Mai. An 800-year-old moat surrounds the city center and is one staple of the city that every visitor will get the chance to lay their eyes on while visiting. It is home to over 300 temples but no high-rise buildings, as these are banned in the city. It is about 680 kilometers northwest of the capital and is one of the top cities that travellers include on their Thailand itineraries.

Waterfall in Doi Suthep National Park © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson


Chiang Mai has an international airport (CNZ). Top airlines including Air Asia, Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways, and Nok Air fly to and from Bangkok and Chiang Mai several times a day. A flight from Bangkok is about 1.5 hours long. You can also fly into the city from international destinations, including Laos, Singapore, Hong Kong, and more. You can take a bus and train from Bangkok to get to Chiang Mai, as well. These usually are more affordable than flights but take much longer (about 10-12 hours).

Chiang Mai International Airport © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson


The primary way to get around Chiang Mai is by hopping in the back of a songthaew, which translates to "two benches." These red trucks circle the Old City and will take you most destinations in and around town for 30 per person. You can rent a bike for as little as 50 a day or instead opt for a smart bike. Otherwise known as a Mobike, you will see these orange wheels all over town. You can download the app to lock and unlock the bicycle, and it is about 10 for 30 minutes. You can also rent a motorbike and see the city on your own, but most shops make you give them your passport as a form of deposit, which we do not recommend doing. Taxis and services like Grab are also available, making it incredibly easy to get from point A to point B in this incredible city.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson


There is an accommodation option for every budget in Chiang Mai. If you have baht to blow, perhaps a resort or hotel is best for you, like the Four Seasons or Golden Elephant. If chic and boutique hotels are more your style, Bodhi Serene, De Lanna, and Rimping Village are all excellent options. If you are a backpacker on a snug budget, then a hostel is perfect for you. Some of our favourite hostels are Hug Hostel,  Mad Monkey Hostel Chiang Mai, and Slumber Party.

Mad Monkey Hostel Chiang Mai © Courtesy of Mad Monkey


You will never be at a loss on what to see and do in this city: from epic day trips to famous temples and more, there is some type of outing for everyone in Chiang Mai. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of the most distinguished temples in the nation and is best visited at sundown. Learn more about the history of Chiang Mai at the Lanna Folklife Museum, or instead blow some baht at one of the night markets open every day of the week. Cool off and take a dip into the refreshing water at the (other) Grand Canyon, which is only about 40 minutes outside of town. The possibilities are seemingly infinite!

The (other) Grand Canyon in Chiang Mai © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson


Interact with Thailand's national animal at one of the only ethical sanctuaries in the country: Elephant Nature Park. You will want to make a half day or an entire one during your visit to this magical place. Doi Suthep National Park is nestled amongst the misty mountains of Chiang Mai and is a great spot for hikers. Huay Tung Tao Lake is the perfect place to spend an entire afternoon swimming and sipping on a local, Thai beer. The Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens are also worth a visit.

Doi Suthep National Park © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson


Chiang Mai has a surprising number of shopping venues with everything from modern clothes to handcrafted Thai keepsakes. If you are in need of some air-conditioning, venture to Maya Mall, Central Festival Chiang Mai, or One Nimman. If you are on the lookout for items that are a bit cheaper, instead save a few hours on either Saturday or Sunday and check out the weekend markets. If you are only in Chiang Mai during the week, fret not, as the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is open every day of the week. There is also plenty of street food to go around at these markets, as well.


Mexican, Lanna-style, Indian, Italian: Chiang Mai has restaurants that will appease every diet and appetite, no matter what type of cuisine you are craving. For meat-free finds, make your way to Anchan Vegetarian, Amrita Garden, or Free Bird Cafe. If you are craving some spicy Thai food, make your way to WHAT or Tom Kam Kai Wan Noodle. If you want to pair your gourmet dishes with some live music, then be sure to check out The Good View. Chiang Mai is also the king of cafes, with excellent coffee shops primarily on every soi (street) of the city. Drink some coffee with a cause at Akha Ama Coffee or Rx Cafe Chiang Mai.

Acai bowl in Chiang Mai © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson


Chiang Mai's nightlife goes to sleep early, with most venues shutting by midnight. There are a few late-night pubs and clubs that stay open a bit later, but we recommend getting ready early and ending a night out early so that you have ample time to explore this incredible city during the day, as well. Channel your inner Bob Marley at one of the reggae bars around town showcasing live bands or bust a move at clubs like Zoe in Yellow or Spicy. There are always plenty of tuk-tuks at the ready to take you back to your accommodation option after a night out, as well.

Sax Music Pub in Chiang Mai © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson


You have finally frequented all of the temples, shopped until you dropped, and danced the night away in Chiang Mai. Before you leave this northern city, be sure to take advantage of all of the spa treatments that are both affordable and, quite frankly, amazing. Support a social cause by getting a massage from an ex-inmate or blind masseuse at Chiang Mai Women's Correctional Institute or Perception Blind Massage. You can also get one of the cheapest (though not air-conditioned) massage at the temples of Wat Pan Whaen and Wat Sum Pao. Massages start at about ฿150 (about $4.50). If you are ticklish, you can tell the masseuse jakagee, meaning ticklish. If a massage is a bit painful for your liking, the word for "hurt" in Thai is jeb.

Lila Thai Massage in Chiang Mai © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson


  • If possible, try to plan your trip around Songkran, a famous water festival in Thailand.

  • Be sure to bring temple-appropriate clothing that covers your shoulders and knees.

  • Thai baht is the only form of currency accepted in the country: the exchange rate is about one U.S. dollar = ฿33 Thai Baht.

  • Sun protection and bug spray are two must-have items.

  • Only tip when you get personal services, such as a massage. Tipping at restaurants is not required.

  • Haggle tuk-tuks drivers and market vendors for souvenirs to get the best prices. You can not get a lower price for things like room rates or food and beverages, however.

  • Add either the word kráp or kâ at the end of every sentence. It is the proper way to end a sentence when speaking and is a sign of respect. Women say kâ and men say kráp is for men.

Songkran in Chiang Mai © Courtesy of Kirsten Muolic


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