A local's guide to Chiang Mai, Thailand

Local expert and Insight Guides trip planner for Thailand Thitaporn shares her local knowledge on the northern city of Chiang Mai, to help you steer clear of the tourist crowds
Annual parade of Chiang Mai Flower Festival
Annual parade of Chiang Mai Flower Festival. Photo: Shutterstock

Chiang Mai is one of the few places in Thailand where it's possible to find in the heart of the city centuries-old Chedis and temples next to modern convenience stores and boutique hotels. The original city layout still exists as a neat square surrounded by a moat, parts of the city's fortified wall and its four main gates, which provide prime access to the old town.

Today, tourists are surprised by the fact that there is always something new to discover in Chiang Mai. Intriguing diversity among ethnic tribes coupled with breathtaking scenery makes Chiang Mai one of Asia's most attractive tourist destinations...

When should we plan our holiday and why?

As Chiang Mai is located around 700 meters above sea level, the weather conditions make for a perfect year-round destination. Be mindful that during the summer season temperatures may soar above the country’s average, and can drop significantly during the winter season. Like the rest of Thailand, rain showers are most likely to come between the months of May and October.

Where would you recommend we stay in Chiang Mai?

Chiang Mai is fairly compact, and you'll find everything is within a manageable distance by local transport; most of the hotels are located within easy reach of the airport, train station or to one of the many sights. You'll find plenty of small, unique and more boutique-style accommodation in the old centre and alongside the Ping River.

Few properties can match the design and unique features of the Dhara Dhevi Hotel, one of Chiang Mai's leading hotels. Its temple-style theme and immaculate service make this the place to stay in northern Thailand.

Those seeking more natural surroundings, within a 30-minute drive of Chiang Mai, will be pleasantly surprised by the choices of accommodation. Regions such as Mae Rim, Hang Dong and Mae Tang are slowly emerging with resorts that provide a serene respite, away from the bustling city centre. From hotels that are constructed among mountainous surroundings to sanctuaries in the middle of rice paddy fields (such as the Four Seasons Resort), Chiang Mai has a place to stay to suit every type of traveller.

Noodle Khao Soy.Noodle Khao Soy. Photo: Shutterstock

Where is a great place for dinner?

There are dozens of restaurants and eateries spread throughout the city. From western cuisine to your typical Thai venue serving local specialities, there are plenty of options available. 

For a traditional experience, Kanthoke Restaurants are widely available: seated on the floor, you'll receive a set dinner which is accompanied by traditional dance performances. This is definitely a must for first-time visitors. The Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center is one of the best places to experience the grace and beauty of what Northern Thailand has to offer.

We certainly have our favourite restaurants; take The Whole Earth for example (near the famous Chiang Mai night market) where vegetarian meals are prepared and presented perfectly. Or restaurants such as The Gallery, The River Market and Paak Dang will definitely satisfy your culinary needs. A growing selection of unique, new and trendy restaurants is moving towards Nimmanhaemin Road, which was once the leading student area.

Is there a ‘must-try’ dish while we’re in Chiang Mai?

Try Khao Soy: a Burmese-influenced dish served widely in northern Laos and northern Thailand. The name means "cut rice" in Thai although it is made of noodles. Chiang Mai has various places where you can try this, each with its own style but staying true to the original recipe.

When your tastebuds fancy trying a few local specialties, you'll discover that Chiang Mai dishes differ from the rest of Thailand, with more influences from Isarn (East Thailand). From traditional sausages (Sai Oua) to various northern curries and noodle soups, there are plenty of dishes and flavours to try.

Is there an ‘unmissable’ experience while we’re here too?

Travellers tend to focus their stay around temples such as the 1000+ metre-high Doi Suthep or many of the city's other landmarks that depict its connection to the former Lanna Kingdom. But there is far more to do, see and experience. With plenty of mountains, stunning nature and excellent service providers, soft adventure tours blend in perfectly and supply the growing demand of adrenaline-based activities: ATV, kayaking, zip lining, trekking and cycling are among the most popular experiences visitors can book.

Fertile grounds, lots of agriculture and the presence of wildlife have combined to become the latest experience in sustainable tourism; experiencing and learning about traditional farming as well as visiting elephant camps, are two newer, popular activities too. 

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Photo: Shutterstock

Where is the most romantic spot in Chiang Mai?

Being beside the Ping River at sunset; at this time of day restaurants, bars and houses are turning on their northern-style lanterns. The view from Doi Suthep (depending on the visibility) is spectacular and many visitors consider this one of the sights not to be skipped. 

If heading to the top of Doi Suthep, visit either early in the morning, during lunch hours or in the late afternoon, as it can be quite crowded during the day time.

Where can we hang out with locals?

The most happening place to mingle, drink and eat with the locals is popular Nimmanhaemin Road in the northwest part of Chiang Mai. As it is near the main university, you can find many students here having a great time. Also, less crowded with tourists, is the inner heart of Old Chiang Mai and north along the Ping River. There are plenty of bars and the occasional karaoke bar in both areas.

Do you have any additional ‘insider’ tips?

Be mindful that it can be quite chilly during winter season, don't forget to bring a jacket or long-sleeved shirt with you. Summers can be really hot, due to its location above sea level, so good sunscreen – even when it rains – remains an essential part of your Chiang Mai travel kit.

Customers tend to stay longer in Chiang Mai than in Bangkok on average and for good reasons; the city centre has developed quite rapidly but wherever you go, it has a more relaxed atmosphere. Outside the usual day trips and tours, visitors tend to spend a day doing nothing, wandering around or finding their way in new alleys and backstreets by bicycle.

Even though it is the second largest city in Thailand, Chiang Mai and the surrounding provinces are perfect for self-drive journeys too. Almost all international car rental companies have offices here and can cater for multi-day, self-drive tours.

Spend some time in the city simply hopping from one bar to another, or explore the city's coffee shops, and you'll find some very cool, artistic places to hang out.

What souvenir should we bring home from our trip?

Chiang Mai is the handicraft centre of Thailand. A selection of the most popular handicraft, ranging from lanterns, clothes, candles and souvenirs, is on display every single day at the world-famous night market. Sankhampaeng Village is one of the streets where one can witness skilled artists at work; painting umbrellas, silver and wood carving, ceramic work and many other local industries. This area may be a bit too touristy for many as one can expect frequently coaches parked in front of these factories and galleries.

For a more authentic handicraft region, we recommend Baan Tawai, south from Chiang Mai where most of these items are actually made.

Ready to take your trip to Chiang Mai? 

Browse Thitaporn's suggested itineraries online now or submit a trip request for her today

Looking for more information?

Thitaporn explains how to see the best of Bangkok

Trip report: Thitaporn's customers share their experience taking a trip with Insight Guides

Top 5 family-friendly places in Thailand