14 Things You Should Know When Visiting Chiang Mai
All those Pinterest and Instagram posts got you excited for visiting Chiang Mai, Thailand? Can’t wait to visit elephants up close, learn to cook Thai food, go on an adventurous ride around on a motorbike, and visit historic temple after temple? Well, hold up for a second. There are some important things you should know before visiting Chiang Mai. We’re here to give you the 411 on all things to consider and be aware of to make your visit more fun, safe, and enjoyable!
1. Pack Light
So before we get into anything else, you need to know what you should be bringing with you to Chiang Mai, Thailand. The key here is to KEEP IT LIGHT. I know some of you just tend to go nuts and overthink it. Just because you are traveling to another country doesn’t mean you are going to the moon. You’ll be able to find most things that you may need once you get here. Trust me, there’s a 7Eleven just about every ten feet and they have almost all necessities.
Having said that, here’s a small list of things to consider bringing in your luggage:
- Light, breathable clothing – it’s hot and sunny pretty much all year in Chiang Mai. You won’t need jeans, unless you want to switch out your shorts for a night out at a “nicer” joint.
- Comfortable shoes – Most tourists tend to wear flip flops, but I would suggest shoes that cover your toes and give you good support. You’ll do a lot of walking and you don’t want anything cutting into your feet. Slip on walking shoes are great. You’re feet will thank you. (I am grateful everyday that I have my Sketchers with me pictured below!) You may even want a pair of light tennis shoes and socks. I know, you’re thinking “it’s way too hot for socks,” but it’ll help avoid scratches, blisters, and sun burs on your feet.
- Camera – obviously you’ll want to capture all your amazing adventures and have the memories! I make sure I take my GoPro Hero5 with me everywhere I go!
- Essentials for the flight: neck pillow, headphones, eye cover, shall or scarf, lotion, hand sanitizer, toothpaste and brush, kindle or book/magazine.
- Hat and sunglasses
- Sun Block – yes, you can purchase it here, but it’s a bit pricey. Also, you will want to have it right away and not risk being in the sun too long before having it on.
- Light backpack
- deodorant/body spray (you can’t avoid sweating)
- Waterproof phone case
- swim suite – there may not be beaches, but there are plenty of pools, lakes, and waterfalls.
2. Avoid These In Your Luggage
- Heavy, large bags – for girls who love to lug around big designer purses, you may want to leave those at home. You don’t want something dragging your shoulder down.
- No heavy coats.
- No high heals.
- No hair products. You can get the essentials, like shampoo here. If you’re planning on riding a motorbike, well, you’ll be getting helmet hair, anyway.
- bug spray: you can get that here and it works great.
3. Dress Well
Try to keep it to clothing that covers your shoulders and knees. Not only is it good protection from the sun, but northern Thailand is a bit more conservative in dress.
Our suggestion is to wear loose fitting, breathable clothing. You will find that wearing short shorts (butt burn on a hot motorbike seat!) and tube tops don’t keep you as cool as a shirt and Capri pants made of good material that protects you from the sun and keep your sweat to a minimum.
On a side note, too often visitors to Chiang Mai dress as if they are on the beach. This is not classy at all. A bit disrespectful in our opinion. Don’t be that person!
4. Best Time of Year to Visit Chiang Mai
The major tourist season starts in November and goes through January. During this time, the weather is at it’s best. However, this also means that you will be dealing with the crowds and higher prices. The shoulder months of October and January are also really great times to visit.
While the “rain season” has a negative connotation to it, we found it to be quite pleasant. At first you might think that it means you will be in the rain all day, every day, and that it may also get cold. However, the rain comes in spurts throughout the day. You get parting clouds and sunshine throughout the day as well. This time of year is nice and cool. What makes it even better is that all the plants and vegetation become lush and green, making the landscape very picturesque.
The time of year to avoid a visit to Chiang Mai is during the month of March. This is the time of “smoke season.” The farmers burn their crops to create better soil for the next season. This creates a thick blanket of smoke on the city that is unbearable.
April through June tend to be hot and dry.
5. Where You Should Stay
The area withing the square moat is referred to as “Old City.” This is the city center and best location for seeing several temples and as well as other attractions such as Tha Pae Gate. You’ll easily find great places to eat and spend the night in this area. It’s also an easier place for tourists to start out because there are Western restaurants and English speaking locals that will make it easier to feel more “comfortable.”
This area is also great for finding tour agencies, or even your hotel, to book your daily adventures. The Old City is perfect for short-term visitors. It takes a lot of the difficulty out of being in a foreign country and you can get more done.
If you are planning to stay more long-term, you may want to venture outside of the Old City. Keep in mind that the further out of the radius you go, the less English is spoke.
Nimman area (off Nimmanhaeminda Road) is a good mix of hip and modern with Asian/Western Fusion. You’ll be able to find apartments for rent here as well as small boutique hotels. The prices here may be a little bit higher, but the quality is also better than the Old City.
6. What to Eat
Street food. Seriously, just take every opportunity to try the food here. It’s delicious! Eat at the markets, North/South Gate as well as at the Nimman restaurants and cafes. Chiang Mai has some quality street food that is made to order pretty much everywhere you go.
Some dishes we recommend:
- Som Tam – spicy papaya salad
- Kao Soy – Northern Thai noodle soup
- Sai ua (ไส้อั่ว also spelled in English as sai ooah) – Chiang Mai style sausage
- Tom Yam – spicy, aromatic soup with exotic herbs
- Pad Thai – Stir fry noodle dish
- Cashew Chicken with rice – stir fry vegetables and meat with cashew
- Pork Satay
7. What to Have With You At All Times
- Tissue, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, and maybe a small container of liquid soap – not all bathrooms will be equipped!
- Water – You don’t want to fall pray to dehydration
- Money – Most places will only take cash (i.e. street food and street vendors). You can pay with credit card at more established shops and restaurants, but beware of foreign transaction fees!
- Passport – This is your ID and a valuable document. Always keep it safe!
8. Public Behavior When Visiting Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is a very laid back town. Thai people here are mostly shy and soft-spoken. When visiting, try to be mindful of that. No matter where you are from and what your culture is, you have to respect how people behave here and do your best to mimic this.
Some characteristics to help you fit in: quiet/calm/patient/go with the flow
You will realize that not everything will be perfect and things don’t always go the way you plan. Keep a smile on your face, be polite, and adapt to the situation.
9. Where to Shop
If you are in need of Western retail items the best shopping malls are: Maya/Kad Suan Kaeow/Airport Plaza/ Central Festival
The best souvenirs are found at: Sunday/Saturday Night Market
Cheap clothing and shoes can be purchased at Night Bazaar. This is also a great area for getting a tailored suit. We purchased a tailored suit at His & Hers Tailor and were very happy with the service and quality.
10. Types of Attractions
Please avoid unethical attractions such as: elephant riding and Tiger Kingdom. Animals are meant to roam free.
Do experience: Elephant Sanctuary, zip-lining, visiting temples, take a Thai cooking class, check out some of the waterfalls, and motorbike the Samoeng Loop, hike in Doi Inthanon.
If you have some time:
- Visit Pai.
- Visit Chiang Rai.
- Stay at Rabeang Pasak Treehouse Resort.
- Enjoy a luxurious getaway at Panviman Resort.
11. Budget Well – What You Should Expect To Pay
These are only estimated, designed to give you an idea of what things cost in Chiang Mai. They are in US Dollars.
- Food: $2-$5 a plate.
- Transportation: $.50-$10
- Activities: $30 & up
12. Key Phrases to Know
khaa for females speaking and krup for males speaking = say at the end of a sentence to be polite
sawadee khaa/krup = hello
Kop koon khaa/krup = thank you
Uti nai…? = where is…? (hong naam = toilet)
Maipen rai = no problem/it’s OK
Chai/Mai Chai = yes/no
kathod khaa/krup = excuse me/sorry
arroy = delicious
13. Driving Etiquette
If you plan on renting a motorbike, be sure to get an International Driver License prior to your visit. We do recommend renting a motorbike to get around town as well as to some scenic places outside the city. You just need to keep the following in mind and drive carefully.
- Drive on the left! (you’d e surprised how often we see bikers go to the right)
- Keep to the left (slower traffic and motorbikes stay to the left of the road)
- Red Trucks (Son Thaews) stop FREQUENTLY, keep a safe distance
- Give the right of way to vehicles in front of you as well as larger cars and trucks.
- Be very aware of your surroundings, there are lots of places from which vehicles can zip out of into the road very suddenly.
- Use your turn signals (as well as hand signals, if you can)
- Be a courteous driver (sadly, foreigners are usually the ones we’ve seen cut people off or drive way too fast)
14. Random Chiang Mai Tips
Here are some cool and wacky things to know for your visit to Chiang Mai:
Ice is served with beer – and it’s a good thing!
- Beware of Dogs. They roam freely and not on leashes
- Toilets are western style, but often have a bidet and no toilet paper
- Most places ask you to throw toilet paper into the trash and not into the toilet (sensitive plumbing)
- Tipping is not expected unless you dine at a fancier restaurant that provides extra service.
- You must stand for the King’s anthem at the beginning of a movie at the theater.
- Take your shoes off when entering someone’s house/apartment. Most spas, aesthetic clinics, and hostels also make you take your shoes off. If you see shoes outside by the door, you should also take your shoes off. Sometimes, slippers are available for you to switch to.
- Basically, be a traveler, not a tourist.
About the Author
Hi! I'm just a California girl addicted to travel and adventure with a passion for art and dance on the side. Born in Iran, but I consider myself a citizen of Earth, adhering to the belief that "The world is but one country and mankind its citizen." I strive to make a positive impact on everyone I meet and learn as much as possible from them. My degree out of college is in Marketing. However, I entered the hospitality business at an early age and worked my way up to hotel management. After about 13 years in that industry (5 of which I was a hotel assistant manager), I made the decision to move to Thailand and leave the 9 to 5 grind behind. My husband and I set off for a life of living abroad and hopes to continue traveling the world, just 3 months after our wedding. It all started with the two of us, along with our cat, together in Thailand. Can't wait to see where life takes us next!