The following is a guest post written by Kathi Kamleitner. A pen glued to one hand, her camera in the other, Kathi shares her adventures around Scotland and beyond on her blog, Watch Me See. Currently based in Glasgow, she will help you plan your trip to Scotland, take you on a guided tour around her hometown, or simply inspire you to live your life, one trip at a time!
There are few cities that are more famous for their laid-back vibe and high quality of life than Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. The city is a hugely popular choice for digital nomads and backpackers alike, looking to settle in Thailand for a while, and I can see why. Chiang Mai is the quaint and green little sister of bustling Bangkok and offers a more relaxing arrival to Thai culture than the capital. Like the rest of Thailand, it is super budget-friendly, people are lovely and great food is abundant. However, there is also a lot to do, great WiFi coverage to get some work done, and of course, a large community of like-minded nomads to meet and greet.
I spent almost a week in Chiang Mai during my two-week stint to Thailand last year, but believe me, that was hardly enough to scratch the surface. For this guide I’m telling you how to spend 3 days in Chiang Mai, to get you started and longing for more!
Table of Contents
How to get to Chiang Mai
Depending on your budget and time, there are many different ways to get to Chiang Mai. The option I hear mostly recommended is to take the overnight train from Bangkok north to Chiang Mai – that way you have time to slow down your mind before arriving in the city and you roll through the lush green rice patties outside the city as the sun rises in the morning. The railway station lies in the east of the city, approximately a 15-minute taxi ride into the Old City.
If you’re under more time pressure, like I was, flying is a great option too though. It takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes to fly from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and there are several airlines offering tickets for competitive rates. Even booking just a few days in advance, I got an amazing deal that was actually cheaper than the train. The airport lies in the west of the Chiang Mai, also about 15 minutes by taxi from the Old City.
Finally, you can also get to Chiang Mai by bus, which is the most budget-friendly, but the longest journey from Bangkok. The cheapest option is the backpacker bus from Khao San Road, which often stops at a predetermined Chiang Mai hotel (no need to stay there though); more luxurious deluxe busses leave from Mo Chit bus terminal and arrive at Chiang Mai’s Arcade Bus Terminal (near the railway station).
What to do in Chiang Mai in 3 days
Day 1: Explore central Chiang Mai
Use your first day to explore central Chiang Mai. The Old City is shaped like a square and is surrounded by a moat and the remains of the defensive city walls. This makes it fairly easy to navigate this part of town. I particularly enjoyed wandering the eastern half of the Old City.
Start exploring old Chiang Mai at the southern gate (Pratu Saen Pung) and follow the square road anti-clockwise. Every now and then stick your nose into the chaotic lanes leading away from the moat into the city centre, exploring shops, market stalls, and temple buildings as you please. My favourite places to browse where the many wicker shops, where you can buy anything from hand-fans to slippers and woven furniture.
If you get hungry, find your way to Bodhi Tree Cafe 2, a quaint little restaurant in a quiet residential street in the otherwise bustling north-eastern corner of the Old City. The restaurant is run by a group of local women, who cook up an entirely plant-based storm – I recommend the Tom Yam soup as well as the spicy mango salad.
One of the most popular attractions in central Chiang Mai is the ruined temple Wat Chedi Luang. While it is beautiful at any time of the day, I recommend visiting it just as it gets dark, as it’s beautifully illuminated at night time.
For dinner head to Reform Kafe, a plant-based restaurant at a vegetarian guesthouse in the northern part of the Old City. The vegan pad thai is to die for, but here you can also enjoy a plant-based version of the famous Chiang Mai dish Khao soi, traditionally a soup-like dish with egg noodles, pickled greens, meat and a coconut milk-based sauce.
To end your first day in Chiang Mai, make your way to the Night Bazaar, near Ping River. Walking there from the Old City takes about half an hour, but a tuk-tuk will get your there a lot faster. Shopping Chiang Mai is some of the best in Thailand, but there are also numerous food-court like market sections with food stalls and pop-up bars to hang out!
Day 2: Run to the hills
Chiang Mai is surrounded by lush green forest, which was the main appeal for me, to chose the city over a trip to a Thai beach destination.
One of the best ways to explore the hills to the west of Chiang Mai and the Doi Suthep national park is to rent a scooter and drive at your own pace. If you’re just interested in visiting Wat Doi Suthep towards the top of the hills, you could also board one of the red Songthaews in town, which takes groups of tourists up the mountain. I actually did this on one day, but felt that it didn’t allow for a lot of flexibility – you had your one destination (the temple) and then you went down again.
I rented a scooter at Mr. Mechanic, who has several branches around Chiang Mai. I can’t stress enough how important it is to rent a scooter somewhere that offers proper insurance and emergency services and gives you proper instructions if it’s your first time on a scooter.
If you’re already hungry from the thrill of picking up a scooter, check out Food 4 Thought a cool outdoor restaurant a bit off the beaten track, but on the way to the national park.
Your first goal in the hills is Wat Doi Suthep, from where you get a great view over the city. The stairs leading up to the temple are a good workout and the golden stupa at its centre is absolutely breathtaking. Make some time The drive up takes approx. 30-40 minutes from Food 4 Thought – it gets quite steep, so take your time.
On your way down, don’t miss the turnoff to the left towards Mon Tha Than waterfall. At the gatehouse just off the main road, you will have to pay a small entrance fee to Doi Suthep national park. From there a winding single track road leads towards the waterfall, which cascades across several levels through the jungle. On several levels, the water forms generous pools for you to swim in, so bring your bathing suit and a towel!
Hungry and tired as I promise you will be after this adventure, make your way back to central Chiang Mai and head for dinner at Amrita Garden, a family run restaurant located in a traditional Thai stilted home, serving macrobiotic organic vegan cuisine. After dinner, find a bar in central Chiang Mai and enjoy a few cocktails or ice-cold beers.
Day 3: Off the beaten track
Start your day with a hearty breakfast/brunch at Free Bird Cafe, a trendy vegan eatery near the northern Old City gate, which is run by a local NGO which supports Burmese refugees.
From here catch a tuk-tuk to Wat Umong, a cave-like temple located in the south west of central Chiang Mai. If you still have your scooters from the day before, take those! I hadn’t read about the temple in advance but was recommended it by a friend who lives in the city. She said it’s the most unique temple she has ever been to – intriguing! The temple itself is built into the ground, only the stupa reaches out of the ground. It’s a pretty cool experience to see this location, and the gardens surrounding are inviting for a leisurely morning stroll. There is a large lake in the middle of the garden and plenty of other temple buildings to be explored.
From here, I made my way towards the Baan Kang Was artist village, about half an hour walk from the temple. It’s not the most pleasant walk, as there are not many sidewalks here, so if you can, take your scooter. At the artist village, you can get your fill of local crafts and art, meet the artists and watch them making, not just selling. If you need a refreshment, head to the nearby cafe No 39, which is a super trendy location with a little pond, instagrammable buildings, and an on-site vintage shop.
Back at Wat Umong, I caught a tuk-tuk back into town and went for a final meal at New Delhi Indian restaurant for an incredible Indian feast.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
Although many people will advise you to find (cheaper) accommodation outside of the touristy Old City, I can only recommend the beautiful boutique in central Chiang Mai that we stayed in: Villa Duang Champa.
It might not be for you if you’re on a shoestring budget, but if you – like me – need a quiet retreat to get away from the heat and bustle of the city, then this is the perfect place for you. Villa Duang Champa is located in a colonial-style building, overlooking the street where the famous Chiang Mai street market takes place every Sunday. It has just 10 guest rooms, a front-facing terrace, a garden terrace in the back and a lounge area on the first floor.
We stayed in a spacious room with a little balcony and views towards the lush green hills surrounding Chiang Mai. The room was filled with locally crafted furniture, tasteful décor, and a homely feeling. The staff at the hotel was always very friendly and helpful and the breakfast was a delight. We never actually ate here, but we tried the cocktails which – other than in many other bars in Chiang Mai – are freshly prepared and don’t taste like they’re made from alcoholic sugar syrup!
Double room from £45.
Chiang Mai tour recommendations
Since we organised all our activities ourselves, I can’t really recommend any specific tours, but since this is Chiang Mai, I want to say the following: only book tours with operators that don’t offer elephant riding or tiger shows and never participate in any activities that are harmful and exploitative to animals. Unfortunately, Thai tour operators keep offering these tours because foreign tourists keep demanding them. If you’d like to learn more about the dark side of animal tourism in Chiang Mai and other parts of the world, read this post here.
Where to go from Chiang Mai
Unfortunately, I had to fly straight back to Bangkok at the end of my journey to Chiang Mai, but if you have more time to spend in northern Thailand, there are a number of places you could go from here.
You could stay in Chiang Mai a little longer and find some inspiration for more things to do in and around the city from my 5-day itinerary.
A very popular tour option from Chiang Mai is to do a trek to nearby local villages to see more of the countryside and learn about native ways of life in the area. However, be careful to choose an operator who works with the local native community and offers an ethical encounter.
Finally, you could leave Chiang Mai behind and make your way to other towns in northern Thailand. Pai is a favourite among backpackers, and there are a lot of trekking and outdoor activities you could do in the area. Chiang Rai is another popular option, or you could book a trek through one of the many national parks in the area.
As you can imagine, 3 days in Chiang Mai is nowhere near enough time to see everything this beautiful city has to offer, but I hope this guide has given you some ideas and inspiration of how to get the most out of your visit in such a short amount of time.
After all, there is nothing better than leaving a city with the desire to return one day and explore it in more detail – for me, it certainly was that way, and I can’t wait to go back to Chiang Mai and see what I have missed the first time around!