Nestled in the mountainous region of Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is a rather charming city – and one that many people ensure are a part of their Thailand itineraries. It’s famous for being Thailand’s cultural capital, and also has lots of opportunities for enjoying surrounding nature too.
I must admit, the very first time I arrived in Chiang Mai, jet-lagged and exhausted after a night train where I had a seat instead of a sleeper and the lights were kept on all night, I wasn’t immediately taken by it. The city has quite the reputation on the South East Asia travel circuit, and when it comes to Bangkok or Chiang Mai, most travellers prefer Chiang Mai. However, I love Bangkok and while Chiang Mai was fine, I was expecting something a little more.
But Chiang Mai goes a little deeper than what meets the eye – it slowly pulled me in and intrigued me more and more, and on my last trip there (I’ve been three times now!), I really started to see why so many people fall in love with this city.
I’m very lucky to have a job that means I am location independent, so if I am not immediately taken by somewhere I can come back – and I know that if you’re planning a Thailand holiday you might not have the same flexibility!
So I’ve put together all that I’ve learned in this Chiang Mai itinerary, so you can start planning your Northern Thailand trip and be a lot more savvy about it than I was.
No matter how long you’ve got in Chiang Mai and the surrounding area, this itinerary will help. I recommend activities for 2 days in Chiang Mai city, as well as three potential day trips out of the city. You could spend 5 days in Chiang Mai and do this whole itinerary – or you can simply select the days that appeal to you the most.
Do you have more time to spend in Northern Thailand? There are some other options for extra days in the Chiang Mai area at the bottom. These include a stay in a local village and a Vipassana meditation retreat close to the city (and my honest thoughts on it!).
If you’re wondering whether to visit Bangkok or Chiang Mai,
Let’s get stuck in and start planning your perfect Chiang Mai itinerary!
How to get to Chiang Mai
Most travellers reach Chiang Mai from Bangkok. You can get to Chiang Mai by train, bus or plane. Before you leave Bangkok, check out my Bangkok itinerary, which will help you plan your time there, as well as my where to stay in Bangkok guide.
I advise against flying, unless you are unable to take long overnight bus or rail journeys of course, because the overland options are an adventure, they’re easy and they’re more environmentally friendly!
My choice would always be the train – just make sure you book early enough to get a sleeper, so you’re not kept awake in a seat all night like I was the first time I went to Chiang Mai!
You can take a 13-14 hour night train from Bangkok Hua Lamphong to Chiang Mai. This route nearly always sells out, so make sure you book in advance. You can use Bookaway to reserve your tickets – click here to do so.
The bus is cheaper, less comfortable and takes around the same time. You can also book tickets on Boookaway – click here to reserve your spot.
The plane is obviously much quicker, but more expensive, less of an adventure and not great for the environment!
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
As you might expect, there are loads of places to stay in Chiang Mai, from city centre hostels to mountainous nature getaways, such as the Panviman Chiang Mai Spa Resort.
I’ve stayed at most of the accommodations listed below – my accommodation choices vary wildly from budget hostels to the occasional 5* hotel these days – or they come highly recommended by other travellers.
Mad Monkeys Hostel
This is a party hostel, with organised bar crawls and other activities. It’s not as nice as the Mad Monkeys hostels in other locations, but it is friendly and busy, and is a great place to meet other backpackers. Just don’t expect to get all that much sleep! You can read my full review of the Mad Monkeys in Siem Reap Cambodia here.
Riverside House Hotel
This hotel is located in convenient distance to the station, and the good value price includes breakfast and use of the pool. It’s basic, but clean and functional and the staff are lovely.
Saeng Panya Home
This hotel has bright rooms with modern decor. The staff are friendly, and the rooms are really comfortable.
This 4* property is made up of suites around a central pool. Each suite has a lounge room, a modern bathroom and a bedroom with a super comfy bed. The hotel has a natural, rustic feel to it while still maintaining 4* luxury.
Lotus Pang Suan Kaew
I’ve stayed in this hotel twice, loved it the first time but had so many issues the second! The rooms are beautiful, and it has great views of Doi Suthep from the windows.
It’s a 4* property with a pool and gym – although the gym isn’t up to too much! I had problems with the electricity last time I was there, as well as a tea craving which could not be satisfied as there were no tea bags in my room.
I’m British, tea runs through our veins, so to be in a 4* hotel with no complimentary tea bags was a big problem! Unfortunately, when I asked the staff about the electric issue I didn’t find the responses to be most helpful.
So, in conclusion: this is kind of a nice place to stay in Chiang Mai, but it does have some flaws that I noticed the second time that were kind of hard to ignore.
Smile Lanna Hotel
One of the best luxury places to stay in Chiang Mai, Smile Lanna Hotel is located close to Chiang Mai’s centre and enjoys friendly staff, a delicious and varied breakfast and fantastic facilities. Reviewers constantly rate it the best hotel in Chiang Mai.
2 Days in Chiang Mai Itinerary: Day One
We’ll start off with the best things to do in Chiang Mai in 2 days. Remember, this is a fully customisable Chiang Mai itinerary, so you can select what days you like best!
I’ve intentionally made day number one a more chilled out day, as you’ll be arriving in the city and finding your accommodation, but if you have a full day and are happy to action-pack it, you could probably condense this 2 days in Chiang Mai itinerary into just one day.
One of the best things about Chiang Mai, and Thailand, is undoubtedly the food. Definitely spend some time enjoying the food while in the city – we’ll get onto that later in the post, but if you’re a budding chef, you could also do a Chiang Mai cooking class.
There are a few options – here’s one that’s bookable online.
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, or if you just want to try some vegetarian Thai food, you can do a course with May Kaidee Cooking School. I did their class in Bangkok and really loved it – I’m told that the Chiang Mai version is very similar. You can read about my experiences at the cooking class in Bangkok here or see my YouTube video below.
Go Temple Hopping
If you asked a bunch of travellers what Chiang Mai is known for, temples would rank pretty highly up the list. Therefore, this Chiang Mai itinerary does feature temples, temples, and a few more temples, however they are all pretty unique and well worth visiting.
I’d recommend spending some time on your first day in Chiang Mai temple hopping – if you prefer to have a more structured visit you could book onto this Chiang Mai temple tour, click here for more details – or read on to work out how you can do a self-guided tour.
There are loads of temples to check out within Chiang Mai’s city walls, but this walk takes you to Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Chiang Man. These temples are some of the most visited in Chiang Mai, and for good reason.
Wat Phra Singh is Chiang Mai’s most popular, and its golden domes are typical of the Northern Thailand style. Wat Chedi Luang has an authentic architecture that hasn’t been redone, giving it a really charming feel. Wat Chiang Man is known as ‘Elephant Temple’ and is surrounded by elephant statues.
Support Free Bird Cafe
Free Bird Cafe is a wonderful enterprise that encompasses a vegan cafe, a charity shop and a health food store, and all proceeds go towards supporting Burmese refugees in the area. It’s a great cause to support, the surroundings are lovely and the food is delicious, so I’d highly recommend checking it out for your first lunch in Chiang Mai!
One thing that Chiang Mai does really well is spas. Whether you’re after the traditional Thai massage, another type of massage or numerous other treatments, Chiang Mai certainly delivers.
Another good cause to support is the Women’s Massage Center By Ex-Prisoners. You can probably guess by the name, but this spa is staffed by ex-convicts – women who served sentences for minor offenses, often committed due to poverty. Now they are released, this spa offers them the opportunity to work and earn money, rebuilding their lives.
Another one – my personal favourite in Chiang Mai – is The Lanna Spa. They take really good care of you here, with welcome drinks, a health questionnaire, and relaxing water features. They offer a range of spa treatments and while more expensive than others, they are premium quality.
That being said, there are numerous other spas all over Chiang Mai, with prices starting from 300 Thai baht for an hour’s Thai massage.
Note: if you haven’t had a Thai massage before, do know what you’re getting yourself into. They’re not always relaxing, and can include some stretching and pulling – I recently had one where I was convinced my arm was going to pop out of its socket. It felt nice afterwards though!
Chiang Mai Markets
At night time, head to one of Chiang Mai’s famous markets. If you’ll be there on Saturday, the Saturday Night Market is a great spot to get some food – although beware, it is busy.
The Warawot Market is a local market and one of my favourites to stroll around – although it starts to close up at sunset so head there before if you want to see it in it’s full glory.
2 Days in Chiang Mai Itinerary: Day Two
Doi Suthep Temple
Head up to Doi Suthep temple on your second morning in Chiang Mai. This is the most famous temple in the city, and from here you can enjoy a gorgeous view of the city as it spreads out below.
The temple itself is quite complex and ornate and will take a while to walk around.
You can get up there a few ways. The first option is to take a songthaew from the city, which costs 50 baht and stops to pick up other passengers. Alternatively, you can take a Grab to the beginning of the cable car.
Or you can do a guided tour, which is more expensive but has the advantages of transport being arranged and a knowledgeable guide.
Hike Monk’s Trail
Back down towards the city, Monk’s Trail is a 40 minute hike to another temple, Wat Pha Lat. This trail takes you through some more jungly scenery, and while it’s not too strenuous, it is a bit uneven in places.
Once you’re back in the city, I’d recommend getting some good food – if you’re into plant-based, Goodsouls Kitchen is great.
You could also look into doing a two hour segway tour – if this intrigues you, click here!
Muay Thai Boxing or a Street Food Tour
In the evening, you could see a Muay Thai Boxing Match. I’ve never actually seen one, but they are popular all over the country. You can click here to purchase a ticket.
If you don’t fancy boxing, how about a street food tour? Click here for more information.
3 Days in Chiang Mai Itinerary
If you want to spend 3 days in Chiang Mai, consider adding Elephant Nature Park onto your 2 day itinerary for Chiang Mai city!
Elephant Nature Park
The most popular day trip from Chiang Mai is Elephant Nature Park. This is an elephant sanctuary that takes in the animals from the logging industry and riding camps.
There is obviously no riding here, and elephant interaction is kept to an absolute minimum – there is no bathing or crowding around elephants who don’t want to be touched.
You’ll learn a lot about elephants and the conservation efforts in Northern Thailand.
You can book on Elephant Nature Park’s website or via Get Your Guide here. spaces always sell out, so make sure you book in advance.
If you have longer to spend in Chiang Mai, however, I’d recommend going to one of the smaller, further away sanctuaries. This is because Elephant Nature Park, while a great project, does get more than enough tourists and is often booked out in advance, while the other sanctuaries need more funding. They generally entail a night’s stay because they are that little bit further away. You can read about them in my ‘other places to visit near Chiang Mai’ section.
Note: from research and talking to elephant conservationists in the area, I wouldn’t recommend Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.
4 Days in Chiang Mai Itinerary
Day trip from Chiang Mai; Sticky Waterfalls, hiking or more
Due to Chiang Mai’s position in Northern Thailand, there are quite a few nature-based things to do in the area. Some of these are easy to get to from the city centre and can easily be done in a day.
Doi Inthanon National Park
Home to the highest peak in Thailand, Doi Inthanon National Park is a beautiful place for hiking. It has over 350 different bird species and is a great place to enjoy nature. There are also many waterfalls in the park. It is possible to visit Doi Inthanon on a (very long) day trip, but it’s also possible to stay for a night in the park. You can do a full day tour from Chiang Mai – click here to book.
This city was an ancient capital of the Hariphunchai Empire, so is worth visiting for its historical significance and many temples. You can take a bus there from Chiang Mai, which takes around an hour, or hop on a train heading South. Alternatively, take this tour on Get Your Guide.
Probably the easiest day trip from Chiang Mai, and easy to do independently, is the Sticky Falls. Also known as the Bua Tong Waterfall, Sticky Falls is known so because you can climb it with your bare feet – there are parts that are not slippery.
However, there are some parts that are slippery, so do make sure you assess what the waterfall is like on the day. There is also a watering hole on site.
You can either take a songthaew there from Chiang Mai, or rent a bike to drive yourself there, or take a guided tour – click here to book.
Chiang Mai Grand Canyon
The Chiang Mai Grand Canyon has some parallels to the one in Arizona, hence the name, however, the canyon is filled with water. Cliff jumping is popular here – although after a back injury when I was 18 due to cliff jumping, I will never ever do it again – I think it’s incredibly dangerous. They actually also officially don’t allow swimming here! But they do allow swimming in the neighbouring waterpark, which is a fantastic place to cool off on a sweltering Chiang Mai day. You can get there by driving about 25 minutes from Chiang Mai city centre.
Pai is a small town located a 3 hour hilly drive from Chiang Mai. It’s quite a popular place amongst backpackers – it has grown into quite the touristy town, very popular with backpackers. I’m not really a fan of the town itself at all – but the surroundings are very lovely. You can enjoy them on a day trip to Chiang Mai – because Pai is a three hour drive away and from the town you’d have to organise a tour, it’s difficult to do as an independent day trip. However, you can book onto a day trip with Get Your Guide by clicking here.
Day trips to think twice about doing
There are a lot of day trips from Chiang Mai, most of which are great, but some of which should definitely be thought twice about doing. Here are my thoughts on some of them…
- Hill Neck Tribe Village: this controversial day trip involves visiting a Kayan Tribe Village. The people in this village are refugees from Burma, and have official refugee status in Thailand but are limited in what they can work as.
Many of them have turned to tourism, so in that regard, I can see why tourists would want to support them – however, there is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that the villages get very little money from tours, and it also feels like a ‘human zoo’. This article explains it a bit more.
I can see the ethical dilemma in this one, but I wouldn’t do one of these tours and would opt for a homestay (my homestay in Pong Nam Rong experience is featured in the other things to do near Chiang Mai) instead.
- Tiger Kingdom: this establishment basically keeps the tigers in a zoo, and drugs them so tourists can have photos taken with them. It’s really not a great establishment.
- Elephant Riding Camps: there’s been a lot of media attention about riding elephants and why it’s not good in the last few years; an elephant’s spirit has to be broken for them to be tamed, and even though they are very big animals, they aren’t made for riding. I’d also avoid any sanctuaries that are just established for tourists; they need to be legitimate sanctuaries that are established for elephants. You can read more about this in my Elephant Nature Park post.
5 Days in Chiang Mai Itinerary
Day trip to Chiang Rai
Located about 3 hours from Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai is a city that’s got a lot to offer tourists. If you have more time in Northern Thailand, I’d recommend spending longer than one day in Chiang Rai – it has lots of amazing temples, surrounding nature and cultural experiences where you can learn all about local tribes. You can read more about why I loved Chiang Rai so much here.
However, if you only have one day to spare, you can see the highlights on a Chiang Rai tour from Chiang Mai. Click here to read more about it and book your spot.
Extra things to do near Chiang Mai
Duara Travels Homestay
Close to Chiang Mai there are villages that work with a company called Duara Travels. Travellers can stay in a homestay with a local family, experience local culture and enjoy some beautiful nature. I stayed in Pong Nam Ron as a guest of Duara Travels, and will be writing a full blog post about it in due course!
Vipassana Meditation Doi Suthep
You can actually do a Vipassana Meditation course at Doi Suthep temple. This is intense – it’s 4+ days of not talking, only eating before 11am, no phones, books or anything else.
I did this course in 2018, and honestly, I found it tough. I actually ended up reading Harry Potter when I was meant to be meditating. However, for people that have more Hogwarts willpower than me, I’ve heard that after the tough bit it’s meant to be amazing.
I unfortunately never reached that stage, but maybe I would try it again, and it might be worth adding to your Chiang Mai itinerary!
Other Places to See Elephants
As mentioned, there are other elephant sanctuaries where you can spend time with elephants in an ethical surrounding. Most of these are a bit further from Chiang Mai, and require a night’s stay.
From research (I haven’t personally been to any of these) the best places are:
- BEES, or Burm and Emily’s elephant sanctuary, is a home for injured and elderly elephants and visitors’ fees for staying there go towards supporting the elephants.
- Mahouts Elephant Foundation is located in a Karen village and the visitors get the chance to both see the elephants and stay in the village to experience local culture.
Volunteering opportunities are both available at both sanctuaries.
WiFi in Chiang Mai
There’s a reason that Chiang Mai is known as the digital nomad capital of the world! WiFi in Chiang Mai is very very good. If you rely on WiFi to get work done, you won’t struggle at all in Chiang Mai. If you work remotely and part of your Chiang Mai itinerary will involve some laptop time, you’ll be happy to know that some of the best coworking spaces in Thailand are in Chiang Mai.
However, if you want internet when you’re out and about, you might need a local SIM. You can buy a local SIM with Klook to pick up when you arrive in the country – click here to purchase one to pick up at Bangkok airport!
Health and Safety for Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is a relatively safe city, but there are some things worth considering.
- Mosquitos and dengue fever need to be considered when going to Chiang Mai. It shouldn’t impact your trip, but there are incidents of dengue here so it’s definitely important to be aware – wear mosquito spray on any bare skin and wear long sleeves and trousers at dawn and dusk.
- Do be aware of bag-snatching and pickpocketing at night, in poorly lit areas.
- There is also the chance of being scammed, and taxis can often be a rip off. I’d recommend sticking to Grab.
- In March, the rice fields surrounding Chiang Mai are burnt, meaning there is a lot of smoke in the city, which can sometimes be dangerous.
- If you are bitten by a stray dog, go straight to the hospital and get rabies and tetanus shots (if you need a booster). I’d recommend getting the pre-exposure rabies shots before going to Chiang Mai and Thailand.
- You can’t drink the tap water in Thailand, so either boil it or use a Water to go Bottle
What to Pack for Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand
Your packing list for Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand generally includes anything that you’ll need for South East Asia, but if you’re visiting during water you might need some clothes for cooler weather as well.
- Mosquito spray
- Long trousers and loose tops with long sleeves, for dawn and dusk and also when entering temples
- A jacket if you’re visiting in the winter, as it gets cool at night
- If you’re venturing further off the tourist trail, a Thai phrasebook will come in handy
- Metal strawsare useful when you want to be a more sustainable traveller, as are tupperwares (to take leftovers home in) and reusable produce bags
Where to Go From Chiang Mai
From Chiang Mai, you can venture eastwards into Laos – many people book a slow boat ticket (which leaves from the Thai border but includes transport from Chiang Mai) to Luang Prabang. I’ve got an itinerary for 3 days in Luang Prabang as well, check it out!
Or you could explore more of Northern Thailand – this Chiang Mai itinerary should have given you an idea of what there is to explore, but somewhere else that might be worth a visit (I haven’t been there yet – it’s on my list!) is Mae Hong Soon. Further eastwards is Burma.
Make sure you check out all of my South East Asia posts for inspiration!