10 Things That Will Keep You Coming Back to Chiang Mai, Thailand

Monk's Trail in Chiang Mai Thailand

Chiang Mai is a fascinating city. I’ve met more Westerners living here than anywhere else in Thailand, maybe even Asia. You meet them at the coffee shops, street markets, restaurants, and bars. There are many restaurants here in Chiang Mai, and they all have delicious food. I’ve only scratched the surface of this city. But here are 10 Things I have learned in Chiang Mai, Thailand, so far.

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Check out one of my favorite cafes in Chiang Mai: A Cover Charge Cafe: Baristro Asian Style in Chiang Mai.

10 Things I Learned in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Perfect for Expats

Chiang Mai is the second city in Thailand. It’s the smaller, more relaxed answer to the madness of Bangkok. The city is relaxing, like Phuket, but without the beaches. It was once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom but now is a significant draw for backpackers and digital nomads. Older ex-pats, humanitarians, and foodies flock here. Many people return again and again. Some people stayed for years when they had meant to stay only a few weeks. It’s definitely a place I am considering too.

There’s an energy in the city that captivates those who visit. Whether you seek a trekking adventure or a spiritual awakening, you can travel from temple to temple. Trust me, there are many to choose from. The city offers plenty of things to do, including cooking classes, temple visits, street food, and culture. But beyond its boundaries, you’ll find natural perfection, awe-inspiring animals, and unique communities deep into the mountains. It’s a remarkable city with much to offer. The following are some of the best attractions to explore. And many attractions you’ll want to experience are specific to Thailand. But be careful; the city should have built decent sidewalks to get to many of them.

1. Visit the Long Neck Hill Tribe

You’ve seen the pictures of the Karen Long Neck Tribe. This group of refugees from Burma settled in the hills of Chiang Mai, Thailand. They are highly regarded for their needlework skills. However, they are most known for the rings they wear around their necks. The rings appear to stretch their necks to unnatural lengths. In reality, their necks are not stretched. The weight of the brass rings pushes down on their clavicles, squashing their shoulders. The rings are not separate, as you’d expect, but one piece that is changed every two years or so.

The reason they wear them is debated. However, according to village literature, they were:

  • A method used to subdue them
  • Considered a beauty accessory
  • A deterrent against tiger attacks

Regardless, the origin of the rings is unclear. The tradition lives on as they are worn proudly by the 40,000 women of the long-neck tribes to this day.

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2. Temple Tours

Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Sri Suphan (Silver Temple) & Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Chiang Mai is home to many stunning temples in Thailand. With its ancient pagoda, Wat Chedi Luang stands in the city center. Wat Sri Suphan, known as the Silver Temple, dazzles with intricate silverwork but requires an entrance fee and does not allow women to enter the main hall. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, perched on a mountain, offers breathtaking views and spiritual solace. Visitors should dress modestly and be prepared to remove their shoes. Each temple provides a unique glimpse into Thai culture and history.

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3. Day Trip to Chiang Rai’s Wat Rung Khun

Aka White Temple

Are you looking for one more unique temple? Take a day trip from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, three hours to the north, to see the Wat Rung Khun or White Temple. We booked a day trip that included the White Temple, the Mekong River, lunch, and shopping overlooking the Golden Triangle.

Entrance Fee

The entrance fee for adults is 50 Thai Baht, approximately $1.50 USD. This fee helps maintain and restore the temple.

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4. Eat Khao Soi & Drink Lemon Iced Tea

Eating Khao Soi was the first thing we ate after arriving in Chiang Mai. It was freaking good, and it was also the very last thing we did before leaving Chiang Mai. Khao Soi, a northern Thai coconut curry soup, is an iconic part of the region’s cuisine. It is made with red curry, a splash of coconut milk, a chicken drumstick, and crunchy noodles. The flavors are layered, sweet, sour, and spicy. It’s served with red onions, herbs, and a lime wedge. Order a glass of the lemon iced tea, which is dark in color and spicy-sweet.

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5. Hail a Red Truck (songthaew) or Tuk Tuk

This is our third trip to Thailand but our first encounter with the songthaew or red trucks. These shared taxi trucks are a very cheap mode of transportation found only in Chiang Mai (as far as I know). You will see dozens of them throughout the city. They don’t have scheduled routes. If you stand on the side of the road long enough you’ll get their attention. They will slow down or beep at you. Just tell them where you are going , and they will nod yes or no depending on where they are going.

How Much Does a Songthaew Cost?

The standard charge is 20 baht unless you ask how much they charge, a sure sign of a tourist, then they will immediately quote you double. So Don’t ask.

Tip #1

Grab a hotel card or map at the front desk and give that to your taxi, tuk-tuk or songthaew driver to make sure you get to your destination. I suggest you check out a local cafe or coffee shop.

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6. Street Food Tour

The street food in Thailand is delicious. We normally eat more street food than in restaurants except when we were in Chiang Mai. It was a pretty even distribution because there were so many delicious restaurants we wanted to try. We noticed off the bat that many street vendors had signs that were only in Thai. Some things were pretty easy to distinguish, but some of it wasn’t. Not eating pork complicated the street food experience because so much of it was pork. The street tour hooks you identify local specialties, where to get the best of them. We also learned how to order in Thai and ask for no pork.

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7. Thai Massage

I love the peaceful feeling of a massage. I have fallen asleep on numerous occasions. However, none of those times involved a Thai Massage. A Thai Massage is the antithesis of peace and relaxation. You are kneaded with knuckles, elbows, and forearms, bent like a pretzel, sat on, pulled, stretched, and folded into unnatural, therapeutic positions.

Steven hates them and always opts for aromatherapy massages, but I love them for their ability to clear the mind and remove tension, aches, and pains.

How Much Does a Massage Cost?

Massages are cheap in Thailand but even cheaper in Chiang Mai. Full body massages can cost between 200 and 400 Baht (USD) for 60 minutes, with the high end being pretty pricey for Thailand. I highly recommend you splurge for at least 90 minutes. You can also opt for a foot or neck and shoulder massage, which is a fraction of the price and usually lasts 15-30 minutes.

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8. Doi Inthanon National Park

This is the highest peak in Thailand, and the national park that surrounds it is filled with many natural wonders that draw people to this region. Located only 2 hours from the city, you can trek, hike the mountain, or take a more leisurely route around the park. Several waterfalls and a hill tribe village are other draws, along with two pagodas built to honor King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit.

You’ll want to hire a driver for the day or rent a motorbike and see the sights on your own, as you won’t be able to walk through the entire park on foot. But it’s only about a two-hour drive from the city, so if you leave early, you can enjoy a full and satisfying day on the mountain. Make sure to stick around for the monks chanting around 6 pm.

Entrance Fee:

300 Baht. 10 Baht per motorcycle.

9. Monk Chat

A few of the temples in the city have a “Monk Chat” program where curious visitors can speak to the monks about almost any aspect of life. This is an unusual activity where you can go and ask Buddhist Monks questions about anything.  You get to help them practice their English and to find out more about their daily lives, Buddhism, and Thai culture.  This is the perfect opportunity to learn something you can’t find online or in a textbook.

10. Night Bazaar

This is a great spot for shopping if you are prepared to do some haggling and you don’t mind the crowds. There are some great finds there, from clothes and scarves to carvings and paper lanterns. Because the Night Bazaar attracts many tourists, you may want to visit earlier rather than later. You may even be lucky enough to be the “first sale” which entitles you to a “discount”. I love bargaining with vendors. Once a sale is made, the money you hand them is then waved over their remaining goods in the hopes that that money will multiply and more sales will follow.

What’s your favorite thing to do in Thailand? Let me know in the comments below.

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  1. Caitlin

    Absolutely stunning photos – and I love the bits of culture too. I’d love to visit Thailand one day. My husband and I are big eaters, so I’m thrilled to hear you loved the food 🙂

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Thank you so much. Thailand is such an awesome place to visit for the food, weather, people and culture. They are some of the most welcoming people I have ever met and I hope you get to visit one day.

  2. Abby

    The food in Thailand was one of my favorite parts of traveling there. This post makes me wish I went to Chiang Mai! Well, another reason to come back!

    1. duffelbagspouse

      The good thing is it isn’t going away, but I highly suggest you put it on your bucket list if you get a chance to return to Thailand.

  3. Elizabeth O.

    Oh, Thailand looks so peaceful and very full of life! It’s an adventure waiting to happen! I would love to go there and just enjoy all that they have to offer!

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Thailand is our favorite country in Asia because of its diversity in the beaches, mountains, food and native peoples.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      It looks even more painful in person. Their voices are affected and they cannot live without out them after a while because their necks can’t support the weight of their heads.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      The street food is better in many cases than the food you’ll get in a restaurant. And you are less likely to get food poisoning in street food as well.

  4. Liana

    Asia as always had some kind of appealing to me and yet, I’ve never set a food on it. It will come I know and the first thing I want to do is Chiang Mai and Phuket. I’ve heard so much about it and I definitely want to go to enjoy the Street food tour, the temples and the Bazaar. Thanks for the tips!

    1. duffelbagspouse

      I think that Chiang Mai, Phuket and Bangkok too would be a great trilogy for your first trip over here. They are all in Thailand but offer the diversity usually matched between countries. Make sure you read about both Bangkok and Phuket on my blog and subscribe to the free monthly newsletter.

  5. Viajar pela história - Catarina Leonardo

    I totally agree you with. Chatting with the monks, eating street food and the thai massages were great things to experience Thailand. I´ve been in Chiag Mai and i really liked the city!

  6. Eena

    I have only been to Bangkok for quite a lot of times, but have always wanted to go visit Chiang Mai. This is truly an interesting review of the city and I love how in depth it is. Also, I never knew that they still practice the long neck culture! Something new indeed.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      You will love Chiang Mai. It is a decent size city but has more of a laid back vibe than Bangkok and the food was top notch too. And yes those ladies are going strong. I did some research and there are about 4,500 of them all around the world.

  7. Matt

    Wow, bought back so many good memories. I loved the Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai, in fact, I loved everything about it. Lovely blog and some great little nuggets in here, I hope I get to go back soon!

    1. duffelbagspouse

      That night bazaar is a madhouse, lol. But I ended up tasting some things I had missed and buying a few souvenirs. But we decided we will have to come back for an extended period of time when we retire because of the cost of living and expat community.

    2. duffelbagspouse

      You will love Chiang Mai. It is a decent size city but has more of a laid back vibe than Bangkok and the food was top notch too.

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