The city of Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand is incredibly popular with backpackers (for a good reason!) and should not be missed on any Thailand backpacking trip! Chiang Mai is considered the spiritual center of the country with an incredible number of temples and is also the starting point for excursions and tours in the great nature of Northern Thailand. In addition, Chiang Mai is also popular among digital nomads for its low cost of living and fast internet, and some visitors regularly stay here for a few weeks or months to work online from Chiang Mai. On my backpacking trip around Southeast Asia, I stopped for three weeks in Chiang Mai (between my travels through Myanmar and Vietnam) to rest and work on my travel blog. I had ample opportunity to discover Chiang Mai extensively. Here I will tell you everything about backpacking Chiang Mai, including the best things to see, the best activities and further important travel tips for your stay in Chiang Mai.
By the way: Do you also head south? Read everything about island hopping in Thailand here!
Backpacking Chiang Mai: Best Things to Do & See around Chiang Mai!
Read more about what you can do and see when backpacking around Chiang Mai. You’ll definitely not get bored in Chiang Mai, Thailand!
Visit the beautiful temples in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is primarily known as a spiritual center and therefore for its incredible temples. Especially in the Old Town, there is one temple next to the other. While some are larger and more frequently visited by tourists, others are completely undiscovered and you will have some temples for you alone! Chiang Mai’s three most famous and most visited tourist destinations are Wat Chedi, Wat Phra Sing and Wat Phan Tao.
Wat Chedi Luang
The Wat Chedi Temple is probably the most visited temple in Chiang Mai and is located right in the center of the old town. Here you can not only visit the great and impressive temple complex, but also talk with young monks at the “monk chat” (see below). Note, however, that especially for women, strict attention is paid to the dress code and you should have covered your shoulders and legs. In addition, there are some areas of the temple that women are not allowed to enter due to religious reasons. Since this temple is always well visited by tourists, it is worthwhile stopping by early in the morning or just before sunset. The entrance fee is 40 baht (about 1 €) and the temple is one of the few for which you have to pay an entrance fee.
Wat Phan Tao
The slightly smaller Wat Phan Tao Temple is right next to the Wat Chedi. This one is built entirely of wood and a short visit is worthwhile (but there is not much to see).
Wat Phra Singh
Just a few minutes from Wat Chedi and Wat Phan Tao, you will find the War Phra Singh temple complex. You should not miss this one when backpacking Chiang Mai and the temple is one of the most famous sights in Chiang Mai.
Wat Suan Dok
Here is an insider tip to my absolute favorite temple in Chiang Mai. The Wat Suan Dok is located just outside the Old Town in the west, but is still easily accessible by bike or the shared taxi. This amazingly impressive temple complex is full of stupas and pagodas and provides the perfect backdrop for great photos. The best part? The temple is still very unknown despite its beauty (probably because it is not right in the center) and I had the Wat Suan Dok during my visit actually almost completely to myself!
Learn more about the life of the monks at the “Monk Chat”
A very cool program that you should definitely attend in Chiang Mai is the “monk chat”. In several temples of the city (for example, in the famous Wat Chedi) you will find young monks with whom you can talk. The program helps tourists to learn more about the life of the monks and at the same time the young monks can practice their English. Here you can learn more about everyday life in the temple, as well as lern the reasons to become a monk. All this is of course free! I attended the monk chat at Wat Chedi and you see benches in the shade next to the big temple, where some monks are waiting for you. Just sit down and start a conversation!
Read more about the places and times for the monk chat here.
Visit the night markets in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is also known for its huge night markets where you can find everything you are looking for. Particularly popular are the large night markets in the east of the old town (e.g. the Ansuran Night Bazaar), where you can find all the souvenirs and you should go for a stroll through the huge market halls. Of course, these markets are very touristy, but you will find beautiful souvenirs for a small price.
In addition to the night markets for shopping you should not miss the food markets. I regularly visited the night market directly at the North Gate, where you can find delicious street food for little money. Almost every day, I have treated myself to delicious smoothies, mango sticky rice or similar.
Explore the “Walking Street“ on the weekends
In addition to the markets just mentioned, there are also two very special night markets on the weekend.
Saturday evening, at the south gate of the old town, you will find Wua Lai Walking Street, where the street is closed to traffic for the big market. On Sunday night, you will find Tha Phea Walking Street right in the center of the old town, where the main street is transformed into a huge and endless market. In addition to souvenirs, you can also find delicious street food here. Note, however, that it is quite full in the market and therefore it takes some time to move around.
Enjoy the view from the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple complex
Doi Suthep Temple is one of Chiang Mai’s most popular and well-known attractions and a place you shouldn’t miss when backpacking Chiang Mai. This one is located just outside the city on a hill, from which you have a great view of Chiang Mai. You reach the Doi Suthep with the Songthaew (shared taxi) for 40 Baht. First you have to go to the Chiang Mai Zoo, you can get there from the old town with the Songthaew (usually for 20 Baht). At the zoo, the Songthaews start their journey up to Doi Suthep. Here you have to wait a bit until enough people come together. Same procedure for the way back, however, I even got a shared taxi directly into the old town from the temple. The way up to the temple takes about half an hour and is very curvy. Once at the top, there are still 200 steps to go upstairs until you are in the temple complex. In the golden Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple complex, there are countless statues, Buddhas and pagodas. In addition, you have here (at least if the sky is clear) a great view of Chiang Mai. The entrance fee is 30 baht. If you do not want to climb the steps yourself, you can even use a lift for a small fee of 50 baht!
Do a cooking class
Chiang Mai is known for the incredibly delicious food and for me, Thai is probably one of my favorite cuisines. In the north, there are some great dishes that you might find difficult to get in other parts of Thailand, such as Khao Soi. A popular activity in Chiang Mai is a cooking class where you can cook (and of course eat) some delicious dishes. There are quite a few cooking schools in town, and some even include a visit to a local market where the ingredients are freshly bought.
Treat yourself for a Thai massage
The countless good and cheap massage studios are one of the highlights in Thailand and also when backpacking Chiang Mai, you will find great spas at every corner where you can relax for a while. Here, a one-hour foot or Thai massage usually costs 200 baht (about 5 €), an oil massage is available for 300 baht. By the way, there are also very special massage studios in Chiang Mai. This includes, for example, the “Prison Massage”, where inmates of the prison give you a massage as part of rehabilitation. These massages are cheap and very popular – it’s best to stop by early in the morning and make an appointment. In addition, Chiang Mai also has the “blind massage”, where blind people massage you.
Visit the city walls and gates of Chiang Mai’s Old Town
The old town in Chiang Mai is surrounded by city walls and a river and tourists especially like to visit the “North Gate” and the “East Gate”. Incidentally, these are no longer the original walls, but have been extensively renovated and rebuilt. Nevertheless, the old town makes Chiang Mai unique and the walls reminded me of the citadel in Mandalay, Myanmar.
Visit an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai
While there were only a few Elephant Sanctuaries on my first visit to Chiang Mai in 2014(and these were little visited), a veritable boom of “ethical” elephant sanctuaries started in recent years, and by now you’ll find plenty of of elephant parks outside the city You can visit and get very close to the elephants. I can’t tell you how ethical all of this really is (see below), but the visit is a great experience. Note, however, that you should be a bit picky since there’s a large number of parks. Probably the best and by far the most ethical park is the “Elephant Nature Park“, where you have to order your ticket several weeks in advance, because they are always fully booked. The “Elephant Jungle Sanctuary” also has a good reputation, which I have visited. For 1,700 Baht you can feed elephants here for half a day and play with the animals in the mud and in the water. Note, however, that the park is about 1.5-2 hours outside of Chiang Mai, so you have to spend a while in a Songthaew to see the elephants.
I booked my ticket through the official website online and was picked up at my accommodation by the shared taxi at the agreed time and we went to the sanctuary, where I had a great experience before heading back to Chiang Mai. My tip would be the following: Visit either the Elephant Nature Park or the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, as these two parks are probably the most ethical, while other parks often do not really care about elephants.
Relax in the beautiful cafés and restaurants in Chiang Mai
In addition to all the temples, markets and attractions in Chiang Mai, you have the perfect opportunity to just relax and recover from backpacking. In Chiang Mai, you have countless great cafés where you can enjoy good coffee, cake and everything your heart desires. Therefore, Chiang Mai is also the perfect place if you need a break from Asian food and if you want to enjoy some of the western coffee culture. Also note that in Chiang Mai there are some Northern Thai specialties that you will not find in other parts of the country. This includes Khao Soi – one of my favorite Thai dishes that you must try!
You can find a great overview of cafés and restaurants in Chiang Mai at Have I Bean.
Enjoy the nightlife of Chiang Mais
Let’s be honest – the nightlife in Chiang Mai does not come close to Bangkok. However, you have cool options to enjoy a few drinks in the evening and to party for a little bit. The most popular backpacker bar is the Zoe in Yellow, which is part of a small party mile. Although I find this one a bit trashy, you might enjoy it after a few drinks and this is the place where especially all (younger) backpackers in Chiang Mai come together. As soon as the Zoe closes at midnight, the crowd moves on to Spicy, to the east of the Old Town. This is probably the only real club in Chiang Mai, which is open until about half past one. Here you will find mainly drunk tourists and backpackers and I personally would not go there sober – but I’m sure you can have fun there. My favorite place to party in Chiang Mai was probably the Riverside Bar. This is located east of the old town on the river bank, Here you will find only a few tourists and mainly locals. Every night there is cool live music and I can only recommend this bar.
Go for a Jungle Trek in Chiang Mai
Of course, Chiang Mai is also considered a great starting point to explore nature in the north of Thailand. Especially popular are the Jungle Treks. You can book a tour in any tourism office of the city and the trips usually take 3-4 days. The program varies depending on the agency, but usually the tour includes some hiking, visiting waterfalls, visiting local tribes and visiting or staying overnight in local villages. I really enjoyed exploring the Chiang Mai area and especially if you like nature and hiking, you should not miss this.
Do a Bungee Jump
The brave and adventurous among you will have the opportunity to go for a bungee jump in Chiang Mai! I actually jumped here, too. For about 50-60 € (depending on the package and if including photos and videos) you can jump down 50 meters. To be honest, a bungee jump is certainly not for the faint-hearted, and I found the jump a lot more scary than my skydive in Hawaii. Nevertheless, I’m glad for the experience and the low prices makes Chiang Mai the perfect place for it!
Explore the rainforest while Ziplining
A bungee jump is too much for you? Then Ziplining might be a cool alternative. For little money you can fly through the rainforest in northern Thailand!
Visit a Ladyboy Show in Chiang Mai
One of the coolest experiences in Chiang Mai is a visit to a ladyboy show. The Ladyboy Cabaret Show is the most famous show in Chiang Mai and is running at 9:30pm and 11:00pm at the Anusarn Night Market. Admission is 290 baht, which includes a drink. Note, by the way, that this show has nothing to do with the classic “ping pong” shows in, for example, Bangkok. This is not a sex show. Instead, ladyboys perform famous songs with great a show performance and you will be entertained for sure.
Find more information about the Ladyboy Cabaret Show in Chiang Mai here.
Spend a few days in Pai
The hippie town of Pai enjoys huge popularity, especially among backpackers, and Chiang Mai is the perfect base for a trip to Pai. Buses or minivans run from Chiang Mai to Pai regularly and for only a few euros. Note, however, that the 3-4 hour ride along the winding mountain roads is not for people with weak stomachs. But it’s worth it! Pai is the perfect place to relax in cozy restaurants and cafés, to get to know other backpackers and to enjoy the great nature of Northern Thailand. My advice: Rent a scooter and explore the surroundings, where you’ll find numerous waterfalls, viewpoints and the famous Pai Canyon. However, for a day trip from Chiang Mai, Pai is too far and I recommend staying there for at least two nights. Many backpackers stay here much longer than initially planned, since the atmosphere is just perfect.
Visit the Hang Dong Canyon (Chiang Mai Canyon)
A popular excursion from Chiang Mai is the Hang Dong Canyon, south of Chiang Mai. This one is best reached by scooter and you can swim and enjoy the great outdoors.
Explore the Doi Inthanon national park
This is probably the most popular day trip from Chiang Mai. Here you will find the highest mountain in Thailand and beautiful nature, where you are far away from the hectic streets of Chiang Mai. The best way to reach the Doi Inthanon National Park is by scooter or by booking one of the day tours offered at every corner in Chiang Mai. The park is approximately 60 kilometers from Chiang Mai and entrance fee is 300 baht.
More information and travel tips for backpacking Chiang Mai
Here I answer all important further questions about your Chiang Mai backpacking experience and give you further travel tips so that you are well prepared for your stay in Chiang Mai.
How do I get to Chiang Mai when backpacking Thailand?
Chiang Mai is well connected. From Bangkok, you can reach the city in the north either by train, bus or plane. Also, you can fly directly to and from Chiang Mai around many other cities and countries in Asia.
Where do I sleep in Chiang Mai?
There are a lot of accommodation options in Chiang Mai and you are spoiled for choice. Whether hostels, guest houses or luxury hotels, in Chiang Mai you will find everything. Regarding the location, I recommend you to stay in a place in the old town. Here you have the perfect starting point for sightseeing around Chiang Mai, the nightlife and for the countless markets and restaurants.
How do I get around in Chiang Mai? How’s public transport?
Especially the old town in Chiang Mai can be explored by foot. But if this is too exhausting for you in the heat, you could borrow a bicycle. If you stay longer in Chiang Mai, you should register for the “Mobike” App. At every corner you can see the orange bicycles and for little money you can take one of the bicycles and leave it after use. For longer distances, there is also the App Grab in Chiang Mai, which is considered as the Asian Uber pendant. There are no classic taxis in Chiang Mai, though you’ll find the red Songthaews (shared taxis). These can be stopped on the road, you need to tell your destination (best a known place like the “North Gate” or the “Maya Mall”, as the drivers do not know specific addresses). A ride is ALWAYS 20 baht, but tourists are often asked for a little more and you should insist on the 20 baht.
How long should I visit Chiang Mai while backpacking Thailand?
This depends entirely on you or your priorities. During my first visit to Chiang Mai, I spent about a week in the city. That was plenty of time to visit the temples and attractions in Chiang Mai, do a 3-day jungle trek, go for the bungee jump and ziplining, and to enjoy some of the city’s restaurants and cafés. On my second visit in 2019, I even stayed there for 3 weeks, but spent most of my time working on my blog. Basically, 1-2 days are enough to visit the main Chiang Mai attractions (such as the temples). It all depends on you. Want to do a jungle trek? Visit an Elephant Sanctuary? Just relax for a few days? Chiang Mai is a perfect place to stay a little longer than originally planned.
What’s the best season for backpacking Chiang Mai?
The best time for Chiang Mai or for Thailand in general is the winter, when it is a bit cooler. In the summer, the rainy season (from around June) ensures a humid climate and precipitation. However, I have visited Thailand during the rainy season and honestly it is not as bad as you might think. Although there are 1-2 heavy rains each day, hours of heavy rain (as in Europe) is unusual and you can still explore the country. Note, however, that at some point around February, the “Burning Season” begins in northern Thailand. For a few weeks (roughly from February to April), the farmers burn down their corn fields around the Chiang Mai district. Combined with the hot, dry climate, the air is incredibly polluted at this time and many locals wear a face mask while the digital nomads leave the city. If you only visit Chiang Mai as a tourist for a few days, this should not stop you from backpacking in northern Thailand. For a longer stay, however, these months are not the best choice.
Where can I go partying in Chiang Mai? How’s the nightlife?
Chiang Mai is more of a spiritual center and you will not find a wild nightlife like Bangkok or Koh Phangan. Of course, you can go partying for a bit. The largest and most popular backpacker bar is Zoe in Yellow in the Old Town. At midnight, however, this bar closes and travelers move on to Spicy – the only proper club in Chiang Mai, which is open until about 1:30. I wouldn’t go there sober though. If you prefer a more relaxed night, there are also some nice bars in Chiang Mai. I particularly liked the Riverside Bar in the east of the old town. Here you meet a lot more locals than tourists, and there is cool live music every night.
How’s the digital nomad scene in Chiang Mai?
Chiang Mai is a popular place for people who work online. Here’s my experience.
Where should I live as a digital nomad in Chiang Mai?
During my research in advance, I have regularly read about the area around Nimman Road, which was recommended as the perfect hotspot for digital nomads – and that’s why I spent my first nights there. However, I recommend (especially as tourist) to skip the Nimman area and I can not understand the hype about this neighborhood. Here you will find no attractions, no markets and no delicious Thai restaurants, but only modern cafés and overpriced restaurants (where I had to pay for my coffee or my dinner sometimes more than in Germany). Also, you are pretty cut off from the old town and you will always depend on taxis to get around. The only thing you can find here are expensive shopping malls full of rich Asian tourists. Since this is probably not the focus when backpacking Chiang Mai, I advise against staying in Nimman.
After a few days in Nimmst, I moved to the Old Town (near North Gate) and had a great time. Here I was surrounded by great markets, delicious restaurants and modern cafés. I worked from the “In The City” Coworking Space, where I had not only a work space with fast Internet, but also fresh fruit, coffee and lunch included for little money. This was the perfect place for me to work on my blog.
By the way, Santitham is also a cool area for digital nomads in Chiang Mai. This area is located just north of Nimman and is less modern and therefore very cheap. Good cafés and even coworking spaces can be found here too.
To find a place to stay for a longer period of time, I suggest you take a look at the countless Facebook groups on Housing in Chiang Mai. There are often apartments offered. Otherwise, it makes sense to book a cheap place for the first few days from where you can have a look at the condos and rental apartments offered in person – the availability here depends heavily on the season.
Where can digital nomads in Chiang Mai work?
In Chiang Mai, there are countless good places to work from. So you can find some coworking spaces in the city, most of them in Nimman. The most famous coworking space is probably the Punspace, but this one is always very crowded. Personally, I worked in the Old Town in the “in the City” Coworking Space, which was a great deal. Here you can get free coffee, fruit and even a lunch at your workplace!
Travel tips for the right digital nomad health insurance
If you stay abroad longer as a digital nomad, it is incredibly important for you to have the right health insurance – since for longer stays, the classic “holiday insurance” is often no longer applicable. Here I can recommend *SafetyWing, an insurance created especially for digital nomads. You can get health and travel insurance with a flexible start / end point for only $ 37 per 4 weeks and the insurance is valid both abroad and at home. This deal gives you health insurance and travel insurance in one for a very low price!
*More information on the SafetyWing insurance for digital nomads can be found here!
How ethical is animal tourism in Chiang Mai?
As described above, a visit to the Elephant Sanctuary is one of the major attractions in Chiang Mai for many backpackers and tourists. But how ethical is it? This is hard to answer, here I will tell you about my opinion. During my first visit to Chiang Mai in the summer of 2014, there were almost none of these sanctuaries. Instead, the highlight for every Chiang Mai tourist was a visit to the elephant camp, where they were allowed to ride an elephant. However, in recent years, a whole new awareness has developed: regularly on Social Media, videos were shared about the poor treatment of elephants and every tourist was strongly advised not to ride an elephant. The tourism industry in Chiang Mai has now adapted to this new awareness. More and more riding camps were closed, new sanctuaries were established and the elephants were transported from one to the other. Although you will still find the opportunity to ride an elephant, it’s not properly advertised anymore (fortunately).
Meanwhile, there are elephant sanctuaries popping up everywhere, raising the question on how ethical these sanctuaries really are. Of course, this is sometimes hard to tell and certainly the animals are better off than in the riding camp. Nevertheless, you should do some research about which camp you visit. The most popular one is probably the “Elephant Jungle Camp”, also the “Elephant Jungle Sanctuary” still has a good reputation.
By the way, in Chiang Mai (as in other places in Thailand) you can also find the “Tiger Kingdom”, where you can cuddle and pet anesthetized and probably drugged tigers and pose for photos with them. These parks emphasize hat the animals would only be well tamed and not drugged. I’m not sure if I’d believe this and I would rather skip this attraction in Chiang Mai.
Is Chiang Mai safe for backpackers?
Here the answer is easy. Chiang Mai is (like Thailand in general) a very safe destination for backpacking. The locals are incredibly friendly and the only “danger” here is that a taxi driver or souvenir vendor will ask you for too much money (always haggle).
Budget for Backpacking Chiang Mai: How expensive is Chiang Mai?
In general, you can experience a lot in Chiang Mai for very little money. Beds in hostels are available for a few euros and private rooms in guest houses are very cheap. As in other parts of Thailand, you get a lot for little money and you do not have to give up any comfort when backpacking on a budget in Chiang Mai. In general, the north of the country is significantly cheaper than the tourist islands in the south of Thailand. Note, however, that Chiang Mai is also very touristy. Especially in the center of the old town and in the hip district along the Nimman Road you will probably pay almost the same price as in Germany in some pretty cafés. On the other hand, there are also countless small Thai restaurants and night markets with street stalls, where you can get a big dish for 1€. It’s your choice!
Where should I go backpacking after visiting Chiang Mai?
Chiang Mai is conveniently located in northern Thailand and a real hub from which you can reach many other parts and destinations in Southeast Asia. Thanks to do the international airport you can find cheap direct flights to many countries in Asia. You’re also well connected by public transport. From Bangkok, you can reach Chiang Mai by plane, train or bus. In a few hours, you can reach the hippie village of Pai or the town of Chiang Rai, near the border with Laos. From there, many backpackers continue to travel to Laos, the two-day boat trip along the Mekong to Luang Prabang in Laos is pretty popular (tickets for this route can be found in the travel agencies in Chiang Mai). Chiang Mai can therefore be combined with your backpacking route through Asia and you should not miss this charming city.
What makes Chiang Mai so special for backpackers?
As you quickly realize, Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s most popular backpacking destinations. But what exactly makes Chiang Mai special, why is the city in northern Thailand so popular among travelers? Everyone has to decide for themselves. For me personally, Chiang Mai is the perfect starting point for the beautiful north of Thailand as well as one of those places where you can easily settle for a few days (or weeks) to work or just to relax and unwind. The friendly locals, the low cost of living and the great restaurants and cafés will make sure you have a great time here.
Conclusion about backpacking Chiang Mai
As you can see, I am thrilled with Chiang Mai and I can recommend to every backpacker to visit this city in the north of Thailand. Whether you love nature, temples or just good food – you’ll be happy in Chiang Mai.
Have you already been backpacking in Chiang Mai? What was your highlight? Let me know in the comments!
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