Thailand’s northern land-locked city is tucked away in the mountains and far from the crowded streets of Bangkok. Here you’ll find east meets west with the perfect blend of traditional Thai culture and modern city amenities. Spend your days taking in the more than 300 temples that dot the urban landscape and your evenings wandering through the infamous night markets that sell what is indisputably the best street food in all of Asia.
You don’t have to go far from the city limits to find yourself in the lush surrounding countryside among waterfalls, local hill tribes, and elephant sanctuaries. A thriving digital nomad community also makes Chiang Mai an international hotspot known for its low cost of living and bustling startup scene. It is quite possibly the most livable city for online students we’ve encountered yet!
When you’re looking for a home away from home that will provide first-world comforts with a decent amount of culture shock and appreciation, Chiang Mai is where it’s at.
You’ll feel right at home among modern shopping malls, university students, and bars with beer pong tables right alongside the pool tables. But there’s so much more in store for you...
When you look at Chiang Mai on a map, the Old City is at the center in a square, surrounded by crumbling city walls and a moat that once contained the entire city. The old city streets are home to the most infamous and lavish Wats (temples), cafes & restaurants, hotels, and quiet residential streets. The city comes alive after dark with nightly markets and bazaars, street food stalls, and plenty of nightlife options.
Safe to say, mainly tourists stay in the old city, and many long-term travelers tend to head to the Nimman Area just northwest of the old city. Nimman is where you’ll find quiet side streets filled with apartment buildings, modern cafes, and plenty of unique shops and restaurants to explore.
Daily life feels familiar in this corner of the city, which makes it an ideal neighborhood to build a routine around all of the modern conveniences with a ton of cultural activity not far from your doorstep. In fact, public transportation in Chiang Mai is so cheap and efficient, and you’ll find that you can get almost anywhere in the city in a public red truck (called a songthaew) for $1 in 20 minutes or less. Hopping in the back of one of these with a bunch of friendly locals is the best way to get around!
Chiang Mai is home to over 300 Buddhist temples (called “wats” in Thai) - more than any other province in Thailand. You’ll see them scattered throughout the city and countryside, characterized by peaked sloping roofs and adorned with intricate carvings and Buddhist statues.
Make sure your shoulders and knees are covered, and you can respectfully observe the monks and other worshippers at as many Wats you’d like to see! The can’t-miss temples are Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Lok Molee, and Wat Chiang Man. Most wats were built in the 13th-16th centuries and are breathtaking to witness.
Tip: Head up to Doi Suthep - the highest point you can see from almost anywhere in Chiang Mai - to experience sunrise from the mountaintop temple. Grab a red truck at 5am to get up there in time!
Every single weekend, the Sunday Night Market runs right through the Old City from Thae Phae Gate to Wat Phra Singh. You can buy literally anything from the local vendors - street food bites, jewelry, clothing, unique souvenirs, and even a relaxing foot massage! This epic market is the epitome of Thai culture and can’t be missed. You could spend hours from dusk to midnight exploring all of the winding streets filled with colorful crafts and all kinds of people.
Pai is one of those places that travelers intend to visit for a couple of days and end up staying for a couple of weeks. This idyllic rural town is a very special place set high in the mountains amidst rolling hills and jungle. Take a dip in the surrounding waterfalls and hot springs, hike to the canyon for sunset, eat and shop the nightly market, and enjoy the wild nightlife. The 3hr drive north of Chiang Mai, with 762 turns, is an epic adventure in itself!
You can’t visit Thailand without seeing the elephants! Chiang Mai is surrounded by elephant sanctuaries that focus on rescuing and rehabilitating elephants from a lifetime of entertainment and logging industries. You have the chance to get up close with these majestic creatures in their natural habitat to feed and bathe them, and observe them playing. Please note: these sanctuaries do NOT support elephant riding or any unethical exploitation of these animals (and neither do we!)
Experience an evening of classic Thai boxing - Muay Thai! You can often find “fights” throughout the city that are staged, but Chiang Mai Stadium is legit. Matches occur most nights of the week where you can grab a cheap bleacher ticket at the door and join the locals to cheer for your favorite fighters!
The only thing better than indulging in all of the delicious and iconic dishes of Thailand is learning how to make them! Plenty of cooking schools offer full-day classes where a local instructor will teach you how to make several different dishes with the freshest ingredients from the local markets. Come prepared to EAT.
Doi Inthanon is the highest point in Thailand (Doi means mountain, FYI). The national park is the home of several waterfalls, a set of King and Queen Pagodas, and there are plenty of trekking tours that will take you through the rice fields and coffee plantations to reach all of the sights. Stop by a Karen Hill Tribe village to sample their coffee and learn a bit about their unique mountain-dwelling culture.
The Mae Taeng River originates from the northern mountains along the Myanmar border and runs south through lush jungles, past elephant sanctuaries, and terraced rice fields. You’ll find many tour operators ready to raft the Class III-IV rapids which bring a whole new level of excitement to seeing the beauty of Thailand’s landscape rushing by.
Once you’ve immersed yourself in the culture of Chiang Mai, it’s nearly impossible to say goodbye. Thailand is called “The Land of Smiles” for a reason, because you won’t find this kind of friendliness and hospitality anywhere else on Earth.
Thailand is an overwhelmingly large country, and many backpackers and tourists head right for the islands for the sun and sand. But this gem up north near the Myanmar border holds all of the old world charm and wonder of Thai culture that you’ve traveled all this way to experience.
These cultural highlights are only a handful of reasons why we keep returning to Chiang Mai to experience again and again with new groups of Edumads, and we won’t be stopping anytime soon!