Tips for solo travel through Chiang Mai, Thailand

Last month I spent 10 days in Thailand in 3 areas: Bangkok, Phuket & Chiang Mai. I just happened to spend most of my time (5 days) in Chiang Mai and loved it!

A couple people asked me to put together my recommendations for the second most populated city in Thailand so I've put together this quick list.

Getting There

Chiang Mai was actually the last stop on my trip, I flew to Taipei (TPE) for a day, then Bangkok (BKK) for 2 days, and Phuket (HKT) for 4 days. Then, I finally flew in from HKT to Chiang Mai (CNX), then out of CNX to TPE where I connected back to Seattle (SEA).

There are also buses and trains to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, which took too long and I didn't think would be very fun while dragging a suitcase around.

From CNX to your hotel you can get a taxi at the airport for a decent fair. The airport is practically walking distance from the Old City, so your ride will be just a few minutes if you're staying in that area as I did.

Money, money, money

Thailand, like other Asian countries, relies mostly on cash transactions. Credit cards are accepted at some places, but there may be extra fees associated with them. If you don't have one yet, get a bank account and debit card that has no ATM fees (or reimburses them every month). I use the Charles Schwab investor checking account. There are plenty of ATMs around, so if you run out of cash you won't be too far from one. Especially if you're not worried about ATM fees.

Accommodations

Hotels in Chiang Mai are affordable around $100 USD per night for 3-4 star properties. I recommend staying in the Chiang Mai Old City, which is a large square surrounded by a moat. (Sorry, there are no drawbridges to be found). The old city is centrally located and pretty walkable to the many activities.

Getting Around

If you've never been in a tuk tuk taxi or auto rickshaw, they're definitely worth the experience. For longer rides though, I recommend using the Grab app which is similar to Uber/Lyft but, you'll pay in cash instead. Grab is definitely the most convenient way to get around and comparable to regular taxi rates.

Honestly though, I just love exploring cities on foot. I was averaging about 8 miles of walking per day in Chiang Mai some days I didn't even realize it.

Activities

This entire Thailand trip was kind of crazy because I didn't get time to book a single activity before I left home. I had to rely on the hotel concierge to help with reserving activities, this ended up being a great move because they spoke Thai (for the local companies) and very good English (for me).

That said, here's how I spent my 5 days in Chiang Mai!

  • Sunday walking night market, an absolute must! This night market goes on for blocks with lots of back alleys and side streets. Loads of variety of souvenirs and tasty street food. I recommend going earlier rather than later, some of the food stalls were closed by the time I got there. Don't forget to bargain!
    • Bargaining 101: start by asking to cut the prince in half
  • Temples
    • Golden Temple, was under construction but still some cool stuff around it
    • Silver Temple, women aren't allowed inside but there's some really cool artwork inside
    • Some other random temples I found by just walking around
  • Doi Inthanon National Park - I booked a tour through Journey Smile, they picked me up from my hotel along with other folks from their hotels. Great English speaking tour guide and he took us to a few interesting stops up the mountain. It was great to get away from the heat for the day, check the forecast and at least bring a hoodie because it's cooler at the summit - the tallest point in Thailand!
  • A cooking class! I think I booked it the day before through Thai Farm Cooking School. They took us to a local market in the morning, a tour of the farm, then we cooked 5 dishes! Really cheerful instructor and you're able to tailor your individual menu based on your preferences. Thai food is my favorite cuisine so this was a real treat for me.
  • Day trip to Chiang Rai, mainly just to see Wat Rung Khun (white temple). For about $20 USD you can get a roundtrip bus from Greenbus from Chiang Mai bus terminal 3 to Chiang Rai bus terminal 1. I ended up booking busses 5 hours apart which was plenty of time to explore on foot, check out the Kok river, see a few temples, and of course eat!
  • Kanta Elephant Sanctuary. ELEPHANTS! I was actually super nervous about doing any sort of elephant activity because I'd read so many negative things about elephant tourism in Thailand. It's safe to assume that all elephant riding programs are unethical. Kanta is one of the most well known and ethical elephant sanctuaries, with retired elephants from the tourism industry. This is an absolute must in Chiang Mai if you can make it happen!
  • Also get a massage. If you're like me and not really into (Thai style) massages - get a foot or shoulder/neck massage. You'll probably need a foot message if you're exploring the city in foot as much as I was!

Food

You can eat lunch/dinner at your hotel, but why would you? (I'll admit, I did once but only after a busy day of exploring and I was exhausted by the time I got back.)

The Old City has plenty of restaurants and street vendors during the day. There's also the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar which has plenty of street food and food court style restaurants. Nimman area is west of the Old City and has a more westernized vibe, plenty of great restaurants and coffee shops on that side. I had some amazing, and very spicy, Laab Gai/Kai (minced chicken salad) which was something I'd been craving for weeks and hadn't found elsewhere.

I found a great gluten free & vegan restaurant near the Silver Temple so I was able to enjoy some really tasty gluten free Khao Soi (the signature dish of Chiang Mai and northern Thailand). They also had an epic gluten free passion fruit cake!

Thanks for reading!

Chiang Mai was one of my favorite cities I've ever visited and highly recommend it to anyone for vacation!