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The Ultimate Guide to Chiang Mai, Thailand

Elephant Retirement Park, The Ultimate Guide to Chiang Mai, Thailand

This post – The Ultimate Guide to Chiang Mai, Thailand – is in collaboration with The Dragon Trip. This piece of content is produced in exchange for, and based on my experience in joining one of their tours. 

Last month I finished a whirlwind 31 Day tour around south east Asia with The Dragon Trip as part of my year long backpacking trip. The first stop on our itinerary was the Thai city of Chiang Mai, nestled in the north of country and easily accessible from Bangkok. It was the perfect introduction to Thailand and a great way to ease ourselves into the tour too. In fact,  it remains one of my absolute highlights and somewhere I definitely plan on going back to for longer one day! In case you’re thinking of visiting, here’s the ultimate guide to Chiang Mai, Thailand, and a little more about The Dragon Trip.

Things you need to know

Currency: Thai Baht 

Plug type: European

Seasons:

  • December > February: ‘cool’ season (best time to visit
  • March > June: ‘hot’ season (very humid)
  • June > November: ‘wet’ season (often short and sharp)

Useful language:

Hello: ‘swaadi-ka’

Thank you: ‘kap-khun-ka’

No want thanks (a polite way to refuse someone trying to sell you something etc in the street): ‘my ow ka’

Getting around:

  • Grab App (like Uber)
  • Songtaew (red trucks that you hail, shared ride system featuring benches, set price per head)
  • Tuktuk (be careful to negotiate!)
  • Hire a moped (about 150 baht a day, must leave a deposit, ensure you take videos/photos of the bike to avoid ‘you caused damage’ scam!)

Getting there

Chiang Mai is locates 700km north of Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, and although there are regularly cheap flights both nationally and internationally, my preferred mode of travel is by sleeper train!

Initially I was apprehensive about the idea of a 12 hour train journey through the night but I’m so glad that The Dragon Trip opted for this form of transport. Not only is it more environmentally friendly and economical, it’s also much more comfortable than it sounds.

A second class sleeper seat folds out in to a bunk-style bed complete with sheets, pillow and a blanket as well as a privacy curtain. Aside from the early wake up ready to arrive into Chiang Mai, it’s actually one of the better night sleeps I’ve had in my life. So much so, that when I later independently travelled from Bangkok down towards the Gulf of Thailand for Koh Samui and Koh Tao, I opted for another night by sleeper train.

All your travel tickets are pre-booked for you within The Dragon Trip, so you don’t have to worry about anything more than the weighty decision of which snacks you’re going to bring for the journey.

If you’re booking independently, I recommend using 12GoAsia to reserve your tickets, pay online and then collect before you travel.

Bangkok to Chiang Mai Sleeper train
Bangkok to Chiang Mai Sleeper Train

Where to stay

Deejai Backpackers Chiang Mai

this is where the Dragon Trip put us up. The location is brilliant and the hostel is calm and friendly with access to a bar and swimming pool too!

Airbnb

Has lots of rooms and guest houses! If you’ve never used Airbnb before, click here for £34 off your stay.

Things to do

Chiang Mai Elephant Retirement Park

The Chiang Mai Elephant Retirement Park is an ethical way to experience the sheer overwhelming joy that is these magnificent creatures.

The Retirement Park has rescued elephants that have been abused by the tourism industry for entertainment and riding and provides them with a safe home. It’s evident from the vast open spaces and care from the handlers that they’re well looked after here. I was most impressed that the elephants had freedom when interacting visitors; they came and went to us as they pleased rather than the other way round.

This excursion was arranged by and included in The Dragon Trip. We were the only group there and the small numbers made for an intimate and relaxed experience.

Unfortunately there are still a lot of unethical and damaging practices in Thailand that tourists continue to ignorantly support; never visit any animal centre that allows riding, chains or whips animals or permits you to ‘cuddle’ tigers etc. You’d be funding abuse.

Get a massage from an ex-convict at Lila Spa

Sounds crazy, right? In fact, Lila Spa is a great initiative providing practical training, a job and purpose for female ex-cons in Chiang Mai. There are multiple branches throughout the city and trust me, it’s a massage like no other.

Opt for the 90 minute Thai massage, you won’t regret it! I visited twice – in 3 days – in my free time. 

Lila Thai Spa, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Learn to cook like a local

Thai food is favoured worldwide and so a cooking class is an absolute must when you’re visiting Thailand. The Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School in Chiang Mai was one of my highlights of the entire tour.

Starting with a trip to the market and a tour of the on-site herb garden, the cooking class is a hands on experience in which you’ll learn to make 4 dishes of your choice from scratch, as well as hand-making curry paste too. You’re even given the chance to purchase some ice cold Leo’s from the local shop to wash it down with.

I opted for pad Thai, vegetable spring rolls, coconut soup and chicken panaeng curry and they were so good I’m thinking of moving to Thailand and opening a restaurant. Okay, not really, but it was a fantastic evening and something I’d recommend anyone to give a try. It definitely deserves a top spot on The Ultimate Guide to Chiang Mai, Thailand!

This excursion was arranged by the Dragon Trip and cost 800 baht, not included in the itinerary. You can also book here!

Asia Scenic Cooking School Chiang Mai Thailand
Pad Thai at Asia Scenic Cooking School Chiang Mai Thailand

Chiang Mai Night Market

The Chiang Mai night market is a huge affair selling everything from jewellery and accessories to clothes, souvenirs, homeware and counterfeit goods. There’s a lady boy show theatre there too and plenty of small restaurants and food stalls.

I didn’t love the market, it felt very inauthentic, food was expensive by street food standards and everything felt very tourist-centric. That being said, it’s still fun to see and a good place to pick up some elephant trousers for the temples! 

Lady boys at Chiang Mai night market, Thailand

Culture

Chiang Mai is full of beautiful temples! There are so many that you could easily fill days at a time temple hopping but I’ve highlighted some of the best ones below.

At all of the temples you will need to ensure you cover your knees and shoulders. There are plenty of shops and stalls, as well as the night market, where you can buy classic ‘gap yaaah’ style hippy pants and scarves. 

Must see Chiang Mai temples

  • Wat Phra That Doi Suthep: the famous temple at the top of the mountain, just outside the city
  • Wat Chedi Luang: 80m tall complex in the Old City dating back to 1385!
  • Wat Phra Singh: just outside the Old City and full of stunning pagodas with an intricately decorate facade
  • Wat Umong: a 700 year old temple with ancient ‘wisdom’ trees and a complex of underground tunnels
  • Wat Sri Suphan: large, shiny silver temple with a neon light show after dark
Wat Phra Singh Temple, Chiang Mai, Thailand The Ultimate Guide to Chiang Mai, Thailand

A digital nomad paradise

Chiang Mai is becoming increasingly popular with digital nomads and working travellers looking for a base, whether for a few days, weeks or months. There are lots of cafes with great WiFi and co-working spaces and living costs are cheap.

Personally, I really rate ‘My Secret Cafe in Town‘ as a great spot to settle down with your laptop, a Thai tea and a delicious bowl of spicy chicken soup! The waffles are also delicious.

My Secret Cafe in Town, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Tom Yum Chicken Soup, Chiang Mai, Thailand, Coworking space

The Dragon Trip

The Dragon Trip is a dynamic tour company offering trip itineraries for travellers aged between 18-35 throughout various Asian destinations. They travel to brilliant destinations such as Japan, China, India and Indonesia as well as the tour I took part in. They also have varied trip lengths and prices to suit!

I joined them on their 31 Day SE Asia tour which spanned parts of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

The vibe of the tour is young, fun and ultra-backpackery. It seemed particularly suited to gap year students having finished school or those on their university holidays, though there were a couple of older trip members too.

It’s a great way to travel if you’re limited on time, travel buddies and perhaps a bit of confidence. Everything is mapped out for you, though lots of the activities are optional and there’s also some free time to explore for yourself too. As such, it’s one of the best value tours I’ve ever seen and is inclusive of all travel, accommodation and several meals and activities.

The Dragon Trip Discount Code: Get 10% off ANY Dragon Trip tour by using my code: bethsandland/TDT19

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The Ultimate Guide to Chiang Mai, Thailand