Journey into Northern Thailand, past the ancient walls of the Old City and into the web of winding streets and you’ll find yourself falling in love with Chiang Mai. It is a city of contrasts, where 300 Buddhist Temples, adorned with glittering gold and bright white paint shine in the morning light while Monks humbly receive alms. It’s no surprise then, with its lush jungle, smiling locals, deliciously spicy food and vibrant culture, Chiang Mai is a favourite among travellers to Thailand. If you’re preparing for your first-ever trip, here are 22 things you need to know before you visit Chiang Mai.
But first, watch this…
1. It gets really hot
It gets very hot in Chiang Mai and the high temperatures are accompanied by intense humidity. If you aren’t used to the heat, you may struggle (we struggled and we live in a hot climate). Pack lightweight, breathable clothing, avoid the hottest part of the day and stay hydrated. If you’re able, plan your trip outside of the hot season which runs from around mid-March to June.
2. You’ll need to carry tissues
Be sure to keep a toilet roll or pocket pack of tissues in your day bag. The public toilets you visit may be quite basic and there’s no guarantee toilet paper will be supplied for you. You should also have some change, to pay for the toilet if needed and hand sanitiser in case there’s nowhere to wash your hands properly.
3. Pack light
Because the weather in Thailand is so deliciously warm, you can get away with packing light. I like to pack a few skirts, t-shirts, strappy tops and dresses paired with sandals or runners. I also put a scarf in as they always come in handy. Be sure to leave some space in your suitcase for all the great souvenirs and clothes you’ll undoubtedly pick up at the great shops around the place.
4. The local currency is Thai Baht
In Thailand, the local currency is Baht (pronounced, in the Aussie accent, like Bart. We took out local currency from an ATM in Chiang Mai, as opposed to using money changers. One great way to help you understand how much things cost is using an app like XE Currency, which is what we use. The app is free and converts money from Baht to your local currency and, best of all, it still works without internet access.
5. Uber is cheapest
There are many ways to get from place to place in Chiang Mai, including taxis, red trucks and Tuk Tuk. After trying them all, we found the very best way to get around Chiang Mai is by using Uber! There’s no fuss with payment, your destination is easily communicated, it’s reliable and it’s by far the cheapest option. You will need internet access to use the Uber app so be sure to order your Uber at your hotel or a cafe while you have access or buy a local sim card.
6. You need to haggle for things
There will be some situations where it’s appropriate to haggle in Chiang Mai, like before you get into a Tuk Tuk, for example. So, brush up on your haggling skills before you go to Thailand by reading my guide on how to haggle like a professional – it’s based on Bali but the basic concepts still apply. Of course, it isn’t appropriate to haggle in the 7-11 or at Starbucks – sorry.
7. A little Thai goes a long way…
I always love to learn a few local phrases before I visit a new country so I can show some respect to the locals and experience a little of their world. What’s interesting about the Thai language is men and women use slightly different phrases at the end of a sentence. Men use khrup/krap and women use ka/kap.
- Hello – Sawadee (khrup/ka)
- Yes – Chai (khrup/ka)
- No – Mai (khrup/ka)
- Thank you – khop khun (khrup/ka)
- Goodbye! – La gorn (khrup/ka)
8. You can’t drink the tap water
We love to encourage travellers to cut down on single-use plastic by refilling a water bottle when they travel. Unfortunately, this is a little hard in Chiang Mai as you aren’t able to drink the tap water. That said, you can buy the biggest bottle water possible at each time and say no to those tiny bottles handed out at hotels or on planes.
9. English is widely spoken
If you don’t speak Thai, don’t worry! English is widely spoken in Chiang Mai and you’ll have no trouble chatting with locals, ordering food, checking-in to your hotel or arranging transport.
10. Vegetarians and Vegans will love it
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan and are worried about how much good food there will be in Chiang Mai, you can cast those fears aside. With a large number of Buddhist Monks in Chiang Mai, the locals understand vegetarian and veganism very well. There are no shortage of restaurants specialising in both and even those that use organic produce too.
11. Show respect for Monks
Speaking of Monks, it’s important to observe their importance in Thai culture and respect certain boundaries. For example, women should not touch or sit directly in front of a Monk. Basically, back up and give them a bit of space as Monks aren’t supposed to touch women (that doesn’t mean they hate us, I often have Monk’s wave and smile). You should also note, there are some temples where women aren’t permitted to enter.
12. It feels safe
I’ve never felt unsafe in Chiang Mai. In fact, the only time I felt slightly weird was when a gigantic, heavily intoxicated German tourist came lumbering down the street elbowing people out of his way. I can only assume he paid dearly for this the next day with an appropriately horrendous hangover. Drunk tourists aside, Chiang Mai has a peaceful, safe vibe going on. Of course, as always, it’s important to observe basic safety precautions when you travel. Lock your room securely, keep your valuables out of sight and secure, don’t wander around by yourself, really drunk, at all hours of the night.
13. Show respect for the King and Royal Family
The Thai Royal Family are revered so it’s important, as a visitor to the country, you show the same level of respect as the locals do. Don’t ever do anything to disrespect or make fun of images of the King or Royal Family, if you are in a social situation where the locals are paying tribute to the King by standing quietly, for example, you should follow suit.
14. You’ll need temple outfits
Be sure to pack a couple of temple appropriate outfits for your trip. This just means clothing that covers your knees and shoulders as well as ensuring your midriff or cleavage aren’t exposed. I usually wear a t-shirt and skirt that goes below the knees or a long dress with a scarf around my shoulders. You can hire wraps at the temple to cover yourself but they charge through the nose.
15. You have to take your shoes off
There will be times you need to take your shoes off, especially if you are visiting temples. So plan ahead by packing shoes that are easy to slide on and off. Sorry, Matt, but this isn’t the time to break out the thigh-high, lace-up boots.
16. It’s not a little village
You may be picturing Chiang Mai as a little village in the foothills of Thailand but it’s actually a buzzing region and popular destination. It’s the largest city in Northern Thailand and there’s no shortage of visitors each year. This is great as it means tourists are well catered for, bringing more money to the area for locals.
17. The markets can be overwhelming
If like me, you don’t like big crowds and find they give you panic attacks, I would strongly encourage you to skip the Saturday and Sunday night markets. I find them completely overwhelming due to the large number of people who visit, making it hard for me to move from place to place, surrounded by constant movement.
18. Avoid animal tourism experiences
It can be oh-so-tempting to sign up to cuddle a tiger cub or ride an elephant in Chiang Mai. The truth about what goes on behind the facade of these organisations is heartbreaking and I implore you to do your own research into the treatment of the animals before contributing to them financially. I didn’t know until someone told me and now I do, I’m glad I looked into it. Animal tourism operators are self-regulated, meaning the local Government doesn’t step in to ensure humane treatment of the animals. This has led to some serious issues worth your time and consideration. This article on Huffington Post is a good starting point.
19. Buy some really good bug spray
Before you leave home, be sure to invest in a very good quality bug spray to take with you. The bugs in Thailand are no joke and Chiang Mai is no exception. Be sure to coat yourself in bug spray each day and take the bottle with you for top-ups, just in case.
20. The airport is super close
It’s a short drive from Chiang Mai’s Old Town to the airport, which makes getting to your hotel a lot easier after a long-haul flight. It takes around 15 minutes or so to get between the Old Town and airport. A short ride means a cheaper fare – yes! Just be aware, there are very few hot food options once you pass through passport control, so eat before you go to the airport.
21. Be careful when crossing
When crossing the road in Chiang Mai, take your time and ensure you look both ways before you go. The traffic can be quite busy and if you aren’t used to navigating around scooters and Tuk Tuks, you may not time your run quite right. Always err on the side of caution and take your time when crossing.
22. Street food is plentiful
You’ll find no shortage of street food vendors serving up delicious food in Chiang Mai. Often, street food is the most affordable and delicious around, making it a tempting treat for travellers. That said, just use your intuition as street food can sometimes lead to a night spent glued to the toilet. Pack some tummy medicine, just in case things… explode…. and don’t buy food from anywhere that gives you the heebie-jeebies.
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