Living in Chiang Mai, Thailand (+ what to do in Chiang Mai for tourists)

Life’s a funny thing.

You can be wandering around without a care in the world, (apart from trying to figure out what’s for dinner or getting the housework done), when suddenly your world’s turned upside down and before you know it you’re living in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

That’s what happened to us and little did we know it would change our life forever.

 Wat Phra Pan Buddhist Temple Chiang Mai Thailand
Buddhist Temple Chiang Mai

Our Wakeup Call

Sometimes all it takes is one event to wake you up to how precious life is, to remind you that from the moment we are born the clock is ticking.

It’s easy for the white noise of daily life to drown out the sound of the ticking clock. Our lives are busy, we raise our families, rushing here and there, living in a tired stressed state, wishing away our lives waiting for the weekends.

Our wake-up call came in our mid 50’s and it was enough to make us change our life. We made the decision to quit our jobs in favour of living a life of travel.

For the record, making that decision was one of the hardest of our life.

Walking into the unknown was terrifying but it was a step that gave us a new career and created opportunities we would never have dreamed of.

Stepping out of our comfort zone has been one of the most enriching experiences of our life. It has given us a newfound confidence and made us realise that being influenced by how others see us can sometimes cloud our own self-belief.

It took us half a lifetime to learn this lesson, so be true to yourself, you have more hidden strengths than you can imagine.

Last year we were guest speakers at the International Living Conference in Brisbane, Australia.

As we stood on the podium and gave our presentation, we looked back at how far our lives had come in a few short years and we thanked our lucky stars we had the courage to take that first step.

Visiting Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai was one of the first places we visited after taking that step into the unknown and it’s one of our favourite travel destinations.

We love Chiang Mai so much that we have made it a home base for our world travels.

It has a laid-back vibe that attracts people of all ages, from young digital nomads and families to retirees seeking a new and exotic lifestyle.

Chiang Mai has so much going for it, the city is full of life, the locals are friendly, it has an ancient culture with all the modern conveniences and the food is to die for!

First Impressions of Chiang Mai

When people think of Thailand, they usually imagine the white sands and azure waters of Krabi and Phuket.

Thailand is also home to majestic mountains and breathtaking vistas that stretch out to the horizon. Chiang Mai is nestled within a fertile valley surrounded by these magnificent mountains.

Our first impressions of Chiang Mai were of friendly faces, we felt free to let down our guard and enjoy our surroundings without the fear of being hounded as we had in some of the more popular places to visit in Thailand.

Strolling within the moated Old City walls, we discovered ancient Buddhist temples. We walked through tropical gardens filled with the fragrance of incense and the rhythmic hum of Buddhist chants.

Inside the temples golden Buddha’s shimmered with an ethereal glow, a breathtaking sight filled with beauty.

Food stalls and small restaurants lined the streets, the smell of exotic spices filled the air making our mouth’s water. Strange dishes bubbled as broad smiles invited us to sample local delicacies.

What to do in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Exploring small alleyways, we kept an eye open for motorbikes that quickly zip down the lane.

Thick ropes of black electrical cable are tangled from pole to pole and the streets were filled with a ramshackle charm that is distinctly Asian.

We were excited and eager to discover more of this vibrant city.

Where to Stay in Chiang Mai

Most people visiting Chiang Mai either stay in the Old City or the Night Market area.

These are great areas to be in as you will get a good feel of what makes Chiang Mai tick. The areas are filled with attractions and within walking distance of each other.

What to Do in Chiang Mai

Living in Chiang Mai we have discovered a colourful city that is never boring, the choice of activities is endless.

Here are the most popular things to do in Chiang Mai for visitors.

Eat the Local Thai Food

I start with food because it’s a popular pastime in Chiang Mai.

“Where are we meeting for Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner?” is often the first topic of conversation.

If you are eating out in Chiang Mai you are in for a real treat, the choice of cuisines and dining styles are seemingly endless.

While visiting Chiang Mai, be sure to try the signature dish, Khao Soy (Soi), a spicy chicken noodle soup which is simply delicious. If you have a sweet tooth you can’t go past Mango and Sticky Rice.

Khao Soy Chiang Mai’s signature dish
Try Khao Soy a spicy chicken soup

For those who like cheap and cheerful, stop off at a street food stall, there are so many to choose from and each sell a different variety of dishes.

Look out for the stall that has the most locals waiting to be served – these usually sell the most delicious meals and you can be assured that the food is fresh!

Food markets are also another cheap option

A favourite is the Chiang Mai Gate Market at the bottom of the Old City moat.

Best time to visit the market is in the morning and evening and you can either sit down with the locals or grab a takeaway meal. The market is a wonderful place to try Thai food while soaking up the local atmosphere.

There are heaps of small restaurants throughout the Old City and Night Market area, most have a selection of Thai and Western cuisines and some have vegetarian and vegan options.

A favourite for healthy and tasty food would have to be the Dada Café in the Old City.

If you are looking for an incredible food experience in Chiang Mai, one of the best restaurants in Chiang Mai would have to be B Samcook Home 16. The restaurant serves a range of Asian fusion dishes which are beautifully presented.

B Samcook Home 16 is in a small lane just south of the Old City.

 B Samcook Home 16 one of the best restaurant's in Chiang Mai
Visit B Samcook Home 16 Chiang Mai

Another way to discover Thai food is to take a Thai cooking class. I recently spent the day bonding with my daughter at a Thai cooking school.

 Learn to cook Thai dishes at a Thai cooking class
Having fun at a Thai cooking class

We visited the market to buy the vegetables and learnt the intricacies of Thai cooking. We had such a fun day with a great bunch of people, a mix of singles, couples and families.

Visit a Chiang Mai Buddhist Temple

Chiang Mai has over 300 Buddhist temples or Wat’s as they are called in Thai.

 Inside Wat Chedi Luang Buddhist temple Chiang Mai
The golden glow of Buddha at the Wat Chedi Luang Buddhist complex

They are all exquisite and many can be found within walking distance of each other in Chiang Mai’s Old City.

If you are interested in learning more about Buddhism, you can take part in Monk Chat at Wat Chedi Luang in the Old City. Not only will your curiosity be satisfied but you will also be helping the Monks to learn English.

Wat Chedi Luang is one of the most popular Buddhist temples to visit in the Old City and that is closely followed by Wat Phra Singh.

Both temple complexes are beautiful and well worth a visit.

My favourite Buddhist temple in the Old City is Wat Chiang Man, which is in the North East corner of the Old City.

Wat Chiang Man is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai and the grounds are peaceful and quiet. My favourite feature is the Elephant Chedi, a large golden spire that is supported by carved elephants.

Of course, the most sacred Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep which overlooks Chiang Mai from the heights of Doi Suthep mountain.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is more commonly known by locals as Doi Suthep.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Buddhist temple
Overlooking Chiang Mai is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep on Doi Suthep Mountain

The road up to Doi Suthep is curvy and busy so it’s advisable to take a tour. Many of the tours to Doi Suthep also visit a nearby Hmong hill tribe village.

Shopping at the Local Markets

Markets are the heart and soul of a city and the place to get a real insight into local culture.

The Saturday Walking Street Market and the Night Markets are fabulous for picking up souvenirs, local arts and crafts, jewellery and clothing.

Sunday Walking Street Market Chiang Mai Sunday Walking
Street Market Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai has many markets but Warorot Market would have to be one of my favourites. It’s the place where the locals go to shop, a jumble of small shops all housed under one roof.

It’s a fun place to explore, a rabbit warren of fabric, home wares, Buddhist items, clothing and jewellery, Thai snacks and fresh produce.

Warorot market Chiang Mai
Strolling through the Warorot market in Chiang Mai

Warorot Market is steps from the Flower Market which is located next to the River Ping.

Just follow the heady scent of roses and jasmine and you will find the intricately decorated flower garlands and temple offerings which are given for good luck and to make merit at the temple.

Flower market in Chiang Mai
The flower market near Warorot market

Make sure to explore the streets around the market for even more shops.

If you like ethnic clothing and jewellery stop off at Thamel Souvenir, they have a rich range of avant-garde clothing and jewellery to choose from.

Inside the Thamel Coffee cafe and restaurant
Relaxing at the Thamel Coffee cafe and restaurant

After shopping head upstairs to Thamel Coffee, a charming coffee shop, perfect for a coffee break or lunch.

Best Time to Visit Chiang Mai

The best time to visit Chiang Mai is between October and February.

These are the winter months and although still hot, the mornings and evenings are cool, making a pleasant change from the sticky heat of summer.

During this time, you can see two stunning Festivals, the Loy Krathong and Yi Peng Festivals in November and the Flower Festival in February.

Chiang Mai Flower festival float
The charm of the Chiang Mai Flower Festival

The Loy Krathong and Yi Peng Festival is a spectacular sight as intricately decorated flower baskets called Krathong are placed into the river to give thanks to the River Goddess.

Chiang Mai celebrates with Buddhist religious ceremonies, beauty contests and parades.

The grand finale is the release of thousands of Khom Loy lanterns into the night skies of Chiang Mai.

releasing a Khom Loy lantern
releasing a Khom Loy lantern

Another Festival that shouldn’t be missed is Thai New Year or Songkran as it is known in Thai.

The Festival is held in April in one of Chiang Mai’s hottest months and is considered one of the largest water fights in the world.

Songkran is also the time to visit the temple to make merit. Buddha statues are paraded through the streets and lovingly sprinkled with water to be cleansed for good luck and prosperity for the coming year.

During the day, locals and tourists join in the fight as water pistols, super soakers and buckets of ice cold water, are squirted or thrown onto anyone passing by.

It’s impossible to stay dry and it’s easy to join in the holiday spirit as everyone lets their hair down and has a good time.

What I love most is the mischievous look on the children’s faces, it’s a magical time for them and they have so much fun.

Getting to Chiang Mai Thailand

Chiang Mai is 702 km (435 miles) north of Bangkok, the capital of Thailand.

There are a few ways to get to Chiang Mai, you can take a bus or train, but most people usually fly.

The flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai takes a little over an hour and they leave from both Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and Don Mueang International Airport.

Just be aware that the airports are 48 km (30 miles) from each other and it can take hours to get between airports in Bangkok traffic.

Check which Bangkok airport you are flying into and make sure your connecting Chiang Mai flight leaves from the same airport.

There is a free shuttle bus between Suvarnabhumi Airport and Don Mueang International Airport but give yourself plenty of time between flights to make up for the traffic.

Phuket and Krabi also have direct flights to Chiang Mai so consider adding Chiang Mai to your next Thailand itinerary.

Living in Chiang Mai, Thailand

I have only scratched the surface of what it’s like living in Chiang Mai Thailand.

There is so much more to see and do.

Take a bike tour through the city, visit an umbrella and silk factory or rock the night away at one of Chiang Mai’s many entertainment venues.

If you are a thrill seeker you can leave the city behind and go trekking and white water rafting in the glorious mountains that surround Chiang Mai.

It’s your choice as to how laid back or adventurous you want your trip to be.

One thing for sure, after a visit to the region you will fall under the spell of Chiang Mai Thailand.

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