Chiang Mai – an overview
After spending nine months living and working as digital nomads in Chiang Mai, we’ve finally managed to tear ourselves away in order to continue our travels. We moved to the city initially without knowing anything about it, but soon found it to be an extremely friendly, safe, affordable, and easy place to live. This post offers a few practical ideas about the city.
Chiang Mai has plenty to offer in terms of culture and things to see and do, and comes with a multitude of eating and drinking options to suit every palette under the sun, and with its large student population there is a very cool, young vibe around town, especially to the west of the old town around the Nimmanhemin Road, where you will find an area full of Thai students from the local Universities and a criss-crossing of quiet sois with a wealth of great cafes in which to relax in and come night time, good bars with street food aplenty and numerous eating options.
The city is on the up, and is one of the wealthiest in Thailand and with new developments shooting up all over the place, it looks like it’s only going to keep moving in one direction. Full of traditional Thai culture, tourist attractions, art, music and festivals, there’s always something going on to keep even the most difficult travellers happy.
When to go – climate: Chiang Mai sits in the northern part of Thailand and has a distinct wet and dry season. The wet season begins around May and can continue up until December, although the wettest months are June to September. During the wet season we experienced very high temperatures with high humidity (day and night) and by June the sky became mostly cloudy with a couple of down pours a day, the clouds seemed to stick around from June until December and we didn’t see an awful lot of blue sky. It doesn’t rain persistently like in Europe or England, but afternoon showers usually last a few hours and are quite heavy. In December the dry season begins and the skies clear, and we hardly saw a cloud for two months. Temperatures drop to more bearable figures and each day throughout December and January was the equivalent to the best summer days in Europe with temperatures around the mid twenties (celcius), with evening temperatures falling into the high teens – in fact, some evenings became quite chilly in January and required a long sleeve top and perhaps even socks! During this time we were able to have the doors and windows wide open all day and night without the use of airconditioning.
By February the temperature begins to build again and continues to do so until it peaks in April and May. We only arrived here in May and so didn’t experience the months of February, March or April but apparently these months see high pollution and smoke (from the burning of rice fields in the surrounding areas) making the air quality quite bad. There tends to be a mass evacuation of ‘long stayers’ from the city during this time. The air quality improves again as the rains arrive in May.
When to go – festivals: There’s always something going on around the city so whenever you’re there, it’s possible that there will be some kind of event happening. Some of the bigger festivals not to be missed though include Songkran, the Thai New Year celebration (April 13/14/15 2013) and Yi Peng which is generally in November. www.openchiangmai.com is a good source of local information.
How to get there: Chiang Mai’s airport (CNX) has a few international arrivals from neighbouring countries and is well served internally with up to 130 flights a week from Bangkok. There are a few cheap airlines operating from the airport such as Nok Air and Air Asia and the flight duration to Bangkok is around 80 minutes. To get to your hotel or the city centre from the airport in Chiang Mai, you can take a taxi which is cheap and easy to find and will take you to your destination (in and around the main city centre) for a fixed price of around 120 Baht (February 2013). The taxi office where you pay the fee and are given a receipt are next the the baggage carousel in the terminal building.
There are regular day and night trains connecting Chiang Mai to Bangkok (as well as other cities) and although very slow, they are a good affordable option with non-aircon prices around 500 Baht per person and air-con around 800 Baht. The trains are comfortable and well equipped with toilets, bar, restaurant and sheets/pillow (on the night train). From Chiang Mai to Bangkok, the overnight train can take up to 17 hours (which is a few hours more than schedule says, so take care if booking on-going flights) but coming to Chiang Mai it tends to be a little quicker.
From the train station, transport can be a little tricky to get into the old town as Tuk-Tuks and Song Taos (red shared taxis) have the monopoly. It’s not far to the old town (perhaps too far to walk) but by walking out of the station and continuing straight ahead you can get to the main road from where a passing Song Taos can be hailed. The best option (if you are without accommodation) is to ask to go to Tha Phae Gate (pronounced ‘ta pay’) and begin your search from there. Don’t negotiate the price with the Song Taos driver, as a short trip in a Song Taos should cost 20 Baht per person, 40 Baht max! Just tell him where you want to go and he will tell you ‘yes or no’. A Tuk-Tuk will undoubtably be quicker but more expensive – perhaps expect to pay 100 Baht.
There are also two bus stations in Chiang Mai, one to the north of the city and one across the river to the east, which run regular services.
Finding a place to stay: If you’re only staying for a few days then the best (and cheapest option) will be in the old town, with the majority of places to stay in the north east corner. There are hundreds of options to suit all budgets, but if you’re keen to get out of the tourist area, there are also a few places around the Nimmanhemin Road area, although a little more pricey than downtown.
If you’re looking to stay long-term then there are a couple of ways we’d recommend going about your search. Firstly find yourself a cheap place to base yourself for a few days and then check out these websites:
skybreezecondo.com (we stayed here for almost 7 months)
noknoihome.com (in this apartment)
flora-house.com (we also stayed here for 2 months)
The next plan of action is then to organise a meeting (perhaps with Chiang Mai Properties) who will drive you around for a day (for no fee) and show you a number places which will give you a good idea of what you can get for your money, and finally, hire a scooter and take a few days to have a look around on your own, as there are many long term options starting from around 7,000Baht per month for the most basic.
If you’re planning on teaching or doing a CELTA course at ECC in Chiang Mai, then head to Malin Plaza, directly opposite the school where you can find affordable rooms a stones throw away.
Cost: Chiang Mai is very affordable for a city of its size and wealth and has lots of good options available for food and accommodation. See our post on ‘the cost of living in Chiang Mai‘ for more details.
Getting around: The biggest downside to Chiang Mai is getting around. The traffic and pollution can be quite bad and there are few transport options within the city other than Tuk-Tuks and Song Taos, the only other options are walking (although the city isn’t overly pedestrian friendly, hiring a bicycle (around 50Baht per day) or hiring a motorbike.