We first discovered Chiang Mai, Thailand in the fall of 2016 and have been in love ever since. The culture and community are incredible, as well as the delicious food and ease of living. We go back every year for a few months at a time to enjoy all the great things this little paradise has to offer digital nomads like us. In this guide, you'll learn all of the secret spots we enjoyed in late 2016 and early 2017. I'll be updating this post periodically when we find a new spot we love so stay tuned!
Why Chiang Mai?
- Low cost of living
- Fast Wifi
- Thriving community
- Warm climate
- Scenic environment
- Healthy food
- Small town charm with big city comfort
We love to hang out and work, take days off to explore, and meet with other digital nomads all the time. Here are our favorite things to do in Chiang Mai that we think other digital nomads would appreciate.
Things to do on weekdays:
- Banana espresso and mango shake at T@31 coffee shop
- Morning co-working at Punspace Nimman
- Lunch at Maya mall basement vegan restaurant and juice bar
- Afternoon co-working at CAMP in Maya mall
- Evening skate session at Muang Stadium skatepark
- Dinner at Anchan vegan restaurant
- Pad Thai Mustache Style
- Food at night markets around Chiang Mai
- $3-$5 hour-long foot or full-body oil massages at any massage place
- Sleep in our comfy $300/month furnished apartment at PT residence
- Wake up and do it all over again.
- Breakfast at Smoothie Blues
- Book one of the many tours offered by travel agent street vendors in the city that take you to any of the surrounding national parks
- Catch a songthaew or ride a road bike up to Doi Suthep
- Catch a songthaew to the grand canyon of Chiang Mai for some cliff jumping, swimming, and obstacle course fun in the sun
- Rent a motorbike and ride the canyons around Doi Suthep
- Rent a motorbike and take the road to Pai for a weekend of canyon riding and cave exploring in Pai
- Skate at Chiang Mai University
- Visit some of the hundreds of temples in Chiang Mai
- Meet new friends on Friday afternoons at the Nomad Coffee Club Meetup at Library Coffee
Getting around Chiang Mai:
As far as transportation goes, Uber has been available in Chiang Mai for quite some time now. This quick and easy service makes it very comfortable and fun to get around town without having to hail a red truck or ride your motorbike in the sometimes hectic traffic. I highly recommend taking this method of around-town transportation until you get the feel for the way traffic flows in southeast Asia.
Alternatively, you can always hail a red truck aka songthaew or a tuk-tuk. They only cost 30-60 baht and are like little local buses. Its an awesome cultural experience riding in one so don't miss out. My only advice is to try not to get stuck in traffic in one because the pollution can be awful at times and the trucks are open-air so you smell everything.
A word-of-warning about riding a scooter motorbike around the city, however, that police often create stops in the evenings and check for local drivers licenses. If you are a tourist and don't have one, they will fine you 100-200 baht and you will have to go get your license.
Getting to and from Chiang Mai:
The Chiang Mai international airport is on the southwest side of town and is very small compared with big city airports. You can fly into Chiang Mai from many big cities, however, Bangkok will usually be a layover destination so you may want to plan a few days there first anyways and make a stop-over out of it.
You can also take a local bus to or from Chiang Mai but this is only recommended if you don't have the money for the airplane as the accommodations can be uncomfortable. You will see locals and backpackers on the busses mostly. If you want to go for a short trip to Pai and don't want to ride a motorbike, a shuttle bus is a way to go. The bus terminal is on the northeast side of town.
Flights to Chiang Mai:
To get the best deal on flights to Chiang Mai from wherever in the world you happen to be, I highly recommend SkyScanner.net. This is the tool I use to find the cheapest, fastest, and best deals on flights wherever I travel. They are a flight aggregator that pulls data from airlines and other flight aggregators as well. You can view by day of the week to make sure you are getting the best deal, especially if you are flexible on dates.
How to avoid ATM fees while traveling abroad:
ATMs in Chiang Mai take about a $6 USD fee per transaction which is pretty steep. So, if you only need to take out money a couple times a month, it's no big deal, but after a while, those fees add up. Consider getting a Schwab investor checking account. They offer ATM fee refunds on all foreign ATM transactions. This should save you a lot of money in the future.
Where to find a SIM card:
You can get a SIM card at the airport or at any of the many 7-eleven corner stores in the city. You can also go to an AIS store on the MAYA mall 3rd floor to have it installed for you. SIM cards cost just a hundred Thai baht or a few US dollars and data packages are equally as cheap. I highly suggest going with AIS as I had a great experience with them.
Hotels in Chiang Mai:
There are quite a few hotels in Chiang Mai that offer affordable accommodations. The hotels on the east side of the city tend to be more pricey than the hotels on the west side. Stick to the west side when researching hotels and Air BNB's. This will help keep your cost down. The east side is filled with backpackers and tourists whereas the west side of the city is mostly college students and digital nomads. We stay at the PT residence when we go because they have affordable fully-furnished and serviced short-term stay apartments without any lease. They are very friendly and helpful too. You can view the PT Residence Airbnb listing by clicking here.
Chiang Mai Tours:
You can get a friendly English-speaking tour at any one of the various travel agents stands sprinkled across the city. The prices are usually very fair. A word of caution, they tend to pack the shuttle busses completely full, so be ready to be squeezed into a van filled with other tourists from around the world. Some of the tours travel to Chiang Rai, Laos, and Myanmar, whereas some tours go to the national parks. I highly recommend checking out the Chiang Mai Trip Advisor forums for more details as to which tour agent to book with. We just chose a random agent each time and it worked out just fine.
Best time of year to go:
Southeast Asia is mostly in the tropics so the summer is the rainy and hot season and the winter is the dry and "cold" season. We usually arrive around November and stay through the winter. February, however, is usually the start of the burning season. The farmers in the hills above Chiang Mai burn all their crops so they can re-plant that coming spring. All the smoke billows into the valley where the city lies and creates a hazy smog that stays for around 3-6 weeks. We usually take this time to make a trip to Bali where we find beautiful beaches, mountains, skateboarding, surfing, scuba diving, and an incredibly diverse culture.
Festivals in Chiang Mai:
Come April, the country prepares to celebrate the Song-Kran water festival. It takes place mid-April when all the people sport water guns and buckets of water to douse each other in water-filled-fun all weekend long. We highly recommend coming and staying for the week of Songkran because it is one of the most amazing festivals you'll ever experience.
The country also celebrates a festival in late November called Loi-Krathong, or better known as the lantern festival. The people all meet in the local open-square plazas on the east side of town as well as a stadium in the northern side of town to watch everybody release a lantern lit by a candle into the night sky. You can make a wish when you release one to pray for the future.
There is so much to do in Chiang Mai that you will never find a shortage of places and people to make your trip amazing. Share your favorite things to do in the comments below!