Simply put, Chiang Mai has it all. One of the top destinations to work and live, this small city in Northern Thailand is anyone’s idea of paradise.
Nicknamed, “The Rose of the North”, Chiang Mai is a place of lush abundance, adventure, connection, and discovery.. It perfectly balances the excitement and variety of an urban landscape with the peaceful tranquility of nature, a vibrant local culture, and the dramatic wildness of the surrounding mountains and jungle environment. It’s truly a place for lifestyle explorers, those looking to create an entirely new kind of experience within which to push their own boundaries, and, discover their next level of being.
With an abundance of healthy, organic food; yoga and healing centers; cafes with Wi-Fi, and nearby adventures into nature, Chiang Mai is an ideal location for building a location independent business and lifestyle. Within and surrounding the old, walled city straddling the Ping River you can find affordable accommodation; fast internet connections; shopping; nightlife; massage; handicrafts; co-working spaces; and, good coffee. The community is abuzz with various meetups, networking events, and cultural activities.
So if you’ve decided to take the plunge and spend some time in Chiang Mai – congratulations! You’re about to embark on one of the most exciting chapters of your life. We truly hope this guide will serve to welcome you into this incredible community, and, provide guidance as you settle into your new, creative lifestyle.
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Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
With less than 200,000 residents in the central part of the city, Chiang Mai is relatively small. In terms of neighborhoods, the Nimmanhaemin (or Nimman) and Old City areas are particularly popular with digital nomads and tourists alike, for the sake of convenience-there are plenty of temples, restaurants, bars, coffee shops, co-working spaces, gyms/fitness centers, malls, a cinema, and bookstores. Plus, a noticeable lack of sidewalks means exploring on foot is, more or less, limited to the Old City. Therefore, if you’re only planning a short stay, you may prefer one of these two areas. However, with bicycles, scooters/motorbikes, local transport, taxis and rental cars, navigating the city from farther afield is also easy.
And, with an abundance of serviced apartments, condos, homes for rent, student housing, hostels, and airbnb options, securing affordable accommodation is simple. Therefore, especially if you’re going to stay for a few months, rather than booking a place before you arrive, you may want to consider staying at a hostel/hotel/airbnb for a few days so you can check out the neighborhoods in person.
[Top Pick] Nimmanhaemin Road: “Nimman” as it’s also known, has been compared to NYC’s East Village and San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood. Think trendy, and hip-with restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, malls, gyms, a cinema, and several co-working spaces. Close to Chiang Mai University (CMU).
[Second Pick] The Old City: Think tourists, guesthouses, boutique hotels, coffee shops, restaurants, and bars. Despite its lack of sidewalks, this is the most pedestrian-friendly part of the city. It also has the highest concentration of temples. And, tourists. Therefore, parts of the Old City can be quite lively (and loud). However, once you get away from the main tourist area, centered around Thapae Gate/Ratchadamnoen Road, you’ll find some quiet, laid-back sections of the neighborhood, as well. And, while you’ll mainly find serviced apartments for rent, there are some houses, too.
Santitham: Think condos and apartments for every budget. Very accessible, and, increasingly popular with both expats and the younger crowd, alike. New businesses, restaurants, and bars come and go every day. The well-known Kad Thani Food Market is in the neighborhood. One downside is it can be (traffic) noisy. However, there are also some quiet backstreets.
The Night Bazaar: Think upscale tourist. And, while the bazaar, itself, is nothing special, there are some hidden gems to be discovered. Best for short-term stays.
Lang Mor: Think budget Nimmanhaemin. Mostly caters to CMU students with very inexpensive accommodation. There’s a nightly food market and it’s easy to get local transportation (songthaew) from this area.
Naa Mor: Another area that caters to CMU students, with a higher concentration of retail stores. On the plus side, there are some nicer condo buildings. Local transportation is also easy to secure (tuktuk or songthaew) from here.
Jed Yod: A quiet, residential area, with condos and detached homes along narrow, leafy streets. Available houses can be hard to find so look for the ‘For Rent’ signs. Transport is possible if you’re willing/able to walk to a major road, and/or, if you’re up for renting a motorbike or have your own vehicle.
Wat Ket: Despite it being a historic area with a few nice boutique hotels, there is a noticeable lack of tourists. Snuggled between the river and the superhighway, the bus and train stations are also located in this area. Think riverside restaurants, galleries, and bars, with plenty of local food options. There are often nice, detached homes for rent. Transportation is difficult without a motorbike or your own transportation.
Wualai: Located South of the Old City, nearer to which you can find some large apartments for monthly rent. Includes the Thippanet and Haiya neighborhoods, with some great options for houses. Look for the walking street market every Saturday.
Umong/Rampoeng/Pong Noi: Along the edge of the city, and comprised of nice housing developments and condos, this area has a unique atmosphere-think Thai village charm.
You would need your own transportation.
Dong / San Khampaeng: Outer district popular with families. Comprised of schools and large housing developments. You would need your own transportation.
Mae Rim / Sansai / Doi Saket: Another outer district popular with families/expats/retirees. Spacious homes available for cheap. However, with traffic it can be slow to get downtown. As with other outer districts, you would need your own transportation.
How to Get a Visa to Chiang Mai
Thai immigration authorities recommend obtaining a visa prior to arrival. Depending on your planned length of stay, this will give you more options. If you’ll be in Thailand for three months or less, one possibility is to get a 60-day single-entry tourist visa, which, combined with one 30-day extension would give you 90-days in Thailand. Then, if you decide you want to stay longer, you could always make a visa exit. In this case, you would need to arrange another visa at the Thai embassy/consulate in the country you’re visiting. Or, if-based on your nationality-you’re eligible for a visa exemption or visa-on-arrival, you could always re-enter Thailand and get a 14/15/30 or 90-day visa at your point of entry. The number of days you’re eligible for depends on your nationality and whether you arrive via a land border or at an airport.
Another, more flexible option is to get a 6-month multiple-entry tourist visa. Each entry is valid for 60 days and you’re able to extend (each entry) for an additional 30 days without leaving the country. In other words, it’s like having two 60-day visas.
If you’re planning a short trip or you’re not able to get a visa ahead of time, it is possible to obtain a visa-on-arrival at the airport [or at land border crossings]. This means, citizens can enter Thailand, as tourists, at no charge to the visitor, for up to 30 days, when arriving to an airport. For land border crossings, it’s more complicated. Citizens from visa-exempt countries can enter the country twice in any calendar year for 30 days each. However, any additional land border entries would be limited to 15 days. Also-it’s important to remember the day you arrive counts as day one. So, for a month with 31 days, you would have to either leave the country, or, extend your visa BEFORE the 30th day.
Other visa options include: a non-immigrant visa; a one-year non-immigrant visa; a business visa; or, a permanent resident visa. For all visas, check with your local embassy or consulate for further information, procedures, requirements, and processing times.
How to Extend Your Tourist Visa in Chiang Mai
The immigration office at the Promenada Mall is the only place to extend a tourist visa in Chiang Mai. It’s approximately 20 minutes by car from the Old Town so it’s best to take a songthaew, tuktuk, uber, or a taxi.
It’s important to note the immigration office is closed on public holidays. And, you can only extend your tourist visa ONCE, for an additional 30 days, before you will need to leave the country.
Although you are free to apply for an extension up until the day your current visa expires, it’s best to plan ahead. Public holidays, weekends, or, arriving to an office overwhelmed with tourists and unable to serve you that day may cause an unexpected delay. Therefore, leave yourself a few days, at least. And, since the extension begins the day after your current visa expires, there’s no such thing as getting it too early.
The immigration office is currently located right below the Tom N Toms Coffee Shop. It’s a true “One Stop Shop,” where you can find (almost) EVERYTHING you need to for the extension: forms, passport photos, and photocopies.
Be prepared to wait. Depending on how many people are in the office that day, it could take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour or more.
Overstaying Your Visa – Succinctly put, don’t overstay your visa. In spite of the frequent changes to and often confusing rules and regulations about entering the country, Thai authorities do take tourists into consideration when enacting immigration policy. And, they have made it very easy for tourists to follow the law. However, in the event you were unable to extend your visa BEFORE it expired, per current immigration regulations [subject to change at any time] you have a seven-day grace period, during which you’re still able to report to your nearest immigration office to apply for an extension. You may be required to pay a fine, in addition to the extension fee.
However, if you are still in the country eight days after your visa expires, you must leave the country. You will likely be required to pay a fine, and, may face additional penalties. Of course, fines must be paid in cash and are only accepted in Thai Baht. Additional penalties are classified in terms of whether or not you approach immigration authorities yourself. If you turn yourself in, the penalty for overstaying your visa by less than a year is being banned from entering the country for a period of three years. The penalties go up from there. And, if you’re discovered by Thai authorities, the penalties are more severe. So, as we noted in the beginning of this section, don’t overstay your visa.
NOTE: Remember that immigration rules and regulations change frequently and without notice so always check in with your consulate or embassy before making any travel plans.
Best Time of Year to Visit
November to February, which could also be called, “Chiang Mai Winter” is THE best time of year to spend in this northern paradise. With high temperatures averaging 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) and relatively low humidity, you may find yourself breaking out your long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, sweater, and/or a light jacket at night-that is, if you remembered to pack something warm!
Compared to the rest of Thailand, Chiang Mai enjoys cooler (relative) overall temperatures and a lower (relative) humidity. From March to October, expect hot and/or steamy/wet weather. March to May is the hottest time of year, with average high temperatures between 34 to 36 (93-97 Fahrenheit) . Humidity remains low. The monsoon begins in May and continues into October. During this time, expect high humidity and heavy rainfall, though typically only for an hour or two and usually only at night.
* Burning season – Each year, from approximately March to April, farmers burn their fields to prepare for next season’s crops. With the air thick with smoke and dust, most people agree it’s NOT the best time of year to visit.
Chiang Mai’s Best Festivals
Experiencing a Thai festival, cultural event, or holiday should be at the top of your list of things to do. Shops and entertainment venues typically stay open on public holidays. However, government offices are usually closed. Therefore, do NOT try to extend your visa during Songkran, or, post a package before flying out on Chulalongkorn Memorial Day. And, for the crowd-averse among us, take note-department stores and tourist attractions can be VERY busy on public holidays. Also, many Thai travel to visit relatives during certain holidays. Therefore, on the days leading up to and following those special days, transportation options may be limited.
Sunflower Blooming Season (November to January) – Lively and fun with lots of activities including exhibitions, local performances, sports, games, and stalls arranged by local hill tribes.
Chiang Mai Red Cross and Winter Fair (December to January) – Enjoy rides, activities, stalls, and live music. The Miss Chiang Mai Pageant is another highlight. Held behind Chiang Mai City Hall.
Bo Sang Umbrella Festival (January) – The umbrellas are made from hand painted mulberry bark paper, silk, and cotton. Come to Bo Sang Umbrella Village in the afternoon and stay until dark, when the umbrellas are turned into lanterns. Other highlights include a parade, cultural shows, traditional market, a beauty pageant, live music, dancing, exhibitions and carnival games.
(Baan) Tawai Village Woodcarving Fair – Baan Tawai village-the center for local wood artisans-is about 16 kms (10 miles) south-west of Chiang Mai. The fun includes cultural performances, a wood carving competition, a cooking contest as well as a handicraft market. Visitors are able to observe the woodcarvers as they work.
Chiang Mai Flower Festival (February) – Includes an agricultural fair, floral and landscaping exhibitions, flower floats, local works of art, music shows and ornamental plant displays. There’s also a parade with big floats made of flowers, as well as marching bands, school groups, and dancers. Roads are closed during the parade. There are also competitions, including the Chiang Mai Flower Festival Queen.
Makha Bucha Day (March) – Makha Bucha Day is an important festival, held on the full moon day, of Makha-the third lunar month. It commemorates two important Buddhist events: the gathering of more than 1250 monks ahead of their ordination by Buddha, and, the sermons Buddha shared just before his death. Both events happened on Makha’s full moon. All are welcome and encouraged to visit a temple, to observe the rituals.
Chakri Memorial Day (April) – An important national holiday commemorating the founding of the Chakri Dynasty-the current royal family’s ancestors. Religious celebrations are held at the royal chapel, where the King and other members of the royal family pay tribute to their ancestors. A procession follows, and ends with the laying of flowers at the statue of King Rama I on Memorial Bridge. Many Thai also place flowers and other gifts at Chakri statues. In spite of the holiday’s importance, government offices remain open.
Songkran (Apri) – Marking the Thai New Year, it’s been nicknamed, “The Biggest Water Fight in the World.” The three days of religious ceremonies begin with a city-wide clean up. Locals also head to the temples, where they offer food to the monks, and pour water on the Buddha statues, as part of blessing and cleansing ceremonies-splashing water is believed to both wash away sins and cleanse an individual of bad luck. Unless you stay inside, YOU WILL GET WET-only monks, babies, and the elderly are typically spared. The biggest celebrations happen near Tha Phae Gate, the moat, and the Ping River. One word of caution: the roads are wet and slippery. So, leave your scooter at home. Or, someone WILL dump a bucket of water over your head while you’re driving. Public transportation is no exception: (nearly) EVERYONE GETS WET. And, walking around shirtless is not appropriate. So, be sure to cover up. Also, most stores and government offices are closed. The only exceptions are 7-Eleven-where you can buy a super-soaker-and some restaurants and bars.
Visakha Bucha Day (Usually in May) – An important public holiday celebrated on the full moon day of every sixth lunar month. Marking Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death-the three most important events of his life-many shops, government offices, and attractions will be closed. Alcohol sales may also be restricted. Join locals as they walk 11 kms to the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep Temple. Thousands of people make the trek each year. Start the evening before, or, just after midnight so you can reach the temple in time for sunrise. Be sure to cover your knees and shoulders at the temple. The day before Visakha Bucha, check out the traditional Lanna lantern float procession from Wat Upakut to Wat Phra Sing.
Inthakin Festival (Usually in June) – A uniquely Chiang Mai festival, celebrating its beloved grand city pillar, which King Mangrai constructed in 1296, following the founding of the city. The pillar was later moved to its current location-inside a shrine-in 1800. The festival begins on the 12th day of the sixth lunar month each year and runs for eight days. Activities include making offerings, burning incense, lighting candles, dancing, musical performances, games, and plenty of food. Festivities generally start at 8am with flower offerings at Wat Chedi Luang. There are also processions around the moat during the day and celebrations continue into the evening. The temple is located on Soi Inthakin, off Intrawarorot road in the centre of the old city near the Three Kings monument.
H.M. The Queen’s Birthday Celebrations (August) – Also considered to be National Mother’s Day, Her Majesty Queen Sirikit is regarded as the Mother of Thai People. During August there will be colourful decorations and portraits of Queen Sirikit. The Queen’s birthday is typically celebrated in Bangkok, with the live event transmitted across the whole country. Thais also honour this holiday by buying flowers for mothers. Alcohol may not be available, in honour of mothers, living and dead. Many locals will travel to be with their families so, make travel arrangements in advance.
Wan Awk Phansa (October) – This holiday marks the end of both lent and the rainy season. It is marked on the full moon day of the eleventh lunar month. The festival highlights the importance of abstaining from meat, alcohol, and smoking. Locals will make their way to the temples to make petitions and offerings. Often, this is done at the temple of one’s birthplace. Typically, there are also candlelit gatherings during which locals walk around the temple carrying a candle, a lotus bud, and three incense sticks. You may see boat processions carrying the Thai faithful. During the day, some places will hold boat races. As the day draws to a close, the boats will often be used to transport flowers and candles, usually taking on a religious or patriotic theme. The giant Naga Fireballs are, perhaps, the most incredible sight on this holiday. By igniting gases spontaneously, fireballs are released into the sky. The breath-taking show has special meaning for the locals and is a surreal experience for foreigners. They can best be viewed along the Mekong River for over 20km between Pak-Ngeum district, about 80km south of the Laos capital Vientiane, and Phonephisai district in Nong Khai province, Thailand. Otherwise, you can stay in Chiang Mai where the locals organise their own events.
Chulalongkorn Memorial Day (October) – All Over Thailand. One of the most significant holidays in Thailand, celebrations are held across the country in tribute to King Chulalongkorn, the great-grandfather to the current king of Thailand, King Vajiralongkorn. People lay flowers and garlands at all statues of King Chulalongkorn throughout the country, with the main celebrations at the Royal Plaza in Bangkok. While government offices are closed, many businesses will be open.
Loy Krathong or the ‘Festival of Lights’ (November) – Along The Ping River, Chang Moi, Chiang Mai. Loy krathong means ‘float a basket’ and the festival takes place each year on the full moon. Derived from one of the age-old practices of creating decorative baskets (krathongs), which are then released and remain afloat on the river. Traditionally designed from banana trunk pieces to ensure buoyancy. Modern krathongs are made from either bread or modified plastic (although the latter is discouraged due to water and environmental pollution). The highlight of the event is the inclusion of candles in the krathongs so that the floating baskets create an amazing array of lights. One usually makes a wish, and/or individuals toss a coin to appease the river spirits and bring good luck. Anywhere along the moat is a good place to view the festival with the biggest crowds gathering along Tha Phae Road or the Ping River between Nawarat Bridge and Iron Bridge. Be sure to buy your lantern in advance, as they do sell out. And, if you do find lanterns for sale on the evening of Loy Krathong, they may be at wildly inflated prices.
H.M. The (Late) King Bhumbibol Adulyadej’s Birthday (December) – Beloved by the Thai people, the late King’s birthday is still celebrated as a national holiday. The festivities are marked by light decorations in Thai homes, government institutions and private companies across the country. In the spirit of these celebrations, it is common to come across individuals feeding monks as a gesture of appreciation. There are often ceremonies early in the morning, followed by a parade near Tha Phae Gate. And-fireworks after dark. Visitors should note that they may not be able to purchase alcohol on this date and anyone drinking alcohol in the streets can get in trouble by police.
Tal Gur is a world traveler and personal development enthusiast. An adventurer at heart, after trading his daily grind for a life of his own daring design, Tal spent a decade pursuing 100 major life goals around the globe. His journey continues as a location-independent blogger, lifestyle entrepreneur, and coach. Tal’s published two books: One Year to Freedom, a 1-Year Roadmap to Living Life on Your Own Terms; and, his most recent book and bestseller, The Art of Fully Living – 1 Man, 10 Years, 100 Life Goals Around the World.