What makes Chiang Mai such a desirable living destination?
I was set to find out during our 3 day stay in the city.
Visiting this corner in Northern Thailand, nested in lush hills, was more of a curiosity linked to the expat community living here, but also about seeing a different side of this country.
By the 6th day in Thailand, my mind was almost made – I didn’t like it much.
Chiang Mai has a small town vibe about it, but it’s a much bigger city than it feels, as one can see from Phra That Doi Suthep temple that sits atop of a hill nearby.
There’s a strong community of expats living here, the most prominent one I’ve seen during my Thailand trip, and that changes everything.
Thais living here are more welcoming and helpful towards travelers, and that’s a very different behavior than what you experience in Bangkok, Krabi or Phuket, where the commercial nature of the locals feels overwhelming and far from welcoming.
The food in Chiang Mai has also a more international feel to it, and for me it was a well-deserved break from all that awful soy sauce that sticks like glue to most Thai food, making the differences between dishes disappear after a week or so of exposure.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for culinary exploration and bizarre foods, but something about Thai food didn’t sit well with me. After the break, I was back to Thai food for a few days, trying out bamboo worms at the Sunsay Night Market.
There are also many great coffee shops in Chiang Mai, and hearing English speaking folks around does have a reassuring effect, or at least it had on me. Probably socializing becomes easier, if you’re an expat living in Chiang Mai.
After our first day in Chiang Mai, it became clear that another reason made expats choose this city – the cost of living – very cheap compared to South Thailand (Krabi & Phuket) and Bangkok, and much cheaper than living in Europe.
There are about 300 temples in Chiang Mai, but visiting 4 of them felt enough for a 3 days trip.
When it comes to going out places, I’ve seen two long streets lined up with coffee shops and restaurants. We didn’t have the time to explore the whole city, so I’m sure there are other areas just as attractive.
Its proximity to the lush hills adds some lovely weekend activities for outdoors lovers, and it impacts the weather, which is definitely drier than the South, with lower temperatures (25-270C). That might be another reason why people choose Chiang Mai as a living destination.
To sum up, my best guess about why people choose Chiang Mai as a living destination is a mix of:
- affordable living,
- great weather,
- lighter traffic and population density than in Bangkok and thus a slow-life vibe,
- nice coffee shops,
- the opportunity to meet new and interesting people from all over the world,
- outdoor activities to pursue on weekends.
Travel Itinerary for 3 Days in Chiang Mai, Thailand
We spent 3 days in Chiang Mai, but I feel that we’ve experienced some of the best things the city has to offer.
Doi Ithanon National Park would have been a nice addition, but we chose to visit Chiang Rai instead, so maybe our trip to Chiang Mai should have been a bit longer. Also, we skipped going to the Elephant Sanctuaries since we both have mixed feelings about it. I know it’s not a zoo, but it still made us feel uneasy.
How to spend 3 days in Chiang Mai
Visit Top Temples in Chiang Mai
Wat Chedi Luang
This temple looks trapped in time and the sight of it before sunset left us in awe. The soft Golden Hour glow gives an otherworldly aura to this last standing temple, and it becomes quieter as closing time approaches.
The mystical vibes of this place are enhanced by the splendid design of its guardians – huge dragon heads that light up right after dark and the smaller stone elephants embellishing its rocky walls. It’s a shame that only one of the three 14th century temples here is left standing; it makes you think about how fabulous this place might have been.
*click on any photo to open gallery
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
After a crazy ride in front of a shared red taxi, always going uphill on the curvy roads, we arrived at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the most crowded place in Chiang Mai.
It reminded us of Bangkok’s temples, so the experience wasn’t nearly as pleasant as visiting Wat Chedi Luang. There are lots of small temples around the compound, but the architecture doesn’t match the grandiosity of those within the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
The place is undoubtedly beautiful, but the legend of the White Elephant seems a distant memory now – we found him sitting alone in a corner, with no tourists around or even Thais looking to leave an offering. Its position on the side of the main temple doesn’t help, and there were indeed prettier elephants in the temple area.
Around the main golden stupa, Thais were praying while walking in circles around it, flowers and incense sticks in their hands.
While I was admiring this beautiful praying ritual, two steps to my left, a Buddhist monk was speaking on his phone, and that made me question even the very few things I know about Buddhism while snapping me right out of that spiritual mood I’m in each time I visit a place of worship.
On the steps of the temple, the famous Naga dragons staircase of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, some village girls from Doi Pui sit pretty for tourists, all dressed up in traditional clothes. This little girl impressed me with her grown-up allure, even before entering the temple, and left me thinking about moms using kids to gain something, anything…even social media likes.
Wat Lok Moli
This beautiful old temple was partially under construction at the time of our visit, but it was worth the visit nonetheless.
We marveled at the intricate and delicate patterns of the wooden temple at the entrance as much as we admired the workers painting it carefully from atop bamboo scaffolding – a type of scaffolding widely used in construction work for centuries and a pretty rare sight today (at least in Europe).
The temple was quiet in the sunny afternoon of our visit, no entrance fees and no tourists around, just a group of women all dressed in white praying inside a terraced dwelling near the old stone stupa. Such a peaceful and beautiful moment, one might say the goal for any spiritual place.
Wat Phra Singh
The first element that caught my eye when visiting Wat Phra Singh is the temple-library near the entrance, a beautiful wooden topped temple-like building with a stone base adorned with sculptures. The second – the huge stupa and its golden elephants that seem to walk straight out of it. A surreal architectural element indeed!
Once we were up the alley, signs of the Sunday Market appeared in our path, and so the spiritual vibes of this temple dissolved into the sunset.
Weekend activities in Chiang Mai
Sunday Market – Rachadamnoen Street or
the Night Bazar at Chang Klan Road (every night)
Our unplanned visit to the Sunday Night Market was facilitated by the visit at Wat Phra Singh, since Thais started selling their local and imported produce on the temple’s alleys, just after the sunset.
So we dived into the sea of people to find out what this fuss around South Asian markets was all about.
It turns out they’re not much different from what’s going on in the markets in my home country, when there’s a festival going on. That means lots of street food, the opportunity to taste some rare local dishes, and tons of souvenirs and sweet nothings to buy. One thing that sets Thai markets apart is the opportunity to get a massage then and there.
Street food markets in Thailand are inviting and unappealing at the same time.
On one hand, you have a myriad of interesting local dishes to taste, the kind you don’t find in local Thai restaurants (have no idea why), and that really made me curious.
On the other hand, you have this heat and humidity combo that you know doesn’t work well with food, and the unholy mix of fried stuff that makes you stay away, even if you’ve done your vaccines and your curiosity has reached its peak.
Since Chiang Mai doesn’t have the hot weather of the South, I came up with the idea of tasting crickets. Of course, once I saw them, I opted out and tried the more visually pleasing bamboo worms. They weren’t good, they weren’t bad, but the decision of trying them out was the fun part.
We spent a bit more time in the market, bought some sweet nothings and retired early on our terrace nearby.
Two other ways to spend a morning in Chiang Mai is to check out the Fish Spa and stroll around Chiang Mai Flower Market.
Lovely coffee places in Chiang Mai (& small shops)
SS1254372 coffee shop – try their smoothies
The Baristro coffee shop – try the coffee ice cream
Smoothie Blues Nimman (brunch place) – for when you’re tired of Thai food, try their international food
Buri Gallery – Souvenir Shop
Day Trips from Chiang Mai
We chose a day trip to Chiang Rai instead of going to Doi Inthanon Park because the city is home to some of the most impressive temples in Thailand.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
The Sila Boutique B&B was our choice for accommodation in Chiang Mai and it was pretty decent and affordable.
How to get to & getting around in Chiang Mai
When traveling through Thailand, the best option it’s to fly, if you don’t want to take night trains or spend an great amount of time in traffic. I’m the impatient kind when it comes to other people’s driving, so we flew in Chiang Mai from Bangkok – 1/1,5h flight.
Getting around in Chiang Mai is easy enough – take the red taxi that look like a vintage ambulance.
We found it to be the most affordable option, paying 40 baht each to get to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep from the University & 30 bath more from our hotel downtown to reach the University at the end of the city & back.
If you know how to ride a scooter, that’s always an option in Thailand. But it’s best to stick to the red taxi since traffic is a mess and driving in Thailand not really recommended for Europeans.
Weather in Chiang Mai
The weather in Chiang Mai is friendlier and more temperate, unlike the South where you can barely breathe because of the humidity and the high temperatures. 25-27°C was the average temperature in Chiang Mai during our stay (beginning of December).
That’s it! Hope you find it useful when visiting Chiang Mai, Thailand.