When we started planning our trip to Thailand, I knew one thing for sure – I wanted to visit Chiang Mai. I had fallen in love with the rain forest years ago in Central America, and knew that my first trip to Thailand would not be complete without a quick stint to the lush greenery that surrounds Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. This Chiang Mai itinerary will give you the full rundown of the best Chiang Mai things to do for 5 days and includes loads of practical info to make your trip to Chiang Mai as amazing as ours!
Our plans to visit Chiang Mai in October did not really come together until we had landed in Bangkok and finally found the time to really think through our itinerary. Initially I thought, we could spend 2 or 3 days in Chiang Mai and then either catch a flight down to Phuket to swing by Koh Yao Noi, or take the bus to Pai for a couple days. Considering that we only had five days to explore Thailand beyond Bangkok though, those plans quickly turned out to be over-ambitious.
How many days in Chiang Mai is the perfect amount?
We ended up booking our flights just a few days in advance (more on that below) and made the tough decision to limit our adventures to Chiang Mai, and Chiang Mai alone. Suddenly we had 5 full days in a city, that most short-term visitors only visit for 2-3 days, which allowed us to get to know Chiang Mai much better than anticipated! If your Thailand itinerary allows, plan at least 5 days in Chiang Mai as well, or stay longer and use it as a base to explore northern Thailand!
This Chiang Mai itinerary includes 5 day itineraries with suggestions including neighbourhood guides, local attractions and where to experience nature close-up; information on how to get from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and how to get around Chiang Mai; where to stay in Chiang Mai with vegan-friendly hotel suggestions and a vegan restaurant guide for Chiang Mai covering our favourite eateries.
The best Chiang Mai Things to do
Day 1: Explore the Old Town of Chiang Mai
On our first day in Chiang Mai, we arrived very early in the morning. Luckily our hotel had our room ready within an hour of our arrival and we could relax for a couple of hours to regain energy. Refueled and excited we spent the day exploring the Old Town of Chiang Mai.
Focussing on the eastern part of the square-shaped Old Town, we discovered the beautiful shops dotting Sri Poom Road and Mun Mueang Road (look out for traditional wicker crafts), stumbled into Cat Brothers Cafe, aka a cat lover’s paradise, and explored the narrow roads bustling with markets, hostels, bars and restaurants.
We bumped into a man who said he was a history teacher visiting Chiang Mai with some of this students – true or not, he gave us a map, highlighted a few recommendations for us, like which temples to visit in the Old Town and where to get transport to Doi Suthep temple and sent us on our way. While many guide books will warn you from such encounters, we didn’t feel anything sinister about him and were simply thankful for some honest recommendations.
Towards the end of the afternoon we found ourselves at Wat Chedi Luang, the beautiful temple ruins in the middle of the Old Town. It is one of many temples on the Mahamakut Buddhist University Lanna Campus and one of Chiang Mai’s main tourist attractions. You have to pay a small fee to enter, and women in particular need to be considerate to dress appropriately. During the day you can come here to learn more about Buddhism and chat with a Buddhist monk.
Tired from traveling and a day well-spent exploring the Old Town of Chiang Mai, we freshened up at our hotel, went for dinner and turned in early, ready to take on the city on the next day.
Day 2: Ticking off more Chiang Mai attractions
Following the advice of the history teacher we met the day before, we made our way to Chang Phueak Gate in the north of the Old Town to catch a red Songthaew to Wat Doi Suthep up in the hills above the city. The easiest is to join the groups of tourists waiting at Manee Nopparat Road – drivers will make everybody wait together until their car is full and arrange a price. We decided to stick with the same driver and paid 100 baht for both ways. You can also go one way only, to spend more time at the temple or continue to the palace further uphill.
Wat Doi Suthep is a beautiful temple tucked away in the lush forest hills above Chiang Mai. You can see the lights illuminating it every night from the city. The driver will drop you at the foot of a large staircase leading up to the temple – you’ll have to work a bit for this sightseeing! There are plenty of stalls at the foot of the stairs where you can buy food, drinks or souvenirs, as well as seek shelter in a sudden burst of rain. When you reach the top of the stairs, foreign visitors have to pay a small fee to enter the temple. Before entering the main temple, you will have to take your shoes off. The views over Chiang Mal are beautiful and worth the journey alone!
Back in the city, we walked to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, about 20 minutes east of the Old Town. The market area is open every day from dusk till around midnight, and offers several street markets, indoor market halls as well as food courts. You could literally shop till you drop – there are so many lanes of stalls to explore. Luckily a refreshing fruit juice is never far, and the charming Ploen Ruedee food court has lots of yummy options for dinner!
After a few cocktails and beers we took advantage of a mode of transport, that should be a staple on every Chiang Mal itinerary: we took a tuk tuk. Most journeys within the city should cost you around 50 baht, although drivers might ask for more if the journey is longer or at night time. We haggled a little, but ended up giving the driver around 100 baht for the 10 minute thrill ride back to Old Town.
Day 3: Rent scooters to explore beyond Chiang Mai
Renting a scooter might just be the most efficient, independent and fun mode of transport to chose in Chiang Mai. My main reason to visit Chiang Mai was to immerse myself in the lush green forest, and our trip to Wat Doi Suthep the day before had shown me, that that would rarely be possible if we were to share another Songthaew with 8 strangers. Traveling independently by scooter and scouting for off the beaten track locations in the forest ourselves, would make this a lot easier.
Following a hint in my Thailand travel book, we set out to find Mon Tha Than waterfall, a stream cascading through the forest in nine levels – yet I could barely find any information about it online or in local travel brochures. The waterfall lies about 2km off the main road at the foot of the hill beneath Wat Doi Suthep in the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. You can only reach it by scooter, car or with a private driver. Signs point you towards the waterfall off the main road, and there is a little national park guard station where you can pay the entrance fee of 200 baht/person.
Driving on this empty and narrow road through the forest was one of the highlights of my trip! At the end of the road, park your scooter and continue on foot to the first level of the waterfall. Unfortunately, heavy rains in the days before our trip had damaged some of the foot paths, so we only made it two levels up, but that was enough to get to a serene pool for a refreshing dip in the water!
On your way back to Chiang Mal you could stop by the Huay Kaew waterfalls, which offer smaller cascades, but also plenty of hiking trails.
Day 4: Experience Chiang Mai like a local
Let’s recap – so far we had explored the Old Town, the Night Bazaar and a few places outside of Chiang Mai, but we had not actually seen a lot of local neighbourhoods – which is what we did on the our second but last day in Chiang Mai!
We began the day in Nimmanda Haeminda, the trendiest part of Chiang Mai, where digital nomads work away in one of the many coffee shop and young Thais flock for the coolest bars and yummiest cocktails. My friend April, who had moved to the city a while ago, suggested to meet up for lunch and tell us a little about life in the city. Due to a public holiday, we did not get to do as much cafe jumping as we were hoping for, but that left more time to explore the incredible street art of the area!
Following April’s advice, our next stop was Wat Umong, a temple structure located underground inside a hill, and surrounded by a lush garden and a serene lake. The temple is free to enter. On our way to the temple we strolled though residential parts of Chiang Mai that looked so different to the Old Town, it was interesting to see how locals lived in this part of the city.
Our final stop of the day was the Baan Kang Was artist village, where I was hoping to meet local artists, see how they make their crafts and art, and hopefully buy a few souvenirs to bring back home. But alas, the public holiday came in our way again, and the village was unfortunately closed for visitors. I’ll be back one day!
Thirsty and hot from all the walking, we found a little oasis at No 39, a trendy event space with a coffee shop, a small vintage shop, a music shop, a little pond, outdoor seating, a small stage overlooking the pond and a supercool cabin with comfy seating and possibly the coolest slide I’ve ever seen. An instagrammer’s dream location!
Day 5: Work on your Chiang Mai Bucket List
After a relaxing breakfast at our hotel, we had almost the entire day to spend in Chiang Mai before our evening flight back to Bangkok. There were still many places we wanted to see, but realistically, we did not want to venture too far from our hotel, considering that we couldn’t freshen up in our room anymore. However, I wanted to share some of the activities you might want to consider:
Friday market at Wat Phan On | We stumbled upon this little market inside the temple courtyard entirely by chance. There were several food stalls and local vendors offered their arts and crafts on surrounding tables. The section is much smaller than the Night Bazaar, but I actually enjoyed shopping here a little more because it was not crowded at all and it was easier to get an overview before purchasing my favourites.
Cliff jumping at Grand Canyon | Chiang Mai’s Grand Canyon is an artificial water world south-east of Chiang Mai. There is a water park with all the amenities, as well as a cheaper, but more basic quarry next to it. Most people come here to jump from the tall cliffs into the water – but of course you should do so with care and only, if you can swim. You can find more info about visiting the Grand Canyon here.
Take a cooking class | The main reasons we didn’t book a cooking class ourselves were a) we did not want to be tied down by pre-arranging activities, and b) we were not sure how easy it would be to find vegan cooking classes in Chiang Mai. Luckily, the latter was an unnecessary worry, as a quick Google research showed that there are several cThai cooking classes suitable for vegetarians and vegans to choose from!
Or take a cruise on the Mae Ping river!
A quick word on animal tourism
When you visit Chiang Mai, it is unavoidable to be exposed to animal tourism. The ods are everywhere – on billboards and cars, in the shop windows of tour agencies, dangling in front of your face on a bumpy tuk tuk ride. They promise close encounters with wildlife at tiger temples or elephant parks, some of them marketed as sanctuaries. Unfortunately, and I cannot stress this enough, the animals kept at these places are often tranquillised or treated terribly in order to behave submissively. Posing for selfies with tourists and letting them pet them is not natural, so please don’t support this industry with your money. There are a few elephant sanctuaries, where rescued elephants are promised a better life, but to be honest, I don’t even trust those. Even in sanctuaries, these elephants are often just a source of entertainment for the visitors.
If you want to visit an elephant sanctuary never the less, consider choosing one where interaction with the animals is minimal. Don’t touch them, don’t bathe with them and don’t force your love onto them – in fact, being so close to humans makes the elephants behave unnatural, as they were trained to be particularly careful around humans, and I’ve heard terrible stories about guards forcing the animals into the mud baths with the tourists. Be considerate – the elephants have already suffered enough!
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
There are so many guesthouses and hotels catering to the floods of tourists that visit the city every year, that it is hard to make a decision on where to stay in Chiang Mai.
While we stayed at a guest house in the Old Town of Chiang Mai, another area you might want to consider is Nimmana Haeminda, which is a particularly trendy neighbourhood with lots of cafes, bars and restaurants. For first-time visitors though, the Old Town is a great place to stay in Chiang Mai because it is central, close to many local attractions, surrounded by bars and restaurants and very easy to get to.
Option 1: Villa Duang Champa
My friend Annika from The Midnight Blue Elephant recommended this hotel to us and we could not have made a better choice! Our Grand Deluxe room had a balcony with views over the city and towards the mountains behind Chiang Mai. At night we could see the lights of Doi Suthep temple, and in the morning we could hear the sounds of Wat Inthakhin. The entire guesthouse is tastefully decorated, with minimalist style and great eye for detail. The cocktails from the bar were the best we had in town! I can only recommend Villa Duang Champa for a stay in Chiang Mai!
Is it vegan friendly? The breakfast is vegan friendly (and incredibly yummy) – as long as you’re satisfied with homemade bread and jams and a variety of fresh fruit. Who wants a cooked breakfast in that heat anyways?! The dinner menu on the other hand is unfortunately not vegan-friendly – only the cocktails are!
Option 2: Green Tiger guesthouse
The only other option we had considered was Green Tiger guesthouse also in the Old Town of Chiang Mai. Green Tiger is a fully vegetarian guesthouse, which is why it would have been a great place to stay in for us two vegans. We ended up booking elsewhere, but came to eat at the guesthouse’s restaurant Reform Cafe twice (!) – it was so delicious (more below)!
Is it vegan friendly? Yes! The restaurant is 100% vegan!
How to get around Chiang Mai
At first glance, Chiang Mai looks like a small city, easy to explore by foot or bicycle – and to an extent that is true. A lot of the visitor attractions are located in the Old Town, a square-shaped part of town that is fairly easy to navigate by yourself. But once you realise that there is so much more to Chiang Mai than the Old Town, you will want to think about other ways of getting around!
On foot | During our five days in Chiang Mai we walked a lot. particularly around the Old Town, but also further afield to Nimmana Haeminda and Baan Kang Wat artist village.
By bicycle | For the most part, Chiang Mai is fairly flat and therefore easy to cycle in. The traffic however is another story and I’m not sure I would have felt comfortable cycling in the city as a first time visitor. I had the feeling that the cyclists we saw, were locals or westerners living in the city on their way to yoga class or work. The few people we saw attempting to cycle up to Doi Suthep temple were pushing their bikes up the hill – and it did not look like fun doing that in the midday heat…
Tuk Tuk or Songthaews | Tuk Tuks are a great means of transport for shorter distances withing the city. We used them to get from the Night Bazaar back to our Old Town hotel, and to drive home from Wat Umong. Feel free to haggle for the price, Songthaews are big red pick up trucks taxis that zigzag through town. They are often family businesses, with the man behind the steering wheel and the woman in the passenger seat taking care of the finances. Some of them work like regular taxis – you stop them in the streets and they can take you where you need to go within the city; others are more directed at tourists and have their destination, e.g. Doi Suthep temple, written on the windshield. The drivers will try to get the truck full before they head out to their destination and a popular spot to gather is across the road from Chang Phuak Gate.
Uber | Personally I don’t use Uber, but a friend who lives in Chiang Mai mentioned that she often uses Uber, particularly at night, as she feels safer and less ripped-off than in a Tuk Tuk.
Rent a scooter in Chiang Mai | The main streets of Chiang Mai’s touristy Old Town are dotted with rental agencies renting scooters for as little as 50 baht/day. I recommend to choose wisely who to trust with your money (and life), because some of the cheaper options could cost you dearly when you break down or something else is wrong with the scooter. Always read the small print of your rental contract! We followed Lonely Planet’s recommendation for Mr Mechanic, who has three branches in the Old Town of Chiang Mai. We paid a little extra for our scooters, but knew that if anything went wrong, we would not have to pay for repairs and would be picked up by the agency. The service was great and we even got a reassuring lesson in the beginning seeing that it was our first time driving scooters!
How to get to Chiang Mai
There are several ways to get from Bangkok to Chiang Mai that you could consider, and they all come with their own perks.
Bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai | You can get a full-day or overnight bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, which is definitely the most economical way if you travel on a budget; although that comes at the expense of comfort, sleep and potentially safety – watch out for pickpockets, particularly while you (are trying to] sleep).
Train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai | This is the option we had considered first, because we liked the romantic idea of an overnight train journey in our own compartment. The train connection is very affordable, even in first class, and the views over the rice paddies as you approach Chiang Mai in the morning sounded alluring!
Flying from Bangkok to Chiang Mai | Flying from Bangkok to Chiang Mai might be the most expensive option (we paid £60 return per person, booking only a few days in advance), but it’s also the fastest and most convenient one. You don’t have to watch out for your luggage, it’s easy to get to the airports at each end of the journey and even considering the time you spend at the airport before take-off you save a lot of time by flying to Chiang Mai!
By choosing an overnight bus or train you can save cash on one night’s accommodation and also time, as you do all the traveling during the night. Eventually, we decided for the third option though, and flew to Chiang Mai in order to have a more pleasant and comfortable travel experience. We flew with Thai Smile, which is a Star Alliance partner and really lives up the standards I am used from other SA airlines!
Vegan Restaurants Chiang Mai
You might have noticed, that I have not spoken about the restaurants we tried in my Chiang Mai itinerary so far – and that is because vegan food in Chiang Mai deserves a bit more attention.
I don’t know if it is the specific northern Thai cuisine, or the influx of digital nomads from the Western world, but visiting Chiang Mai as a vegan was incredibly easy! Happy Cow was a super useful app with many listings, in many restaurants vegan options were properly labelled and waiters were generally knowledgable regarding vegetarian and vegan dishes.
That said, I sometimes felt that being vegan restricted us to a little Western bubble – at least it felt like this in the first couple of days. Many of the vegan restaurants and cafes have extremely Western menus, which is a nice change after a week of the same curries with tofu, but made me feel a bit out of touch with the local cuisine. Furthermore, these cafes were predominantly frequented by Westerners, adding to my disconnect and discomfort. It made me incredible aware of my privileged vegan lifestyle choice and I questioned whether I was imposing my privilege through this dietary requirement. It took a few days and restaurant experiments to find more Thai, more local options, where I didn’t feel like every vegan dish was there to cater foreign Westerner, but rather came from a concern for animal welfare, environment and personal health – connecting to the reasons why I had become vegan in the first place.
Here are some of my favourite vegan restaurants in Chiang Mai:
Bodhi Tree Cafe 2 | We ate here on our last day and were sad, we hadn’t tried it earlier. Right in the most hectic corner of the Old Town, but located in a tranquil side alley, Bodhi Tree Cafe dishes up delicious homemade meals and drinks. It is a cafe, but also a social space with a yoga room on the top floor and a few basic rooms for accommodation. The Tom Yam soup I ordered here was definitely the best Thai dish I ate throughout the trip!
Bodhi Tree Cafe 2, 11 Ratchadamneon Road Soi 5, more info
Reform Kafe | Reform Kafe was so good, we actually came here twice – once for more traditional Thai food and once because we really wanted to try their burgers, which had raving reviews on Happy Cow. We were not disappointed! The Tom Yam soup (you see the pattern) was incredible, so was the Pad Thai, and the burgers and western pasta dishes were delicious too!
Reform Kafe, 1/4 Sripoom Road Lane 7, more info
Amrita Garden | I’m happy we found our way to Amrita Garden, which is tucked away in a quiet residential area of the Old Town. The restaurant is located in what seems like the lower floor of the family’s own house – a traditional wooden Thai structure with large windows and a homey feel to it. Reviews on Tripadvisor had “warned” us about the expensive prices, but if you understand how long it takes to make your own vegan cheese and pickle your own vegetables, you’ll know that a restaurant has to charge more than a street vendor. In the end, you’re still in Thailand and out meal – while decadent – was incredibly cheap! We tried a variety of dishes, but I particularly recommend the vegan cheese board and the delicious desserts!
Amrita Garden, 2/1 Samlan Road Soi 5, more info
Food4Thought | Food4Thought was a brilliant find – thanks Happy Cow – on our way back to town from Mon Tha Than waterfall. Close to the popular Nimmana Haeminda neighbourhood, but really a bit off the beaten trek, it’s definitely worth the effort! The cafe is serene with plants hanging from the ceiling and a light breeze cooling down the open space in the shade. We had rather Western food here, but the menu would have allowed for Thai options too!
Food4Thought, Sudjai Alley, Chang Phueak, Chiang Mai, more info
New Delhi Indian Restaurant | Finally, it is never a bad idea to find an Indian restaurant of you’re in dire need for vegan food. The staff at the New Delhi Indian Restaurant were super helpful and very attentive to ensure that all our dishes were prepared vegan (without butter or ghee), and the result was mind-blowlingly delicious!
New Delhi Indian Restaurant, 46/32 Ratchawithee Road, more info
In the end, Chiang Mai fulfilled all of my expectations – and actually went beyond that. Spending 5 days in Chiang Mai helped me to overcome the initial rose-coloured infatuation, look behind the curtain and re-fall in love with a city that is so much more than a green digital nomad haven.
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.