Welcome to our ultimate itinerary for 5 days in Chiang Mai. Get ready to explore one of the most enthralling towns in the whole of Southeast Asia – nay, the world! This mountain-shrouded city at the top end of Thailand has a history that reaches back millennia, plus a modern vibe that’s made it the bona fide capital for the digital nomad crowd for the last decade or so.
Those things combine to create a town that’s at once ancient and new. Hit the Old Town and you’ll gawp at timber-faced cottages that date from the 800-year-old Lanna era. A single block away, you’ll sip the finest artisan flat whites this side of Bangkok. Later on, you’ll spend your evening watching the sunset blaze across the hills from an altitudinous temple.
Anyway, enough waxing lyrical. Let’s get to it: Our ultimate travel itinerary for 5 days in Chiang Mai. It’s got a hefty dose of Buddhist temples, oodles in the way of shopping (this is the home of the most iconic night bazaar in Thailand, did you know?), and even day trips to long-lost hippy towns in the mountains. Let’s get started…
Day 1: Wander the Old City (the only way to begin 5 days in Chiang Mai!)
Our ultimate guide to 5 days in Chiang Mai can only begin one way: In the Old City. This is the beating heart of this amazing town, covering around a square mile between ancient city walls and moats. It’s home to the most eye-watering landmarks and temples and is also the best place to stay.
(Talking of that, we’ll assume that you’re waking up in the heart of Chiang Mai on the first day, with the Old City beckoning just steps outside the hotel door. If you haven’t yet booked accommodation, our top picks would be The Rodman Hotel ($$), a gorgeously stripped-down midrange option with a pool, and the 18 In Town Homestay ($$), a charming home away from home with breezy chillout areas and a Zen feel.)
Anyway, get out the door as early as you can. There’s just so much to see in this historic square mile, which was once the epicenter of the powerful Lanna Kingdom that ruled over much of Northern Thailand from the 12th century to the 18th century.
A good way to check off the sights is on a guided walking tour, which you can organize at most hotels. Or, plan your own. Just be sure to include:
- Wat Chedi Luang – The colossal ruined stupa here has become an icon of the city. It looks spectacular lit up at night, so consider popping by as evening sets in. It was once over 82 meters high and housed the legendary Emerald Buddha, the most sacred relic in Thailand that’s now in Bangkok.
- Wat Buppharam – Another beautiful temple, this one showcases the intricate Burmese style of building with its filigreed roof spires and metalwork.
- Three Kings Monument – A dramatic statue depicting the three founders of Chiang Mai – Mengrai, Ramkamhaeng and Ngam Muang – sat right in the heart of the old area.
- Tha Pae Gate – Tha Pao is one of the main entrances to the Old City and a popular meeting point. Notice the intricate stonework and the medieval crenulations on the tops of the walls here.
Day 2: Shopping galore
If there’s one area where Chiang Mai really stands out from the crowd, it’s shopping. Yep, while Bangkok might have Chatuchak and all those floating markets, this is the city of bazaars. They’re everywhere, bursting from the side streets of the Old Town, spilling out from colossal depots in the new areas, and popping up in the cool new boutiques of upcoming hipster quarters.
Begin the day by catching a taxi or cheap songthaew out to the Bo Sang Umbrella Village. You’ll be greeted by shop after shop touting the famous bamboo umbrellas of Thailand and southern Burma. They come in bright pinks, bold scarlets, deep blues, and sun yellow, some with intricate oriental designs strewn across the top.
As lunchtime approaches, head back to the big Chiang Mai Gate. That’s home to its eponymous Chiang Mai Gate Market, which is a hubbub of stir-frying noodles and grilling meat skewers where you can sample the finest in local Lanna cuisine. It also happens to be a fine jump off point for the….
Legendary Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. First, take a stroll down Wua Lai Walking Street, which has a weekend market filled with vintage clothes and local trinkets. Then, head east to the riverside, where you’ll find the largest night bazaar in the north of the country, unfolding across something like six whole blocks. Haggling is a must. It seems like there’s nothing you can’t buy. Have fun!
Day 3: Doi Suthep and Nimmanhaemin
The locals say you don’t truly know Chiang Mai until you’ve seen the city from Doi Suthep. But, we’ll keep that for later (clue: It’s better at sunset). For the morning, hit the hipster core of modern Chiang Mai that is Nimmanhaemin. Known as just Nimman for short, it stretches along the Nimmanhaemin Road in a medley of uber-cool roastery cafés and artisan shops.
There’s nowhere better in Chiang Mai – and arguably the whole of Thailand – for that morning cup of joe than Ristr8to. An award-winning micro-roastery that makes some of the most fantastic latte art going, it beckons on the north side of the district. From there, it’s easy to stroll the whole way down through along Nimmanhaemin Road itself, hopping the cool eateries and bars and shops.
But don’t linger too long, because stunning Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a-calling. It perches high on the hillsides to the west of town. From Nimmanhaemin, songthaew taxis pass by to take you up there. They’ll cost about 60 THB per person. The ride is about 30-40 minutes in all, and involves some winding bends.
Once there, you’ll need to pay another 100 THB entry fee to gain access to the temple itself and then climb a very steep set of stairs up to the main compound. It all becomes worth it the moment you cast your gaze back down across the city, which sprawls out to the east in a haze of temple stupas and medieval spires. Plus, the shrine at Doi Suthep has a colossal golden pagoda and moody prayer wheels to see. It’s wonderful.
Day 4: Doi Inthanon National Park
A day trip to the Doi Inthanon National Park is a must for adventure-loving travelers keen on seeing the wilder side of northern Thailand; the region that swirls around Chiang Mai on all sides. The reserve covers over 1,000 square kilometers and is fairly remote. For that reason, we’d recommend considering a guided tour, which makes it a cinch to see the highlights and usually includes a pick up and drop off back at Chiang Mai. Simple.
There are some things that should definitely be on the itinerary here…
- Wachirathan Falls – A wide waterfall that falls off the ridges on the Klang River, this is one of the most dramatic cataracts in Northern Thailand.
- Wildlife viewing – There’s some incredible native wildlife within the Doi Inthanon reserve. You can see dwarf geckos, horned toads, and loads of deadly snakes!
- Ang Ka Nature Trail – This famous trail whisks you through moss-caked jungles in some of the most overgrown parts of the park.
- Twin Royal Stupas – The unmissable sight of the park is this duo of stupas that crown the highest peak in Thailand.
Day 5: Pai
We think a pilgrimage out to Pai is the best way to cap off 5 days in Chiang Mai. Not only is the secret little escape in the hills a fine next pitstop on your Thailand trip, but the trip there is an adventure in its own right, showcasing the wild and rugged hills of the Chiang Mai region. It’s actually one of most legendary journey to make in the Land of Smiles, involving a gnarly mountain road with over 720 bends!
Our advice? Take a day over it. There are transfer packages that make some interesting pitstops along the way. They include:
- Mon Jam – A cool lookout point with vistas over flower farms on the hills just north of the city.
- Mok Fa Waterfall – A modest but enchanting waterfall that gurgles off the cliffs in a deep jungle crevice. If you can find it, it’s like a hidden Shangri-La.
- Tha Pai Hot Spring – Really close to the entrance to Pai itself, this series of hot springs is a great way to cap off the long journey and unwind.
- Pai Canyon – Amazing lookout points over a dusty canyon just south of Pai.
Then you’re onto Pai itself. Welcome to the hippy enclave of the north. This town is all rickety bamboo shacks and New Age crystal shops, though the last 20 years have added boutique hotels for good measure. It’s a place to trek, to chill, and to enjoy an art-filled walking street after dark, plus some wild jungle parties if that’s your vibe.