Located in the northern part of Thailand, Chiang Mai - the second largest city after Bangkok, is a perfect blend of natural beauty, historical architecture and creative vibe.
The best time to visit Chiang Mai (and Pai)
Compared toBangkok and other cities in Thailand, Chiang Mai is cooler and has a relatively lower humidity. The cool season which runs from November to mid-February is considered the best time to visit Chiang Mai. Moreover, this time is the festive season in Chiang Mai with Yee Peng and Loy Krathong Festival. That's why we planned a trip in the middle of November.
Chiang Mai International Airport is a medium sized airport in Thailand. Currently, there are 7 international flights to Chiang Mai from China, South Korea, Macao, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, and 14 domestic flights.
To save costs, we booked a flight to Bangkok and another flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Flying from Bangkok to Chiang Mai only takes about 1.5 hrs. Chiang Mai Airport is also about 20 minutes away from the city by car (or taxi).
Day 1: Arrive in Chiang Mai and participate in the Yee Peng and Loy Krathong Festival
After we had settled our accommodation, we spent the rest of the day to taste the local cuisine such as tomyum, khao soi, grilled meat, mango sticky rice, got some rest and prepared to partake in the festivals in the evening.
For accommodation, I recommend Thunder Bird Hostel. This hostel is located in the Old Town district, just 500 m from Tha Pae Gate, so it is extremely convenient to walk to other places. The hostel offers a variety of private dorm-style rooms with affordable price.
You can enjoy the on-site café, bar, and bakery or play ping-pong, piano and guitar. The hostel also has a rooftop area with seating options and yoga mats available.
Thunder Bird Hostel
Thunder Bird Hostel, Moon Muang Road Lane 6, ...
Yee Peng and Loy Krathong Festival
Yee Peng (Yi Peng) Festival is celebrated on the full moon of the twelfth lunar month. This festival is celebrated in North Thailand, primarily in Chiang Mai. It coincides with Loy Krathong which is celebrated all over Thailand. As part of the celebration, lanterns are lit and placed in baskets and floated on the water. With two festivals, this is truly the time when Chiang Mai comes to life.
Releasing the lanterns into the sky is the highlight of Yee Peng Festival. It is believed that this act symbolized letting go all ills and misfortunes in the previous year, making ways for good luck and a bright future.
Chiang Mai in the afternoon.
Before participating in the latern release event, we walked around to breathe fresh air, admire the beauty of the Old Town and enjoy the food (seriously, when coming to Thailand, we couldn't stop indulging ourselves in the deliciousness of Thai cuisine) in Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.
Chiang Mai Night Bazaar
Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, Chang Moi Sub-distri...
Then we headed to the area between Tha Pae Gate and the Mae Ping River to celebrate the festival.
There are many "Yee Peng tours" especially set up for tourists which charge $100 (US). They involve more mass lantern lighting and spectacular photo opportunities. Tickets include a full meal, transfers and two lanterns. However, we aimed at a more authentic and local experience. Therefore, we didn't buy any ticket or lantern in advance.
Once the the festival came to close, we kept walking around to the explore the Warorot Market (Kad Luang) and some local bars.
Warorot Market (Kad Luang)
Warorot Market (Kad Luang), Wichayanon Road, ...
Day 2: Discover the charms of Chiang Mai Old City
Most of the key attractions in the Old City are within a short distance of each other, that's why we chose to get to know the city by bike. We had a leisure start around the small back lanes near the hostel. Then we rode along the small lanes to Thae Pae Gate and began to visit the temples.
Wat Chedi Luang is known as "The Temple of the Great Stupa" in reference to its massive chedi. The temple is located on Phra Pokklao Road and easy to find because the chedi is one of the tallest structures in the Old City. Initially, Wat Chedi Luang consisted of two temples named Wat Ho Tham and Wat Sukmin, then they were merged into one.
Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chedi Luang, Prapokkloa Road, Si Phum Sub...
Wat Chiang Man
This is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai town. It was built in 1296 by King Mengrai - the founder of Chiang Mai. Wat Chiang Man is famous for its Lanna-style chedi supported by rows of elephant-shaped buttresses. The temple he
Wat Chiang Man
Wat Chiang Man, Ratchapakhinai Road, Si Phum ...
Wat Phra Singh
Credit: Renown Travel
Unlike the two above temples, Wat Phra Singh looks a little more "modern" because it has undergone a number of changes and extensive renovations over the years. However, it's considered the most revered and attractive temple in Chiang Mai with gilded rooftops, golden-coloured covering and whitewashed walls.
Wat Phra Singh is a living and working temple with a monastery and school contained within the grounds. The temple is also known as "The temple of the Lion Buddha". According to the local belief, the Phra Singh Buddha image originates from Sri Lanka.
Wat Phra Singh
Wat Phra Singh, Samlarn Road, Phra Sing, Muea...
The House by Ginger (Ginger & Kafe)
After visiting those temples, we had a hearty lunch and relax at Ginger & Kafe - a casual mix between a restaurant and a bistro. The restaurant has a colorful, quirky atmosphere and serves authentic Thai dishes with a unique twist.
Ginger & Kafe is connected to several shops specializing in fashion, accessories, kitchenware. It's also home to an art shop/gallery that sells a lot of unique products.
THE HOUSE by Ginger
THE HOUSE by Ginger, Mun Mueang Road, Si Phum...
Central Festival Chiang Mai
In the evening, we took a tuk-tuk to explore Central Festival - Chiang Mai's second largest shopping mall. The mall is located right on the superhighway that goes around the city and is about 15 - 20 minutes away from the centre.
Like most shopping malls in Thailand, Central Festival is a full-scale lifestyle shopping centre with a wide range of name brand shops, standalone restaurants and food courts, a charming Wine Connection on the first floor, a movie theater and even an ice rink. You can spend a whole day here if you want (or when you don't know anywhere else to go).
Central Festival Chiang Mai
Central Festival Chiang Mai, ถนน ซุปเปอร์ไฮเว...
Day 3: A trip to Pai
You may regret if you miss out Pai when coming to Chiang Mai. Pai is a lovely little town located around 130 km away from Chiang Mai. The small town radiates a bohemian energy. You can visit for a spiritual retreat or even party all night. It takes about 3 hours to go there by bus and 6 hours by scooter.
The road from Chiang Mai to Pai has 762 curves. For us, we took a bus to go there and came back by scooter. With this way, we could both save time and had a chance to admire the scenery along the way.
We took the bus early in the morning. After coming in Pai, we treated ourself by having a traditional meal at Na's Kitchen.
Na’s kitchen Mae Hi, Pai District, Mae Hong S...
Then we checked into Huan Saran Hostel and took a rest before enjoying the night. We didn't rent any scooter because we just stayed here for one day and it's really relaxing when walking around the small town.
Huan Saran Guesthouse
Huan Saran Guesthouse, wien tai, Pai, Mae Hon...
Explore Pai Night Market (Pai Walking Street)
Pai Walking Street is a local food and craft market that operates every night in the heart of Pai. The night market is between 500 - 1,000 m long depending on the low or high season. This is a place where you can eat a fabulous range of authentic street food. In addition, Pai Walking Street is full of clothes shop, souvenir shops, massage parlours and artists displaying their works of art.
Pai Walking Street
Pai Walking Street, Pai, Pai District, Mae Ho...
The food stalls and shops in Pai Walking Street close between 10 - 11 pm. But this doesn't mean that there is nothing left to do in this small town. After tasting almost all kinds of street food, we visited some local bars. For such a small town, Pai has a lot of bars indeed (you can see nothing but bars around the town). Drinking and bar hopping is consider another major highlight in Pai at night.
Paizy Bar Cocktail
Paizy Bar Cocktail, Pai, Pai District, Mae Ho...
Paizy Bar Cocktail is a cozy place with a good vibe, friendly staff, cheap drinks. You can bring your food inside if you want.
Why Not Bar
Why Not Bar, Pai, Pai District, Mae Hong Son,...
Why Not Bar is one of the most popular spots in Pai where many tourists end up before the night is over.With its happy hour specials, strong drinks and good music performed by excellent DJs, this is definitely the bar that brings you a very good time in Pai.
Don't Cry Bar, Pai
Don't Cry Bar, Pai, Mae Hi, Pai District, Mae...
Don't Cry Bar is the latest bar in Pai (open till 5 am, and it literally stays open until the last guest goes home), so it would be the best choice to end up the night. The bar is an open-air venue with neon paintings throughout and has the best reggae music in town. There is also a food venue on-site if you want to get some late night cravings.
Day 4: Back to Chiang Mai
On our way back to Chiang Mai.
Before renting scooters to back to Chiang Mai, we had a tasty breakfast at The Blue Ox. The price was a little higher than other spots in Pai. However, the food was totally worth the price and the restaurant created a comfortable atmosphere in the morning as well.
The Blue Ox
The Blue Ox Pai, Pai District, Mae Hong Son, ...
Most of the rental companies expect you to take a two-way trip. However, there are still some companies (the two best companies are Mr. Mechanic and Aya) that allows one-way trips provided that you pay for an extra charge.
We had known before that the Chiang Mai - Pai route takes roughly 4 hrs. However, we give ourselves 6 hrs to enjoy it more and have regular rest stops to explore the restaurants/café.
Coffee In Love
This is a small road side coffee shop near Pai village. Besides being a famous film setting (Pai in Love), Coffee In Love is a major destination for you to have an amazing view of Pai when sitting on the terrace.
Coffee In Love
Coffee In Love, Thung Yao, Pai District, Mae ...
Pai Canyon (Kong Lan)
In some tourist brochures, Pai Canyon is described as "Thailand's Grand Canyon". There is no entrance fee to visit this attraction. We just simply parked our scooters outside and walked up the trail. The canyon is geographically interesting with green valley below and mountains beyond. It's also the best spot in Pai to see the sunset. However, it will be quite crowded during the golden hour.
Pai Canyon, Mae Hi, Pai District, Mae Hong So...
Coffee WE/Witch's House
In my opinion, this coffee shop is not so interesting as it looks. However, it's still a cool place to stop along the way to have lunch or get some coffee/juice in case you feel tired or sleepy.
Coffee WE Chang Moi Sub-district, Mueang Chia...
At around 5 pm, we arrived at Thunder Bird Hostel, took a shower, had dinner at a local restaurant and got a foot massage (that's what I craved for after a long trip) at Lila Thai Massage - one of the best places in Chiang Mai with affordable price and good relaxation.