Chiang Mai is an ancient city tucked away at the foothills of the Doi Suthep mountain in northern Thailand. It’s a much-loved city which captures the hearts of travellers, many of who end up staying longer than planned, but why is Chiang Mai so popular?
It’s a city with an incredible story, a story of growth, destruction and rebirth throughout its 700 years of history. This past created an abundance of archaeological treasures and it’s a superb place to visit if you’re interested to learn more about the Lanna Kingdom and to visit popular Thailand destinations.
There are, however, some drawbacks and not everyone who visits Chiang Mai enjoys their experience! In this post, we will discuss the reasons why Chiang Mai is so popular and also highlight some reasons why it isn’t.
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Why Is Chiang Mai So Popular?
This is a guest post written by Abi & Jack from the travel blog I’m Going On An Adventure! They are slowly travelling around the world and focus on outdoor adventure and money saving tips!
For most of you visiting Chiang Mai, you will appreciate its serenity and slower pace. It’s a city surrounded by history with many old, sometimes crumbling, temples and historical sites. They hold the essence of the grandeur the city once experienced and walking around you will notice glimpses of its past.
That past is, these days, intertwined with a more modern Chiang Mai. It’s an urban hub filling with bustling modern facilities as the city is rapidly expanding. Think huge shopping malls, first-class hotels, restaurants, spas, popular Thailand destinations and cinemas.
Even so, Chiang Mai has held on to its unique culture and I think it is this integration and successful combination of old and new that has ultimately made Chiang Mai so popular.
But not only that, for those of you who are not too interested in Chiang Mai’s history, the surrounding landscape and spiritual core that encompasses the city attract many nature-loving tourists too.
Most who visit are looking for a natural, calm environment where they can kick back and re-focus their lives, if this is the case, Chiang Mai is worth visiting for this reason alone!
However, there is also the other adventurous side of Chiang Mai, with the rugged landscape it’s a fun place for thrill seekers to have some fun as well.
10 Reasons Why Chiang Mai Is So Loved
We’ve mentioned a few reasons above but there are many many more. So, let’s dive a little deeper into all the reasons why Chiang Mai is so popular.
Although Chiang Mai is quite a large city, you will not see endless rows of skyscrapers or concrete masses until the horizon. Well, in reality, you actually will see the latter as the whole city was originally built in a vast open valley. So, if you stand in the centre of the old city – its buildings all around.
Nevertheless, the point remains true, step outside the valley and you will notice the wonderful mountain ranges and endless rice fields. The latter should come as no surprise since the Lanna Kingdom translates as the kingdom of a million rice fields!
It only takes a moment to leave the city walls and get lost in these scenic vistas, rolling hills and winding trails. The landscape of Chiang Mai is truly captivating, especially if you love nature as we do!
Secondly, I want to talk about wildlife. Since Chiang Mai is in a ‘strategically’ remote location (purposefully created to be in the landlocked heartland) it really hasn’t lost its closeness to nature and most importantly, wildlife.
Even being in the centre of Chiang Mai you will still hear songbirds every morning, although to really immerse yourself in their melody head into the national parks. For the keen bird-watcher, Chiang Mai is a fairytale – magical and romantic – and teeming with birds.
The region is also home to elephants, leopards and tigers, although it’s unlikely you will spot these critically endangered species in the wild. Deer, otters, wild hogs and monkeys are more likely while you traverse the open grasslands and sheltered national parks.
I keep mentioning national parks so let’s delve into those too. National Parks including forest parks, non-hunting grounds and wildlife sanctuaries make up over 30% of Thailand’s Kingdom.
And let me tell you, we love a national park! Following trails, spotting wildlife and hiking up mountains just to splash around in a natural pool under a waterfall… huge yes!
Although, between you and me anything more than a few hours and both Jack and my backs begin to play up these days. *Sigh* Even so, national parks can be enjoyed if only for a few hours or on a gentle hike.
Chiang Mai has a number of them within easy reach of the city. The closest, and likely most popular is the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, home to Wat Pra That Doi Suthep – The Temple of the Sacred Buddha’s Relic Doi Suthep. Another highly revered one is Doi Inthanon National Park, 70km south of the city.
Something which never gets old is my love for adventure and Chiang Mai is subtly a great place to visit if you want some low-key adventure. You’ll not find the kind of thrill-seeking adventures like jumping out of a plane (although you probably could do this). I’m talking about the more laidback adventures like motorbiking from Chiang Mai to Pai, a small boho village in the mountains.
Doesn’t sound too thrilling? Just you wait, it’s a road trip for the adventurous soul!
There are of course other adventurous things to do in Chiang Mai. Do you want to go zip-lining through the jungle? White water rafting along the river? Or even canyoning, ATV touring or mountain biking? Yep, Chiang Mai offers them all and this is another reason why it’s so popular!
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Less Touristy/ More Authentic
I say this with a pinch of salt.
Even though Chiang Mai is less touristy and more authentic than other areas in Thailand, it is by no means void of tourism. As mentioned above, in recent years the city has seen expansive growth.
That said, in comparison to the capital Bangkok and areas like Phuket – my statement holds true. But, it becomes more popular year by year.
You will notice fewer tourists, especially during the low season which is from July to October. Many people say that Chiang Mai has lost authenticity while catering to tourists. However, we don’t agree and feel the two have merged together symbiotically.
We loved how the old and new mixed in Chiang Mai. We enjoyed the traditional markets and exploring the old temples before taking a dip by the pool and ordering an iced latte. The streets are speckled with modern cafes and local restaurants, family-run homestays, Chiang Mai attractions and larger hotels.
For us, it’s really the best of both worlds and the main reason why I think Chiang Mai is hugely popular with tourists and expats.
Culture & Heritage
With 700 years of heritage, Chiang Mai’s culture is an integration of the indigenous tribes who lived in the area and the Tai Yuan People who populated the area after the city was built.
Interestingly, although Buddhism was embraced by all of King Mangrai’s people, their independent belief systems still remained and overlapped which slowly formed a separate branch known as Lanna Buddhism. This is why Chiang Mai’s culture, language and traditions are so unique.
One of the best places to learn more about this is at the Lanna Museum located within the walled city. The city is also well known for its production of handcrafts such as silverwork, wood carvings and pottery.
One of the popular Chiang Mai attractions are plenty of old temples to keep you busy while you explore Chiang Mai. A handful of our favourites were Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Lok Moli and Wat Chiang Man. These are all located inside the old city (except Wat Lok Moli but it’s just across the road from the north wall).
Another popular temple to visit in Chiang Mai is Wat Phra Doi Suthep. To be honest, it’s likely the most famous and most revered in the region – you’ll see it on most marketing billboards – promoting Chiang Mai in some form or another.
Would you believe that we didn’t actually visit it? It’s an unfortunate truth but I have heard that the final leg of the journey is a climb of over 300 steps! At the top, your reward is the 600-year-old golden Chedi…make sure you don’t miss it as we did!
One thing which is very important if you’re visiting any of these temples and happen upon a monk is to provide a Wai. A respectful hand gesture translates to a greeting or farewell. Place your two hands together in prayer and bow your head. When addressing a monk, place your thumbs between your eyebrows.
You’ve likely seen this being done already!
Chiang Mai, like much of Thailand, is an affordable holiday destination for many Western tourists. This is ultimately down to the lower cost of living which impacts products and services such as wages, however, there are many factors contributing to this.
For instance, in Chiang Mai, competition is high among competing hotels and tour operators and so prices remain competitive. Thailand also has huge agriculture and produces much of its own food and therefore doesn’t need to pay additional import taxes, helping keep the cost of food lower.
Tours and activities, Chiang Mai motorbike rentals, eating out and most importantly, accommodation are very affordable for tourists. Therefore, you’ll be able to have a fun and affordable holiday in Chiang Mai for a fraction of the price you would in Europe.
Great For Digital Nomads
Chiang Mai is extremely popular among digital nomads who love the city and its casual vibe. It offers a lot of freedom and lifestyle choices otherwise not obtained from home. This surge of activity has been noticed over the years and you’ll find there are plenty of co-working spaces dotted around the city.
Although once referred to as the most popular place to live for digital nomads, in recent years I would say Bali has stolen its crown. This doesn’t mean that Chiang Mai isn’t a popular spot for us remote workers anymore, it just means it’s likely passed its heyday. But hey, why does that matter?
It doesn’t. Chiang Mai is still a thriving hub and if you’re a remote worker looking for somewhere to set up a base or escape for a few months, it’s a good shout!
Finally, the ultimate reason why Chiang Mai is so popular is down to the local Thai community. We had a wonderful experience during our time in Chiang Mai with the locals. We were always warmly received and found help readily available if say we needed directions.
One thing which goes hand in hand with the local community is also the local cuisine. Thai food is famous around the world and what you can get in Chiang Mai is exceptionally good. The region has its own take on many popular dishes but you will also be able to indulge in local delicacies.
So, if you love food and a friendly community Chiang Mai is somewhere you’re likely going to enjoy visiting.
4 Reasons Why Chiang Mai Isn’t Loved So Much
So, there are a few reasons why you might not like Chiang Mai. These are the top 4 things to think about which could impact your holiday experience negatively.
As wonderful as Chiang Mai is being built in the heartland of Thailand’s Kingdom this does mean that it can be a bit of a nightmare to get to. The easiest way is to fly which is actually very easy and if you’re flexible you’ll find an affordable ticket.
Otherwise, for the rest of us, it would be a long train ride or a very bumpy bus journey to reach the city. Having done all three options, flying is by far my preferred option but the overnight sleeper train is also a fun experience. But maybe not for all!
Chiang Mai’s remote location means it’s not near other popular cities or tourist attractions, apart from nature, which is obviously a plus for us but might not be your cup of tea. If you only have a short trip in Thailand and want to explore more cities, it’s not logistically a good choice.
No Access To A Beach
With the remote location comes the absence and harsh reality of no beach. Most tourists visit Thailand for the picture-perfect palm-lined white-sandy tropical beaches you will see on a postcard.
Chiang Mai does not offer as much as a grain of sand. There are some rivers and waterfalls plus some hotels will have a pool. Unless you’re on a tight budget I would suggest splurging on a hotel with a pool.
Lots Of Expats
There are lots of expats in Chiang Mai. You might also notice a lot of older men with younger Thai girlfriends. Although this is something you will encounter throughout Thailand, it still takes a second to get used to this.
Expats move to Chiang Mai for the cooler climate and affordability, fewer crowds and well let’s face it, a better standard of living than back home. The food is fresher, the fruits are abundant, living accommodations are that of a dream, and going out doesn’t need to cost you your whole month’s paycheck!
Why wouldn’t you move to Thailand?
For some, the slower pace in Chiang Mai is a drawback. If you’re after a hip bustling city with a diverse mixture of cultures and a trendy night scene, Chiang Mai isn’t going to cut it. The city has bars and clubs, restaurants and cafes, everything everywhere else has but it does move slower.
It’s more laidback and boho, and less be heard and be seen. For some this is their vibe, if it’s yours you’ll probably not love Chiang Mai.
Why Is Chiang Mai So Popular For Digital Nomads?
Chiang Mai has become a super popular place for digital nomads, ultimately because of its affordability and landscape. For any digital nomad, the ability to live in a location which far surpasses the expectations we would have at home makes it very attractive.
Chiang Mai, well Thailand in general, is such a place. It’s possible to live in Chiang Mai for as little as £650 a month. Add an extra couple of hundred on top of that and you’ll be having a great life in Chiang Mai.
There’s also the beautiful landscape that for most living in the area is much appreciated. You wouldn’t choose the laidback vibes of Chiang Mai if you prefer the bustling cityscapes of Bangkok. So with that in mind, having nature a hop, skip and jump away is another reason why Chiang Mai is so popular for digital nomads.
However, I would say it’s mainly down to the affordability, great food and friendly community!
Have you booked your flight to Chiang Mai yet??
I use Skyscanner to book all of my flights! I’m a huge fan of Skyscanner because I love how easy it is to compare different dates and routes to help me find the best flight at the best price! Open Skyscanner by clicking here and search for the best flights as you read this post.
When Did Chiang Mai Become So Popular?
Chiang Mai started to become more popular among tourists in the 1990s and since then has continued to grow in popularity. As mentioned above, in more recent years, it has become even more popular with the rise of digital nomads and remote workers.
As the city developed a reputation for being a digital hub it was also growing as a popular backpacking destination. It now sits comfortably as a must-visit location on any Southeast Asian backpacking route.
Other factors have contributed to the city’s popularity, including the chance to get close to elephants, being a location for the Thai Royal Family’s holiday home and the iconic film ‘The Beach’. Which although features south Thailand certainly put the country on the map, thus opening up Chiang Mai to the world.
Conclusion: Why Is Chiang Mai So Popular?
With so many Chiang Mai attractions like impressive temples, traditional markets, historic landmarks and popular Thailand destinations, the city is best for those of you seeking an authentic Thai experience. The community, food and markets make Chiang Mai a fun and immersive place to learn about Thai culture.
The laidback setting is close to nature and surrounded by mountains, forests, and waterfalls, also making it a perfect destination for nature lovers. History buffs, archaeological enthusiasts, laidback hippies and foodies will quickie realise why Chiang Mai is a popular place to visit!
I hope this has helped you work out why is Chiang Mai so popular and reasons to visit Chiang Mai!
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