Budget Guide to Chiang Mai
Dates Visited: January 2019
Our budget guide to Chiang Mai will show you what to do, where to stay, and how to get around Northern Thailand's most populated city. This city is approximately a 10 hour drive (691 km/429 mi) from Bangkok. It makes the perfect overnight bus ride if you're looking to save a night's worth of lodging.
- Budget Friendly Things to do
- How to get to Chiang Mai
- Best ways to get around Chiang Mai
- Where to Stay
We actually went to Chiang Mai two separate times for a total of 5 days. Both times we used it as a midway point between somewhere else. However, we still got a good feel for the city as it's quite easy to get around with plenty of things to do. We felt satiated with the city while staying on a budget.
During both of our visits to we ended up staying in The Islander Hostel Chiang Mai and had a blast. The owners, Alex and Kate, are a couple that met while working in Koh Samui in the south of Thailand. They both moved back to Chiang Mai last year to open up a hostel together. We absolutely recommend staying there and would go back again the next time we are in the city.
Budget Friendly Things to Do
There are plenty of budget friendly things to do in Chiang Mai. However, we did come across a once in a lifetime experience and couldn't pass it up (Chiang Mai Elephant Home) even though it was a little pricey. Nonetheless, Chiang Mai has a lively night scene that can be enjoyed with little to no money spent. If you're willing to explore outside of the city Chiang Mai, it's surprisingly cheap to find a van ride and accommodation in Northern Thailand.
1. Go to Doi Suthep Temple
The full name of this temple is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, however, many refer to it simply as Doi Suthep (the name of the mountain it is located on). Though it's said to have been founded in 1383, it's considered an active temple today. Many people go to pray while walking clockwise around the golden stupa. We also got the chance to see several monks praying at the stupa just before sunset.
Doi Suthep is considered to be a very sacred site to the Thai people due to its history. The temple was built because of the story of the white elephant. Long story short, a relic was placed on top of a white elephant by the king and was released into the jungle. It then climbed to the top of a mountain, Doi Suthep, let out three roars and died. The king then ordered for a temple to be built on the site.
How to get to Doi Suthep
Going to Doi Suthep is one of the more budget friendly things to do in Chiang Mai since the temple entrance fee is 30 THB ($1 USD). The best way to get to Doi Sethup is by taking a red truck since the drive is roughly 1 hour from the old city.
We paid 100 THB/person ($3.20 USD) to get from Chiang Mai to Doi Suthep. Granted, we only had 3 people in an otherwise empty truck so we overpaid by about 40 THB each. We also didn't know a fair price for the ride until after we got there but you live and you learn.
Like we mention below, the red trucks are generally cheaper if there are more people riding. The truck we took from Doi Suthep back to the old city of Chiang Mai cost 60 THB/person ($2 USD). This one was packed full of people which is why the price was a bit lower.
2. Check out the Night Bazaar
The Chiang Mai Night Baazar is open daily from 5PM-12AM and is just east of the old city. From Doi Suthep, the red truck dropped us at the eastern Tha Phae gate which is only about a 10-15 minute walk to the market. At the Night Baazar there are tons of stalls selling food, clothes, and lots of other souvenirs.
It's totally free to walk around the Night Baazar which is why it makes the list in our budget guide to Chiang Mai. Even if you do buy food, it's quite cheap compared to restaurants. Walking around you'll find some exotic foods like scorpion, crocodile, and ostrich.
3. Walk around the Old City
Another great budget friendly thing to do in Chiang Mai is to just walk around the old city. This part of Chiang Mai is surrounded by a moat with gates on all four sides. Walking from the south to north gate is roughly 1.6 km (1 mi) and takes only 20 minutes. While walking around you're bound to see loads of temples.
Some of the more popular ones are Wat Chiang Man, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Chai Pra kiat, and Wat Si Koet. The first two temples we mentioned have small entrance fees. If you're looking for something free to do then head to the last two temples Wat Chai Pra kiat, and Wat Si Koet which have no entrance fee.
4. Eat at the Saturday Night Market
There is a night market along the south gate of the old city each night in Chiang Mai. However, on Saturdays the market is a lot bigger, busier, and stays open later. The market consists mainly food vendors offering cheap and delicious food. We got veggie noodle bowls for 20 THB each ($0.60 USD) and spring rolls for 30 THB ($1 USD). After getting back to the hostel with a full belly and fat pockets we knew this place had to be on our budget guide to Chiang Mai.
5. Take a Free Yoga Class
If you're looking for active budget friendly things to do in Chiang Mai then you're in luck. Everyday there is a free yoga class in Nong Buak Park in the old city. The facebook page called Yoga in the Park - Chiang Mai lists the dates and times. If you feel like the class was especially great donations are always appreciated, but not required.
6. Get a cheap Thai Massage
Massages in Thailand are quite affordable compared to prices back home. In fact, the cheapest Thai Massages we've found were in Thailand, go figure. Surprisingly enough we did find places that offer Thai Massages in Cambodia and Vietnam but they're just not as good.
The cheapest Thai Massage we found in Chiang Mai was for 150 THB ($5 USD) at Wat Pan Whaen, a buddhist temple in the old city. Also in the old city we found Lila Thai Massage, a place that is an ex-inmate employment center for women. The prices are slightly higher at 250 THB ($8 USD) but they provide an awesome opportunity for women to integrate back into society.
7. Visit an Elephant Sanctuary
Unfortunately, visiting an elephant sanctuary is not one of the most budget friendly things to do in Chiang Mai. The ones we found range from 1300-1500 THB ($42-$48) which is a bit over our budget. However, we thought it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and couldn't pass it up.
We did a half day tour to Chiang Mai Elephant Home and have no regrets. It's the most ethical elephant sanctuary we could find in Chiang Mai because they let you know how your money is being used. Read more below about a few different ethical Elephant Sanctuaries we considered and why we went with Chiang Mai Elephant Home.
8. Go to Pai
Pai is arguably our favorite part of Northern Thailand. Originally we planned on staying for 4 days but ended up staying for 10. We loved it so much we decided to go back again and stayed for another 10 days. Obviously not everybody can spend so much time there but there's a reason people warn about falling into a Pai Hole.
Some tour agencies offer day trips to Pai from Chiang Mai, but we would recommend against that. To make it worth the long drive, we would recommend at least 2-3 nights. There are plenty of things to do in Pai but it's more of a place to relax and experience. This small hippie town in the mountains of Northern Thailand that has a slow vibe and calm pace of life. Our favorite things to do were grabbing some food on the Walking Street and listening to live music at Jazz house.
Pai is roughly a 3 hour drive and vans leave every hour from Chiang Mai. Van tickets can be bought at the Arcade Bus Station for 150 THB ($5 USD). However, if you want to be picked up at your hostel or hotel, tickets can be bought online or bought at your accommodation for roughly 200 THB ($6.50 USD). Our first time to Pai we bought tickets through the Islander Hostel and got picked up out front. You can also find cheap lodging in Pai from 120 THB/night ($4 USD) for a dorm bed. For those reasons we decided to put it on our budget guide to Chiang Mai. If you're interested in reading more, check out our budget guide to Pai.
9. Go on a Meditation Retreat
This was something we hadn't planned on doing when we got to Chiang Mai. We had heard about it from a guy we met at the Islander Hostel. However, we hadn't considered doing it until we were on our way back from Pai to Chiang Mai. There are plenty of retreats that can be done around Chiang Mai, but we settled on Pa Pae Meditation Retreat. It's a 3 day retreat about 1.5 hours from Chiang Mai.
Originally I (Josh) was a bit hesitant to commit the full 3 days but after the experience I wish I had more time there. Everything is optional at this retreat but they encourage no internet connection during your stay and one full day of silence. A teaching monk led us through 4 guided meditation sessions per day. Additionally, a big buffet style breakfast, lunch, and small dinner are provided along with room/board and comfortable clothes. The entire retreat is donation based, but it is recommended giving 400 THB/day ($13 USD).
Not only was this a rewarding and peaceful experience, it was surprisingly affordable. With all meals plus room and board included for ~$13 USD/day it's definitely one of the best experiences we did. For that reason we added it to our budget guide to Chiang Mai.
How to get to Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is roughly a 10 hour drive from Bangkok, or just over a 1 hour flight. If you have more time on your hands, taking an over night bus is absolutely the most cost effective way to get to Chiang Mai. The quickest and most time efficient way is by taking a one hour flight from Bangkok. We did both and actually preferred the bus because it meant we could save on a night of lodging.
Cost: $21 USD online | $15-$19 USD paying by cash
Length of Trip: 11 hrs
We prefer using 12go.asia to price compare bus tickets anywhere in Asia. The nice thing is that you can use a credit card to book whereas most ticketing places only accept cash in person. That being said, it's always cheaper to pay cash in person.
Pros: Cheaper, No extra checked bag cost, Free water/snack, Save $$ on lodging with overnight bus
Cons: Takes longer
Cost: $43 USD (including checked bag)
Length of Trip: 1 hr 10 min
Even though taking a plane costs more, it saves quite a lot of time if you are short on it. With that being said, budget airlines like Nok Air are very affordable and can be booked pretty last minute. However, you will need to pay a bit extra if you need to check a bag.
Pros: Saves a lot of time, Still not terribly expensive
Cons: Costs more, Extra $$ for checked bag, No water/snack included in price
How to get around Chiang Mai
90% of the time the most cost effective way to get around Chiang Mai is by taking a red truck. Generally anywhere you want to go around the city is between 30-40 THB ($1-1.25 USD). A ride to the airport from the Old City should cost no more than 50 THB ($1.60 USD).
However, prices will vary depending how many people are already in the truck. This means the more people, the cheaper the price. When we take red trucks we generally look for one that already has at least a couple people in it. Prices are negotiable so don't be afraid to walk away if the price seems a bit high, sometimes the drivers will offer a lower fare.
If you're looking for a private ride, but cheaper than a taxi, then you might want to try Grab. This app is Asia's version of Uber which can be used with your credit card, however, in our experience most drivers prefer to be paid in cash.
It's worth noting that red trucks are usually cheaper to get around the city, however Grab is useful for getting a fare estimate from point A to B. We have compared whether or not it's cheaper to take a red truck or a Grab, but usually go with the red trucks.
Grab is also quite controversial, and technically illegal, in Thailand as most drivers (i.e. - taxi, tuktuk, red trucks) work together and don't like the app undermining their business. Nonetheless we have used both transport methods and haven't had issues with either ones. Our only tip is that if you take a Grab, make sure you get out of a touristy area to get picked up and sit in the front seat.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
From our experience, we like to use Hostel World to check out potential hostels, then check other booking websites like Booking.com to make our reservations. Sometimes we also message hostels directly to get a better price. We also like to use Airbnb to book accommodations if its a better deal than hostels. Clicking on either of the icons will give you a deal with either of the sites, but are affiliate links so we earn a small commission.
This was one of our favorite hostels we stayed at in Thailand. The owners, Alex and Kate, are an amazing couple that know how to create a welcoming atmosphere at their hostel. They have great suggestions of budget friendly things to do in Chiang Mai and can even help you book them. They also offer free water/coffee and snacks in the lobby.
Dorm: $10 USD
Private: $20+ USD
Amenities: Free wifi, Free Water/Coffee, Free Snacks, Refrigerator, Excellent Social Atmosphere, Cheap Beer, Laundry Services
Another added bonus to this hostel is that they serve beer downstairs and have an outdoor patio. This is the perfect place to hang and meet some other backpackers. Sometimes Alex and Kate will join for drinks, and if you're lucky they'll even take you out to some of the best bars around Chiang Mai. Shoot them a message on facebook if you want to make a booking!