Chiang Mai on a budget: What to eat, do and see

Every time someone talks about their time in Thailand, Chiang Mai is (almost) always a firm favourite.

Located in the north of the country, its bustling yet laid back vibes are enough to make any traveller feel welcome and despite being a relatively big city, it’s definitely not an overwhelming one. It is also super easy to navigate (especially with your handy Maps.me App!), making it the perfect place to just wander around without getting too lost or people thinking you’re a lunatic.

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Where to stay

First off, you’re fresh in the city – where do you base yourself?

For us, place to stay was what travellers in the area call “the hostel street” just by the north city gate, or the Chang Phueak gate. It is absolutely packed full of hostels and hotels and is only a ten minute walk into the centre of the city.

While there’s obviously a whole lot of choice on the street, we would definitely recommend the Chiang Mai Shunlin Hostel. While every hostel has it’s quirks, for only around 160 Thai Baht a night you can have a curtained bunk in an air-conditioned room, free water, bananas and an amazing host and for a backpacker, what more do you need? You can even even book all of your tours at the desk at any time.

What we really loved about this area though was how social it was and we spent almost every evening out on the porch of the hostel drinking beers, comparing travel notes and talking rubbish. It was a great way to make friends and meet new people – some of whom we actually travelled with for a long while after!

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Trekking near Doi Inthanon National Park with a local guide – one of the tours booked with Shunlin.

Food

The food in Thailand is definitely some of the best I’ve ever had and the majority of it was in Chiang Mai. The street food here is the best I’ve had in the country and it’s really something that you have to get in on.

In particular, the food market by the north gate (conveniently round the corner from the hostels) is incredible. In a typical South East Asia style, stall holders and food sellers fill the large length of pavement with chairs, tables, moveable kitchens and the most amazing smells. Take your pick of the huge variety of dishes on offer (you have to try the beef and cabbage and the fried chicken!), grab a beer and be part of the action. You won’t regret it and it will probably cost you less than £3 per person.

Another great market spot is the Saturday Night Market on Wua Lai Road. Here, you can have a full meal as you walk picking up small dishes here and there from different sellers. As with many similar markets in Asia, there is a huge variety so you won’t be disappointed and it doesn’t just have food – you can barter for some new clothes and some souvenirs along the way too, all without breaking the bank.

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The infamous beef and cabbage stall. They also cater for veggies!

Nightlife

Thailand is known all over the world for it’s cheap party spots and while Chiang Mai may be a little more expensive than maybe some of the dirt cheap bars of the party islands, being on a budget doesn’t mean not having a great night.

For those of you who enjoy a heavy night out (or those who plan on a quiet one and end up there), Zoe in Yellow and Spicy are popular backpacker haunts on the east side of the central city.

Our favourite place, however, is The North Gate Jazz Co-Op. While it may seem so far that we didn’t leave the north part of the city, this place is highly popular with those all over town and is packed with people almost every night – so much so that the majority sit on stools on the pavement and in the road. They have different bands and themes every night for you to enjoy, just make sure you get there early to grab a good spot and you’ve got a whole evening of entertainment sorted for literally the price of a few drinks.

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The crowd gathering outside The North Gate Jazz Co-Op.

What to see and do

In Thailand, the majority of activities to do come with a price tag, but for the most part they are worthwhile doing and some are even worth paying more for, such as visiting the Elephants (always do your research!).

However, if you’re serious about sticking to a very tight budget, there are still things to do that are friendly to your bank balance.

Aside from wandering around and browsing the huge amount of markets Chiang Mai has to offer, you can also visit all of the city’s temples for free, (as long as you wear appropriate clothing of course) and there are so many in the city you’ll be spoilt for choice. We really loved Wat Lok Molee and Wat Pra Sing, as well as the amazing Pagodas in Doi Inthanon National Park (though this will cost you).

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Part of Wat Lok Molee.

If you’ve already seen a lot of temples on your travels and are looking for something a bit different, take a motorbike around half a hour out of the city and visit Wat Mae Kaet Noi. Despite being a temple,Wat Mae Kaet Noi is a home to a huge variety of statues depicting graphic afterlife punishments that leave little to the imagination. Surprisingly, this is place where local parents bring their children to teach them about right and wrong and is one of those things that really has to be seen to be believed so if you’re looking for something different this is definitely the place to go.

Have you visited Chiang Mai before? Where were your favourite places?

Interested in visiting Thailand? Read more about my time there below:

Bangkok: Our first 3 nights in Thailand

“What do you mean you don’t dive?”: Doing other things in Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Phangan: “What the f*** is a Half-moon party?”

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