Planning to visit Chiang Mai in Thailand, but unsure how long to stay there? This guide to how many days in Chiang Mai will help you decide.
Why we visited Chiang Mai Thailand
In January 2019, we spent three weeks in Chiang Mai, Thailand, as part of our longer trip to SE Asia. Widely known as a popular base for digital nomads, Chiang Mai seemed to tick a few boxes for what we wanted to do, so we decided to give it a go.
How long to spend in Chiang Mai
Before we booked our flights, we were not sure how long to stay in Chiang Mai.
We partly based our decision on our onward plans for Hanoi in Vietnam in February. We also wanted to have a base in one place for a few weeks, as during the previous months we had visited Singapore, Thailand (islands + Bangkok), and Myanmar.
In the end, we settled on three weeks, which was about the right time in Chiang Mai for us. This meant we could combine a little sightseeing with working online whilst preparing for the next few months of travel.
Where is Chiang Mai?
Chiang Mai is a city in Northern Thailand. It has a total population of about a million people in the metropolitan area, of which about 160,000 live in the centre. There is also an estimated population of 40,000 expats, though this figure might be grossly underestimated.
Chiang Mai’s historic centre is fairly small, and it’s really a square measuring approximately 1.5 kms from side to side. Plenty of markets, businesses and shopping malls operate in and just outside the square. This makes Chiang Mai an entirely walkable city, though there are buses, tuk-tuks and Grab taxis available.
When is the best time to visit Chiang Mai?
It seems we actually visited Chiang Mai at the best time! It seems that January is the best time to visit Chiang Mai due to weather and other considerations. Check out our full guide here on: The best time of year to visit Chiang Mai.
What’s so special about Chiang Mai?
Quite often when you mention a destination, certain images come to mind. For Athens it might be the Acropolis, for Santorini the blue domed churches, and Cambodia could be Angkor Wat.
To be honest, before visiting Chiang Mai we knew very little about it or what to do there. Certainly no iconic images came to mind. All we knew is that it has become a popular place to visit in Thailand in recent years, particularly with the digital nomad community.
What's Chiang Mai like?
Chiang Mai is surrounded by mountains, offering plenty of hiking opportunities in nature, and has warm weather throughout the year.
At the same time, it has a vibrant expat community, supported by an increasing number of expat-friendly cafés, eateries, shops, yoga schools and massage studios.
This expat community is now also supplemented by the self-styled ‘digital nomad' community. Many of these people are less nomadic than the name suggests, and stay in the city for months on end.
Combine this with a huge number of local markets and authentic, inexpensive restaurants and food markets, and you will understand why Chiang Mai is so popular with foreigners.
How long in Chiang Mai?
For many travelers, how long to spend in Chiang Mai is determined by the total length of their trip to Thailand or SE Asia.
As an example, people who have two weeks in Thailand, would normally choose to spend no longer than two or three days in Chiang Mai, or might not even include it at all in their Thailand itinerary.
Digital nomads and backpackers, who travel for longer time periods and maybe without a specific travel plan, might choose to visit Chiang Mai for longer, or make it a semi-permanent base for a few weeks or months.
As a result, there is no right or wrong answer for the question “how many days to stay in Chiang Mai”. It all depends on your style of travel, your interests and preferences, and what you want to do while in a city.
How long to see the main sights in Chiang Mai
From our experience in Chiang Mai, you can easily see the main sights in Chiang Mai in three days. With an abundance of local and tourist markets and an incredible number of over 300 temples, Chiang Mai has enough to keep you occupied.
So if you are only passing by, and you are wondering how many nights to stay in Chiang Mai, our advice is to book three nights and see if you want to stay longer.
How many nights in Chiang Mai for travelers
Vanessa visited pretty much all the markets, and the one that most impressed her was the huge Sunday market, occupying most of the historical square.
With this in mind, if you are visiting Chiang Mai for three days, try to make it a weekend – unless you are not interested in markets, in which case it might be best to actually avoid the Sunday, when the streets get packed with stalls and people.
How long in Chiang Mai for digital nomads or backpackers
As mentioned above, there is a sizeable population of expats in Chiang Mai, and an increasing number of cafés, restaurants and other businesses to cater for this crowd. This can be a pleasant (or not!) break from the general madness of SE Asia.
In our three weeks in Chiang Mai, we met digital nomads living there for a few months every year, people who had moved to Chiang Mai several years ago and are now running successful businesses, and people who had chosen to retire there.
In our opinion, Chiang Mai was a comfortable base for a few weeks, offering pretty much everything one might need within walking distance.
Food markets, luxurious shopping malls for the occasional cinema night, some sightseeing, western type supermarkets for when we had feta cheese cravings, plentiful yoga classes and an overall higher level of English spoken by locals.
If only there was also a beach!
Pros and cons of Chiang Mai
In our experience, while Chiang Mai was a cool place to stay for a few weeks. However, it was slightly lacking something that we couldn’t quite define.
Our first impression, that actually didn’t change much in three weeks, was that this city is less “authentic” than some other cities we visited, due to the high number of people like us.
At the same time, it’s a little surreal to crave “authenticity” and hope to speak English at the same time. To be fair, there were enough places, especially markets, where there were no other tourists, but you need to look for them.
Overall, the main pros of Chiang Mai for digital nomads were the following:
- Everything is walking distance, or an inexpensive bus / Grab taxi ride away – nothing like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur
- There are several amazing markets, both local and more touristy ones
- Food is great, with several Thai and international options available
- There are many opportunities to meet like-minded people
- It’s a good place to base yourself for a few weeks if you have been on the road for a while
At the same time, we thought Chiang Mai also had a few cons:
- No beach – then again, if Chiang Mai was on the beach, it would probably attract ten times more travelers!
- Can actually be too warm. We were there in January, which is probably the best month to visit Chiang Mai, but the city might be best avoided from March to October.
- Although there is enough sightseeing to keep you occupied for a few days, there might not be something particularly unique to justify a special trip to Chiang Mai. Sure, some of the temples and the markets are pretty amazing, but for many people that might not be enough.
Conclusion – How many days in Chiang Mai – Our advice
All in all, if someone asked us if they should include Chiang Mai in their two-week holiday in Thailand, we would probably advise against it as we didn’t find Chiang Mai unique enough to deserve a special trip.
However, if you are thinking of a place to spend a little longer in SE Asia, Chiang Mai is ideal.
It’s a walkable, vibrant, expat-friendly city with amazing food and excellent markets. You could even make it a semi-permanent base for a few months, taking monthly trips to nearby countries to solve the visa issue. The decision is yours!
Thailand Travel Guides
You might also be interested in these other travel guides to Thailand: