A Solo Traveller’s Guide to Chiang Mai

Rice paddies dominate the terrain on the outskirts of Chiang Mai
Rice paddies dominate the terrain on the outskirts of Chiang Mai | © chain45154 / Getty Images
Alex Robinson

Glittering pagodas balanced upon mountain tops; sun-warmed morning mist rising from rainforest; markets stacked with tribal crafts: the northern capital of Thailand has been a traveller must-stop on the Asian dream trip for decades. The city has grown elegantly since its backpacker-only days with tasteful luxury hotels now lining the Ping River. There’s a low-key fine-food scene too, with intimate restaurants and great street eats. Art galleries stand alongside night markets packed with arts and crafts while the surrounding wilds offer endless excursions into nature. Small wonder a Chiang Mai solo traveller will be in seventh heaven.

What’s the vibe?

Wat Chompu is one of dozens of temples in Chiang Mai

After the frenetic pace of Bangkok and glittering glass towers, Chiang Mai is low key and low rise. Arty galleries and wholefood fine-dining restaurants sit alongside 1,000-year old temples. The city is cut with lotus-flower-filled canals and ringed with crumbling medieval walls. Then there are elephants, waterfalls, jungle hiking and white-water rafting in the surrounding hills.

Where to stay in Chiang Mai

1. Anantara Chiang Mai

Resort, Chain Hotel

Parasol-shaded sun loungers line one side of the long, thin outdoor pool at Anantara Chiang Mai Resort, on the other side is the Ping River
Courtesy of Anatara Chiang Mai Resort / Expedia

Check in to the Anantara for sleek Japanese-minimalist design a mere stroll from the buzzing night market. Book a glass-sided deluxe balcony suite in warm teaks and soft whites for sweeping Ping River views at this intimate haven that’s home to the best spa in the city. Ask the concierge about the many activities suitable for a solo Chiang Mai traveller – from happy hours consulates to cooking classes.

2. Ping Nakara

Boutique Hotel

The all-white Lanna-colonial façade of the Ping Nakara hotel, with a pale-yellow vintage Mercedes and palm trees in front
Courtesy of Ping Nakara / Expedia

Ping Nakara feels like a French-colonial mansion, garnished with traditional Thai gables. Solo travellers love the speakeasy cocktail bar hidden behind a secret bookshelf door and the sun loungers by the atrium pool. Balcony-fronted rooms come with faux-French furnishings, silks and art-nouveau murals. With tropical fruit, eggs, French pastries and juices, the included buffet breakfast will keep you going all day. The night market is on the doorstep.

3. Suneta Hostel Chiang Mai

Hostel

Suneta Hostel Chiang Mai dining area with bare brick walls, tv and wooden benches
Courtesy of Suneta Hostel Chiang Mai / Expedia

The Suneta Hostel is great for solo travellers. It feels like a boutique hotel with parquet panelling in airy balcony rooms offset by minimal whites and bright Andalusian tiles. Generously portioned breakfasts are served in a rough-brick dining area that feels like a Manhattan cafe, while dorms come with plush wooden bunks and the rooftop bar is a great place to meet fellow solo travellers. This spot sits in a great location too – just outside the old city and close to the bar-lined streets around Tha Pae Gate.

Eating and drinking in Chiang Mai as a solo traveller

4. Mix

Restaurant, Authentic

The best food in Chiang Mai? Mix has won multiple gongs for its ultra-modernist Thai-European menu in the trendy Nimmanahaemin Road district. Food is served al fresco in a jasmine-scented garden, and the pre-dinner lounge bar, serving 80 different cocktails and 500 wines and beers, is a great place to meet.

5. Rustic and Blue

Restaurant, Fusion, Coffee, European

Rustic and Blue the Farm Shop outdoor dining area amid vines and trees
Courtesy of Rustic and Blue The Farm Shop

It’s all about eating together at this farm-to-table Thai restaurant just east of the city on the banks of the Mae Khao river. On the menu is healthy organic international comfort food, salads, soups and light lunches at long communal benches in a small garden – perfect for a solo traveller. And together with turmeric shakes and ginger shots, are great original cocktails.

6. Ristr8to

Restaurant, Authentic

A barista serving a coffee at Ristr8to
© John Michaels / Alamy Stock Photo

Want to meet locals rather than travellers? Head to this coffee shop on arty, studenty Nimmanhaemin Road – it won the Thailand National Latte Art Championship three years in a row. The great roasts, high-end snack food and intricate coffee-cream art has made this a place of pilgrimage for locals and visiting Thai tourists.

What to do in Chiang Mai

7. A temple wander

Buddhist Temple, Ruins

Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai with elephant statues on a clear day
© Ionut David / Alamy Stock Photo
Meander meditatively through the teak temples of Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh, marvelling at the carvings and ancient stupas, as the dome-like Buddhist monuments are known. Take a moment out for mindfulness at the Phra Buddha Sihing – one of the most revered effigies in Thailand – sitting golden and serene in front of an ornately painted lacquer screen.

8. See street art

Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark

Monkey mural on the street wall, Chiang Mai, Thailand
© Eugene Tang / Stockimo / Alamy Stock Photo

Join a street art and street food cycle ride through Chiang Mai, stopping at bustling markets to sample spicy local Lanna food, cruising the university district where artists such as Sanchai, Mauy and Waris work the walls and seeing the sights along the way.

The jaunt mentioned above features on Culture Trip’s 10-day small-group adventure Welcome to the Jungle: Exploring Northern Thailand, led by a Local Insider.

9. Take a hike

Park

Doi Inthanon National Park with pagodas and green landscaped gardens and hills beyond at dusk
© Noppasin Wongchum / Alamy Stock Photo
Trek off to Doi Inthanon just west of Chiang Mai. It’s the highest mountain in Thailand and the views over a stupa-scattered garden and endless rainforest-swathed ridges will leave you gasping. It’s easy to do too – with a group of like-minded adventurers.

Stay safe, stay happy in Chiang Mai

Compared with world averages, the crime rate in Thailand is low – just be careful of snatch thieves riding pillion on motorbikes. And be firm and polite when making complaints rather than openly angry. Otherwise, Chiang Mai solo travel is a breeze.

Getting around in Chiang Mai

Tuk-tuks bring passengers to the gate of Wat Sri Suphan, Chaing Mai’s Silver Temple

With tuk-tuks and taxis at every turn, costing pennies, getting around Chiang Mai is never a problem. The city centre is compact and easily walkable and agencies on every other corner offer trekking trips and cultural tours to out-of-town attractions; making excursions a good way to meet other visitors if you’re doing Chiang Mai solo.
Fancy joining up with a group of like-minded travellers rather than going it alone? Sign up for Culture Trip’s 10-day small-group adventure Welcome to the Jungle: Exploring Northern Thailand, led by a Local Insider. You’ll get to explore temples, street art and jungle, as well as feeding and bathing elephants in a rescue sanctuary.

Culture Trip Summer Sale

Save up to $1,395 on our unique small-group trips! Limited spots.

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