Thailand’s northern city gets its share of hype, but our family came for the food and laid-back pace
Bright yellow mango smoothies. The sizzle of chicken in a pan. The soft fuzz of a giraffe’s head under your palm. Hype and mystique can surround much of Thailand, so it’s also understandable to wonder: Is Chiang Mai worth visiting, and especially with kids?
This northern city bustles, but not at Bangkok’s pace or with its sprawl. Chiang Mai has pride in its identity, culture, and cuisine. But it doesn’t feel a need to be anything more than itself.
Our globetrotting family enjoys cities. We are happy to stroll about the bustling metros of places like Tokyo or Hanoi. However, we feel most at home in a country’s smaller cities. They are content as the city and the people they are. That sense extends to Thailand, and especially to Chiang Mai. As much as we enjoy Bangkok, our hearts—and appetites—draw northward.
Why we went to Chiang Mai with our kids
Food. The number one, top, primo reason we went to Chiang Mai with our kids was to enjoy an array of Thai food. Is Chiang Mai worth visiting with kids? The food alone is reason.
Throughout Thailand, good, fun, honest eating is a regular part of any day’s joy. Yet in Chiang Mai, the ease of getting around, prevalence of markets, and variety of food makes it all the more fun to explore the city. Other reasons we wanted to spend time in Chiang Mai include:
Meetups. Chiang Mai is a popular hub for travelers, digital nomads, and expats. We met up with other traveling families, giving the kids a chance to play with other kids, and for us adults to talk with other travelers.
Markets and festivals galore. We stayed in Chiang Mai during November and December 2022. Our favorite sightseeing was night markets and weekend markets. We wandered, feasted, tried new-to-us foods, and challenged ourselves to stick to a set night market budget of ﬂ200. We also stayed within walking distance of a nearby shopping center, which regularly hosted food-focused events, including coffee, sweets, and even a Japanese street food festival.
Cooking class. Anthony loves eating Thai food, and it’s one of his favorites to cook. During his first visit to Thailand in 2003, he took a cooking class in Chiang Mai. We’ve always talked about taking a cooking class as a family, and this trip gave us a chance to make that happen.
We also liked the change in setting. Chiang Mai is in Thailand’s hilly north, in a region known as the Thai Highlands (which we can’t help saying in a Scottish accent). It can be cooler than Bangkok. We also enjoy smaller cities. With a metro population of 1.2 million, Chiang Mai is comparable in size to places like Austin, Texas; Adelaide, Australia; or Cologne, Germany. There’s plenty to do, but without feeling crowded.
Is Chiang Mai safe and family friendly?
When I started thinking about this sort of info, it didn’t occur to me that this question needed answering. Yes, Thailand’s cities have their bar scenes and club scenes and then some. Some folks often associate Thailand with its sex trade or red-light districts. Those are a minor part of Thai culture, probably no more than in your own country.
Chiang Mai has parts of town that are not kid friendly, but you have to seek them out. I’ve visited twice and have yet to encounter the city’s seedier side. Is Chiang Mai worth visiting for safety? We think so.
From our experience, we found Chiang Mai to be safe, welcoming, and easy to travel around with kids. Whether we walked from our accommodation to the food court at a nearby shopping center, or explored night markets, we felt safe. We practiced the same street smarts we would anywhere else, and we never had a problem.
Weather and air quality: What’s a good time of year to visit Chiang Mai?
We visited in December. On the one hand, cooler weather coincided with the dry season. Flowers were blooming. Days were pleasant.
Chiang Mai’s air quality can be a problem. Seasonal rice burning during February and March can make the area’s air quality pretty bad. However, ambient air pollution can make the air hazy and unpleasant sometimes. When we were there in December, the air quality was overall okay, with the occasional haze.
Is Chiang Mai worth visiting when it comes to air quality? That can vary. If air quality is a factor you need to consider for your health and quality of life while traveling,
Accommodation: Hotels, rentals, and where to stay in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is full of budget, mid-range, and luxury accommodation. We’d suggest looking at the overall area you want to be in, the activities or amenities you want to be near, and then examining accommodation options accordingly.
Where we stayed in Chiang Mai
In the northeastern side of the city, a long, straight street lined with tall trees and parked motorbikes extends to the complexes of dcondo condominium developments. Nearby, the Central Festival shopping center is one of Chiang Mai’s biggest modern malls. Its bottom level is home to a wonderful food court (plus a supermarket). An array of stalls offer foods from sushi to pizza, along with various Thai and Vietnamese dishes. Plus, the food court and outsize plaza regularly host events. We enjoyed a coffee festival and a Japanese street food festival. And those were just the two we made time for.
We stayed in a rental condo just a few minutes’ walk from the Festival. The dcondo ping complex was also home to a fitness center and an outdoor swimming pool. The kids and I regularly walked the paved trail in the building’s courtyard. Whenever we wanted to go somewhere beyond walking distance, we hired a car through the Grab app (similar to Uber, Lyft, or Bolt).
Inside our modern apartment, we enjoyed a full kitchen, separate bedrooms, and comfortable bathrooms. The courtyard became a sort of outdoor living room, where we sometimes worked, schooled, and relaxed while sitting at the tables dotting the courtyard.
5 other places we would consider staying in Chiang Mai
Our accommodation ranges from hotels to rentals, but typically we prefer rentals. Seeking out vacation rentals in Chiang Mai can put in the midst of excellent locations with easy access to food, groceries, and other amenities. For our next visit to Chiang Mai, below are 5 places we would consider staying with our kids:
Attractions: What we did and what we skipped
Chiang Mai has a range of attractions in town and just outside the city. Our favorite attraction was simply walking around our area and nipping into restaurants or cafes that looked tasty. When we weren’t eating, we still found plenty to do—and we skipped a few notable activities.
6 things we did in Chiang Mai
Cookventure Thai Cooking Class and Market Visit
Our time in Chiang Mai coincided with the US Thanksgiving holiday. Back in the USA, we’d be sharing an amazing meal with friends and family. Since we were in Thailand, we instead spent the afternoon cooking Thai food.
Our guide, Apple, and her Cookventure Thai cooking class took us through a traditional Thai covered market to buy ingredients. Then we spent a lively evening cooking five courses in her ground-floor kitchen, where each of us got to pick our own dishes to prepare. Apple was especially good with the children. That went a long way to Aster feeling confident mincing garlic, sauteing chicken, and even deep-frying tasty treats. Not bad for a freshly minted 8-year-old!
Let’s say this up front: Animal attractions are a mixed bag. We can’t vouch for every aspect of animal treatment at Chiang Mai Night Safari, but we tried it out.
Aster adores animals, and we knew that anything animal related would be a big win as a birthday gift for her. We spent her birthday evening at the Chiang Mai Night Safari. Along with a big cats show, we wandered animal exhibits and sat in on other animal shows. After nightfall, an open-sided bus brought us near nocturnal animals. At one stop, giraffes bent low enough for the kids to pet them on the head.
Illusions come alive! Amazing painted scenes adorned walls and floors in room after room. However, the real magic happens when you photo or video them just right. Points on the floor mark where to be with your camera.
The result? Kids who look like they’re on a rickety bridge over an abyss. Surfing a gigantic wave. Posing with famous works of arts. And more. Art in Paradise gave us lots of laughs and challenged our perspectives. In our photos and videos, the effects hold up.
Saturday Night Market Walking Street and Sunday Night Market
Chiang Mai comes alive during its regular open-air markets. Visitors flock to these markets, but plenty of locals head there too. And fair enough.
The markets and walking streets are also wonderful opportunities to get out and about—not to mention feast on delicious, freshly prepared foods and beverages. Markets introduced the kids to foods they didn’t know yet. Plus we could enjoy some people-watching.
We wandered around the craft and clothing stalls, but since we rarely buy souvenirs and can’t vouch for the shopping. The food stalls, though, were delicious, and reasonably priced for our family budget—and the mango smoothies were especially bright, cold, and thirst-quenching.
Meetups with other traveling families
Chiang Mai is a popular spot for expats and travelers. After connecting with families in Chiang Mai, we met up twice at a local cafe.
The kids had spaces where they could draw, play games, and be silly. We adults could sit and discuss parenting, traveling, and more. It was nice to share tips, joys, and challenges with other traveling families.
Explore other food events
In the USA, we rarely visit malls. However, Thailand’s shopping centers bring in incredible food stalls and food events. We regularly visited the bottom-floor food hall in the Chiang Mai Central Festival. Sometimes we tried new foods, or simply kept an eye out for what was on offer. A space off the food stalls might host an event around sweets or specialty coffee. Our favorite? Next to the shopping center, stalls lined the plaza for a celebration of Japanese food and drink.
3 things we skipped (and why)
On the one hand, there are some elephant sanctuaries doing outstanding work. However, it can also be really hard to parse out which treats their animals well. Plus, visits to these elephant sanctuaries can be pretty costly. Ultimately, it wasn’t in our budget and needed too much time.
Wat Doi Suthep
On top of a hill just outside the city, Wat Dot Suthep is one of Chiang Mai’s most lauded sites. If temple tourism is your thing, then fair enough. For us, the logistics looked too tricky. We’d need to arrange a ride there and also back. Plus, there are lots of steps. Jodie can do lots of stairs, but she prefers to save it for something she considers worthwhile. This temple didn’t rise to that level for her. Plus, we knew we’d visit the White Temple and Blue Temple in Chiang Rai. It made more sense to take a break from temple touring while in Chiang Mai.
Doi Inthanon National Park
Thailand’s highest mountain. A temple complex. Scenic woods, hills, and rivers. This National Park is a major place to see in northern Thailand. However, getting out of town wasn’t something we’re as confident at yet.
Doi Inthanon is about 87 km southwest of Chiang Mai. We weren’t interested in trying to figure out a car rental. Nor did we want to worry about arranging a ride. (Some folks rent motorbikes, but a two-wheeler doesn’t work well for Jodie as an amputee.)
On a future trip to Chiang Mai, we’ll consider Doi Inthanon’s waterfalls, rice paddies, and cloud forests. In fact, instead of a day trip, we’ll likely stay for a few days.
Chiang Mai: worth visiting and food for families and kids?
Thailand’s northern city was a joy for us. Tasty food. People we could meet up with. We could wander temples, night markets, fantasy worlds, and animal habitats. Is Chiang Mai worth visiting? Our experience with kids gives a hearty yes!