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While Chiang Mai is a relatively small city, it still is home to a number of different areas and neighborhoods each with their own look and feel…and that go well beyond just the Old City and Nimmanhaemin where tourists and digital nomads congregate. Though they are central areas, I’ve read several posts that only highlight these two main spots and dismiss everywhere else.
If you’re just starting out in the city or living here for a few months, staying around the Old City or Nimman will be the most convenient, however if you’re planning to stay longer, get out of your comfort zone a bit – there are plenty of areas to choose from!
Nimmanhaemin (also called “Nimmanhaeminda” or just “Nimman”) is Chiang Mai’s trendy neighborhood. Close to Chiang Mai University and easily accessible from the Superhighway, Nimman is filled with a variety of restaurants, cafes, wine bars, art galleries and other upscale venues. While it’s a consistent go-to spot, all the shops and restaurants you see today could easily be gone tomorrow as places open and close at a head-spinning rate. (It’s not uncommon through Chiang Mai to go to one of your favorite places for lunch and have it be…gone.) Take time to wander through side streets between Nimmanhaemin Road and Srimangkalajarn Road where most of the action is. New condominiums are popping up like weeds and real estate prices are some of the highest in the city, but it’s still easy to sublet a place for a reasonable rate and there are plenty of boutique hotels around that are great for a weekend getaway.
The Old City is undoubtedly Chiang Mai’s tourist epicenter, but large parts of it are still quiet and laid-back. The east side (Thapae Gate) and the central east-west road (Ratchadamnoen) are the busiest areas, with an endless array of guesthouses, boutique hotels, restaurants and coffee shops. It’s also home to the largest concentration of temples in CM and likely in all of Thailand. The Old City has everything you need, but in my opinion most of the best spots are actually outside of it.
The winding lanes of the north and southwest areas are quite low-key. There are many houses for rent, and surprisingly the prices aren’t outrageous. For apartments however, you’re really only be able to find ‘serviced apartments’ which are essentially long-term hotel rooms with a refrigerator. Although the Old City suffers from a lack of sidewalks like everywhere else in Thailand, it’s easily the most walkable part of Chiang Mai and finding transport is never a problem – all drivers will assume you’re a tourist though. To get lower rates, speaking a few words of Thai can go a long way…
Lang Mor (meaning “behind CMU”) stretches along Suthep Road west from the Canal to the mountain. It’s sort of a budget Nimmanhaemin – there are a ton of restaurants, cafes and bars, but they cater to the CMU student set and are much, much cheaper then those just one road over. The nightly food market along Suthep is possibly the biggest in the city and certainly has the most diverse, and some of the cheapest, set of offerings.
Housing options are everywhere but they’re mostly student apartments. This is a good place to look for reasonable accommodation if you’re on a budget, but if you can spend more than 5,000b a month there isn’t much here. Being close to the university, it’s easy to catch a songthaew.
The north side of CMU along Huay Kaew is popularly referred to as Naa Mor (“in front of CMU”) and also caters to the CMU crowd. Though there are plenty of restaurants and a huge food market in Malin Plaza, Naa Mor is geared more toward clothes and cosmetics than Lang Mor. There are a few upscale condo buildings on Huay Kaew and cheaper options further north in Chang Khian. Like Lang Mor, it’s fairly easy to find a songthaew or tuktuk to take you where you want to go.
Named after the biggest temple in the area, Jed Yod is a relatively quiet, residential part of the city with a range of condo buildings and homes. Houses can be a bit difficult to find, but your best bet might be to drive around looking for “For Rent” signs (“rent” is เช่า in Thai). There are restaurants around the road that connects the Superhighway and Canal, but most of the area is small, leafy streets and detached houses. I lived in this area for a year and loved it. I really appreciated the neighborhood vibe and felt like I was truly living in Thailand, something that can get lost when you’re in other areas.
Transport to and from the area is not as easy as other places as Jed Yod is fairly spread out, but if you’re willing to walk to a major road it’s do-able. Of course having your own set of wheels is easiest (just make sure you know how to ride a motorbike in Thailand).
Wat Ket (“Wat Gate” in older spellings) is the area between the Ping River and the Superhighway, home to some of Chiang Mai’s oldest missionary institutions. It includes Charoenrat Road, which follows the river and has plenty of riverside restaurants, bars and art galleries. The rest of the area doesn’t have much to offer tourists other than the bus and train stations and it’s not very attractive to foreigners who don’t work at one of the nearby schools, but there are often nice detached houses for rent. Transportation can be a problem without a motorbike.
I really like this somewhat historic area and there are plenty of local food options where you won’t find many other foreigners, as tourists often don’t make it past going out on Charoenrat Road. There are also several charming boutique hotels in this area including Hotel des Artists Ping Silhouette and Sala Lanna which are lovely, especially if you’ve visited the city before, are honeymooning or enjoying a little staycation in Chiang Mai.
The area south of the Old City is usually referred to as Wualai, although it also includes the neighborhoods of Thippanet and Haiya. It’s a maze of small, confusing streets with several hidden gems and on Saturday the walking street market sets up on Wualai Road. Like other residential parts of the city there are some great houses to rent, and closer to the Old City are a few large apartments that rent monthly.
Contrasting with the Old City’s budget backpacker angle, the Night Bazaar caters to the more upscale tourist set with hotels like Le Meridien and Shangri-La. The bazaar itself is mainly a lame and overpriced assortment of souvenirs and bars, but there are quite a few hidden gems like Boy Blues Bar. If you’re planning on staying in CM for a while, you probably don’t want to live here.
Well-placed between Nimmanhaemin and the Old City, Santitham is an up and coming neighborhood becoming more popular with a lot of young people and expats. It includes Kad Thani, the city’s most mind-boggling fresh market, as well as many recently opened bars and restaurants. Santitham is a very accessible place to live and has apartments and condos to suit every price range. The main areas along Santitham Road can get noisy with traffic, but there are plenty of quiet backstreets and wide range of accommodation options (and coffee!).
Further south from Lang Mor and Suthep Road are the temples of Wat Umong, Rampoeng and Pong Noi. While they’re about as far from the city as you can get and still be in it, the area retains a Thai village charm that has largely disappeared from the rest of Chiang Mai. Many tasteful housing developments and condos are scattered throughout the backstreets. Living here without your own wheels is largely impossible, but you’ll be rewarded with an atmosphere you can’t really get anywhere else in CM.
Of course, Chiang Mai is much, much more than just what surrounds the Old City. To the south and southeast of Chiang Mai city are the districts of Hang Dong and San Khampaeng which are home to a number of schools and large housing developments. If you’re living on your own, you probably won’t want to be out here, but families can appreciate the space and more value for their money.
To the north of Chiang Mai City are the districts of Mae Rim, Sansai and Doi Saket. Again, these “suburbs” are more popular with families, retirees and expats who have been here for a while. You can rent multi-bedroom houses for less than 10,000 baht/month (about $285 USD) complete with gardens and car parks. There are some really beautiful areas to live, but it can take a while to get in and out of the city – traffic seems to be getting worse every month, especially if you drive a car.