Choose the Right Location
First things first; Chiang Mai is a city that has become very popular with expats, digital nomads and remote workers. Digital nomads and remote workers are people who are freelancers with the freedom to work from anywhere or people with opportunity to do their job from abroad—and Chiang Mai attracts a lot of these people for several reasons, including an affordable cost of living. So, if you want to feel like a local (even if you’re only staying a few days), stay in a neighborhood that hosts a large number of people who actually live in the city on a long-term basis. These are areas that have a community feel, with many small cafes, bars, shops and markets that make it easy to blend in and feel comfortable. And since it’s very easy to get around in Chiang Mai (which is covered below), staying right in the old city (the tourist epicenter of Chiang Mai) isn’t necessary.
One option to consider is Nimmanhemin, or most often simply referred to as “Nimman.” This area refers to Nimmanhemin Rd (sometimes written as Nimmanahaeminda Rd), close to Chiang Mai University. In this neighbourhood you’ll find sides streets that are filled with cool cafes perfect for people watching, bars, restaurants and boutiques. It’s easy to feel at home here as you explore the many nooks and crannies.
Just north of the popular Nimman area of Chiang Mai is Santitham. Santitham is less touristy and more low key then other areas with more affordable prices in terms of guesthouses, apartments and condos suited to both long and short-term stays. There is a quiet, local feel that you don’t get in other areas and lots of cute coffee shops and food options on quiet back streets. But since it’s in between Nimman and the old city, getting to either area is easy and affordable.
Where to Rest Your Head
There are an abundance of accommodation options when it comes to Chiang Mai suited to every budget. If you’re looking to feel like a local, consider a cozy Airbnb rental, guesthouse or serviced apartment/condo in one of the areas mentioned above. Many serviced apartments, Airbnb rentals and smaller guesthouses will have some basic kitchen supplies like a kettle, toaster and mini fridge, which gives you the option to make tea or coffee and keep snacks around for when you’re hungry in between meals. Not to mention, staying somewhere that feels more like a “home” will make it much easier to feel like a local.
Get Around Like a Local
Getting around in Chiang Mai is very simple using local transportation. It’s cheap, gives you the chance to ride with locals, and, in the process, learn more about the city. Your best bet for getting from point A to B like a local is to use the many songthaews that ply the streets picking up those in need of a ride. A songthaew is a covered red truck with simple bench seating in the back that acts as a shared taxi. They travel up and down the main roads (you'll see them everywhere) and in order to ride one, simply flag it down as you would a taxi. Just note that you might need to flag down a few in order to find one going in the vicinity of where you want to be.
When a songthaew stops, go up to the window and tell the driver where you want to go. They will either decline or accept, which is dependent on where they’re currently headed. If you get the OK, get in the back and when it’s time to depart, press the stop button or knock on the window to indicate you want to get off. You pay upon exit and most rides, especially in and around the old city and areas mentioned in where to stay should cost between 30 to 45 baht.
Getting across a specific address to the driver can be tough so it can be easier to give them a nearby landmark or if you have data on your phone, pull up a map with your destination pinned.
Learn Something Local
One of the best ways immerse yourself in a new place and learn more about it is to learn something new, and in Chiang Mai there are a few options to choose from depending on how long you’ll be staying. One of the most popular things to learn while you’re in Chiang Mai is to take a cooking class to find out how to make some of the delicious foods you’re likely eating. Classes range from a half to full day and the majority also involve a visit to a local market where you can learn about essential ingredients in Thai cooking. Classes are hands-on and each student is given their own cooking station. You eat what you make and leave with a booklet of recipes. Other options include Thai massage courses, meditation, Thai language courses and Muay Thai boxing classes. There are also several opportunities to chat with monks in Chiang Mai, including at Wat Chedi Luang daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. This can be a great way to learn more about Thai culture and Buddhism.
No matter where your interests lie, taking a class, workshop or week-long course in your area of interest can be an enriching way to experience Chiang Mai.
Eat from Street Stalls
When it comes to eating street food, Chiang Mai is one of the best places to do it and something you don’t want to miss while you’re visiting the city. This is food at its most local, authentic and cheap and there are options to appeal to every palate found all over the city. From stir fried rice and noodles of all kinds, to soups, curries, fresh fruit smoothies, papaya salad and spring rolls, there’s a street stall serving up something worth eating somewhere in Chiang Mai. A few of the best places to get your fill of local dishes include Chiang Mai Gate (South Gate), Chang Pheuak Gate (North Gate), Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, and the Saturday and Sunday Walking Streets. When in doubt, eat where you see the most locals eating - they know their stuff when it comes to street food.