The best time to visit Chiang Mai

Often packed with as many visitors as there are roadside hawkers, Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s most-loved destinations, offering a cool respite from the beaches and busy cities further south.

While there’s a lot to do in town, the best experiences in Chiang Mai are often found in the province’s natural surroundings. And as with the rest of Thailand, the weather remains warm and pleasant year-round, rain and smoke can make or break even the best-planned vacation up north. 

Scaling rugged mountains, braving the thrill of white water rapids, enjoying nature’s larder or forging connections with the local wildlife – these are the experiences that define Chiang Mai, whatever the weather. However, there’s one specific time of the year when it might be wise to postpone your travel plans entirely. Here’s our seasonal guide to help you make the right decision for you.

Doi Luang Chiang Dao is only open in November to January and access is limited to 150 people a day © Mumemories / Shutterstock

Temperatures are coolest in November to January

Thailand never gets cold, but by November, the rain stops and cold fronts bring the temperatures down a notch (at night at least). This ushers in the “cool” season and officially marks the start of Thailand’s high season when it comes to travel. And while the city is at its busiest over the Christmas and New Year weeks, there’s a lot more on offer in the way of tours, trips and cultural festivals that do a good job at dispersing crowds.

Visit Chiang Mai at this time and you’ll see locals wearing sweaters as nighttime temperatures drop to 12–15°C (53–60°F) while sunseekers from cooler climes opt for shorts and loose tees. Yet wherever your bar sits, the cooler weather guarantees to make outdoor activities more bearable. During this time, parks and rivers that shut during the rainy season reopen, while the country’s highest mountain, Doi Inthanon, is even prone to a touch of morning frost.

While there are plenty of peaks in Thailand where you can enjoy a sea of clouds – think Phu Chee Fah, Doi Pha Hom Pok or Doi Angkhang – there’s no place better than atop the towering pinnacle of Doi Luang Chiang Dao. Open for just November, December and January and limited to 150 people a day, it does take some planning, but the 360 views at sunset and sunrise are entirely worth it. The booking website is mainly in Thai, so try sending a message through the Facebook group to secure your space.

Cautious thrill seekers will also enjoy the cool season as rivers continue to flow but without the risk of violent jungle river swells that come with monsoon downpours. While the Nam Wa River in nearby Nan Province offers the best long-distance rapids in the country, Chiang Mai’s Mae Taeng River is just as good for those new to the sport despite being a little busy at times.

Back in the city, the cool season also brings with it a slew of culturally significant events that are well worth planning into your itinerary. November’s full moon is of greatest importance in the lunar calendar and is when the country celebrates Loi Krathong festival. Marking the end of the rainy season, people thank the waters for a prosperous year by floating makeshift candlelit rafts decorated with flowers and incense. Some write prayers on paper and add them to the raft, others say prayers as they push the raft off, and some include pieces of their hair or nails as a way to rid themselves of bad luck.

In Chiang Mai specifically, this celebration aligns with the northern Yee Peng festival of lanterns. Most years, a huge lantern release event takes place at Maejo University, while other smaller lantern launches happen at Three Kings Monument and Thapae Gate. December and January are also the months where more contemporary festivals take place, from music and art events to the up-and-coming Chiang Mai Festival City – a cultural, craft and music event – held every November and December.

Ready to go? Here are Chiang Mai’s unmissable experiences

People in a huddle spraying and splashing each other with water as drops fly everywhere around them
If you go to Chiang Mai during Songkran in April, expect to get wet © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet

Head to Chiang Mai in April for Songkran

By March and April, the Thai weather hits the height of summer with the mercury reaching a scorching 30–40°C (86–104°F). While schools are out, most prefer to seek refuge in air-conditioned homes and malls with the exception of Songkran – Thailand’s three-day, water throwing new year celebration. It officially takes place April 13 to 15, but in Chiang Mai, it tends to span April 12 to 16 to allow a couple of extra days of fun.

Across the country, families and friends seek blessings from elders before seeking out the best water fights on every street corner. Chiang Mai is well known to be one of the top places to experience this festival, with the entire Old City Moat transforming into an endless circuit of water spraying mayhem, roadside concerts and free flowing revelry. If you prefer to stay dry or are traveling with young kids, opting for a hotel outside of the old city is strongly recommended at this time, allowing you to dip in as much or as little as you like. 

April is also the month where Thais celebrate some of the best foods of the season. Succulent mango and mangosteens begin to ooze with sugary sweetness, while locals start to look to the trees in hopeful harvest of protein-rich eggs of red ants, enjoyed in both soups and deep fried in omelets. You’ll find both in their raw forms in Warorot Market, while Han Teung Chiangmai restaurant is the best place to sample summery Northern Thai dishes ready made, located conveniently close to Chiang Mai University and the ancient Wat Umong Temple.

Three people sit on a rock near the pool of a fast-flowing waterfall
Rainy season means lush green jungles and impressive waterfalls © Carlina Teteris / Getty Images

There are cheaper rates in the rainy season of May to October

Thailand’s rainy season tends to be less predictable than other monsoons in the region, yet with it comes a bloom of lush green scenery and moody afternoon skies that are a piece of art in their own right.

In Northern Thailand, rain often arrives as swift, brief showers in the afternoon or evening, while temperatures hover around a high-humid 30°C (86°F). There are moments, though, when the sky wears a cloak of endless rainfall and gray clouds that can last for days – a fair trade for lower temperatures.

During this time, Chiang Mai is a stunning greenscape of jungle forest, shimmering paddy fields and misty mountain peaks. Views from hillsides are nowhere near guaranteed, but a day or two in a bamboo hut homestay in Mae Wang or Chiang Dao offers hot coffee, relaxed vibes and natural local experiences at bargain prices. 

Waterfalls are also their most impressive at this time, with the Nam Tok Bua Tong Waterfall (AKA the Sticky Waterfall) and Mae Sa Waterfall being two popular spots to splash around in. In recent years authorities have taken more steps to monitor flash flooding, resulting in the odd unannounced closure to ensure the safety for visitors. 

For ultimate rainy season vibes, head to Pai in July for the yearly Pai Jazz & Blues Festival that takes over the small mountain town with a heavy schedule of outdoor cafe and bar performances that continue rain or shine.

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The smog in February to April is best avoided

Some say Chiang Mai is too good to be true, which is perhaps why there’s a smoky season to balance it all out. From February (and sometimes as early as January) to April, Northern Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam are blanketed in a thick layer of PM2.5 smog caused primarily by slash-and-burn agricultural practices and human-caused forest fires. 

Despite many efforts to reduce the smog (and the fires), this regional crisis seems to be getting worse not better. Chiang Mai regularly tops the list as the most air-polluted city in the world, dozens of times each year. 

While passing through the region during this time is manageable for tourists as exposure is generally brief, locals who are sick of the smoke choose to hunker down indoors, postpone their activities, or escape to the beaches while the rest of the city suffocates. Consequently, events are canceled or are simply not planned, casting a quiet spell over the city that pairs with the smoke for an almost dystopian atmosphere that sadly can’t be ignored.

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