Chiang Mai travel tips

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” ~ Thai proverb.

Ever wondered what the secret is to having the most enjoyable trip possible? Welcome to my “Be Invisible” series – your ultimate guide for how to blend in when travelling on your next adventure and guaranteed to boost your entire travel experience.

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Chian Mai travel tips to avoid looking like a tourist
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Thailand tourism is growing at an ever increasing pace and is embraced by the Government of Thailand as an economical boost to the annual Thai economy. With approximately 38 million visitors annually it’s a must visit destination for many tourists from around the world.

The Northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai with its laid back lifestyle and low cost of living attracts many of these visitors.

Chiang Mai is one of the largest cities in Thailand and home to many foreigners who have taken advantage of Thailand’s expat friendly visa options and have settled into daily life in Chiang Mai.

As such, although Westerners will always stand out because of their appearance, the general Thai population understand that many foreigners also reside within the local communities.

Travelling to Chiang Mai: Vital tips to help you not look like a tourist

By following the guidelines of cultural etiquette in Thailand, it’s possible to blend in.

Thailand is known as the “land of smiles” and Thai culture is very gentle. Thai people have many social graces and certain behaviours can be considered offensive. These social graces are not always obvious to other cultures, especially Westerners.

Emphasis is placed on saving face which can be confusing for foreigners, so it doesn’t take long to stand out if one doesn’t understand these social norms. Here’s my top Chiang Mai travel tips to help you blend in:

1. Know the etiquette for visiting a temple

Chiang Mai is home to over 300 Buddhist Temples called “Wats” and these stunning structures are a must visit attraction. As they are places of worship it’s important to treat the site with respect and dress appropriately.

No revealing clothing and both men and women should have shoulders and knees covered.

Nothing is more disrespectful than seeing tourists wandering the sites with revealing clothing. Most Wats have signs advising what is expected and if you are dressed appropriately and keep your voice down when in the temples you won’t stand out.

2. Don’t be that ugly tourist

Although alcohol is readily available the local population as a rule don’t consume alcohol outside of restaurants and bars. Tourists seen wandering the markets and streets with a beer in hand stand out and this is considered rude.

Likewise, being intoxicated and loud is a sign of disrespect. Many foreign tourists come to experience Thailand’s Full Moon Party, then visit Chiang Mai, feel the relaxed atmosphere and then think it’s normal to drink in public spaces. Nothing is wrong with having a good time but if you are seen drinking in public you will be seen as just another obnoxious tourist.

In Thai culture men are never seen in public without a shirt. Tourists seen on the street without a shirt will draw attention from local residents who will be offended. Likewise, don’t be that tourist that wears the local Thai beer tank top souvenir from the bargain bin at the markets. Save the beer T-Shirts for when you get home.

Chiang Mai travel tips

3. Never show your anger – keep your cool

As a foreigner in Chiang Mai it won’t take long to realise that you may be treated differently to a local, such as when visiting some temples or national parks. Thai’s pay one price and foreigners pay more.

That’s just the way it is. Sometimes the only price displayed is the Thai price. So, it can come as a surprise when you are asked to pay more than the Thai person standing beside you.

Although this concept may be difficult to accept it’s worth remembering that the average wage for a Thai is very low and all Westerners to them are considered rich. If this happens and it probably will, just pull out the extra money and pay.

Any effort to argue will be met with a blank stare and awkward silence as they will be embarrassed for you. Thai’s will never argue as to them this is to lose face. Anyone local standing near you will not make eye contact and you may even be ignored.

Temple in Chiang Mai Thailand

4. Don’t bother trying to use the street crossings

The traffic in Chiang Mai never stops. Cars, Bikes, Tuk Tuk’s, Scooters and an assortment of home modified vehicles share the road and often the pavement. If you attempt to wait for the traffic to stop before crossing the road you’re in for a long wait.

TIP: Crossings are just a guide and don’t mean much to drivers. Same with red lights. Assuming traffic will stop is a waste of time.

Do as the locals do and start walking at the first sign of a safe break in traffic. Hopefully the traffic will slow down but if not just hurry across.

5. Don’t be a dodo – Always wear a helmet

This may seem like one of the obvious Chiang Mai travel tips, but it’s surprising how many tourists we have seen riding a scooter or motor bike in the city without a helmet. Apart from being illegal and extremely dangerous it’s easy to spot the tourist in Chiang Mai as the one riding without a helmet.

Many Thai’s unfortunately choose not to wear a helmet. This is partly because they feel that if anything was to happen it was meant to be. Some tourists visiting Chiang Mai see this behaviour and think it’s also fine not to wear a helmet. This is not the case and the police will target foreigners with a large fine for not wearing a helmet.

TIP: While the tourist is standing on the road paying the fine for not wearing a helmet, they will notice many Thai residents riding past also without a helmet and not being stopped. This is just a fact of life in Chiang Mai.

The problem is you attracted attention as a tourist for not wearing a helmet, so you probably have plenty of money. If you don’t want to stand out and hopefully survive your stay just wear a helmet as most Westerners do that are full time residents of Chiang Mai.

6. Remember, no tipping required

This is a strange one. In Chiang Mai tipping is not expected and a dead giveaway that you are a foreigner. It may seem unusual not to tip as so many Western cultures are used to tipping.

However, in Chiang Mai you will not be considered mean by not tipping, no matter how well intentioned it may appear it’s just not part of Thai culture to tip and it’s a sure sign that you’re a tourist.

If you are in a restaurant and leave behind the small coins that’s fine but leave and extra 10% of the bill and you may find the staff chasing you when leaving thinking you left it behind.

7. Learn to eat with a spoon

Chiang Mai has some of the best food in the world, It’s cheap, spicy and full of flavour. The correct method of eating at a restaurant is to use a spoon and a fork. Normally you won’t find knives, except at Western restaurants catering to tourists, and asking for one will be met with confusion in many of the smaller restaurants who will simply reply “no have.”

To eat a meal which is usually accompanied with rice use the fork to push the food onto the spoon and eat with the spoon. Never eat with the fork as it is seen as being rude. The exception is noodles where it’s normal to use chopsticks. 

8. Eat at the local Chiang Mai food halls

Chiang Mai has no shortage of places to eat delicious Thai food, from small family run eateries to food halls and upmarket restaurants catering mainly to tourists.

To get the best food experience forget the high-end Western style eateries and instead head to where the locals eat. You will find in many shopping centres food courts which are full of locals who know where the best food can be found at a fraction of the cost of Western establishments. If it’s busy you know it will have great food. Locals rarely if ever, eat at the Western style restaurants.

These Chiang Mai travel tips relating to food halls will help you to blend in with locals in no time:

  • These eateries for a first time visitor can be confusing as the stalls do not except cash but rather a pre-paid card. The individual small food stalls line the walls with seating in the centre. A manned booth is in the centre or near the entry where cards can be purchased.
  • The prices of each food item are displayed at each food stall so it’s just a matter of checking what takes your fancy then proceed to the booth and purchase a card by paying cash for a set amount.
  • Don’t be too concerned about purchasing a card for the exact amount as the cards, if not completely used can be returned and the balance refunded. Just make sure your card has preloaded enough cash to cover your purchases.
  • Once you have the card then proceed to a stall and order your meal and drinks etc. The vendor will freshly prepare your meal while you wait then swipe your card deducting the set amount. The same card can be used at any of the stalls.
  • Each table or nearby can be found cutlery which will be forks, spoons and chopsticks and an assortment of condiments such as chili and sauces.
  • When the meal is finished it’s customary to return the plates, cups and cutlery to a central location which is usually a table full of used dishes. Never get up and just leave your dirty dishes or you will get many stares of disapproval from the other diners.

9. Yes, ice in beer is normal

Chiang Mai is very hot, and locals love to have a cold beer with meals. If you’re a beer drinker, you will soon notice that on most tables or nearby are ice buckets. Ice is added to beer in glasses to cool it down.

If you don’t add ice, you will immediately stand out as a tourist and the locals will think your weird. Once you start adding ice it will become second nature and you will wonder why you hadn’t drunk it like that before.

TIP: You can then easily spot the newbie in town and laugh along with the locals staring at the strange people not using ice.

10. When travelling to Chiang Mai, be aware of cultural do’s and don’ts

Some of the best Chiang Mai travel tips relate to cultural do’s and don’ts. Here’s a brief round up of things you should be aware of when visiting Thailand:

  • Never touch anyone especially a child on the head. It’s the most important part of the body.
  • Don’t point your feet directly at a monk or image of Buddha.
  • For females never ever touch a monk. If that happens the monk must perform a cleansing ritual.
  • Always take your shoes off when entering a home. This also applies to many businesses. If you see a shoe rack outside a store that’s normally a good hint to go barefoot inside.
  • If you drop money never touch it with your feet. Standing on an image of the Royal Family is not only offensive it’s also a criminal offence.
  • Never, and I mean never, disrespect the Royal Family. Doing so can lead to serious jail time. Thai’s have a deep respect for the Royal Family and it’s a subject best avoided.
  • Things not going to plan? Remember to keep your patience and stay calm, no matter what. Otherwise you will be ignored and lose respect.

Follow these social norms and you will have a great visit to this exciting Thailand city of Chiang Mai and no one will notice you’re not also a local.

For more Chiang Mai travel tips and advice about life in Thailand, head to Alan’s blog Frequent Traveller or follow his adventures on Instagram and Facebook!

Golden buddha in Chiang Mai travel tips

 Things to do in Chiang Mai to book in advance

 Here are some exciting things to do in Chiang Mai you can book in advance to enrich your trip:

Ready to be invisible in Chiang Mai, Thailand?

One final way to “be invisible” in Chiang Mai is to learn how to cook authentic food from locals! Have a browse at these traditional Thai cooking classes – they’re one of the perfect souvenirs from Thailand!

Now you’ve discovered the best secrets for how to act like a local in Chiang Mai, perhaps you’re ready to make the trip! Why not take a look at the latest Chiang Mai hotel deals? Or if you’d like some more travel ideas and inspiration, here’s all my articles about Asia to get you started.

For learning my secrets for how to “blend in” anywhere, take a read of my #1 Amazon New Release book!

Do you have any extra tips to add to this list? Let me know in the comments below. I hope you enjoyed this instalment of my Be Invisible series! If you found this helpful, please share it or follow me on Facebook, Pinterest, TikTok or Instagram for more!

Until next time, 

The Invisible Tourist


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Chian Mai travel tips to avoid looking like a tourist
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