Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s most thriving creative hubs. The abundance of universities, along with the cheap rent and slow pace of living, have combined to make the Lanna capital an attractive place to live and work for all sorts of creative types.
While, as we’ll cover below, there are some great art spaces in the city center, many of the best galleries and museums are a little out of the way. You’re unlikely to discover them by chance and they must often be deliberately sought out. The following guide is meant to help you decide which art spaces to visit during your stay, along with how to get there. Given the abundance of temples, natural scenery and cozy cafes around Chiang Mai, even some of the more distant art spaces can easily be combined with other activities.
The ‘Nimman’ district refers to the general area along and nearby Nimmanhaemin Rd., including its various sois, or side streets. The district is especially popular nowadays for its shopping and trendy cafes, and it’s also one of the best places in the city to appreciate art. Considering the amount of hotels in the neighborhood, as well as its proximity to the Old City, Nimman is also one of the most convenient places to go gallery hopping in Chiang Mai.
One of the larger art spaces in the city, the Chiang Mai University Art Center dates back to 1998. Comprised of multiple buildings, the large complex takes up over 5,000 square meters. As you would expect, the CMU Art Center mainly showcases the works of CMU students. But you’ll also occasionally find special exhibitions by renowned international artists as well.
Around the art center, you’ll come across paintings, sculptures, and projected videos, while the compound also includes a theater. Furthermore, there’s even a cafe on site which serves both coffee and food. You can find the CMU Art Center at the southern end of Nimman Road, just before the intersection with Suthep Road.
One of Chiang Mai’s most respected art galleries, Seescape is conveniently located in the heart of the bustling Nimman district. Founded in 2008, the cozy space showcases regularly rotating exhibitions by both local and international artists. Seescape is not just a gallery but a popular cafe, so you might want to plan a visit here around breakfast or lunch time. There’s also a gift shop selling funky trinkets crafted by local artists.
Art Mai? Gallery Nimman
Art Mai? Gallery Nimman is a small art gallery located in the lobby of the hotel of the same name. Even if you’re not a guest, you can walk in to see one of the rotating exhibits. While there’s not a huge amount of art on display in the lobby, the location is so convenient that it’s worth a brief stopover while exploring Nimman. Apparently, there’s even more art spread among the upper floors for hotel guests to appreciate.
This is a pleasant little gallery, also conveniently located within the backroads of the Nimman district, that opened in 2017. The art on display here is mostly on the colorful and playful side, while other works have clearly been inspired by traditional Asian arts. There’s also a small souvenir shop near the entrance if you’re looking to take something back home with you.
East Chiang Mai
Below we’ll be covering art spaces that you can find east of the Old City. This includes Thapae Rd, the area along the Ping River, and even further east beyond that. With the exception of MAIIAM, most of these art spaces are an easy Grab ride away from the Old City, or possibly even walkable.
Situated in a former warehouse, MAIIAM is the largest, and also one of the newest, art spaces in Chiang Mai. Established in 2016, the museum showcases many works, mostly by Thai artists, from the private collection of the Bunnag-Beurdeley family. Most of these pieces are displayed on the upper floors, while the bottom floor is home to rotating exhibitions.
In addition to more abstract paintings and sculptures, there’s a lot of video on display as well, much of which deals with modern sociopolitical issues. The space also features a cafe and museum shop.
One of the highlights of museum is the large mural by Thai artist Navin Rawanchaikul, titled ‘Super(M)art Bangkok Survivors,’ which features all sorts of important figures from the Thai art scene. While the overall theme, and many of the mural’s characters, may be lost on most outside visitors, there’s also a lot you might recognize. See if you can find Thawan Duchanee, Doi Tung’s ‘Continuity’ sculpture, street art from Chalerma Park, or the yaksha guardians of the Grand Palace, among others.
GETTING THERE: Getting to MAIIAM from the city center can be a little tricky. You will first want to head to Warorot Market. Do not wait along the river for the white minivans or red songthaews. You specifically want to find a white songthaew, which will depart from one of the narrow streets within the busy market. Find Tanachart Bank, and then walk down the narrow street across from it. Ideally, you’ll see a white songthaew parked to the side, waiting to fill up with passengers. If not, you may have to wait a few minutes. There will be no signs in English, so to confirm with the driver, you should show him the location on Google Maps and mention ‘MAIIAM.’
The directions on MAIIAM’s web site are rather confusing, as they don’t take into account the wide variety of different songthaews and minivans departing from various points of the Market. But the vehicle pictured there is what you want to look out for.
Note: If a tuk tuk or red songthaew driver sees you looking a little lost, he may try to offer you private a ride for a hefty fee. The white, shared, songthaew, though, should cost no more than 15 baht. On the way back, it’ll be much easier to flag one down on the road just outside MAIIAM.
Located within easy walking distance from Thapae Gate, Baan Tuek is a contemporary art gallery which could be seen as an extension of the CMU Art Space listed above. As it’s associated with the university, most of the artists featured are current students or alumni of that art program. And that’s a good thing. It gives visitors the chance to more intimately get to know the works of highly talented local artists.
Suvannabhumi Art Gallery
Opened in 1999, this cozy art space, situated in an old wooden building, is entirely dedicated to contemporary works by Burmese artists. Atmospherically, it almost feels like walking into someone’s home, which is one of the space’s appeals together with the art itself. It’s worth a quick stopover for those exploring the peaceful area to the east of the Ping River.
More Around East Chiang Mai
The eastern part of the city has even more to explore if you have the time. The Meeting Room Art Cafe, located just down the street from Suvannabhumi Art Gallery, is a coffee shop filled with various paintings and books. It’s also a good place to get some advice on other galleries around town. Apparently, they also sometimes host exhibitions.
Back over on Thapae Road, a place called Thapae East is supposedly an art space, but seems to mainly comprise of a shop and restaurants. There’s a large, open space out back, though, which is supposedly used for special events and film screenings.
West Chiang Mai
Below we’ll be covering the general area west of Nimman. If you’re staying in the Old City or Nimman, you’ll want to hire a Grab car to reach most of the following locations. While not the easiest to reach, the peaceful, secluded atmosphere of western Chiang Mai is perfect for appreciating the arts.
The Rajamangala University of Technology has its own art gallery which features some excellent works by what are presumably students of the school. You’ll find paintings and sculptures in a sizable gallery, while there’s even an impressive collection of mural art on the walls outside.
While the university has a web site in English, there doesn’t seem to be any information about the gallery, and its opening time aren’t clear. I actually stumbled upon this place by accident on my way to the Chiang Mai National Museum. I opened the door and walked inside, only to realize that I was alone and all the lights were off. The natural sunlight, at least, provided ample light to see the works on display.
This is one of the better galleries in Chiang Mai, so you might want to try stopping by if you’re visiting Wat Ched Yot or the National Museum.
Wattana Art Gallery
The Wattana Art Gallery is entirely dedicated to the works of one artist, Wattana Wattanapun. Even if you’ve never heard of Mr. Wattanapun before, his art space is still worth checking out. The artist is known for his use of lush, vivid colors to paint everything from flowers and scenery to more abstract pieces of art. He also makes use of patterns commonly found in local Lanna textiles.
The works are spread out among two floors in this spacious gallery, which is situated on a quiet back road near Wat Umong. It is, in fact, part of the artist’s family compound, and if you’re lucky, you may get to meet the artist himself. Combining a visit to this gallery with Wat Umong makes for a well-spent afternoon in Chiang Mai.
Baan Kang Wat is less of an art space than it is its own village. Around the compound, you’ll find shops selling local crafts, restaurants, coffee shops and a small little gallery. The atmosphere is rustic and the space is surrounded by lush greenery. It’s the perfect place to come and relax with coffee and a book. If you’re into crafts, Baan Kang Wat won’t let you down. But if you’re coming specifically to see pieces of art on display, you’ll only encounter a relatively small amount.
The best way to reach Bang Kang Wat is by hiring a Grab car. Though well known by locals, not many tourists know about the place and rarely does it get too crowded.
More Around West Chiang Mai
In the western part of the city, there’s still plenty more for art lovers to explore. Just around the corner of Baan Kang Wat is the Rumpueng Community Art Space. During my visit, the place was closed and after checking online, it’s still unclear what its hours are or if it’s even still operating. Nevertheless, there are some sculptures on display in the garden outside.
Relatively nearby is (or once was) the Pongnoi Community Art Space, though it’s not completely clear if they’re still in operation, either.
As we’ll be covering soon, the western portion of Chiang Mai is great for street art. You’ll find a little in the alley just by Rumpueng, while there’s a lot to see in the western part of Huay Kaew Rd.
The Old City & South CHiang Mai
Despite having some of the city’s best street art, and being home to countless hotels and trendy cafes, the Old City is oddly lacking when it comes to art spaces. One of the only contemporary art spaces you’ll find in the area is MATOOM, located in the eastern half of the square-shaped district.
Founded by artist Chumpol Taksapornchai, MATOOM is a gallery combined with a shop, and they also occasionally host music performances at night. Just north of the Old City, on Huay Kaew Rd., is supposedly the location of DC Collection. Despite multiple attempts to find it, however, I didn’t come across any signs marking the location, or any kind of entrance, even after walking right up to the supposed address.
South of the Old City, relatively nearby the airport, is Galerie Panisa. While it happened to be closed during my visit, it seems to focus mainly on landscapes and portraits by regional artists.
If you’re just in Chiang Mai for a short time, staying in the Old City is a good idea. If you look at a map of the city, you will spot a square surrounded by water. Staying anywhere within or just outside of the square would be fine, as you can easily get around the Old City on foot. Most of Chiang Mai’s prominent temples and other historical sites are located here.
The other best area to stay is the Nimman district mentioned in the article above. This is a reference to the general area around Nimmanhaemin Road. Basically, if you’re within walking distance of Maya shopping mall, you’re in Nimman. This is where you’ll find a lot of Chiang Mai’s trendy cafes and restaurants, while new shopping complexes are popping up all the time. At the same time, though, there’s no shortage of cheap, local eats. Furthermore, the location is conveniently located in between Doi Suthep and the Old City.
Chiang Mai is the transport hub of the north and can be reached in a number of ways. The easiest would be to simply fly. Thailand has plenty of budget airlines, and it’s easy to find a one-way ticket from Bangkok (usually DMK airport) for just around 1,000 baht (roughly $30).
You can also easily reach Chiang Mai by bus from virtually any city in Thailand. Chiang Mai is also connected to the rail system, meaning you can get there directly by train from Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Phitsanulok and other cities.
Within areas like the Old City or Nimman, Chiang Mai is easy to explore on foot. To get to one district or another or to farther away temple and art galleries, though, you’ll want some kind of motorized transport.
The easiest, most hassle free option is to download the Grab app on your phone. Grab has recently bought out the Southeast Asian branch of Uber, so you don’t have many other options nowadays. A driver should be able to come right to you within minutes, and the rides are often surprisingly cheap, especially by taking advantage of discount codes.
Another easy option is by hopping on the red songthaews. These vehicles, which are converted pickup trucks, are a mix of private and public transport and are ubiquitous throughout the city. They ride around on normal routes, not unlike a bus, but will go slightly out of the way for you if you request it.
You just flag one down like you would a taxi, and tell the driver where you’re going. If he agrees, you hop in the back where you’ll likely encounter other passengers sharing the vehicle with you. Getting off, just pay the driver a flat fee of 30 baht.
Bear in mind, though, that if you approach a red songthaew that’s already parked, they will try to negotiate with you as a tuk tuk driver would. Speaking of tuk tuks, there’s no reason to ride them anymore now that Grab exists, as they nearly always try to quote foreigners outrageous rates.
As for regular private taxis in Chiang Mai, they do exist but are a very rare sight.
At the time of writing, the city has just recently revamped its bus system and has finally made the effort to translate some the bus stands into English. This would probably be the cheapest of all the options, but also the slowest.
Of course, renting your own motorbike is also an option. Be sure to have the proper licenses, as there are many police checkpoints all throughout the city.