Visitors flock to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to see its ancient temples, scenic mountains and maybe even ride some elephants. But not many realize that the city is becoming increasingly popular in Southeast Asia for another thing: street art. As Chiang Mai has long been one of Thailand’s most creative cities, not to mention one of its most affordable, it’s long appealed to local artists. And despite being a relatively new medium in the region, local attitudes towards street art seem largely tolerant. This outlook, along with Chiang Mai’s abundance of blank walls and alleyways, has allowed the local street art scene to thrive.
Chiang Mai may only be a fraction of the size of Bangkok, but don’t let that fool you. There’s so much street art to see that you’d have some difficulty finding it all in just a short visit. But this guide is here to help.
Some of the artists featured in our street art guide to Bangkok also appear multiple times below. Alex Face, Bonus TMC and Bon, for example, must be making numerous trips up north, as their works can be found all throughout the city.
But Chiang Mai is also home to some fantastic local artists, such as Sanchai, Mauy, Waris and Kanaet, to name a few. And one thing that makes Chiang Mai’s street art special is how many of the murals are often collaborative efforts. Kanaet’s three-dimensional cubes, for example, can often be found together with a bird by Bon, or one of Sanchai’s trademark green men. Other larger works may even be collaborations by several artists at once.
The Old City
The Old City is the original walled city of Chiang Mai that was founded by King Mangrai in the late 13th century. As one would expect, most of Chiang Mai’s significant temples and other historical sites can be found here. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, the Old City is also the best place in all of Chiang Mai to find contemporary street art.
The Abandoned Women's Prison
As we’ll go over below, the entirety of the Old City is teeming with street art. One particular landmark that can act as a good starting point, though, is the Abandoned Women’s Prison. Just as the name suggests, this is a prison which closed fairly recently in 2013. As plans to redevelop the area have stalled for now, the old prison has been merely left to rot.
It was once a favorite of urban explorers, though the prison is largely locked and inaccessible nowadays. Supposedly, there are still ways to sneak in, but be sure to wear long pants. The long, overgrown grass is also a favorite hangout of snakes!
Thankfully, to see the amazing murals pictured here, there’s no need to go inside, as they’ve been painted along the outer walls. You’ll find works by Bonus TMC, Bon, Alex Face, Waris and others.
While it may be hard, and not really worth the effort, to get inside, you can still access one of the watchtowers for a view of the interior. I tried out two different towers. In one of them, I encountered a group of students rolling a joint who were incredibly relieved that I wasn’t a guard. And in another, I walked through a series of cobwebs, figuring nobody had been there in ages. But as I got closer to the top, I saw parts of a sleeping bag and mosquito net hanging over the edge of the lookout platform! I turned around immediately.
For the less daring, the side without street art features a collection of photographs of how it looks inside post-abandonment.
Around the Old City
The Old City really needs to be explored in full to see the best of its murals. While more popular areas like around Thapae gate have some excellent street art, you’ll also find some impressive pieces even in the most unassuming of residential areas.
One other rather dense area is in the eastern portion of the Old City, close to the general area around the ‘Zoe in Yellow’ nightclub. There’s one little alley with several small and elegant works by Spanish artist Iagazzo. Nearby, you’ll also come across a vivid three-headed elephant by Mauy.
But again, you should really do as much exploring as you can to see it all. The pieces pictured both above and below were found in the northwest, central north, eastern and western portions of the Old City – basically everywhere!
While most of the art is located within the confines of the moat, you can also find some just outside it. Be sure to check out the wall of Freebird Cafe, across from the northern portion of the moat, to see a collaborative work by Alex Face, Bon and Sanchai.
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 one of the best parts of the city to go gallery hopping.
Nimman is also often touted as a great place for street art. It might just be my imagination, but throughout my extended stays in Chiang Mai, the number of murals in the area gradually diminished. If true, it’s likely due to the construction boom, with new hotels and entire shopping complexes popping up all over the place.
While there’s not as much to see as in the Old City, a visit to Nimman is well worth exploring for street art lovers – just don’t expect to find much along the main road itself.
The Eastern Sois
Most of the murals in the Nimman district can be found in the various sois to the east of the main road. For whatever reason, the western portion of the district contains hardly any street art, though you’ll still find a couple of murals here and there.
Even walking up and down the sois, you may not end up encountering a whole lot. Most of Nimman’s murals are actually located on the walls of small parking lots situated all throughout the district, and are not always obvious at first.
The Hillside Condotel 4 Parking Lot
The narrow sois aside, there are two large parking lots along Huay Kaew Rd. that are worth checking out. The first is just outside the Hillside Condotel 4 building.
This place has been covered in street art for awhile. Previously, the entire lot was overgrown with long grass, and when they finally went about paving everything over, I feared that the murals would be ‘cleaned up’ as well. Thankfully, the art here has been left in place for all to enjoy. The murals also seem to get updated from time to time, with artists gathering after dark to replace their old pieces.
Kan Suan Kaew Shopping Mall Parking Lot
The Kad Suan Kaew Shopping Mall is not technically in the Nimman district. It’s even closer to the northwest corner of the Old City than it is to Nimman Rd. Yet, it’s still within relatively easy reach from Nimman’s eastern sois. For convenience’s sake, we’ll just include it here.
This parking lot takes a bit of effort to find. If you simply come and go from the mall on foot, you’ll likely never even see it. Approaching from the main road, skip the front entrance to the mall and walk around it on the right-hand side. The colorfully vivid murals which adorn the walls here are among the best in the entire city.
You can also reach the parking lot from the side street in between the mall and the Huay Kaew Residence apartment complex.
Western Chiang Mai
Here, we’re using the term ‘Western Chiang Mai’ loosely to refer to the entire area west of Nimman. As such, the street art pictured below is fairly spread out. While not as essential Nimman or the Old City, the pieces pictured below are worth a look if you happen to be in the area.
CMU Student Market Parking Lot
This is yet another parking lot along Huay Kaew Rd, but it’s at least a good 20-minute walk west of the intersection with Nimman. This cheap market, located near the Chiang Mai University campus, is very popular with local students. The market is open nightly, but to see the art below, you should visit in the day time.
Obviously, there will be more light in the day, but since nothing is open until evening, there won’t be any cars blocking the murals, either. This is a cool little hidden gem in Chiang Mai. It wasn’t until after several visits to the market, when finally arriving in a friend’s car, that I discovered that these murals even existed at all.
Near Baan Kang Wat
In the western portion of Chiang Mai, there’s an artists village called Baan Kang Wat. Just around the corner from it is the Rumpueng Community Art Space, across from which are the murals pictured below. While certainly not worth traveling across town for, they’re worth a quick look for those visiting Baan Kang Wat.
In the western area of Chiang Mai, you may come across some high quality pieces when you least expect it. This mural to the far right was taken on Suthep Rd., while the collaborative mural to its left adorns a wall on Canal Rd.
North of Nimman
The Northern part of the city isn’t exactly a hotbed for street art either, but there are still some excellent murals here and there. One little collection of great art can be found just outside the Rajamangala University West Campus.
These are situated outside of an art gallery which is worth visiting in its own right. You can read more about it here. (Note: In that article we categorized it as ‘West Chiang Mai’ and here it’s more convenient to call it ‘North.’ It’s really just northwest of Nimman)
Not too far away is this great ‘cubist’ piece just outside of Wat Ched Yod.
Eastern Chiang Mai
The eastern part of the city, such as Thapae Rd and the area along the Ping River, is also home to some colorful murals. If you’re doing some sightseeing in the area, be sure to save some time for mural hunting.
Also in the eastern portion of the city is the United States Consulate, outside of which are a collection of murals dedicated to the diplomatic relations between the US and Thailand.
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.