Considered the spiritual capital of Thailand, Chiang Mai is a rollercoaster of experiences. Here are some of the best things to do in Chiang Mai!
After the big capital Bangkok and after the bit of island hopping in the south of the country, Chiang Mai is the most popular destination for travellers visiting Thailand.
The contrast couldn’t be bigger. Because of its laid-back vibe, less suffocating temperatures, friendly people and great value-for-money in food and shopping, it was the place I enjoyed the most. Not to mention the huge variety of things you can do and experience.
I’ve compiled some – just a taste! – of the best things to do in Chiang Mai.
Top Things To Do In Chiang Mai
1Hang Out With Elephants
Before coming to Thailand, I knew to get up and close with elephants was one of my top bucket list activities. While there are hundreds of elephant tours in Thailand and in Chiang Mai in particular, the challenge is to find one that does NOT include riding.
Fortunately, there are a couple of elephant sanctuaries and conservations projects to pick from in Chiang Mai.
I went with Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, but another valid option is the Elephant Nature Park (book well in advance). The prices are not cheap, but the money goes into the welfare of animals and also into the rescue of new elephants.
In both, you can feed the elephants, bathe them, and hang out with them for a few hours. The hyperactive baby one was the star of the day! Trust me, there’s no need to jump onto their backs.
Elephant’s spines are not prepared anatomically to carry people all day and animals in most tours are often subject to a violent process known as Phajaan. This is intended to mentally “break” them and become completely submissive to exhaustive days of work and humans in general.
Unfortunately, due to poor regulation and criminalization laws, most of the elephant tours in Thailand still practice riding. By choosing an elephant tour that includes riding the animals you’re supporting this kind of businesses who make money through the directly imposing pain and suffering into these majestic creatures.
Pre-selected hotels in Chiang Mai Old Town, with a rating of 9 or more. Can’t go wrong with these.
2Temples: Do Your Bit Of Temple-Hopping
There are over 200 ancient wats (temples) scattered along Chiang Mai, which makes it the right place to start a journey to your inner self and keep you in the path for enlightenment.
Remember that these are active worship locations, so make sure you have the utmost respect for locals. You are expected to wear modest clothing and keep quiet during your visit.
Best Temples In Chiang Mai
Some of the temples not to be missed are Wat Chiang Man, the oldest in the city, Wat Chedi Luang, in the heart of the walled old town, and Wat Phan Tao, my personal favorite.
Outside of the old town, make sure you also pay a visit to Wat Prathat Doi Suthep. It’s the city’s jewel and apart from the stunning temple complex, it also has a commanding view of the entire Chiang Mai valley.
3Sunday Night Market – Go on a shopping spree!
I’ve been to a lot of street markets in many different places. What happens most of the times is that I eventually find them dull and get bored. This didn’t happen at all in Chiang Mai’s Sunday Night Market (also called Night Bazaar). It completely surpassed my expectations.
First of all, it’s huge. It not only extends itself through Rachadamnoen – the main street in the old town – but many other streets were closed to traffic and filled with stalls and vendors. The entire old town is transformed into a giant market.
Then, there is so much to see, eat and do. From inexpensive quality massages available in every corner to clothes, souvenirs, and creative Thai-inspired arts and crafts. If it wasn’t for luggage space, I could easily take four or five paintings from this place. And don’t even get me started on the street food!
I mean, shopping in the markets of Bangkok still has an advantage in terms of quantity, but from what I could see Chiang Mai definitely wins in quality. For some reason, everything that is being sold – specially food – seemed better.
If you happen to be on a Sunday in town, this market is a must-do, don’t miss it!
Sunday Night Market pro tip
Get there early to avoid crowds. Don’t worry about dinner, just grab some bites throughout the night. This way you can try out many different specialties!
Most of the food stalls are to be found near or within the properties of the wats. You’ll find hundreds of choices for low-cost quality food. As usual, pick the most popular stalls amongst locals.
4Zip-Lining Through The Jungle
Being afraid of heights – as you can judge by my terrified face on the photo above – my first time zip-lining in Chiang Mai was the most memorable Thai experience.
Contrarily to many other places where all you get is a go in a single zip line, in Chiang Mai you can try a complete course of zip lining and Indiana-Joning through the jungle.
The whole ride was a 2-hour adrenaline-packed adventure. I can’t believe I got to literally fly at 70 meters of height or ride an 800-meter (!) single zip line. Highly recommended!
There are many companies offering zip lining tours, but unfortunately some of them don’t quite comply with safety standards. Some tourists got seriously hurt in the past.
Flight Of The Gibbon is slightly more expensive than the competition, but they don’t mess around with safety in the treetops and neither should you. The equipment is all new and secure and the guides were flawless in making us comfortable and feel safe. Plus, in the Mae Kampong forest you get to see wild gibbons!
5Indulge On A Thai Cooking Class
Thai food is a true delight for your taste buds. It’s hard to find such an incredible balance of sweet, spicy and salty in the same dish.
But what most surprised me in Thai cuisine is how easy it is. Most dishes can be conveniently prepared without much hassle or preparation. My creations looked and tasted like delicious with much less effort then western cuisine. We did several different dishes, including a traditional spicy soup, curry paste and a spring roll, all delicious!
In the end, we even got a very detailed recipe book which was great to recreate the dishes back at home. Overall, I feel this is an experience worth having not only for foodies like myself. Even the most novice of cooks can prepare yummy Thai dishes!
To say the least, the competition in cooking classes is fierce in Chiang Mai. There are DOZENS of schools available. In some of them you can cook an extra dish, in others there’s a market or organic farm tour included, or any other catchy feature to stand out amongst the competitors.
Quite frankly, I’ve heard great things from many different companies so I guess it’s hard to go wrong here. The company I went with, Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School, absolutely nailed it. The instructor was knowledgeable and VERY funny – loved how the level of spiciness was determined by how sexy you want to be. Also, their prices seem to be slightly cheaper than the competition.
6Visit Doi Inthanon National Park
When you’re looking to cool down from the humid heat, Doi Inthanon, the highest peak in Thailand seems like a good option, doesn’t it? Who knew that just at about 1h30 drive away from Chiang Mai, there would be a mountain rising at an altitude of 2,565m, that experiences below-zero temperatures quite often.
The surrounding Doi Inthanon Natural Park covers a land area of almost 50,000 hectares and is home to an incredible variety of trails, remote villages, and charming mountain farms, and even waterfalls. Make sure you visit Sriphum Waterfall, the most photogenic of them all.
Tip: don’t go by scooter there as the road can be very tricky. The best way get from Chiang Mai to Doi Inthanon is to either hire a driver or join a tour.
7Go for a swim at Chiang Mai’s Grand Canyon
Hang Dong Quarry, better known as the Chiang Mai’s Grand Canyon, is another great option to escape the heat and see a rather unusual Thai landscape. Located at about 45 minutes from Chiang Mai center by songthaew, this old quarry with red soil is quite an unusual sight for Thai standards.
While the cliff jumping continues to be the most popular thing to do here, there’s also inner tubes, bamboo rafts and a water park with inflatable obstacles, rafts, and even a zip-line!
Open daily from 8.30 am to 6 pm.
Admission is 50 Thai Baht per person. Lifejackets and tubes can be rented on site.
To get there, the best way is to rent a songthaew: make sure you arrange a return trip with your driver.
8Do a massage. Or many.
Yes, I know you can get a Thai massage pretty much anywhere in Thailand. The question here is value for money and Chiang Mai is hard to beat.
We did a one-hour full-body Thai massage for around 200-400 baht, which is ridiculously cheap. The masseur even massaged my fingers (!) which felt surprisingly reinvigorating.
There are many types of massages you can get in Chiang Mai:
- Massage by an ex-con: do this at the rehabilitation program of the Womens Correctional Institution
- Foot massage at the Sunday Night Market: I did an AMAZING foot massage for 50 (!) baht. Hard to beat this.
- Blind massage: Blind therapists with an allegedly enhanced tact sense are awaiting for you at the Association Massage of Blind People
Do as many massages as you can. My only regret was not getting more while I was there!
Pre-selected hotels in Chiang Mai Old Town, with a rating of 9 or more. Can’t go wrong with these.
9Explore Doi Suthep
Perhaps the most iconic sight in Chiang Mai, Doi Suthep is a mountain which houses Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a 13th-century gleaming temple. It’s one of the most historically and spiritually significant places in Thailand. Hard to decide what’s more impressive: if the golden chedi, if the stunning views over the city.
Plan to spend a couple of hours exploring the temple and surrounding area, that has various trails and even waterfalls!
Doi Suthep is located 12km outside of Chiang Mai, so you’ll need to get your own wheels or take a songthaew. If you’re reasonably fit and have roughly 3 hours to spare, start a hike up near Chiang Mai University and do the Monk’s Walk up to the temple, which can really add to the experience. Aim to visit as early as possible during the day for fewer crowds.
Opening hours for Wat Phra That Doi Suthep are 6am-6pm every day.
To get there, the best way is to rent a songthaew: make sure you arrange a return trip with your driver. Choosing a clear day can help bring out the amazing views!
10Chat With A Monk
Exploring the amazing wats of Chiang Mai is amazing experience by itself, but you can enrich it even more.
A few of the temples in the city have a “Monk Chat” program, where you can speak freely to monks about their beliefs or simply mundane aspects of their lifestyle. In exchange, they get to practice their English.
We’ve done this with two monks. While one of the monks was extremely shy, the other one was extremely talkative and friendly. Putting face-to-face such different perspectives in life is very enriching and really gives you food for thought.
Monk chat programs in Chiang Mai
These are some of the most popular places to chat with monks in Chiang Mai.
11Try Khao Soi
There are plenty of tasty dishes to try in Thailand and food, in general, is not a problem in Chiang Mai. There are plenty of great value places to eat.
That said, if one has to be picked to represent Chiang Mai, it would have to be Khao Soi. This noodle curry is a soup with chicken, egg noodles, and coconut which gives it a delicious range of textures. Usually, it’s served with a small side dish of lime, pickled green mustard, and red onions. Yum!
An important event on the Buddhist calendar, Songkran is the Thailand traditional New Year celebrations. It’s also called the water festival as it’s believed that throwing water will cleanse your sins and get you fresh and ready for the new year.
In Chiang Mai, this festival is taken to a whole different level. Not only it can last longer – up to six days! – but people will literally stand at the side of the road ready to soak every one passing by with water guns, buckets, and balloons. It’s also a time where people visit the local temples and bring food to the monks.
It’s definitely an unusual and fun time to experience Chiang Mai!
Extra things to do in Chiang Mai
The list doesn’t stop here. Although I personally didn’t had the chance to do the things below, they can serve as suggestions of more unusual things for you to experience in Chiang Mai:
- Do a meditation course at Doi Suthep Vipassana Meditation Centre – there’s no better place to get in touch with your inner self
- Get a sak yant tatoo from a monk – make sure you get a clean and hygienic place to do it!
- Go for a shopping spree at Warorot Market – more local and authentic
- Make a wish at Yi Peng Chiang Mai, or Loi Krathong – the lantern festivals!
- Visit the Bai Orchid and Butterfly Farm – tourist trap or amazing experience? Only one way to find out.
Things NOT to do in Chiang Mai
You may have noticed I have skipped some very touristy things to do from this list. On purpose. Tiger Temple is one of them. I don’t see any reason why I would give money to a place that holds drugged animals just for the stake of a cute selfie or a new Facebook profile picture.
Same thing applies for the Karen Village. In this one, humans are the main attraction, just because women are culturally encouraged to grow extremely long necks. If zoos are not my thing to start with, human zoos are much worse.
Getting to Chiang Mai
I got to Chiang Mai via overnight train from Bangkok. If you’re the planner type and want to have tickets pre-booked, 12Go Asia is a reliable company to book buses, trains, and ferries in Thailand.
You can also fly directly to Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX).
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
Areas to stay in Chiang Mai
If you want to be in the center of the action and be in walking distance to most of the restaurants, temples, and shops in town, definitely look for a place to stay in the Old Town. This is the area inside the walled square and is definitely the most charming.
Also look into Nimmanhaemin area, which has a great array of shops, restaurants, and cafés.
This is the area many expats and digital nomads choose to stay in.
Note that quality higher-end hotels are usually outside of the old town walls. Staying a bit further out the center is not really a problem. Tuk-tuks, motorbikes, and songthaews make it easy to get around.
Places to stay in Chiang Mai
Below are my top two choices when I was looking – both are cheap, have WiFi and are conveniently located in the Old Town. Both are great value, but in the end, I went with the second option.
Stylish and charming, this hotel has breakfast included and a salt-water (!) swimming pool.
With an excellent location, friendly staff and clean minimal rooms, this guesthouse is suited for the more budget-conscious.
Or… find your own accommodation!
Chiang Mai, the place to feel alive!
Overall I left Chiang Mai with the feeling is that kind of place for years live in your imagination and all of a sudden it came true.
Once you get there, you are exposed to so many different experiences and activities that it’s overwhelming. It’s a paradise to tick off things off your bucket list and indulge on authentic and inexpensive Thai activities. The way Chiang Mai makes you feel alive is incomparable.
Have you been to Chiang Mai?
What are the things to do in Chiang Mai that you’d add to this list?