With so many things to do in Chiang Mai, it’s easy to see how this is a top tourist destination in Thailand.
While millions of tourists travel to Bangkok each year, making it one of the most visited cities in the world, the “Land of Smiles” – as Thailand is nicknamed – is home to a bunch of other incredible places to visit. Koh Tao, Chiang Mai, Ayutthaya, Phuket, Koh Samui, Chiang Rai, Pattaya, and Kanchanaburi all have a lot to offer.
At 700 km from the capital, Chiang Mai is definitely a place you should add to your Thailand itinerary. Located the mountainous north of Thailand, its name means “new city” in Thai. But don’t let the name fool you: Chiang Mai was actually founded over 7 centuries ago!
This is the kind of place where you can enjoy exploring its mountainous landscape, tribal villages, unique museums, parks, wild nightlife, fantastic spas and admiring its beautiful architecture. Whether you’re looking for an adventure-filled holiday or spiritual journey Chiang Mai has got you covered.
Curious to discover more about this city? Continue reading!
The Best Things To Do In Chiang Mai
Wander around Chiang Mai Old Town
Chiang Mai Old Town is the most obvious starting point to start exploring. This is where you will find most of the temples, the many markets and the museums. The Old Town is bordered by ramparts and moats and there are four gates – one per cardinal direction – through which you can enter. It’s a nice place to wander aimlessly, but make sure to visit one or two museums to get to know a bit more about the city.
The National Museum of Chiang Mai, will offer insights into the history of the Lanna kingdom. Visit along the Lanna Folk Art Museum to learn more about the culture of this part of the country. To get a bit more in depth information about the city, head to Chiang Mai Cultural and Artistic Center.
Hike up Doi Suthep
One of the nicest things to do in Chiang Mai is hiking Doi Suthep, a mountain located about 12 km (7.5 miles) from Chiang Mai. From there, you can get stunning aerial views of Chiang Mai.
Locals say “If you haven’t seen the view from Doi Suthep, you haven’t been to Chiang Mai.” And don’t worry, if you don’t feel like hiking up the mountain for 3-5 hours you can get to the top either by motorbike or car.
Once in Doi Suthep make sure to visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a 13th-century temple considered as one of Thailand’s holiest Buddhist sites; and the Bhubing Palace, a vacation home for Thailand’s Royal family. The palace is open to the public except for when the Royal Family is at home, usually in December to early February.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is open daily from 6:00 am to 8:00 pm. If you plan to visit the temple remember it is a sacred place so dress appropriately: don’t wear short skirts or shorts and cover your shoulders.
Visit Chiang Mai’s many temples
With so many temples in Chiang Mai, you really should consider visiting at least a few of them. Here are some you should consider:
WAT PHA LAT – Quite possibly the most beautiful and peaceful temple in Chiang Mai, it’s surrounded by the jungle and you’ll have to hike along the Pilgrim’s Path to get there.
WAT PHRA THAT DOI SUTHEP – Located on top of Doi Suthep, if you only visit a temple it should be this one.
WAT CHEDI LUANG – Inside the Old City Walls, it’s a beautiful place to visit.
WAT SRI SUPHAN – Close to the Saturday night market, differently from many other Thai temples this one has a silver exterior.
WAT SUAN DOK – At easy walking distance from the West Gate, it’s most impressive sight is the mausoleum garden. It’s one of the temples where you can chat with a monk.
WAT PHRA THAT DOI KHAM – Home to a 17 meters tall Buddha statue, it’s a favorite of locals and beautifully located on a hilltop.
Make sure to dress appropriately (ie modestly) when visiting temples and try to keep quiet. Most of them are still working temples with monks living and praying!
Chat with a Monk
Five temples in Chiang Mai have programs that allow you to interact with Monks and learn from them. You can ask them questions – on just about anything – and you will realize that they are way more open minded than you’d imagine.
If this is something you want to do, make sure to check the temple’s opening time and go there appropriately dressed for the occasion.
Visit Doi Inthanon National Park
This national park is where you’ll find the tallest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon. There you’ll find many nature trails (the most famous one is the Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail, for which you need to hire a guide), remote villages, mountain farms, and waterfalls you can visit. You can also see the Twin Pagodas (known as the Queen and King Pagodas) – it’s one of the most iconic sights in the park.
If you’re a bird watcher a trip to Doi Inthanon National Park will be absolutely worth your time. The park has the largest number of bird species in Thailand so you’ll have a good time observing the different birds in their natural habitat.
To get to the park you’ll have to drive for about 1 hour and 30 minutes from Chiang Mai. It’s actually easier to get there on a guided tour. You can book a tour of Doi Inthanon National Park here.
Visit the Elephant Nature Park
If you want to get up close with elephants ethically visit the Elephant Nature Park. This attraction located 64 km (about 40 miles) from Chiang Mai has for years been rescuing elephants that have been abused and giving them a new home. Here riding an elephant is prohibited. Instead, you can see the elephants in their 200-acre natural habitat.
Visiting this attraction can be a bit costly, but the money you pay is used to ensure the elephants get the best care and rescue others. So your money will be going to a worthy cause.
To be completely honest, I am still reluctant to recommend any activity where animals are the attraction. If you really want to do something in favor of these animals, why don’t you simply donate to a reputable organization, without visiting them?
Take a trip to Chiang Mai’s Grand Canyon
Chiang Mai’s Grand Canyon has some staggering views. The Hang Dong Quarry, as Chiang Mai’s Grand Canyon was previously known, is actually a large water park with very deep canyons, about forty meters. Some of the canyons are filled with rainwater. It is the perfect place to swim and cool off the heat you’re bound to accumulate in Chiang Mai.
The Grand Canyon Chiang Mai is open daily from 8:30 am to 6:00 pm, and the entry fee is 600 Thai Baht (THB) – about $18 USD. You can book your visit here.
Spend a day in Huay Tung Tao Lake
Not many tourists visit Huay Tung Tao Lake, although it is a very popular place for locals, who go there to hike and enjoy the tranquil surroundings and to have lunch in the many floating restaurants on the lake. If you fancy an easy hike, you can walk to the Taab Mook Waterfall.
To get to the lake, you will have to get a taxi from Chiang Mai or rent a motorbike and drive there yourself.
Visit the nearby waterfalls
One of the best things to do in Chiang Mai is experiencing its nature. With all the mountains and jungle that surrounds the city, you can also count on a few beautiful waterfalls that are nice to visit.
Huay Kaew Waterfalls
These waterfalls are a true hidden gem and chances are that if you visit you won’t really come across many other visitors. To get there, you have to head towards Chiang Mai Zoo and from there take the path going westward towards the mountain.
Bua Thong Waterfalls
Known as Sticky Waterfalls because they are not slippery, these waterfalls are fun because they are actually quite easy to climb – so you can get in the water safely. They are located about one hour and 15 minutes drive north of Chiang Mai, along Route 1001. Make sure to bring a towel and some snacks!
Tour San Kamphaeng Hot Springs
San Kamphaeng hot springs are located in a beautiful area, surrounded by the mountains. There are baths and pools where the water is thought to be curative thanks to the high percentage of sulfur in it. You can even get a good massage while there.
Zip line through the Chiang Mai Jungle
The company that runs this activity is Flight of the Gibbon, the same I have used to zip line in Angkor Wat, Cambodia, and they run their zip lining tours in a responsible and fun ways. You can even book them online here.
Sample Thai cuisine
Thai cuisine is one of the most popular in the world and you cannot go to Chiang Mai and not try out their local delicacies – after all, this is considered Thailand street food paradise. Make sure to try Khao Soi, a delicious noodle soup that originated in northern Thailand but is now very popular across the country.
The main ingredients used to make Khao Soi include hand-cut rice or egg noodles, coconut milk, curry soup base and chicken, pork or beef. It is served with pickled cabbage, raw red onion, and lime wedges on the side. There is a vegan or vegetarian option too.
Other mouthwatering Thai foods you can try are:
- Guay Teow (Noodle Soup)
- Tom Yum Goong (Spicy Shrimp Soup)
- Tom Kha Gai (Chicken in Coconut Soup)
- Som Tam (Spicy Green Papaya Salad)
- Yam Pla Dook Foo (Fried Catfish with Green Mango Salad)
- Yam Talay (Spicy Seafood Salad)
- Laab (Spicy Salad)
- Pad Phuk Tong (Stir-Fried Pumpkin)
- Pad Thai (Thai style Fried Noodles)
- Khao Pad (Fried Rice)
- Pad Krapow Moo Saap (Fried Basil and Pork)
To make the most of Thai cuisine, consider joining a guided tour. You can book it here.
Take a Thai cooking class
To learn how to cook Thai food, join a Thai cooking class. This way you can prepare your favorite meals for yourself and your family once you get back home.
There are many places around Chiang Mai offering Thai Cooking Classes so give this a try. You’ll enjoy the experience even if you’re not a foodie.
You can book your cooking class in Chiang Mai here.
Go to a Cat Café
Cat lovers beware! One of the most fun things to do in Chiang Mai a cat café. There are several in town (Cat Station and cat Brothers just to name a few) – each of them a place where resident cats are free to roam around as you sip your coffee or eat a slice of cake. Keep in mind that the number of customers allowed at once is limited, so make sure to go in the morning to ensure a table. Besides, that’s when cats are most active (other than at night, when it is closed).
Get a Thai massage
All the sightseeing in Chiang Mai will definitely leave you exhausted. So, after a long day of being on the move relax by getting yourself a massage.
There are many massage parlors in Chiang Mai, but one of the best places to get a traditional Thai massage is at the Women’s Prison in the city. Here women who are soon to be released are trained to offer massages so that they can have a skill they can use to make money once they are out. They offer amazing massages and by going there you’re supporting their self-improvement journey.
While in the city you can have a massage every day because they are so cheap. A full body massage for 1-hour costs about 200-400 THB ($6-$13 USD).
Go on a shopping spree at the Sunday Night Market
If you find yourself in Chiang Mai on a Sunday you definitely have to go to this market to buy souvenirs. Here you can get just about anything from cheap massages, Thai food, clothes, handmade goods, paintings, sculptures, perfumes, etc. This market is usually very busy so get there early to avoid the crowds.
Also, be sure to bargain before you pay for any item you plan to buy. As a tourists seller at the market will most likely ask you to pay higher prices, and if you don’t bargain you’ll end up paying more than you should.
Party the night away
Chiang Mai’s nightlife may not be as lit as what you would experience in Bangkok but it is much cheaper and one of the things to do in Chiang Mai is definitely going out to enjoy its bar scene. There are many trendy bars and clubs where you can enjoy a drink as you interact with the locals, and dance till early morning. Nimmanhaemin Road has several bars such as The Monkey Club, which are popular with tourists and locals.
Watch a Muay Thai boxing match
Muay Thai is quite popular in Chiang Mai, and this is one of the best places in the country to watch a match. You can even take classes! It’s one of the most unique things to do in Chiang Mai.
Attend Loi Krathong Festival
Loi Krathong is celebrated throughout Thailand, but in Chiang Mai it really is special. A Krathong is a basket shaped like a lotus flower. A candle is lit in the center and all the lit baskets are placed in the water of the moat that surrounds some parts of the city. While the Krathongs are released, some lanters also fly into the sky.
Taking part in this festival surely is one of the nicest things to do in Chiang Mai. The city tends to get crowded then, so make sure to book your hotel well in advance.
Take part in the Songkran festival
One of the most popular things to do in Chiang Mai is taking part in the Songkran Festival. This religious festival takes place from 13th to 15th April and is the traditional New Year in Thailand. Part of the celebrations include locals splashing buckets of water on each other to cleanse sins. In practice, the city turns into a massive water fight and you’ll end up completely drenched, so make sure not to carry around any valuables during that time. Other than that, it’s a lot of fun!
Ride in a songthaew (Red Truck)
One of the coolest things to do in Chiang Mai is riding a songthaew – a typically red truck that works pretty much like a shared taxi, where you’ll get on and get taken to your chosen destination for a small fee. Don’t be surprised if, when you hail one, this doesn’t pick you up: it may be going in a specific direction that is not the one you are looking for.
3 Things Not To Do In Chiang Mai
With all the things to do in Chiang Mai also come some that you really should be avoiding – because simply unethical. Some of them involve the use of animals, but one in particular has made an indigenous group an attraction.
Paying the Karen long neck tribe a visit
The Karen women are famous for their incredibly long necks. Several tours in town advertise visits to this minority. I haven’t been, but my impression is that most tours treat the minority as if in a circus, with people on display for the sake of money. Sure, they do need a source of income but I’d much prefer it is the experience became meaningful rather than a mere display of faces.
Until visits to this minority are run in an ethical manner that is set to protecting its members, I advise to stay away from it.
Thailand has often been criticized for allowing animal abuse to promote its tourism industry. Activities such as sedating tigers for tourists to take photos with the animals, and tourists riding elephants are common.
Chances are that as you walk along the streets of Chiang Mai, tuk tuk drivers will call you offering to take you to Tiger Kingdom. Supposed to be a sanctuary for tigers, these are actually not treated humanely! Don’t go – don’t take part in animal cruelty.
Elephant trekking is unfortunately still a thing in Thailand, and tourists often fall for the charm of riding these majestic animals. Elephants, however, are not pets and they are badly tortured in order to be trained to carry tourists on their back, and endure ill treatment for their life so that they behave. Stay away from anybody that offers you to ride an elephant, and visit an actual sanctuary such as Elephant Nature Park instead – make sure to do your research before going.
Make sure to read my posts A Guide To Ethical Animal Tourism and The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.
Practical Tips To Plan Your Trip
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
There are many excellent accommodation options in Chiang Mai – whatever your taste, needs or budget may be. The following are some of the best places to stay:
- CREW HOTEL – a nice, mid-range hotel with spacious, clean rooms. Click here for the latest rates.
- BAAN SUKSOMBOON – a fabulous 5 bedroom villa perfect if you are traveling in a group. It’s fully equipped to make your stay memorable. Click here for the latest rates.
- THE ENTANEER POSHTEL – a state of the art hostel with queen size beds in dorms and modern and spotless private rooms. Click here for the latest rates.
How to get to Chiang Mai
Most people enter Thailand through Bangkok, which means you have various ways of getting to Chiang Mai.
Get on a bus at Mo Chit Station and take the 10-12 hour road trip to Chiang Mai. Buses are in the range of $15 USD.
Several trains leave Bangkok daily for Chiang Mai. This trip will take you 12-15 hours. You can decide to travel during the day or opt for a sleeper train.
This is the quickest option to get to Northern Thailand from Bangkok. A flight to Chiang Mai International Airport takes about 1 hour. You can also fly directly to Chiang Mai International Airport if you’re coming from another Asian country.
How to move around Chiang Mai
Moving around Chiang Mai is easy. You have the option of using the songthaew. Taxis and Ubers are also commonly used, especially by tourists, whereas buses aren’t much of a thing in this part of the country.
Tuktuks and samlors (Thai’s Rickshaw) are a common and cheap way to move around town – just make sure to haggle the price before you get on.
Finally, you can consider renting a bike or even a scooter – though in this case you will have to master the traffic, which in South East Asia isn’t exactly easy.
When to visit Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai gets a large influx of visitors throughout the year, but the best time to go is between November and January, when temperatures are a bit cooler. The other side of the coin though is that this is when it’s also most crowded. February to April are really hot but try months and generally the air is thick with pollution then. May to October is the rainy season, and at that time it doesn’t just rain – it’s also unbearably hot and humid.
Other useful information
As for any other trip, I recommend getting a good travel insurance for your. You can get yours here.
Check out my post Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.
For more information about Thailand, make sure to read my other posts:
- The Best Things To Do In Bangkok
- Why Koh Chang Is One Of The Best Islands In Thailand
- 10 Awesome Things To Do In Koh Samui
- The Best Places To Visit In Thailand
- How To Lose Yourself In Koh Wai, Thailand