With so many things to do in Chiang Mai, it’s easy to see how this city became a favorite of travelers – to the point that many make it their home for further exploration in South East Asia.
Mention Thailand to any traveler and the first place that comes to mind is Bangkok, its capital. That’s because millions of tourists travel to Bangkok each year. In 2017, 20.5 million people visited Bangkok, making it one of the most visited cities in the world.
I get why lots of tourists flock to Bangkok: it has many attractions, an incredible nightlife, delicious cuisine, friendly people, good weather (if only a bit too hot) for most of the year, etc. The city has a lot going for it to be able to bring in the large tourism numbers. However, Bangkok is not the only destination you should visit if you find yourself in the “Land of Smiles” – as Thailand is nicknamed.
There are other cities in Thailand that are equally fun to visit such. Koh Tao, Chiang Mai, Ayutthaya, Phuket, Koh Samui, Chiang Rai, Pattaya, and Kanchanaburi all have a lot to offer. So don’t make the mistake most travelers do. Don’t limit your trip to just Bankgok and an island a most.
In particular, Chiang Mai has a lot to offer and you are bound to have a fabulous tome there.
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! At 700 kilometers from Bangkok, it has many historical and cultural attractions, such as ancient temples, you’ll love visiting.
You’ll also 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.
In this post, I will highlight the nicest things to do in Chiang Mai, and a few you should avoid. I will also share a few tips to help you plan your trip there.
19 Great Things To Do In Chiang Mai
Hike up Doi Suthep
One of the nicest things to do in Chiang Mai is hiking Doi Suthep, a mountain located about 12km from Chiang Mai. From there, you can get stunning aerial views of Chiang Mai. Doi Suthep also has Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a 13th-century temple considered as one of Thailand’s holiest Buddhist sites.
Another attraction that pulls in lots of travelers to Doi Suthep is 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.
You must visit Doi Suthep because 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.
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, which means don’t wear short skirts or shorts and cover your shoulders.
These are some good tours that go to Doi Suthep. Some of them include hiking and biking:
- Full day hike and bike at Doi Suthep Mountain National Park
- 6 hour Doi Pui National Park summit hike
- Full day Doi Suthep trekking tour
- Private tour to Doi Suthep and Sticky Waterfall
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. I highly recommend you 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 of the soup.
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, taking a food tour is what to do in Chiang Mai. The following are some excellent food tour options:
- Local street food and market tour
- Chiang Mai 4 hour food adventure by bike
- Traditional Khan Toke meal and cultural performance
Take a Thai cooking class
If you love Thai food one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai is enrolling in a Thai cooking class. This way you can prepare your favorite meals for yourself and your family once you get back home.
I enrolled for a class and I was surprised to learn how easy it is to prepare some my favorite Thai dishes. 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.
These are the best cooking classes in Chiang Mai:
- Authentic Thai cooking class and farm visit
- Authentic Thai cooking class and local market tour
- Thai cooking class in an old teak house
Visit the Elephant Nature Park
If you want to get up close with elephants ethically visit the Elephant Nature Park. This attraction located 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 feed the animals, bathe and swim with them or take a walk next to them 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.
Go temple hopping
Chiang Mai has close to 300 ancient temples scattered around the city. Visiting some of these temples is one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai. Temples not to miss are:
- Wat Phra Singh (the temple of the Lion Buddha): a 14th-century temple with 700 monks living there.
- Wat Chiang Man: the oldest temple in Chiang Mai.
- Wat Chedi Luang: this used to be the home of Thailand’s holiest religious object the Emerald Buddha.
- Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which I told you is at the top of Doi Suthep.
- What Pha Lat Temple: a beautiful temple surrounded by the jungle that can only be reached via a hike.
These temples are still used as worship sites, so when you visit make sure you respect the locals you find there, dress modestly and be quiet as you tour the grounds.
Visit Doi Inthanon National Park
This national park is where you’ll find the tallest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon. To get to the park you’ll have to drive for about 1 hour and 30 minutes from Chiang Mai. There you’ll find many nature trails, remote villages, mountain farms, and waterfalls you can visit.
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.
You can book a tour of Inthanon National Park here.
Take a trip to Chiang Mai’s Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is one of the United States most visited tourist destinations. If you have never been to this attraction in the US visit a smaller version in Chiang Mai which has some staggering views.
The Hang Dong Quarry, as Chiang Mai’s Grand Canyon was previously known, has 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 50 Thai Baht. You can book your visit here.
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 Baht ($6-$13).
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. 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.
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.
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.
Take 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!
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.
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.
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!
Zip line through the Chiang Mai Jungle
If you are as adventurous as I am, you really have to try zip lining in 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.
Check out my post “Visiting Angkor Wat And Other Amazing Things To Do In Siem Reap.”
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 quite safely. They are located about one hour and 15 minutes drive north of Chiang May, along Route 1001. Make sure to bring a towel and some snacks!
Go to a Cat Café
Cat lovers beware! Chiang Mai has its very own cat café, called Catmosphere and located on Huaykaew Road, 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).
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 few. Don’t be surprised if, when you hail one, this doesn’t pick you up: it may be the case that its 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 the impression I have is that most of them are nothing more than 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 rather than making them a circus kind of attraction, I strongly 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 in the country’s tourism industry.
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 – you shouldn’t take part in any activity that will be contributing to 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 pet 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 post “The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.”
Practical Tips To Plan Your Trip To Chiang Mai
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 is a nice, mid-range hotel with spacious, clean rooms. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
- Baan Suksomboon by Pei Jing is 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 and here for reviews.
- The Entaneer Poshtel is a state of the art hostel with queen size beds in dorms and modern and spotless private rooms. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
I will soon be writing a post on the best places to stay in Chiang Mai.
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 $20 USD. You can book it here.
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. You can book your train here.
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
You can easily move around Chiang Mai in many different ways. One of the options is to use the songthaew, of which I have talked before. Taxis and Ubers are 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, if you are planning to stay a little longer 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 October and April, when temperatures are a bit cooler. The other side of the coin though is that this is when it’s also most crowded. Alternatively, you can opt to visit during one of its many festivals.
Thailand Travel Requirements
If you’re planning a trip to Thailand you’ll need to have for a Thai visa, without which you’ll not be allowed to enter the country. You can do the Thailand visa application online or at your point of entry into the country. I suggest you do the application online because it will take you a few minutes to do it, and you won’t have to waste time waiting in line at the airport to get your visa.
If you get your visa online, it will cost you around $61, which is 2000 Thai Baht. You’ll also need to prove your passport is valid for six months before your trip, have a return ticket, and show you have sufficient funds to last for the duration of the trip.
Once you apply, your visa is sent to you via email in 2-5 days. When you get the visa, make sure you print a copy that you’ll present together with your passports to border authorities at your point of entry.
Other useful information
As for any other trip, I wholeheartedly recommend getting a good travel insurance for your trip to Thailand. 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:
- 20 Fabulous And Simply Unmissable Things To Do In Bangkok
- Why Koh Chang Is One Of The Best Islands In Thailand
- Why I would love to go back to Thailand
Legal Disclaimer: This post was written in cooperation with Thailand Visa. Needless to say, the views expressed are my own.
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