Whereas Bangkok is the bustling capital of Thailand, northern Thailand is where you should visit for culture, nature, and creativity. Chiang Mai is the heart of the area and is the perfect place to visit to experience the ‘real’ Thailand.
With so much to do here, Chiang Mai is a great place to set up for a longer trip. You could easily spend a month here while you explore the surrounding region. Conversely, you can get a lot out of just 3-days in the center of the town.
Either way, read on to find out the best things to do in Chiang Mai. Tick some of these off when you visit and you’re sure to fall in love with Thailand.
1. Visit Elephant Nature Park
Sadly, Thailand has a dark history of abusing animals to improve their tourism. From drugging tigers to riding elephants. As visitors, we have an ethical obligation to avoid perpetuating this abuse.
Most of the elephant sanctuaries in Thailand abuse their animals. Any elephants that do tricks, including riding, have been severely abused in the past to make them do this. Please avoid any places that offer elephant riding or tricks.
Fortunately, there is one park which I can wholeheartedly recommend. Elephant Nature Park is the best elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai. This is a haven for rescued elephants and offers no riding, bathing, or tricks. The elephants here mostly have sad pasts but are now cared for and allowed to roam free as wild animals should.
You will need to book your spot at Elephant Nature Park very far in advance, so make sure to check availability when you book your flights. It’s also more expensive than other parks due to the limited numbers – but we didn’t mind as we saw this as a contribution to the elephants.
2. Doi SuthepDoi Suthep is possibly the most famous attraction in all of Chiang Mai. As you walk around, you’ll see songthaew’s heading there and taxi drivers asking if you want to go.
And for good reason. The regal, 1,676m high mountain towers over Chiang Mai. Atop the mountain, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep looks out over the city. The beautiful temple is one of the most sacred and revered in all of Thailand. Every child in Chiang Mai learns the fabled story of Doi Suthep at school.
In the 14th century, King Kuena was persuaded to build the temple by a Buddhist monk who offered him a bone relic of Buddha. The king searched for the right spot, but couldn’t find one, so he tied the relic to an elephant and set it loose. The elephant walked through forests for days before settling on the top of Doi Suthep.
With that in mind, you can’t really make your way to Chiang Mai and not visit this temple!
The easiest way to get here is by GRAB or taxi, whereas the cheapest is to jump on the back of a songthaew heading there. Once you arrive, you’ll have to climb a very long staircase to the temple.
3. Spend a night in Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai is a whole separate city to Chiang Mai, but it still deserves a spot on this list. If you have the time to spend a night (or two) here, then it’s well worth doing so as the drive will take you roughly 3-hours each way. If you’re short on time, it’s definitely do-able as a day trip – you just won’t be able to fit everything in!
The main reason people visit Chiang Rai is to see the breathtaking white temple or Wat Rong Khun. This is one of the most beautiful temples in all of Thailand, if not the world. Unlike most temples, this is built more as a piece of art that details Thai beliefs than as a place to pray.
The best way to visit Chiang Rai, especially if you have just a day, is by booking a tour with a local operator. If you’re a very confident driver, consider driving there.
4. Explore the Old City
If you’re staying in Chiang Mai, then you should definitely consider staying in the Old City. It’s the most traditional part of the city, unsurprisingly, and it is a great place to visit to experience the culture, history, and religion in Chiang Mai. What better way to do this than to rent a room here?
Whether you decide to stay here or not, you’ll want to set aside about 4-hours to explore the entire area by foot. The old city is a perfect square with four crumbling, historic walls. Within the confines of the walls, you will find an eclectic mix of hipster eateries and cafes, juxtaposed with ancient temples.
There are over 300 temples in Chiang Mai, with a lot of these found in the Old City, so you will definitely keep yourself busy.
Make sure to visit our two favorites: Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh. If you’re short on time, or the kids are getting restless with all the temples, just visit these two and give the rest a miss.
You can take a bike and food tour of Chiang Mai that will take you all through this area.
5. Doi Inthanon National Park
At 2,565m above sea level, Doi Inthanon is the highest peak in Thailand. Doi Inthanon National Park is a 482 square kilometer park that contains the mountain.
The park’s natural beauty is a culmination of jagged mountain tops, dense rainforest, and wild waterfalls. Thanks to its protected status, the park is home to a diverse range of fauna, many of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. It is a popular destination for bird watching with over 362 species of birds coexisting within the park.
In terms of getting to Doi Inthanon National Park, you have two main options: book a tour, or hire a driver to take you there. Either way, the drive will take about 90-minutes each way. Once there, the park can be traversed by foot if you are reasonably fit. Otherwise, a lot of the park can be explored from a vehicle.
- Remember to pack a jacket as, unsurprisingly, it can get chilly.
Once in the park, the two main activities are hiking and visiting the local villages. The former is a great way to get in touch with nature, whilst the latter has a significant cultural aspect to it – we would recommend doing both!
6. Shop & Drink Coffee at Nimmanhaemin Road
Nimmanhaemin Road, aka Nimman, is the popular, hipster-y part of town. You’ll run into a lot of young, hip Thai locals, as well as hordes of expats who call Chiang Mai home. Nimman is the reason Chiang Mai has earned a reputation as one of the hottest spots in the world for digital nomads.
The top thing to do here is to shop. Maya is a large, air-conditioned mall at the start of Nimmanhaemin Road. Here you’ll find a lot of the larger, more well-known brands. As you explore further, including Nimman One across the road, you’ll find tonnes of smaller, boutique shops where you can find some cool clothes and souvenirs.
For coffee-addicts (like myself), Nimman will be somewhat of a paradise. It has an impressive coffee-brewing scene, with countless little coffee shops tucked down alleyways along the road.
Ristr8to is perhaps the most renowned on Google, where you’ll be sure to find a great cup. Graph cafe serves the most unique coffees we’ve ever tried – think high-end cocktails with coffee instead of alcohol.
7. Explore the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar
Chiang Mai has a lot of markets – and no trip to this city would be complete without checking a few out. The best of the bunch is definitely the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.
From around 5 pm stalls begin setting up shop in the middle of the street around Tha Phae Road. After a couple of hours, the market has sprawled out to encompass numerous blocks and streets.
It can be confusing to navigate. The best way is to either start at Tha Phae Road and work your way South, then return on the other side of the road, or you can do it the other way around. Otherwise, feel free to get lost down the alleyways – people set up shops literally everywhere so just go and explore!
You’ll find all your typical souvenirs and clothes at this market, so it’s a great place to stock up. However, amongst the mass-produced products, you can find some real, authentic gems (metaphorically, not literal gems).
Finally, remember to haggle. The prices here aren’t fixed – as with most markets in Southeast Asia. If you want a bargain, negotiate down.
8. Grand Canyon Water Park
Chiang Mai has its very own Grand Canyon – and you should absolutely pay it a visit! Within a large canyon (technically a quarry), you’ll find a lake and water park that yourself and your family can splash around in – a great way to spend a day and cool off in the heat.
Getting here takes just a 30-minute drive – book a GRAB or hail a taxi. It should cost about 200 THB. Once you arrive, there are two parks. You’ll want the Grand Canyon Water Park. Admission fees are 450 THB for adults and 350 THB for your little ones.
Once here, there’s a ridiculous number of activities to try. Go ziplining over the canyon, test your Ninja Warrior skills on the obstacle course, slip down some huge slides, or roll around in giant hamster balls (aka zorbs). More activities include wakeboarding, cliff jumping, and water-cycling.
9. Bike and Food Tour
Biking through the city is quite exhilerating, but it’s even better when you get to indulge with local foods. During the tour will learn lots of history, see quite a bit of the city you wouldn’t have otherwise seen, and of course enjoy lots of amazing food. Learn more about this Chiang Mai bike and food tour.
10. Get a massage at the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institute
This is your opportunity to find out what it’s like to get a massage from prisoners. Although it’s a very safe and professional place, you may wish to leave the kids at home for this one!
The Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institute is a prison that aims to reskill its inmates to prepare them for a life free from reoffending when they get out. Studies have shown that programs such as these significantly reduce recidivism – or the rate of reoffending.
Few places can offer you a way to give back to society whilst indulging in a relaxing massage.
The institute itself is managed professionally. There are prison guards there in case emergencies arise, however, the prisoners all act appropriately. They have been trained for at least 6-months and are fully capable of giving a great massage.
Our suggested place to stay in Chiang Mai is Shangri-La Chiang Mai.
Guest Author: Delilah Hart is a freelance writer and full-time traveler from New Zealand. She’s working her way across the world in search of beautiful places to photograph and write about.