Must-Read Guide Top 18 Ideas What To Do In Chiang Mai Thailand
Guide Best 18 Ideas What To Do In Chiang Mai
What’s the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Chiang Mai? Delicious, tropical food at unbelievably affordable prices! There’s much more to it and I feel that most people traveling to Thailand should add this beautiful travel destination to their bucket list. Here comes our must-read guide packed with best ideas on what to do in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Ready?
Since we not only visited Chiang Mai, but also lived there for a while, this guide should give you a very good idea on the number of things to do in Chiang Mai, from tourist attractions to landscape, to activities, day trips and irresistible Thai food, known to be one of most internationally recognised cuisines.
1. Night Bazaar, Thapae Gate and Chiang Mai Old Town
Forget about everything you’ve read about what to do in Chiang Mai so far and let’s start with the main square of Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai Old Town is undeniably one of the must-see things to do in Chiang Mai. As it used to be the centre of old Lanna Kingdom, it’s very different from the rest of Thailand.
Chiang Mai Old City was surrounded by the walls that protected the city. The remainder of the walls is in a few places, with Thapae Gate (or Tha Pae Gate) being the most prominent one located on the East side and facing the river Ping.
Thapae Gate is the most recognisable meeting spot in Chiang Mai and often hosts various events, including Chiang Mai Marathon and Chiang Mai Lantern festival at New Year’s Eve. You can often spot Buddhist monks around this area as there are hundreds of temples within the Old Town in Chiang Mai.
Another great thing about visiting this part of Chiang Mai is the weekly Saturday Market called Wualai Walking Street Market and Sunday Walking Street. They are ideal for people who love shopping for handcrafts, quirky fashion and unique art, souvenirs, dry food and making it top of the list, good quality street food as the choice is first rate.
Last but not least, Night Bazaar, the epicentre of Chiang Mai’s nightlife and shopping. You can go there 10 times and you won’t get enough of it. Just like with the Saturday Market, expects lots of independent stalls selling interesting merchandise and artsy crafts.
Night Bazaar is great for shopping, haggling and popping in for a few cocktails. There are fewer street food vendors but the ones you’ll see sell some of the most delicious juices, mouth-watering grilled fish, papaya salad and more. Did I mention that there are so many massage parlours around? You can even get one outside, near the shopping stalls – perfect for a quick stopover for your sore feet!
2. Chiang Mai Temples – Start with Doi Suthep
Make the most of the beautiful scenery that Chiang Mai has to offer, including some of the most beautiful temples you’re going to see. Totally recommend starting your temple tour with the golden Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It’
ll be one of the most beautiful travel highlights as it’s located right on the hill and offers spectacular views, starting from the viewpoint on the way to the temple.
A few other temples you should check out are Wat Chedi Luang (reminds me of Siem Reap Temples somehow!), Wat Chiang Man, Wat Sri Suphan, Wat Chedi Liam, Wat Phra Singh and Wat Phra That Doi Kham featuring a giant Buddha. Good news – a few of them are in or near the Old City in Chiang Mai.
All of them are so beautiful and have a very distinct look. Don’t overdo them, though, otherwise you’ll be templed out!
3. Chiang Mai Night Markets
Let’s say you haven’t got a clear plan on what to do in Chiang Mai in the evenings. The chances are, you’ll do all your sightseeing before sunset which I can also imagine might be very packed (sunset usually ends all day activities!). Luckily, there are so many night markets in Chiang Mai.
You don’t have to plan what to do in Chiang Mai to experience a relaxed feel of the North of Thailand in the evening hour – there are so many things to do in Chiang Mai and I strongly encourage you to visit at least 2 or 3 Chiang Mai night markets.
Each one of them has different feel and offers slightly different selection of food and merchandise. Best things about markets in Chiang Mai, Thailand? They are clean and cheap. Thailand is a happy medium for very low food prices without compromising on the high-quality food standards compared to other countries in South East Asia.
Most night markets in Chiang Mai start around 6pm and go on well into late evening, with some closing at around midnight. Not too bad if you’re a night owl and love the convenience of hot, cooked food at a fraction of the price you’d pay in Europe!
In my other article about best Thai food to try in Chiang Mai I cover what you should try when visiting Chiang Mai, you should check it out as my list is completely different from the dishes you can find in the South! Remember? The area between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai used to be an independent Lanna Kingdom.
You can read more about the best night markets in Chiang Mai in the article here.
4. Experience a Thai Massage
Still feeling a bit lost about what to do in Chiang Mai? The list is long but whether you’re up for some pampering or visiting just a simple pay-and-go Thai massage parlour after a long day of enjoyable activities before bedtime, you should give it a go.
I think we’ve all heard about the very affordable cost of getting a Thai massage in Thailand. Make the most of it whilst you’re there, Chiang Mai massage parlours offer even lower prices than most places in Thailand, like Bangkok, Krabi or Phuket!
Frankly speaking, both Kevin and I preferred getting massage in Chiang Mai over the ones in Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam and other parts of Thailand – the beauty saloons look more classy, clean and both the masseuses and masseurs somehow seem more polite and nicer. It might be just our experience but let us know your thoughts once you’ve tried it yourself!
5. Thai cooking classes in the North of Thailand
Chiang Mai has totally nailed it! It’s not just about the delicious food – which I can guarantee you’ll be surprised you made it – but it’s about the setting and the Thai sense of humour.
Some Thai cooking schools are really busy and due to the demand, more schools are popping up. Definitely a must if you’re in Chiang Mai as you’ll be exposed to the Bangkok-style Thai kitchen and Northern specialties not to be found down South of Thailand.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, we can move on to some less typical itineraries.
6. Traditional Khantoke Dinner
Not sure what to do in Chiang Mai? If you’re looking for some inspiration, I have got this covered for you. This Traditional Khantoke dinner is something you can try only in the North of Thailand. In fact, the are covering Northern Thailand used to home to Lanna Kingdom where some traditions are still widely practiced.
Khantoke dinner dates back centuries and it’s an absolute must for any foodie out there. Khantoke dinner isn’t limited to any time of the year but if you happen to be spending Christmas in Chiang Mai or planning your New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai like we did, you’ll welcome this idea even more.
Traditional Khnatoke dinner consists of a mixture of dishes and it’s served on a wooden, round tray. Expect to see some finger-licking Thai fried chicken, sweet crispy noodles, stir-fried veggies and many more. If you’re a vegan, you can rest assured that you won’t be left starving!
You’ll be sat on the super comfy semi-bed-mats on the large squarish outdoor area, entertained by the professional dancers performing on the stage in the middle, whilst savouring on your Northern Thai delicacies. Sounds like something unmissable?
You can read more about this amazing food feast experience in another article Traditional Thai food from the North : Lanna Khantoke dinner here.
7. Bua Thong Sticky Waterfalls
If you haven’t found interesting ideas on what to do in Chiang Mai based on your preferences, you’ve been reading the wrong guides! The trip to Bua Thong sticky waterfalls was so much fun that I couldn’t resist myself from writing about it!
If you enjoy active sightseeing, visiting this unique limestone formation with beautiful waterfalls is going to bring a lot of joy! Not just the way there, which will be undeniably bumpy but fun, but the climbing the waterfalls. There are about seven different levels and some of them can be quite slippery.
Bua Thong, also known as Namphu Chetsi looks surreal with the crystal clear water passing through the pumice-like creamy stones, the closest I could compare it to is like seeing giant foam bubbling on the rocks.
It’s a beautiful Instagrammable spot and if you’re into geography like myself, you’ll find a different purpose in being there. Feels even better knowing that from afar it looks like you have some gravity-defying Spiderman skills without wearing Velcro shoes. Add it to your things to do in Chiang Mai right now!
You can read all about our half a day trip to Bua Thong Sticky Waterfalls near Chiang Mai here, it’s quite handy as it includes the information on how to get there and how to reduce the cost of going there as well.
8. Doi Inthanon – The Highest Mountain Peak in Thailand
Luckily, you don’t have to travel far to see it, it’s pretty close from Chiang Mai! Ha, I don’t think you knew that you could ‘claim’ walking around Himalaya mountain range from the North of Thailand, did you?
Well, according to Thai National Parks, it turns out that Doi Inthanon National Park is part of the Himalayan mountain range. Now you definitely know what to do in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s beautiful mountainous, Northern region.
Doi Inthanon National Park is located at an elevation between 800 ad 2,565 m and trust me, it feels really chilly up there, even on a very hot day. It’s much cooler all year round but the moment the sun starts going down, you’ll feel it a lot more.
The views from the top are spectacular so make sure to stay there for sunset or stay overnight for sunrise. Apart from the evergreen cloud forest, be sure to see the waterfall and two adjacent chedi temples and beautiful picturesque flower garden between them. One of the highlights of our stay in Thailand!
9. Chiang Mai Hot Springs
Sankampang near Chiang Mai is known for its natural hot springs. If you cannot make it to Japan to try first-class hot springs, Chiang Mai is a good alternative whilst you’re in Thailand.
Also spelt San Kamphaeng Hot springs, these hot springs are surrounded by the mountains and reach over 100 degree Celsius, creating a beautiful, ‘steamy’ scenery. Right, you might wonder how are you supposed to dip in the hot spring with boiling water? Well, you’re not! But you are more than welcome to cook anything you like, such as eggs!
Don’t worry, Chiang Mai hot springs also have a really nice traditional style mineral bath and a mineral swimming pool which we naturally tested out. As you can imagine, the warm water comes from the ground that’s rich in sulphur that’s known for its curative properties.
We’re fans of hot springs and personally, I think it’s a really relaxing pastime that you won’t experience in Europe – unless you’re up for bathing in Iceland. Don’t worry about bringing towels, they are provided. You can also get a Thai massage and foot massage if you like.
One suggestion, though, the sulphur-rich water is also, as you’d imagine, pretty gassy! Expect some burping and maybe unexpected urge to release some gases shortly after. Sorry to spoil it for you if you’re planning to take your date for a romantic afternoon!
Nonetheless, you’ll absolutely love it and this spot is less known to the majority of tourists. hopefully by adding it to our guide on what to do in Chiang Mai won’t result in sudden influx and crowds to this spot!
10. Chiang Mai Lantern Festival New Year’s Eve
If you’re lucky to be visiting Thailand in November or December, you should organise your trip around Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai so you don’t miss the tremendously beautiful and vibrant event.
People from all over the world gather around just for that – including us, who decided to spend the New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai, surrounded by thousands of lanterns and releasing a few ourselves!
There are three occasions when you can experience Chiang Mai’s lantern festival, that is during Loy Krathong, Yi Peng and New Year’s Eve.
If you happen to scroll through Instagram feed looking for some really unique travel destinations, Chiang Mai’s Lantern festival is one of the top trending, and with some gossips around the same festival launching in the UK – I don’t think it’s happened yet, though.
Anyway, if you’ve seen Tangled, you might remember the lantern festival featured in there – that’s exactly what you can expect during Yi Peng and New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai. In a nutshell, these lanterns are simple rigid paper structures that work no different from hot air balloons.
Since most lanterns are white, they turn flaming orange when lit up and released in the air. It’s beautiful and very romantic at the same time, you might as well schedule your stay for that time – not to mention how nice it to be surrounded by hot air at night rather than freezing in Europe!
I write more about spending New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai here where you can find out all about this fantastic event!
11. Try Mouth-Watering Thai Hot Pots
Apart from the obvious Thai food, there’s more waiting for you in Chiang Mai and you’re about to discover it! I can’t get enough of this, you can go for a delicious grilled seafood of hot pot for as little as 150 Baht!
Although more realistically you can expect an all-you-can-eat hot pot for around 250 Baht, that’s still an incredible bargain! I do not know why I never came across it when doing my own research about Chiang Mai so this is why it is featured here.
We came across them a few times and completely by chance – that chance resulted in sometimes biweekly trips for delicious hot pots. I hope you’re enjoying this article and know more about what to do in Chiang Mai, no matter whether you’re staying there for 3 days or 3 months!
12. Bamboo River Rafting
One of the most enjoyable experiences we’ve had. There are a few places where these activities are available. There are a few places around Chiang Mai where you can test your skills at rowing with Mae Wang, Maesa and Maetaman being one of the easiest ones to find.
The rafts are made out of long planks of dried bamboo, tied up by the rope. There was a tour operator with us who kept us entertained with his silly jokes in broken English. Nonetheless, this is how we found out about the snake soup being quite a common dish for the locals of Norther Thailand!
The journey itself lasts around an hour and it’s very pleasant, making for a beautiful, photogenic picture, great for your Instagram! Just make sure you put some sunscreen before as the sun in this dry heat can be very strong – especially if you’re visiting around March and April, right before the wet season starts.
13. Chiang Mai Night Safari
Quite an experience! Apart from the night markets and shopping malls, there are many more things to do in Chiang Mai, like the Night Safari that stays open till late, a few hours past sunset. Night Safari in Chiang Mai makes it for a perfect trip to visit free running wild animals in their natural habitat whilst you’re inconspicuously sit at the back of the cute tour bus.
With two zones, Savanna Zone and Predator Zone, you can expect giraffes, kangaroos and zebras, whilst the second one is about lions, hyenas and tigers.
Totally loved when giraffe approached us and was sniffing out car before making a bold assumption that we must have some snacks for her. Don’t forget to check out the beautiful colourful fountain with water screen and laser graphics. There are about 1,200 water jets to showcase amazing water effects along with chilled music. Perfect if you’re here around sunset!
Still don’t know what to do in Chiang Mai?
14. Make a Trip to Chiang Rai
Knowing what to do in Chiang Mai and the neighbouring areas will make your trip to the North of Thailand a lot more exciting. Whilst night markets, amazing multi-purpose shopping malls and cocktail bars around Night Bazaar and Nimman area are a good way to spend evenings, you should get up quite early one day and make your way to Chiang Rai.
If you thought Chiang Mai is different from the South, Chiang Rai is even more peaceful and very remote town to see. You’re not limited only to the town, though – it almost feels like you’re not in Thailand anymore! Because Chiang Rai province is the northernmost province, bordering with Laos and Myanmar (former Burma).
If you can, allocate two full days but if it’s impossible a day trip will really take your breath away with awe-inspiring Chiang Rai White Temple, divine green tea plantations that grow delicious Matcha green tea, Doi Mae Salong.
There’s also a remote Chinese village dating back to 1960s with best of the best sunset views over the mountains and fabulous cherry blossoms in December, just before New Year’s Eve. Lastly, the Golden Triangle, an area linking three countries together: Thailand, Myanmar and Laos.
To find out more about things to do in Chiang Rai click here. For information about the White Temple in Chiang Rai, read our article here, covering all you should know before you go and if you’re heading to Doi Mae Salong, I’ve got a really interesting article covering what to see and do there here.
Lastly, the Golden Triangle is another thing to see – you can learn more about our visit and the history of that place here. Looks like I’ve planned the whole trip up north for you!
15. Visit Thailand’s Most Beautiful Rice Fields
I wonder how many of you love the beautiful formations of evergreen sun-kissed rice grass, mirroring a beautiful reflection of the sky in the rice fields freshly filled water. No matter how many times I see it, I don’t get bored of it – Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, China. They are so fascinating!
Great news, you can see them in Chiang Mai province as well – although I’d recommend allocating half a day for it and combine it with a trip to Doi Inthanon as Chiang rice fields are nearby, in the Mae Chaem district, called Ban Pa Pong Piang.
16. Shopping in Chiang Mai
If I hardly convinced you with my ideas on what to do in Chiang Mai, Thailand, try your luck in shopping. Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand. It’s a great shopping destination, whether you’re into beauty products which rank amongst the best ones in the world along with Japanese and South Korean beauty industry.
I think it won’t surprise anyone why shopping malls are always busy, no matter what time of the day you arrive. Shopping complexes seem to cater a long more towards hordes of tourists and the locals who often spend hours inside thanks to on-site gym, hairdresser saloon, massage parlours, countless boutiques, gaming arcades and delicious food courts selling fresh lunch and dinner for as little as £1 (around 40 Baht).
The best ones in Chiang Mai are Central Festival, Central Plaza Chiang Mai airport and my absolute favourite, MAYA Shopping mall in Nimman, an up-market artsy area with many trendy bars, coffee shops, vegan restaurants, salad bars and really stylish pop up fashion stores.
Since we stayed in Nimmanhaemin in Chiang Mai, MAYA shopping mall was a perfect place to grab lunch from and do some shopping. Don’t forget to check out Rimping supermarket whilst there, the selection of snacks there is 10 times better than in the majority of convenience stores or food supermarkets as they focus on top quality Thai and international food selection.
I’m sure at some point in time you’ll think of getting a few gifts for friends, family and yourself and shopping will come high on the list of things to do in Chiang Mai and thanks to Chiang Mai being more compact than Bangkok, it’s easier to grab what you’re after.
Definitely go for coconut oil, aroma products, dry food and snacks, medicine, makeup and beauty creams that are just fabulous and so affordable there. If you’re looking for ideas on what to buy in Chiang Mai, check out our article here where I’m covering this topic in more detail.
17. Hmong Village & Karen Village
Chiang Mai is a fabulous destination for people who have interest in cultural aspects of the country. If you’re not familiar with the Hmong people, they are the Asian ethnic tribal group from the mountain regions of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
You’ll hardly see them in downtown Chiang Mai, though, as they prefer the peace and quiet pace of life they found in up in the mountains. The history of Hmong people isn’t easy and reaches back to 18th century. Many Hmong people sought asylum in Thailand in 1970s and many resettled in the West, mainly in the US, Canada or Australia.
The beautiful thing about them is that they cultivate their traditions which can be observed in their very distinct, colourful clothing, dance and handcrafts. Some of their crafts are sold at the local night markets. Karen village is another place where you can visit them and talk about their situation. Hmong people and other tribal villagers are friendly.
If you happen to visit one of Hmong villages, whether a more organised place or an independent village, please be polite and don’t just take your camera out for pictures as it is seen as rude. Instead, take your time and talk to them about their history.
Hmong people are very warm-hearted and are happy to talk about their life and history if you show them respect and interest without being invasive but not if you’re there solely with the purpose of getting a few shots.
18. Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary
If you’re after really cool ideas on what to do in Chiang Mai, visit an Elephant Sanctuary where you can bathe elephants, feed them and play in the mud. It’s definitely a different type of experience from what you see and do back in Europe.
You can feel like you’re in safari in a way! I’m not too keen on getting dirty in the mud but if you don’t mind, you’ll probably quite enjoy it. Just make sure to pick the place where elephants are being taken good care of. Some sanctuaries are located in more remote places that include a trek through a jungle so bring mosquito anti-repellent, trust me, if insects generally don’t steer away from your blood, it won’t be any different in the humid, forestry area!
What Are Your Best Ideas On What To Do In Chiang Mai?
Still here? Good news, you’re reached the end of our must-read guide with best and unique ideas on what to do in Chiang Mai. Whether you’re staying for a couple of nights, weeks or months, the list of things to do in Chiang Mai is virtually endless despite the pace of life here being a lot more relaxed than in the South of Thailand. What made you want to visit Chiang Mai? List the reasons in the comments below!
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