Intro – things to do in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is the largest city in Northern Thailand and the touristic heart of the region. Easily accessible from Bangkok and with its own airport, Chiang Mai is the perfect base to explore the northern part of Thailand. Although small in population (around 200.000), Chiang Mai has the same bustle and energy as Bangkok. Traffic is equally crazy and the city is a beloved destination for travellers and digital nomads, making it buzz with people. So let’s look for things to do in Chiang Mai for when you visit.
Chiang Mai has long outgrown its colonial walled in city centre and continues to grown into all directions. It is still easy enough to navigate and for longer stretches you can hail a Rót daang, one of the red trucks that serve as shared taxis. The city has plenty to offer in the way of temples and museums, but one of its main pulls are the tours and activities organised in the surrounding area. Elephant sanctuaries and mountain treks are popular day trips for tourists.
Due to its location, the climate in Chiang Mai is generally more pleasant than in the South of Thailand. The dry, cool season runs from November to March, making it the best time to visit Chiang Mai. However, a popular time to visit Chiang Mai is during the Songkran festival in April. This Thai New Year celebration turns the city into a three day water fight in which no one keeps dry.
Where to stay
Chiang Mai is a popular destination and has a wealth of accommodation to offer. Luxury and comfort are easy to find, so opt to stay in or close to the city centre for convenience
BED Phrasingh combined clean and comfortable rooms with excellent service. This beautiful modern hotel also has a pool for cooling off.
Cheeva Dee Hotel is the epitome of luxury in the middle of Chiang Mai. It is in walking distance of all the major attraction and has an incredible breakfast spread.
The best place for budget travellers to stay is the friendliest hostel in the world: the Living Place. The owners are lovely and will help you with everything and make you feel at home. Although devoid of luxury, it is a great place to meet fellow travellers.
Things to do in Chiang Mai day by day
Day 1 – The Old City Centre
The best way to explore Chiang Mai is by strolling through the old city centre. It is easy to navigate and as long as you stay within the city walls it is impossible to get lost. Within the city centre you will find several temples. The most famous is Wat Chedi Luang, which consists of several stunning buildings and an impressive pyramid like ruin. It pays to walk around the city and see some of the smaller temples as well. They are less crowded, but not less beautiful and each has its own architectural characteristics.
The Wat Chedi temples offers the opportunity to chat with the monks at set moments. This allows the monks to practice their English and tell tourists more about Buddhism.
Stop for lunch at Miranda’s Café, a charming little hide-out that serves delicious food and sells original souvenirs.
Thai museums are generally rather stuffy compared to European musea, this also goes for Chiang Mai National Museum. However, Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre is worth a visit to dive deeper into the history of Chiang Mai.
An excellent challenge to set yourself in Chiang Mai is to find the most delicious Pad Thai. This noodle stir fry can be considered the national dish of Thailand and although it looks simple, it is bursting with flavour. Pad Thai Ha Rod claims to serve the best Pad Thai in the city, but you can be the judge of that.
Day 2 – Elephant Santuary
Elephants have long been a vital part of Thai culture and economy. They were originally used in farming and building and later as part of the tourism industry. Unfortunately, the elephants have often been mistreated and abused. Elephant rides are still offered to tourist in Thailand, but luckily there are also several elephant sanctuaries around Chiang Mai where you can ethically interact with these majestic animals without contributing to their exploitation. The Jungle Sanctuary is world-famous and visits must be booked months in advance. It is less busy at the Dumbo Elephant Spa, where booking a day or two in advance is enough. A full day visit includes pick-up from your hotel, feeding, batching and a mud spa with the elephants as well as lunch.
After your visit to the Elephant Spa it is time to explore Chiang Mai at night. At the night market you can buy everything from delicious food to clothing and souvenirs. Tourists are charged around 80% more, so feel free to haggle. Most vendors drop their prices towards to end of the night in order to make a last sale. Head to Anusan market around 8.30 pm to ensure a prime seat for the ladyboy cabaret, a highly entertaining show that cannot be missed in Chiang Mai.
Day 3 – Foodie Day
Start your day of with an early morning visit to Nong Buak Hard Public Park. Many locals in Chiang Mai come here to exercise before it gets too hot, but you can also lounge in the grass. Afterwards, visit Clay Studio for some delicious mango sticky rice and coffee in their hidden garden café.
Another popular activity in Chiang Mai is a cooking class. In these classes you can learn to make those delicious Thai dishes for yourself. Smile Organic Farm has a class that includes a visit to a local market and a tour of their organic vegetable and herb garden. This excellent cooking class teaches you all the techniques to 5 dishes and left-overs and a recipe book can be taken home.
Due to the many young backpackers and digital nomad visiting Chiang Mai, it has an excellent nightlife. Start with a cocktails and dancing at Zoe in Yellow, arguably the most popular bar in town. After they close at 11, you can continue to dance the night away at Spicy.
Day 4 Trekking
The lush mountain around Chiang Mai are home to beautiful nature and indigenous mountain tribes and both can be visited on guided mountain treks. There are several organisations that offer one- or two-day treks through the jungle, which are a perfect escape from the city heat. Make sure to wear sturdy and comfortable shoes for the hike. Most tours include food, water and transfer to and from your hotel.
Day 5 Markets And Massage
The morning market in Chiang Mai takes places right behind China Town. Every type of food imaginable is sold here, both in- and outside. The outside stalls sell snacks and fruit that make a perfect breakfast.
After the market it is time to recover from the previous day trek with a Thai massage. Thai massages veer more towards chiropractic than relaxation, but they do wonders for a sore back. At the Women’s Massage Center by ex-prisoners the name says it all. Ex-prisoners from the Chiang Mai women’s prison are trained and work here as masseuses to help them reintegrate into society. Their massages are excellent and the women are very friendly and hospitable.
The best sunset view in Chiang Mai can be seen from the Temple of the Golden Mountain. The best way to reach the Mountain Temple is by renting a scooter and driving up yourself. Driving through the city can be challenging, but once you leave, the traffic becomes considerably calmer.
Things to do in Chiang Mai pictures
After visiting the temple, what about a relaxing stroll around the market?
There are hundreds of things to do in Chiang Mai, we’ve touched on a few that we enjoyed on our stay here.