There are so many amazing things to do in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Anyone who is planning a visit to Thailand will most certainly have Chiang Mai on their itinerary. A lot of return visitors spend most of their time in northern Thailand, and we’re here to show you why.
First-timers must check out the popular activities, like going on a waterfall expedition in Doi Inthanon National Park, learning to cook Thai food, or watching sunrise from Doi Suthep. If you are a return visitor or want to get off the beaten track, there are plenty of ideas in this Chiang Mai travel guide that will help you make the most of your stay.
Best Things to do in Chiang Mai
Table of Contents
1. Visit an Elephant Sanctuary
Going to an elephant sanctuary is one of the top attractions in Chiang Mai. Whatever you do, do not ride an elephant in Thailand. Instead visit an elephant nature park. Elephants used for tourism are abused and tortured as babies to break them into submission. Today, sanctuaries have stopped putting elephants through torture and torment and giving elephants a place to live out the rest of their lives in peace.
The Elephant Nature Park is one of the first sanctuaries for rescued elephants. Because it is so popular, be sure to book well in advance if you are planning on traveling to Chiang Mai.
Choosing an Elephant Sanctuary to Visit
Be cautious of parks or agencies that claim to be elephant sanctuaries. If they still allow you to ride elephants, they’re not doing their best to protect them. Why? Their spines are actually frail, not built to withstand the weight of an average human being.
When doing your research, ensure elephants roam freely around the grounds. Bathing and playing with them side-by-side should be okay if they have been rescued or retired from riding (they’ve already been “broken”). Otherwise, it is best to let the elephants roam free and watch from afar. Remember: the performance of any unnatural “tricks for treats” are red flags.
- The most well-known non-profit organization in the area is Save the Elephant Foundation and Elephant Nature Park.
- Get Your Guide offers several options for ethical elephant excursions in Chiang Mai. Offering free pick up and you can cancel up to 2 days in advance for a full refund.You can see their full list of ethical elephant tours here
2. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (Doi Sutep temple) was one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai. We caught an early morning Uber (GrabTaxi now) to the mountain located outside of Chiang Mai to watch the sunrise over the hills.
Located 15 km from the city, Wat Phra Doi Sutep offers great views of Chiang Mai and an amazing cultural experience. After walking up the 309 steps, we spent about two hours walking around the complex. Getting there early in the morning avoids the crowds and you are free to explore the temples and views in solitude.
Doi Suthep temple has one of the best views of Chiang Mai and the valley below in the entire area. Be sure to cover your legs and shoulders and you walk the grounds with bare feet. Legend has it that Doi Suthep temple was built to house a bone from Buddha’s shoulder.
3. Doi Inthanon National Park
We trekked in Doi Inthanon National Park on our first visit to Thailand and it was worth it. Known as the roof of Thailand, Doi Inthanon National Park houses the country’s highest peak.
You can climb to the 2564 meters (8,415 feet) summit of Doi Inthanon. There are two routes you can take up, Ang Ka Luang and Kew Mae Pan. We suggest taking the Kew Mae Pan that is more rugged and lets you hire a local Hmong tribesmen.
Do Inthanon also has several waterfalls to explore, with the Vachiratharn Waterfall being one of the most beautiful and easiest to see. There is some great trekking in Doi Inthanon National Park, and one of our favorite experiences was hiking through rice terraces/
4. Chiang Mai Old City Gate
When visiting Chiang Mai there is no doubt you will visit the old city to explore its temples. The Old City Wall is the gateway to the Chiang Mai Old Town and it is the most popular place to see in Chiang Mai.
Surrounded by a moat, a brick wall surrounds the old city that is filled with an astounding concentration of temples. Chiang Mai is the top place in Thailand to visit temples. Monks go about their daily business. Don’t be afraid to wander into a temple. The entire fun of visiting the Chiang Mai old city is to explore by foot and get lost.
5. Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chedi Luang is one of the most beautiful temples in Chiang Mai. This Buddhist temple in the historic center of Chiang Mai stands 82 meters high and is the largest of temples in the Lanna Kingdom. It once housed the famous Emerald Buddha that is now at Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok’s Golden Palace. Something that you must not miss is sitting in on the daily monk chat.
6. Wat Suan Dok
Wat Suan Dok is another one of my favorite attractions in Chiang Mai. Not only is its 14th-century architecture beautifully unique, but members of the late Lanna Royal family are buried around the temple.
Better yet? The grounds serve as a monk university, holding daily monk chats and weekly meditation retreats–all open to the general public. What could be more unique than hearing about North Thailand’s culture and religion firsthand from a young monk, all he gets to practice his English with you?!
Monk Chats in Chiang Mai
Monk chats take place Monday through Friday, 5-7 PM; while meditation retreats start every Tuesday at 1 PM and conclude Wednesday by 3 PM. Visit MonkChat.net for more details, up-to-date schedules, and other special events. Extra tip: Many temples in Chiang Mai offer monk chats, so feel free to visit them all for different perspectives! Read more: 23 Fun Facts About Thailand – The Land of Smiles
7. Temple Hopping
Chiang Mai is filled with temples and it would take months to see them all. With 300 temples to visit, you will have plenty to choose from. Outside of Doi Suthep, most of them are located within the Chiang Mai Old City.
Top Chiang Mai temples to visit are:
- Wat Phra Singh – The most celebrated wat after Doi Duthep. Lai Kam assembly hall and its restored murals depicting the lives of locals hundreds of years ago.
- Wat Sri Suphan – Known as the silver temple, Wat Sri Suphan is covered in silver.
- Wat Umong – This 700 year old Buddhist temple is the only forest temple in Chiang Mai.
- Wat Chiang Man – Chiang Mai’s oldest temple houses the Crystal Buddha.
- Wat Pan Tao – Located beside Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Pan Tao is a beautiful dark teak wood temple.
Suggest Temple Tours
- For a full list of Chiang Mai Temple Tours check out get Your Guide Day Tours. They offer last minute bookings and easy cancellations.
- Chiang Mai Temples and Culture Tour – Visit the 3 Major Temples of Chiang Mai including Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Chiang Man and Wat Phra Singh before moving on to the Chiang Mai Arts & Cultural Centre.
- Chiang Mai Temples and Handicraft Centre – Visit the 4 most sacred ancient temples in Chiang Mai’s old city area including a traditional Thai lunch before visiting the Phra That Doi Suthep.
8. Chiang Mai Night Markets
Chiang Mai is famous for its Night Bazaar. When the sun goes down, the markets open up. Chang Klan Road is where the Night Bazaar is open every evening. But on Sundays, things really heat up.
Every Sunday night the streets by Thapae Gate and on Ratchadamnoen Road close to traffic and turn into a walking street filled with vendors selling everything you can think of.
You have to be in the right mood to hit the night markets. Dave and I get warmed up and work on our smiles and bartering skills. Weave your way through the crowds and the streets and haggle your way to buying cheap knock off items like handbags, and watches.
9. Lantern Festivals of Loi Krathong and Yi Peng
Chiang Mai is famous for its Lantern Festivals. Loi Krathong and the Yi Peng festivals happen in tandem and it is a magical time to be in the city.
Dave and I were there for the festival held each November as thousands of lanterns were sent soaring into the air. Make your way to the Ping River to see the floating lanterns of Loi Krathong and for Yi Peng, go to the stadium for the lantern release. Lanterns are also released by the public at the Ping River.
In Chiang Mai, people release thousand of lighted lanterns in the sky while making a wish. If you want to book a place in the stadium to let lanterns off with the masses, you need to book several weeks or even months in advance.
Note: We noticed the lanterns were put together by metal. Be sure to use bamboo lanterns that are environmentally friendly.
10. Thai Cooking Class
Chiang Mai is famous for its food and northern Thai cuisine. We loved taking a Thai Cooking Class in Chiang Mai. It is the original and best place in Thailand to take cooking classes.
Book a cooking class to learn how to make the unique food of Northern Thailand. Also known as Lanna food, regional dishes in this part of Thailand are quite a contrast from those found in the South. Learn how to make Chiang Mai’s most popular dish khao soi. Not only are dishes around Chiang Mai typically the least spicy in the country, but also commonly rich in dried spices and/or bitterness.
11. Chiang Mai Food Tour
If you don’t want to take a cooking class, join an Old Town foodie crawl where you’ll simply visit one of Chiang Mai’s night markets, you have to try Northern Thai cuisine. I was introduced to the region’s delicacies by Chiang Mai Food Tours and have to say, it is my favorite type of Thai food!
Some must-tries Chiang Mai Dishes include:
- Khao soi – khao soi is a rich Burmese-influenced coconut curry soup, sprinkled with crunchy noodles.
- fried laab, minced meat rubbed with local dried spices
- sticky rice with nam prik ong (spicy minced pork tomato dip)
- nam ngiao, a tangy tomato noodle soup with pork
But don’t worry you’ll get to sample favorite Thai foods like Pad Thai and savory curry’s made with coconut milk.
12. Meditation Retreat
When Dave and I first traveled to Thailand, we took a meditation course in Chiang Mai. The course lasted three days and we had a cooking class included with it. It was a wonderful experience. Chiang Mai is the premier place in Thailand to do a meditation retreat as Chiang Mai is the spiritual center of the country.
We booked through our guest house which is very easy to do in Chiang Mai. You can also book tours at travel agents around town. They are all very easy to find lining the streets. There are countless meditation retreats in Chiang Mai, you can book and read reviews on TripAdvisor.
13. Thai Massage
Being the spiritual center for well being, a Thai Massage is a must when visiting Chiang Mai. In fact, it’s a must for the best things to do in all of Thailand. Traditional Thai massages can be booked anywhere in the city and they are cheap. It is one of the few places in the world where you can be pampered on a shoestring. Thai massages are a whole body workout where the massage therapist stretches and bends your body as he/she gently applies pressure. It is an ancient technique that dates back 2500 years!
14. Muay Thai Match
Another one of the top attractions in Chiang Mai is to attend a Muay Thai Fight. This is Thailand’s national sport and it is a spectacle to see. We saw the world championships in Chiang Mai several years ago and the energy was contagious. This is a great cultural experience.
If you want to tryr it yourself, there are several places that offer Muay Thai training all around Thailand.
Unique Things to do in Chiang Mai
For those who may have already done a lot of the best things to do in Chiang Mai, or who are looking for something a bit different, this section shows the more underrated Chiang Mai things to do that are fun, unique, and fit for most budgets.
15. Stay In A Tree House
This place made that fantasy come true. For a true Bucket List experience, stay in a treehouse. Travel couple “Together to Wherever,” said their experience on this two-night stay was romantic, adventurous, and relaxing all in one package. The treehouses are fully equipped with some nice creature comforts, including a bed, electricity, toilet, sink, and shower.
The Tamarind House is the most sought-after treehouse, so booking in advance is a MUST! If you pick the Tamarind House, beware that it is the tallest, and you will definitely feel it sway in the wind (especially at night when you are in bed!).
16. Infinity Pools
The number of infinity pools has increased massively in Chiang Mai in the last decade and it would be remiss of me not to mention the best Chiang Mai infinity pool at Veranda Hotel.
With views over a valley mixed with the hot Chiang Mai weather, you can’t not like the idea of taking a dip. There might be a swimming pool at your accommodation, but the whole Veranda experience is memorable.
To enjoy an infinity pool in Chiang Mai, you don’t necessarily need to splurge on pricy accommodation, you can visit certain pools as a guest.
17. Nong Buad Haad Park
Rather than getting a Thai massage in the crowded, touristy spot, why not have a massage in Chiang Mai’s only city public park? This tiny little oasis known as Nong Buak Haad Park is located on the south-western corner of the Old City and is very easy to get to by motorbike, tuk-tuk, or even bicycle. Though not very big in size, this park has lots to offer.
What to do in Nong Buak Haad Park
- There are a couple of large, beautiful ponds with fountains that are connected by bridges, creating a peaceful atmosphere that can be enjoyed by laying on the grass or renting a straw mat.
- Get a coconut or snack from one of the vendors in the park and just enjoy your time (make sure you don’t go in your bathing suit).
- You can even buy bags of food for the birds and fish!
- There’s even a small track that runs around the ponds for those who prefer to get a jog in or go for a walk with some nice scenery.
- Use one of the manual exercise machines on the outer edge of the park.
- There’s even a kids play area!
You’re sure to find locals as well as expats and tourists at this park. Depending on when you visit, you may even see an aerobics exercise class taking place here. Whatever you end up doing, you will love going to this park.
18. Huay Tung Tao Lake
The Touring Kiwi Says: Spending an afternoon at Huay Tung Thao is one of his favourite things to do in all of Chiang Mai. Anyone can visit Huay Tung Tao Lake for a measly 20 baht. 70 cents.
On the weekends, you can even hire pedal boats, with the classic swan boat one of several choices. Relax in your private bungalow on the lake with a cold beverage in your hand, a platter of grilled fish, and some sticky rice with papaya salad.
Getting there: It’s about 25 minutes outside the city and very easy to reach by motorbike or Songthaew, making it a perfect, quick getaway from the city and crowds.
Huay Tung Tao Lake Fast Facts
- The entrance cost is 50 THB per person (less than $2 USD).
- You’ll find these bamboo huts dotting the outline of the lake in some areas with restaurants behind them.
- Choose the one you like and they will bring you the menu in Thai and English.
- The dishes are usually served family style and very reasonably priced considering the view that comes with it.
- The grilled or fried whole fish is a popular menu item, so be sure to give it a try.
19. Sunset Spot in Chiang Mai
There are many places to watch the sunset in Chiang Mai. One of the most popular places is the Doi Pui Viewpoint. Doi Pui is one of the top attractions in Chiang Mai located 17km outside the city. Doi Suthep-Pui National Park is a beautiful day trip from Chiang mai.
Other sunset spots include:
Another beautiful sunset spot, consider heading to Mae Kwong Reservoir. The reservoir is just far enough out from the city to avoid pollution.
And a good option is the Hang Dong Quarray, aka the Chiang Mai Grand Canyon. While not even close to the actual Grand Canyon in looks, it is a nice place to get outside the city.
20. North Gate Jazz Co-Op
A very chill and laid back spot for locals and travelers alike, the North Gate Jazz Club provides a great end to any fun-filled day in Chiang Mai. Spend the evening hours at this well-loved hangout, located on the north side of the Old City moat. Directly on the other side of the moat, separated by Chang Phuak Gate, are the nightly food stalls of the North Gate.
Here, you’ll find some of the best street food in Chiang Mai. Be sure to grab some dinner here before heading over to the jazz bar. This jazz bar may not look like a popular joint, but looks can be deceiving.
- Depending on the night, you may see patrons spilling into the street as the music plays on into the night.
- They have open jam night on Tuesday nights and different events nightly so be sure to “Like” their Facebook page to get the updates on what they offer.
- Even if you just pop in on a random night, you’ll surely enjoy sipping on a beverage and listening to the jazz.
- You might even meet some fellow travelers and make some new friends, making it a memorable Chiang Mai night
21. Samoeng Loop Motorbike Ride
This is a recommendation only for those who feel comfortable riding a motorbike in Thailand. It goes without saying that you should always wear your helmet, but also, it would be smart to make sure you have an international drivers’ license if you plan on renting a motorbike in general.
This adventurous and scenic route around and through the hills of Chiang Mai is a beautiful ride. The loop starts at the northern part of the Chiang Mai Old City and drops you off at the western side with a total distance of about 100 kilometers. It can take you anywhere from a couple of hours to half a day to complete, depending on how often you stop and how long those stops last.
Chiang Mai attractions along the way:
- Doi Suthep (the mountain that accommodates the popular Buddhist temple of Wat Phra That).
- Activities like ATV-ing, go-karting, and zip-lining.
- Shooting range
- A snake farm along the way!
- Queen Sirikit Botanic Gardens
22. Queen Sirikit Botanic Gardens
You can spend about an hour at Queen Sirikit Botanic Gardens just walking through the different buildings housing some of the most beautiful flowers and plants from around the globe.
There is a fee of 100 THB to get into the park, but riding the Samoeng Loop just costs you a bit of gas money for the motorbike/motorcycle.
23. Mountain Biking
We cycled out to the countryside to explore the rice paddy fields in rural Thailand. The most fun was when we turned onto a dirt road to climb a steep hill and then whiz down some wicked fun hills through villages and rural communities.
You can then we take a longtail boat back to town to relax and enjoy the scenery. You can book an 8-hour bike tour to the countryside – Easy cancellation up to 24 hours in advance.
24. Hill Tribes
Visiting the Hmong People of Northern Thailand is a special experience, but it needs to be done ethically. Often the hill tribes are exploited or they are tourist traps. Look for an authentic tour that takes you off the beaten path to immerse in the culture of the Northern Thailand Hill tribes.
We did a tour with Smiling Albino which brought us to a working farm where the locals were happy to see us and welcomed us into their homes. It is a fascinating tour to see what rural local life is like.
Water Attractions in Chiang Mai
Thailand’s beaches in the south are gorgeous, there’s no denying that. But there are a lot of Chiang Mai Activities that take place on the water. With a little bit of digging, you’ll find Chiang Mai has some awesome water-related activities. The Tiki Touring Kiwi shares his favorite water attractions in Chiang Mai.
25. Swim in the Hang Dong Quarry – Chiang Mai Grand Canyon
Located just 20 minutes from Chiang Mai, the Hang Dong Quarry, also known as the Chiang Mai Grand Canyon is a picturesque swimming spot. Initially, it was visited by a few locals and expats but has now been converted into a tourist attraction with an entrance fee.
The main drawcard is the cliff jumping, where you can plunge into the calm blue waters below. Even if you don’t want to jump it’s a great spot to hang out with friends, swim and enjoy exploring the quarries nooks and crannies.
- Note: The water looks harmless, but nevertheless make sure you follow basic water safety practices as tragic accidents can happen.
- Hire a driver to take you out for sunset as the Grand Canyon is one of the best places in Chaiang Mai for Thailand.
26. Ping River’s Fake Beach
The Ping River runs through the city center and naturally becomes a great spot for restaurants and bars. So you don’t want to be swimming in the river near the city.
But if you hire a driver to take you 44 minutes outside the city, you can do some river tubing Vang Vieng style with Chiang Mai Tubing. Once you are on the river in the comfiest of tubes, you’ll have an incredibly peaceful 60 – 90 minutes floating back to the Beach Club.
The Beach Club feels like a tropical Island with a whole beach cabana set set including a fake beach. Don’t be in a rush to get back to Chiang Mai, at the beach club you can chill out in the hammocks, play volleyball, football, badminton…all your typical beach games.
27. Sticky Waterfall
Thailand has hundreds of waterfalls near Chiang Mai but a very cool one not to miss is the Sticky Waterfall an hour outside the city. While physics doesn’t make running up a waterfall practical the limestone rocks forming the sticky waterfall make the impossible, possible.
It’s hard to explain but once you step on to the pumice-like rocks, any doubts go out the window as you bounce up and down the cascading waterfall.
28. Huay Kaew Waterfall
Closer to the city, the Huay Kaew Waterfall allows the perfect escape just minutes away from Chiang Mai University with some short hikes available riverside. The Mon Tha Than Waterfall is further up the road as well.
- Check out TripAdvisor for waterfalls and day tours from Chiang Mai Reviews
29. Floating Houses of Mae Ngat Dam
If you head to the Sticky Waterfall, consider making a night of it by staying at Mae Ngat Dam just down the road. Nothing feels more authentic than staying in a floating house. You can relax on the house decks working on your tan, eat great food, have a beer and of course take a dip in the water.
If Thailand has felt overwhelming to you thus far, heading to Mae Ngat Dam can be a great way to relax. And it’s not every day you can sleep on a floating house! It’s one of several hidden gems in Northern Thailand.
29. San Kamphaeng Hot Springs
Chiang Mai is located in the north of Thailand, so the weather actually does get quite cool at times. A visit the San Kamphaeng Hot Springs is a great way to relax your aching traveling muscles.
The natural hot springs reach a temperature of 105 degrees Celcius. One of the more unique thigns you can do at these hot springs, is to buy a basket of eggs and boil them!
30. Celebrate Songkran Festival
Songkran is the water festival ringing in the Thai New Year. Songkran is celebrated all over the country but after celebrating the last three New Years in Chiang Mai I can say it’s the place to be.
The old city is surrounded by a moat, providing easy access to water and making the chaotic nature of the festival somewhat organised.
The Thai New Year is usually celegrated in April and the festival goes for several days and is exhausting. If you think you’ll need a break one day, be prepared to spend the day inside as no one is immune from getting splashed, a form of blessing.
30. See Chiang Mai From Above
Before you leave this magical region of Thailand, fulfill a bucket list dream and take a microlight flight tour. Rise with the sun one morning and see Chiang Mai, Mae Kueng Dam, and vicinity from a different perspective. Micro flights can be booked all year long (always dependent on weather conditions).
Sky Adventures offers two types of aerial experiences: micro flights and hot air balloon rides. (Hot air balloon rides are only offered between November and March.) I took part of the former and let me tell you: it was absolutely breathtaking and exhilarating! It is so open, you almost feel like you’re flying yourself.
Pickup times and trip schedules vary by experience and season, but expect to be ready by 5:45-6:30 AM.
Chiang Mai Quick Tips
- Chiang Mai is the Northern Capital of Thailand
- The best time to visit Chiang Mai is from October to February.
- But any time of year is a good time to visit. Just be prepared for hot temperatures in March and April.
- Chiang Mai can be reached by overnight train, overnight VIP Bus or flights from Bangkok.
- Thailand power voltage is: 220 V; Plugs A & C
- Currency is the Thai Baht and is around 30 baht to 1 USD
- Chiang Mai is
- ATMs can be found everywhere but take out large sums at a time as Thailand banks charge a 150 baht ($5 USD) fee above and beyond your bank’s service charges.
- If you are traveling for a short time: Pre-order a KnowRoaming SIM Card to use on your travels. PlanetD readers receive 50% off using our code DDSave50: Details here.
- When we were last in Thailand, we used KnowRoaming for unlimited data at $3.99 per day.
Popular Tours in Chiang Mai
- Night Market Tour – Chiang Mai is renowned for its night market where you can buy Thai crafts, knock of handbags, watches and really anything under the sun. It is a 1km stretch of stalls lining the streets along the East Side of the walled city. It’s open 7 nights a week.
- Thai Cooking Class – Chiang Mai is a cooking class central in Thailand. Learn to cook Northern Thailand’s most famous dish khao soi.
- Waterfall Expedition – Doi Inthanon National Park is a great day trip and this is where you can play in the Vachiratharn Waterfall.
- Wat Suan Dok and the other 500 wats in the city – Take a guided tour to see Chiang Mai’s most popular temples.
- Excursion to Chiang Rai – White Temple, Golden Triangle and Wat Phra That Chedi Luang in Chiang Saen Ancient City. Duration 13 Hours from $78
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
If you are looking where to stay in Chiang Mai, we have tried many places.
Ratilanna Riverside Spa Resort – We loved this luxury hotel overlooking the river. Complete with Infinity pool, traditional rooms and superb breakfast
Check out Availability & Prices – TripAdvisor / Booking.com
The Legend Resort & Spa – We had another amazing stay at the Legend Resort. Boutique hotel with gardens, flower ponds, a minimalist smart design on the Mae Kok Rover.
Check out Availability & Prices on TripAdvisor / Booking.com
Shangri-La Hotel – You can never go wrong with the Shangri-la and in Chiang Mai it is your chance to stay in this luxury chain for a reasonable price.
Check out Availability & Prices on TripAdvisor / Booking.com
No matter where we are the world, Chiang Mai will always hold a special place in our hearts and I’m sure once you visit you will appreciate the beauty of the city too.
Enjoy all these amazing things to do in Chiang Mai? Be sure to pin it for your future reference.
Read more about Thailand Travel:
- Thailand Travel Tips – What You Need to Know and Things not to Do
- Exploring Thailand by Train
- The Importance of Responsible Tourism in Thailand
- Tea Industry in Thailand – An alternative to the Opium Trade
- Motorcycle Tour in Northern Thailand
- Maria Alexandra Laborde is the author of LatinAbroad: The Nomadic Translator and Travel The Middle East. Follow her adventures on Twitter @latinAbroad, Facebook page & Pinterest.
- Rob and Taiss are a California couple that run the blog Together To Wherever. Follow their adventures on Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube & Facebook
- Jub comes from New Zealand and is the owner of Tiki Touring Kiwi Catch his daily adventures on Snapchat @jubunator. Instagram @tikitouringkiwi and Facebook.