What to do in Chiang Mai ?
Located in a mountainous setting on the banks of the Ping River, Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, after Bangkok, but also the most popular tourist destination in the north of the country. Chiang Mai is however much less populated than the capital and remains on a human scale.
In addition to being the ideal starting point to explore Northern Thailand, it is also the ideal place for extended stays and the city has experienced growing success in recent years: there is a large community of digital nomads, slow travelers and expatriates. Located at an altitude of 300 m, the temperatures are obviously cooler than in Bangkok, perhaps a reason for its attraction….
Even if there is no sandy beach and blue waters, you can discover another aspect of Thailand, more authentic and pleasant to live than Bangkok. However, the city remains very dynamic and does not lack activities and cultural treasures inherited from its rich history, but there’s also plenty of lively markets and friendly cafés.
On this page, you’ll discover the main experiences not to be missed in Chiang Mai, its must-see tourist sites (temples, national parks, museums…) and the activities not to be missed.
When to go to Chiang Mai? Chiang Mai can be visited all year round, but the best time to visit Chiang Mai is from November to March, when the climate is not too hot or cold. Spreading from July to October, the rainy season may well be favourable for spending a holiday in Chiang Mai, even if the rain will have an impact on some activities such as trekking, but on the whole, the period remains rather mild.
How many days to stay in Chiang Mai? At a minimum, it is best to stay three to four days on site. If you can, spend at least ten days exploring the city and its surroundings.
How far is Chiang Mai from Bangkok? By car, there’s a distance of 689 km between the two cities and it takes about 10 hours. By plane, it’s only one hour, and the train trip is around 10-12 hours.
How to get to Chiang Mai from Bangkok? Chiang Mai is easily accessible by VIP bus, sleeper train (comfortable and saves one night’s hotel stay) or plane if you don’t have much time (very accessible and cheap low cost tickets). In any case, try to book your tickets in advance.
Here are 10 best things to do and see during a trip to Chiang Mai:
Chiang Mai has about 300 temples! Many were built under the ancient Lanna kingdom, which was located between the kingdom of Ayutthaya and Burma, and whose architectural influence is somewhat reflected in the statues of naga snakes. Remember to dress appropriately before visiting them.
Must-see temples: the unmissable Wat Chedi Luang located in the heart of the old town, the very large Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chiang Man and its stone elephants, and Wat Chet Yot, little known to tourists.
2. Take cooking classes
With a dozen cooking schools, Chiang Mai is the ideal place to discover Thai cuisine. Courses include transportation, a visit to the local market where you will be taught how to choose seasonal products and the necessary spices and herbs, lessons in English to prepare a complete menu and a recipe guide. And of course, you end up tasting what you have prepared. Courses cost around 1000 bath a day and are held in the city in pretty decorated houses or outside Chiang Mai, in a more rural setting such as an organic farm (see thaifarmcooking.com).
3. Go out at night on Thanon Nimmanhaemin
Located to the east of the city near the university, Nimmanhaemin (or Nimman) is the chic district of Chiang Mai, where all students, tourists and expats come out of the city in the evening. You will find all the friendly bars where you can have a beer, a wide variety of restaurants and many cafés where you can enjoy air conditioning and free WIFI during the day. There are also art galleries and fashion and craft accessories stores.
4. The markets
An unforgettable experience in Chiang Mai, visit one of the markets to shop or taste typical dishes. The most famous is the night bazaar, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city that allows you to take a good walk after dinner. Also worth seeing are the weekend markets held near the south gate of the old town where you can buy clothes or small souvenirs. Prices are generally cheaper than in Bangkok (remember to negotiate prices!).
5. Visit Doi Suthep and Doi Inthanon National Parks
The highest peak in Thailand with an altitude of 2565 m, Doi Inthanon has a national park with many hiking trails. It is a popular excursion from Chiang Mai for many tourists, accessible by organized tour or public transport (one hour drive). It is the perfect place to breathe fresh air when it is too hot in Chiang Mai. Bring a warm jacket if you go there in winter!
On the way to Doi Inthanon do not miss a visit to the temple of Mount Doi Suthep located near the summit (1676 m). The place offers a splendid view of the valley. The mountain also has a national park where you can see the Nam Tok Monthathon waterfalls.
6. See the elephants
Apart from the parks that guard elephants in dubious conditions and make them do painting shows and other tricks, there are several sanctuaries near Chiang Mai that collect and care for retired or injured elephants, and where one can admire these superb pachyderm in a semi-wild environment and even participate in their swimming. Two addresses to remember: Elephant Nature Park and Baan Chang Elephant Park.
7. Getting a massage
There are many places to get a massage in Chiang Mai, whether in a luxurious spa with baths, swimming pools etc… or directly in the street by a blind masseur. It is also possible to be massaged by a prisoner from Chiang Mai Women’s Prison as part of a rehabilitation programme.
8. Trekking in the forest
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s most popular place to go trekking in the forest, whether it is a day trip or a multi-day trek where you will spend the night in a village of a local tribe. Most Chiang Mai tour operators offer day treks in the forest including transportation, an elephant ride, a river trip by bamboo raft and a visit to a village.
9. Visit a museum
With a 700-year history, Chiang Mai has several museums to visit on rainy days. Most of the explanations are in English:
- Chiang Mai National Museum: located near Wat Chet Yot, it highlights the history of the ancient Lanna kingdom in different aspects.
- Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre: tells the history of the city, in a beautiful historical building.
- The Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders: a small unusual museum dedicated to insects to be made in addition to the Lanna Folklife Museum.
- The Art in Paradise 3D Museum: interesting for photographers, it displays some rather funny optical illusions.
10. Discover new activities
The mountains around Chiang Mai allow you to practice and discover a ton of fun outdoor activities. There are a lot of possibilities with among others:
- fly in a hot air balloon (from November to March)
- rafting on the Mae Taeng River (July to March)
- mountain biking in Doi Suthep National Park
- climbing at Crazy Horse Buttress
- learn to shoot at the shooting range
- bungee jumping
- zip over the canopy
All photos are ©Wikimedia.org
Before you go to Chiang Mai
Where is Chiang Mai located?