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As the cultural capital of North Thailand, there is no shortage of things to do in Chiang Mai. Explore ancient temples, learn about Lanna culture, and enjoy the many charms of the city and surrounding area. Whether you are travelling solo, with your partner or with your family, Chiang Mai has plenty to keep you occupied.
Check out our suggestions for 20 things to do in and around Chiang Mai. For more ideas you can also check out our article on Unique Things To Do in Chiang Mai.
As the former capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom, Chiang Mai has a history that dates back over 700 years. Many of the main historic sites are located within the Old City district. Bordered by moats on all four sides and remnants of the city walls, the compact Old City is easy to navigate and can comfortably be explored on foot or by bicycle. Part of the charm of this area is to simply wander in and out of the small sois (lanes) where ancient ruins or historic temples seem to await at almost every turn.
Chiang Mai is renowned as a city of temples. And even if you consider yourself ‘templed-out’ on your trip to Thailand, there are a number of Chiang Mai temples that are well worth seeking out.
In the heart of the Old City the giant chedi at Wat Chedi Luang is one of the most photogenic locations in Chiang Mai. Walk next door to Wat Phan Tao and admire the craftsmanship of this elegant teakwood temple. Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chiang Man are another two highlights in the Old City district. All of these Buddhist temples are within comfortable walking distance of one another. Just outside of the Old City on Wualai Road, don’t miss the dazzling ‘Silver Temple’ of Wat Srisuphan.
No talk of Chiang Mai temples would be complete without mentioning Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. A local saying says that you haven’t really seen Chiang Mai until you’ve seen the famous temple on the mountain. If you’re adventurous (and reasonably fit) you can actually walk up the ‘Monks’ Trail’ that leads through the forest to the top of the mountain.
Beyond Doi Suthep, the exquisite landscaped gardens at Bhuping Palace are open to the public. If you do visit, please dress respectfully because these are royal grounds and dress regulations are enforced. If you’re visiting between December and February, travel onwards to Doi Pui to see the pink cherry blossom in bloom.
Northern Thai food is different to its counterparts in other regions of Thailand. Located near mountains and far from the sea, this region of Thailand tends to use more vegetables and herbs in its cuisine. There are also influences from neighbouring Burma (Myanmar) with Northern Thai dishes like gaeng hinlay and khao soi. As with North-East Thailand, sticky rice often accompanies dishes and is perfect for dipping into spicy dips and herb-infused curries. For more ideas, check out our article on Eating Northern Thai Food in Chiang Mai.
One of the best introductions to Northern Thai food is a traditional khan toke dinner. Dishes are served on a low pedestal table with guests sitting on axe cushions on the floor. The Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre arranges an enjoyable night of entertainment that includes traditional Thai dancing to go with your khan toke dinner. While it’s quite touristy, it’s a lovely setting and a great way to spend an evening.
A visit to an elephant sanctuary is high up on the to-do list for many visitors travelling to Thailand. And Chiang Mai offers probably the biggest choice of elephant facilities. Some elephant centres have better standards than others and it’s advisable to do as much research as you can before deciding where to go. Amongst those with a good reputation are BEES Elephant Sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, and Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary.
Support responsible tourism and local heritage by taking a ride in a samlor. These vintage bicycle rickshaws are a fun way to do some sightseeing in Chiang Mai. Don’t be fooled by appearances; the senior citizens who ride these samlors are as tough and fit as they come.
If you’re looking to buy some souvenirs to take back home, Chiang Mai is ideal for shopping. You’ll find a variety of markets in and around the city including the excellent Saturday and Sunday Walking Street Markets. Whether you’re interested in shopping or not, do take time for a visit to the lively Waworot Market (Kad Luang) and the colourful flower market nearby. Thee is also the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. For more details check out our guide to the best markets in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai may not have the same abundance of nightlife that you can find in Bangkok, but there are still plenty of things to do at night. Sample sundowners at one of Chiang Mai’s rooftop bars or take in some local bars in the trendy Nimmanhaemin area. Enjoy an evening of live music at Boy Blues Bar or the North Gate Jazz Co-Op.
Chiang Mai province is home to some glorious countryside. If you’re staying in Chiang Mai city, you don’t have to venture too far out in any direction to enjoy the great outdoors.
Head north out of the city to Mae Taeng District where you will find the Bua Tong ‘sticky waterfall’. Continue further north to take in the views at Doi Ang Khang. Travel east to the charming mountain village of Mae Kampong. Closer to the city, the picturesque Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden and Huay Tueng Tao Lake are both lovely spots to relax. Further west from the city, the rice terraces of Ban Po Pong Piang take more effort to reach compared to other day trips, but the views in the rice growing season are wonderful.
Doi Inthanon has the distinction of being the highest point in Thailand. During the cool season months, overnight temperatures at the top of the mountain can drop close to freezing. It’s one of the few places in Thailand where it gets cold enough for frost to form. The cooler climate in Doi Inthanon National Park makes it ideal for walking and exploring the natural beauty of this area. Doi Inthanon is a popular day trip from Chiang Mai city, but if you have time in your itinerary consider spending a night here.
Relax in rural Thailand at Chiang Dao. The name Chiang Dao translates as the ‘City of Stars’. While the town itself is nothing special, the countryside and views around here certainly are. Stay in any of the homely guest-houses and resorts (Chiang Dao Nest is a popular choice) and unwind in this scenic location. Hike up Chiang Dao mountain, explore the caves and soak in the hot springs.
We love tuk tuks. To see another side of Chiang Mai and experience the thrill of driving a tuk-tuk, check out The Tuk Tuk Club. This responsible tour operator employs local experts who will show you places that are off the main Chiang Mai tourist trail. Of course you can also check out our own tuk tuk tours in Bangkok.
It isn’t known when exactly the ancient city of Wiang Khum Kham was built or why it was abandoned. What is known is that the site predates Chiang Mai and is well over 700 years old. When King Mengrai established Chiang Mai in 1296 he used Wiang Khum Kham as the prototype for the new Lanna capital.
The ruins of Wiang Khum Kham are located in a tranquil setting six kilometres south of the Chiang Mai Old City area. You can visit independently, but hiring a guide will help you learn more about this interesting slice of Chiang Mai history. You can also take a river cruise to Wiang Khum Kham. On arrival, a horse and cart will be waiting to take you sightseeing around the ruins.
A cruise along the Ping River is a pleasant way to while away a few hours. As mentioned above, one option is to take a cruise south to the ancient ruins of Wiang Khum Kham. Alternatively, take a leisurely boat ride in the other direction with a refreshment stop at a farmer’s house. And to round off a day’s sightseeing in Chiang Mai, take an evening dinner cruise courtesy of The Riverside Restaurant.
Chiang Mai is the ideal place to take a Thai cooking class. Learn how to make classic Thai dishes and shop for fresh ingredients at a local Thai market. Rustle up your favourite Thai dishes at Grandma’s Cooking School or learn the secret behind a good khao soi at Pra Nang Cookery School. For more Northern Thai dishes, take a look at Thai Akha Kitchen.
After a day of sightseeing or hiking in the Chiang Mai countryside, treat yourself to a traditional Thai massage or relaxing spa treatment. In Thai culture, a therapeutic massage is one of the core components in traditional Thai medicine. In Chiang Mai, you can enjoy a cheap, but professional foot massage outdoors at the Walking Street Markets. Or you can opt for something more indulgent at somewhere like the award-winning Fah Lanna Spa which provides a host of soothing treatments. If you’re looking for something more unusual, try the unique fire massage at Baan Rai Kong Khing.
First time visitors to Chiang Mai are often surprised by the thriving coffee scene in the city. Sit down for a pick-me-up and sample speciality coffee brewed from beans grown in the mountains of Chiang Mai. You’ll find some of the best coffee shop options in the city in the Nimmanhaemin area and the side streets that lead to Sirimangkalajarn Road.
If you’re interested in history, take a day trip to nearby Lamphun. At one time, this was the most important city in the north. The compact city sees very few overseas tourists and is ideal for a day trip from Chiang Mai.
For less than the price of a coffee, take the train from Chiang Mai to Lampang. In the cool season and green season months, this is a simple, but fabulous experience travelling on a scenic stretch of track. The train system in Thailand is undergoing some major modernisation so take this chance to enjoy slow travel from a bygone era while you still can.
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