If your planning a trip to Chiang Mai and want to find some of the best things to do, then you have come to the right place!
Here is our detailed guide on what to do in Chiang Mai, along with recommendations on how to get there, where to stay, travel tips and booking information.
Chiang Mai is the largest city in the north of Thailand and is quite different to the usual tourist hotspots such as Phuket and Pattaya. Being 700km north of the capital, the city is notably cooler and less chaotic than Bangkok and is steeped in history and culture. Founded centuries ago, originally the city was the capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom, which then became part of the Kingdom of Siam in 1776.
In recent years, the city became a stop on the “banana pancake trail” and developed into a popular tourist destination, despite having no beach. Having several museums, galleries, ancient temples and being surrounded by beautiful scenery, jungle and mountains, the city has become a popular destination for those wanting a bit of culture and nature lovers alike.
Originally, the heart of the city was walled off the prevent invasion from the Burmese and the Mongols, and parts of the wall still remain, most notably at Tha Pae Gate although the moat is fully intact and surrounds what is now known as the “Old City”. Nowadays, Chiang Mai is a great destination for travelers, being notably cheaper than places such as Phuket or Samui, but still has a range of excellent restaurants, great accommodation options, and a vast range of things to see and do during your stay. And although considerably more subdued than places such as Pattaya and Bangkok, you’ll still find a buzzing nightlife scene, most notably around the Loi Kroh Road area.
Many of the more interesting attractions are to be found outside the city limits and are not always well advertised, so in this article we’ll take a look at all the best things to do in Chiang Mai.
Visit Wat Doi Suthep
Visible for miles around, the gleaming temple complex of Wat Doi Suthep sits atop a steep hill and is one of Thailand’s most important and culturally significant temples. No trip to Chiang Mai would be complete without a visit to this beautiful temple complex, which was constructed during the reign of the Lanna Kingdom centuries ago.
Still a fully functioning temple, you’ll undoubtedly see large numbers of Thais worshipping at the temple and making offerings to the monks, particularly on Thai national holidays when the complex will be packed out.
The cost of admission is 30 baht ($1) for foreigners, and be warned, to get to the temple you need to drive up a very steep hill and then climb more than 300 steps, although there is a cable car available for a small fee.
As well as the temple complex itself, a few kilometres up the road is the Phuping Royal Palace Gardens which are beautifully manicured and very relaxing.
Visit The Museums
Chiang Mai has many museums, with a few standout ones which are well worth your time.
One of the most popular is the 3D art museum, with some amazingly clever paintings and exhibits, you’ll be able to get some incredible photos so make sure your phone or camera is fully charged. With so many funny and unique exhibits, expect to spend around two hours here, for 400 baht ($12.75) per adult.
The Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre, whilst not having the most exciting name, is a huge and fascinating museum housing exhibits separated into time periods throughout the city’s history. You’ll see lots of fantastic artefacts including paintings, hand tools, displays, models, statues and it gives you an idea of how people used to live in Chiang Mai centuries ago.
Other museums that are worth a visit are the Lanna Folklife Museum, the Museum of Insects and Natural Wonders, and the Chiang Mai National Museum. You can buy a combination ticket for 180 baht ($5.65) which gets you entry to three museums in the Old City; the Lanna Folklife Museum, the City Arts and Cultural Centre and the Chiang Mai Historical Centre.
Tours & Activities Recommendation: There are lot’s of small travel agent and tour shops dotted about the city of Chiang Mai offering some excellent tours and activities, but sometimes it’s hard to know which tours are the really good and excellent value for money. However, most of the tours and activities offered in Chiang Mai are now listed listed on Get Your Guide and Viator, where can see customer reviews and experiences to give you an idea of what tours are best and what to expect before you make your booking. Most tours and activities have a free cancellation policy as well, just in case your travel arrangements change.
Go Jungle Trekking
Any trip to Thailand isn’t complete without at least one jungle trek, and the beautiful tropical jungle in the areas surrounding Chiang Mai is the perfect place to do it. Jungle trekking gives you the chance to see a vast range of species living in the wild including elephants, monkeys, brightly coloured birds and butterflies, strange insects and creepy crawlies, fish and freshwater shrimp, deer, otters, wild boar and many, many more.
In addition to all the wildlife that you’ll see, more often than not you will also get the chance to visit waterfalls, caves, shrines and even hill-tribe villages.
It’s dangerous to try it on your own, so you’ll need to book a tour with an English speaking guide, you can expect the package to include food and drinks, insurance, hotel pickup, but make sure you bring a sturdy pair of shoes or boots.
Costs vary considerably between operators but expect to pay around 1900 baht ($60) for a six-hour hike, you can even book multiple day packages which include accommodation, or shorter hikes if you prefer.
Visit Doi Inthanon
Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s highest peak at 2565 metres and is located within the Doi Inthanon National Park, and as such, there is a fee of 300 baht ($10) for foreigners to enter, significantly less for locals.
You can take public transport from Chiang Mai to the park, however, with songtaews stopping regularly to pick up and drop off passengers, it can take as long as 3 hours to get there, hiring a private taxi would be a much better option, expect to pay around 2700 baht ($85) to hire a taxi for the entire day.
Once you arrive at the park, you will need to hire a bike, a car or go on a guided tour as the park is spread out and it would take too long to walk around. There are several waterfalls, caves, hiking trails, and a spectacular summit viewpoint with two spectacular chedis.
You’ll also have the chance to see various species of tropical flora and fauna, including huge numbers of brightly coloured birds as well as lotus flowers. The park is very serene and beautiful and is a great way to spend a day before heading back to the city.
Go White Water Rafting
There are a couple of spots just outside the city that are excellent for white water rafting, a must for any adrenaline junkies, you might not get another opportunity like this any time soon.
There are a few operators in the city, notably 8Adventures and Siam River Adventures both of which will provide hotel pickup and drop off, all equipment, tuition and insurance, expect to pay around 2000 baht ($65) for a full day of rafting.
The area surrounding Chiang Mai is home to some of Thailand’s best rapids, and easily one of the most exciting things to do in northern Thailand. If you have a GoPro or similar action camera, make sure you take it with you so that you can catch some video to amaze your friends back home. There are several kilometres of class III/IV rapids on the Mae Taeng River with beautiful scenery and lush jungle, this is an experience not to be missed.
Visit the Extreme Sports Centre
If you are something of an adrenaline junkie, then you’re going to love the Chiang Mai Extreme Sports Centre. They have a huge range of exciting activities, including a 50-metre bungee jump, indoor drift karting, off-road motorcycling and quad biking, paintballing and zorbing.
There are also a range of children’s activities (including dodgems, target shooting, and mini-golf) and there’s a restaurant and bar on-site so if you’re travelling with children there will be something for everyone.
The centre is located about 25km north of the Old City, so is easily accessible by public transport or motorbike, and there are several other interesting places in the area including Chiang Mai Monkey Centre, the Siam Insect Zoo, the Tiger Kingdom and a large butterfly farm.
To get an idea of costs, a single bungee jump will set you back 2000 baht ($63), off-road vehicles start from 4,500 baht ($141) for an hour, paintballing starts from 800 baht ($25), and zorbing costs 400 baht ($12.50) per go. For more information and to make a booking, click here.
Visit Chiang Mai’s Grand Canyon (Hang Dong quarry)
Confusingly, there are two places in Chiang Mai referred to as the “Grand Canyon”. One is a water park, and the other one, which we are talking about here, is at the Hang Dong quarry.
About 45 minutes from the city centre, the Grand Canyon is a beautiful, red clay quarry filled with clean and clear turquoise waters ideal for swimming. You can leap from the cliffs in to the water, or float around on a bamboo raft whilst topping up your tan, and then enjoy some food and a beer in the Tuang Thong Canyon View Restaurant or one of the adjacent stalls which serve grilled chicken, noodles, ice cream and some Thai foods.
It’s a lot of fun and a great place to take a picnic, and is not generally well known to most visitors to Chiang Mai so is rarely busy. The actual address of the Grand Canyon is Soi Ban Rai 3 Mu 1, Nam Phrae, Hang Dong District, Chiang Mai Province.
Visit The Elephant Nature Park
There are many elephants sanctuaries around Thailand, all of them doing amazing work in taking good care of elephants that had previously been abused and/or neglected.
The Elephant Nature Park is located at the edge of an area of rainforest, around 60km from the city so can be reached in around an hour with a private taxi. Opened in 1995, the park is home to around 85 elephants, as well as a variety of other animals including dogs, cats, pigs and even buffalo. A full day visit costs 2,500 baht per adult, half price for children, which might seem like a lot but it includes lunch and drinks, and pick up and drop off from Chiang Mai.
The money you pay helps the park deal with the huge costs associated with feeding and veterinary care of so many elephants. Being able to see the elephants doing what they want is a fantastic experience, they are many baby elephants and you’ll get the chance to feed them during your visit, a great family day out.
Go For a Thai Massage
If you’ve never had a Thai massage before, then you’re in for a treat. Thai massage is more medicinal than relaxing, indeed some of the positions they put you in and sometimes the amount of pressure they apply can seem intense, but afterwards you will feel fantastic.
Thai massage techniques are said to be thousands of years old and are believed to have healing properties, both physical and psychological. You will be required to wear loose clothing, which will be provided, and to lie on a mat, usually on the floor or a raised platform, and you will be surprised how strong a small Thai lady can be (to qualify as a masseuse in Thailand, you have to undertake a minimum of 800 hours of training).
There are hundreds of massage parlours in the city but be warned that some of them are not offering regular massages, stay away from any which has scantily clad young girls sitting outside the front of the shop, or any that has pictures of girls in underwear.
The cost of a one hour massage starts from 300 baht ($10) and will cost significantly more in a spa, although a higher cost does not mean that you’ll get a better massage.
Taste Some Northern Thai Food
Although in Chiang Mai you’ll be able to get a huge variety of foods, you must make sure that you try the local cuisine as northern Thai food is delicious, cheap and filling.
The most well-known and arguably the most delicious is Khao Soi and is something that every visitor to Chiang Mai has to try at least once. It consists of meat, usually chicken on the bone, cooked in a deliciously sweet and spicy curry broth topped with deep-fried rice or egg noodles, and usually served with white rice.
It’ll set you back around 40 baht ($1.30) at most Thai restaurants which is incredibly good value, always look for a restaurant or food cart that is popular with the locals and you can be sure to get an authentic meal.
Other northern specialities that you should try include Sai Oua, an amazingly fragrant pork sausage packed with fresh herbs, spices and curry paste, and Gaeng Hung Lay which is a delicious, slow-cooked pork belly curry. And as for dessert, Khao Lam consists of sticky rice, sugar, coconut and often another ingredient such as taro or red beans, stuffed into a piece of bamboo then roasted over charcoal, definitely give it a try.
Go to the Night Bazaar
Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar is famous in Thailand and one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. Located in the east of the city, not far from Tha Phae Gate, it is known for its handicrafts and pottery, although you’ll find a huge range of other goods for sale including clothes, shoes, jewellery, electronics, toys and souvenirs.
The bazaar opens at sunset, usually around 6.00 pm, and continues until 10:30 pm although many stalls will stay open a bit later. The market gets buzzing later in the evening, it’s a great atmosphere and a lot of fun. Within the immediate vicinity, you’ll find a huge range of restaurants, bars and pubs, so once you’ve tired of walking around the market itself, you can go for a meal or a drink or two, it’s a great way to spend an evening in the city.
Although it is aimed at tourists, meaning that the prices are a little higher than markets aimed at locals, you’ll still find things to be very cheap, even more so if you purchase several items from one vendor and haggle on the price.
Spend a Few Nights in Pai
Pai is a quaint little town about 3 hours away, popular with foreign travelers. It’s much smaller than Chiang Mai but known for the beautiful Chinese-style wooden shophouses and laid back atmosphere. In Pai, you’ll find very good value accommodation, lots of small bars and restaurants, a bustling walking street and lots of interesting caves in the area surrounding the town.
You’ll see a lot of backpackers and younger travelers in the town, and you’ll find that many of the restaurants cater to foreign travelers so you’ll be able to find passable Western staples such as burgers, steaks and pizzas around the town, as well as local specialities such as the delicious Khao Soi. There are plenty of awesome things to do in Pai, such as tubing or bamboo rafting down the river Pai, exploring the local caves, visiting the hot springs, taking a trip to the Bamboo Bridge and partying in the bars. One things for sure, you’ll have a great time in Pai.
It’s better to take a songtaew or taxi to the town rather than driving yourself, as the road between Chiang Mai and Pai can be very winding and steep, many foreign visitors have had motorcycle accidents during the journey. For excellent local specialities, make sure to visit the Two Sisters Restaurant, which is just east of the river.
It’s also possible to visit Pai as part of a guided tour from Chiang Mai, they will take you to most of the main attractions and usually have a 1-2 night stay in the town.
Getting To Chiang Mai
Getting to Chiang Mai from Bangkok is relatively easy and there are a few different transport options to choose from, by Plane, Train, Bus and Taxi.
The most convenient way is to take a flight and with numerous airlines flying this route, competition is fierce which makes this one of the cheapest options too, with one way tickets as low as 600 baht. Flight time from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is approximately 1h 30m. Chiang Mai is an International Airport, so you can also fly direct to Chiang Mai from many cities across Asia.
Taking the train is also a very popular choice, particularly with backpackers and Thais. This popular route gives you the chance to see the more rural side to Thailand and some of the most spectacular scenery Thailand has to offer, especially during the last couple of hours of the journey between Lamphang and Chiang Mai. A good idea is to take the overnight sleeper train, then you should reach the Lamphang area by sunrise to enjoy the views.
Bangkok To Chiang Mai Transport Comparison Chart
Recommended Transport To Chiang Mai
1 hour 30 minutes
12 hours 20 minutes
1 hour 30 minutes
Best Places to Stay In Chiang Mai
It’s a little overwhelming trying to find the perfect place to stay in Chiang Mai, as there are many different areas; most notably Old City, Nimman Road, Night Bazaar Area and Riverside; plus different types of accommodation, from budget hostels, guesthouses, cheap hotels, to luxury hotels and resorts. Here below are some of our top recommended places to stay in Chiang Mai.
Recommended Hotels in Chiang Mai
Brick House Hostel
Great place for backpackers and travelers on a budget, very friendly staff and offer a range of rooms and dorms. Located right in the centre of Chiang Mai, just 5 minutes from the famous markets and Night Bazzar.
The Nimman 13 Guesthouse
Great little Guesthouse located in the heart of Nimmanhemin road, nice basic clean rooms.
BED Phrasingh Hotel
Trendy boutique hotel located in the western quieter part of the old city, right in the heart of Chiang Mai. Nice modern clean rooms, pool and bar/restaurant. Right next to Wat Phra Singh (one of Chiang Mai’s most important temples) and Sunday Night Market. Another nice touch is they offer free bottled water and fruit!
Le Méridien Chiang Mai
Located right in the centre of Chiang Mai, right near the Night Bazaar. Modern clean rooms, swimming pool, spa and some excellent restaurants nearby.
So there you have it, our top 12 best things to do in Chiang Mai Thailand! To find out more about this amazing city, checkout our our detailed travelers guide to Chiang Mai. Here you will find more about the best things to so and do, places to go, tours and activities, the weather and when to go, how to get there, accommodation and best areas to stay, money saving tips, plus more.