Situated in the highlands of northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. We always recommend that our readers add it to their Thailand itinerary.
Visitors come to Chiang Mai to play with elephants, trek through hill tribe villages, shop ’til they drop at the endless night markets, or simply use it as a stopping-off point before heading further north to Pai or Chiang Rai.
Regardless of your reason for visiting, you’ll find plenty of activities to keep you entertained for several days in Chiang Mai. We’ve compiled a list of the 7 best things to do in this beautiful, ancient city!
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How Long to Spend in Chiang Mai
How long you should spend in Chiang Mai depends on how long you have in Thailand in total. If you’re spending 2 weeks in Thailand, then you’ll probably want to split your time between the mountains in Northern Thailand, the islands in Southern Thailand (we prefer Koh Tao), and a few days in bustling Bangkok.
We would recommend spending at least three nights in Chiang Mai. It gives you enough time for one day of temple hopping around town, one day of exploring the nearby mountains, and one day to visit an elephant sanctuary.
If you have more time in Northern Thailand, consider a day trip to Chiang Rai or spend a few days relaxing in sleepy Pai. Of course, there is plenty to do around Chiang Mai. You could easily spend a week or more here if your schedule allows for it.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
7 Awesome Things To Do in Chiang Mai
1. Eat Khao Soi Gai
Khao Soi Gai (ข้าวซอยไก่) is one of our favorite dishes in all of Thailand! While it is possible (but difficult) to find this dish all over the country, it reigns supreme in Chiang Mai.
Khao Soi Gai is a coconut curry soup with a flavor profile that is similar to Massaman curry. The curry comes with boiled flat egg noodles with a tender leg of chicken. And finally, it is topped with raw onions, pickled mustard greens, and fried noodles to add a bit of crunch.
Most folks agree that the best Khao Soi Gai in town is from Khao Soi Khun Yai, a small outdoor restaurant on the northern edge of Old Chiang Mai between Wat Rajamontean and Wat Khuan Khama. You’ll need to arrive before 1 pm to ensure they still have some available and you may have to wait for up to an hour for a table!
If this Khao Soi excursion sounds exhausting, don’t lose heart. Almost every restaurant in Chiang Mai serves up its own version of the savory dish. A couple of other popular spots to try are Khao Soi Mae Sai and Khao Soi Islam.
2. Wander the Night Markets
Chiang Mai is well-known for its long-standing “Night Bazaar” to the east of the old city. Unfortunately, it lacks some originality as most vendors offer the same standard tourist trinkets you’ll find all over the country.
Luckily there are dozens of markets in Chiang Mai to choose from. The real highlights of Chiang Mai are the night markets on Saturday and Sunday nights – make sure you stick around for the weekend.
On Saturday night you find a huge market that starts south of the Chiang Mai gate and runs southeast along Wu Lai Road. You’ll find loads of high-quality goods that are handmade in northern Thailand. Delicious food stalls offer everything, including barbeque seafood, rich curries, and fresh fruit shakes. You’ll also encounter live music and performances tucked into the side streets and courtyards along Wu Lai Road.
On Sunday, it seems like almost the entire old city is consumed by the Sunday Walking Street Market. It primarily runs along Rachadamoen Road and Prapakklao Road, but it also spills over into many of the side streets. The shopping at the Sunday Walking Street Market alone is reason enough to put Chiang Mai on your Thailand itinerary.
Make sure you check out the food stalls hidden in the courtyards of Wat Phan On and Wat Sam Phao.
Most of the same vendors set up their stalls at both the Saturday and Sunday Night markets. No need to go to both unless you’re a real shopaholic. Open containers of alcohol are not allowed at the night markets, nor is smoking, so you’ll need to duck into a bar or restaurant to get your fix.
Check out the Ploen Ruedee International Food Night Market if you’re more interested in good food and good music than souvenirs. You’ll find several bars serving up beer, wine and cocktails, and a mix of Asian and international cuisine. There is something here for every taste and most nights you find a live band performing on stage. It’s open from 6 pm until midnight every night of the week except Sundays.
3. Get a Massage from a Convict
You’ll find endless options for massages in Chiang Mai – from high-end, luxury spas to inexpensive foot massages at the night market while people-watching. But the most popular place for a massage in Chiang Mai is at the Vocational Center for Female Inmates.
The Vocational Center is located at the corner of Ratvithi Road and Jhaban Road. It’s open Monday through Friday from 8 am until 4:30 pm and Saturdays and Sundays from 9 am until 4:30 pm. Due to popular demand, they tend to book all of the available time slots by mid-afternoon. You’ll want to stop by in the morning to make an appointment. There is also a restaurant on-site if you have time to kill before your massage.
4. Find Religion
Chiang Mai has long been a religious center in northern Thailand. You’ll find dozens of beautiful, intricate temples and hundreds of monks wandering through the streets in their signature orange robes. There are also many religious festivals that take place in Chiang Mai throughout the year.
A few of Chiang Mai’s temples even offer a “monk chat” where young monks make themselves available to answer any of your burning questions about their daily lives. Or just to chat about sports. They get to practice their English and you get to embrace your curiosity. It’s a win for everyone!
The Best Temples in Chiang Mai:
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Situated on a hilltop to the west of the city, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of the most important Buddhist temples in the region. It also provides sweeping views of the valley below. This temple is on everyone’s Chiang Mai itinerary so it becomes a bit of a circus. Make sure to visit Wat Doi Suthep early in the morning if you want to avoid the crowds.
Once you arrive at the parking lot, you’ll need to climb 306 stairs to the temple (or take the cable car). You can catch a shared red truck to the temple from in front of the Chiang Mai zoo for 40 Baht (~$1.25 USD) or hire your own for around 350 baht (~$11.00 USD). (Foreigner Entrance Fee: 50 Baht)
Wat Pha Lat
Wat Pha Lat is a tiny temple hiding in the jungle of Doi Suthep. It’s typically overlooked by tourists so you’ll find the setting quite tranquil, especially if a few monks serendipitously wander through during your visit.
You can either make this a quick stop on your way back to town from Wat Phra That Doi Suthep or you can hike the ‘monks trail’ from the Chiang Mai Zoo. Just look for signs for the nature trail and then follow the orange cloth trail markers tied to the trees.
Wat Chedi Luang
You’ll likely glimpse the massive ruined brick stupa of Wat Chedi Luang from several points in Chiang Mai. The famed Emerald Buddha that is now housed in the Grand Palace in Bangkok was kept at Wat Chedi Luang from 1468 to 1551. And in 1995, a copy of the Emerald Buddha was made of black jade and placed in the eastern niche of the stupa.
Unfortunately, you cannot climb the stupa so you’ll have to squint to see the small Buddha image at the top of the steep staircase. It’s best to arrive early or come late to Wat Chedi Luang as the tour buses descend on the temple around 8 am. (Foreigner Entrance Fee: 40 Baht)
Wat Phan Tao
The beautiful teak Wat Phan Tao is located right next to Wat Chedi Luang. It is quite old with parts of it dating back to the 14th century. It is one of the few remaining teak buildings in Chiang Mai.
Wat Phra Singh
Wat Phra Singh is a large temple located at the western end of Rachadamoen road. It is home to an important Buddha statue that supposedly traveled all the way to Chiang Mai from India via Sri Lanka. It’s nice to wander around in the evening when giant golden chedi is lit up. (Foreigner Entrance Fee: 40 Baht)
Wat Sri Suphan
Also known as “The Silver Temple”, Wat Sri Suphan was originally built in the year 1500 to serve as the main temple of the surrounding Silversmith village. Over the years, bits of the temple was repaired with silver. Then in 2008, a project was launched to fully decorate the entire temple with silver, nickel, and aluminum.
It is quite a sight to behold, especially when lit up at night. And if you’re on Wu Lai street for the Saturday night market, it’s a perfect time to pop over and have a look. Unfortunately, women are forbidden from entering the temple. (Foreigner Entrance Fee: 50 Baht)
5. Bathe an Elephant
Bathing, feeding, and playing with elephants in their natural habitat is one of the top reasons that people venture to Northern Thailand and very well may turn out to be the highlight of your Chiang Mai itinerary.
Most of the animal excursions in Chiang Mai have adopted more of a conservationist approach to interacting with wildlife. “No ride, no hook” is the common phrase you’ll see echoed by the ethical elephant sanctuaries in the area. You can choose a half-day, full-day, or overnight adventure depending on your preference.
Regardless of your choice, you’ll be picked up at your hotel, and then driven the hour-or-so outside of town to their property. You’ll be given a change of clothes and then will have the opportunity to feed and bathe the elephants. It’s an amazing experience to be able to get so close to these massive creatures. And finally, after a few hours, you’ll be served a light lunch and then transported back to your hotel.
Some of the most popular places to hang out with elephants are:
- Maerim Elephant Sanctuary
- Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
- Chiang Mai Mountain Sanctuary
- Doi Inthanon Elephant Park
- Karen’s Tribe Native Elephants
While it’s unlikely they are all “sanctuaries” (how many elephants are really roaming around northern Thailand needing a rescue?), these spots allow the elephants to roam freely and do not allow riding. And there are still some elephant excursions around Chiang Mai that don’t treat their animals so humanely so make sure you double-check before you sign up!
6. Swim Under a Waterfall
Chiang Mai is surrounded by mountainous jungle and with that comes a plethora of waterfalls. Our favorite is Mok Fa Waterfall even though it is a bit of a trek to get there. Mok Fa is located about 30 miles northeast of Chiang Mai. The easiest way to get there is to rent a motorbike and drive yourself an hour and a half. If you’re planning on visiting Pai, you can arrange for a stop at Mok Fa as it is on the way.
The falls are open to visitors from 7 am until 6 pm every day. The entrance fee is 100 Baht for foreigners and motorbike parking is an additional 20 Baht. If you arrive during the middle of the day you likely find plenty of people picnicking and swimming under the falls. You’ll probably have it all to yourself if you’re there in the early morning or late afternoon.
Make sure you stop at the impressive Wat Nong Khong on your way back. You’ll easily spot the four massive Buddhas as you approach the intersection of Highway 107 and Highway 1095.
7. Listen to some Jazz
Most people don’t associate Thailand with jazz music, but you’ll find some great live music every night at the North Gate Jazz Co-op. It’s a tiny venue with a simple drink menu and most nights the crowd spills out onto the street.
If you prefer to check out the Chiang Mai club scene, then the biggest party in town is at Zoe in Yellow. A warning, anyone over the age of 21 may find it loud, sweaty, and claustrophobic.
That’s it – 7 of the best things to do in Chiang Mai! What did we miss? Let us know below.
Looking for more ideas of what to see and do in Thailand? Check out our favorite books!