Discover the best things to do in Chiang Mai! The 10 best things to do in delightful, historical Chiang Mai. There are hundreds of temples, friendly locals, great food and wonderful scenery in and around the city. What are you waiting for?!
1. Best things to do in Chiang Mai – Stay in a great hotel
This small city is home to three of Travel & Leisure’s ‘Best Resort Hotels in South East Asia’ for 2017 but there are lodgings to suit all tastes and budgets, from cheap backpacker dorms to the 5 star luxury of the expansive Four Seasons resort which comes complete with its own rice paddies and water buffalo. However, it’s with boutique hotels that Chiang Mai really excels and there are plenty scattered throughout the city.
If only the best will do then Travel and Leisure’s number one resort hotel in South East Asia, 137 Pillars House hotel, will live up to all your expectations – and then some! The 30 suite hotel is located in the historic Wat Gate area close to the River Ping and has a fascinating history of its own, including ties to Anna, English teacher to the King of Siam’s children. The suites are sumptuous with pillow menus, outdoor showers, vintage style stand alone bath tubs and large balconies with a rocking chair and day bed and one of the onsite restaurants has the most beautiful dining room you can imagine.
2. Best things to do in Chiang Mai – Visit 300 Temples
Buddhist temples – or wats – are everywhere in Chiang Mai and you’ll be templed-out before you’ve scratched the surface. While the ‘must see’ temples that are packed with tourists are stunning, there are plenty of beautiful, less busy temples dotted around the old city that you’ll can wander into and have all to yourself.
Worth enduring the crowds for are Wat Phra That which overlooks the city from high on Doi Suthep mountain and Wat Phra Singh, one of the oldest and most important temples in the city. Less crowded and appealing for its silver decoration, as opposed to the usual gold, is Wat Sri Suphan, the Silver Temple, which lies just outside the walls of the old city.
Once you’ve ticked off a couple of the popular temples the best option is to put on a pair of comfortable shoes and simple wander the old city, discovering lesser known temples as you go; the city has 300 wats so you’ve got plenty to see.
3. Best things to do in Chiang Mai – Enjoy a thriving wellness community
The lush nature and stunning mountain scenery surrounding Chiang Mai make it a magnet for those in search of mental and physical rejuvenation. Many of the local temples run meditation retreats ranging from one or two days to full 10 day, silent Vipassana courses in the Goenka tradition. There is an abundance of yoga schools and you’ll find yogis practicing outdoors in the pretty Nong Buak Hard public park each morning.
There are detox retreats, ayurveda centres and many luxurious spas with treatments ranging from a standard Thai massage to all day pampering sessions. Oasis Spa and Cheeva Spa are two popular upmarket options in the old city and Panviman Spa Resort is recommended for a blissful getaway overlooking the paddy fields and horticulture of the Mae Rim valley.
4. Best things to do in Chiang Mai – Eat delicious food
From street food stalls to hole-in-the-wall restaurants to fine dining, Chiang Mai has it all. Northern Thai cuisine is distinct from the rest of the country; it’s aromatic and spicy with swirls of hot and bitter flavours.
The most popular Northern dish for visitors is khao soi, a thick, rich coconut curry soup crammed with soft noodles and chicken or beef with crispy noodles served on top. Another favourite is the spicy Chiang Mai sausage which is often sold on sticks at the roadside but there is a huge variety of dishes, many not found anywhere else in the country.
Vegetarians and vegans are in for a particular treat; Chiang Mai is regularly voted one of the best cities in the world for plant-based eating. Most Thai food is not vegetarian due to the liberal use of fish sauce as seasoning but the plethora of veggie restaurants around town provide an opportunity to enjoy some Thai favourites without the animal ingredients.
5. Best things to do in Chiang Mai – Make the most of nature with some outdoor activities
Hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, white water rafting, zip lining, cycling, abseiling. The beautiful countryside of Northern Thailand offers endless opportunities to have thrilling encounters with nature.
A popular hike starts from the city itself, close to Chiang Mai University. A 2 hour hike up Doi Suthep will take you through the woods and past a beautiful forest temple to arrive at Chiang Mai’s most famous temple, Wat Pha That. Alternatively, there are day (or overnight) trips to nearby Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain which offers gentle or more challenging hikes, waterfalls, temples and stunning views.
There are tour agencies dotted all round town that will arrange trips for you, often combing activities such as kayaking a cycling. The rainy season, May-September, is the best time to visit to make the most of the outdoors, particularly for watersports.
6. Best things to do in Chiang Mai – Get some great photos at Chiang Mai’s quirky attractions
Chiang Mai attracts imaginative people, both Thai and foreign, and with them come their sometimes eccentric ideas. Adding to the city’s already eclectic mix of attractions are such delights as the place where you can make paper out of elephant poo, Elephant Poopoo Paper Park. You’ll get to have some hands on experience of processing the already sanitised and non-smelly poo into brightly colour sheets of paper left to dry in the sun and children will love it.
There’s also the not-so-child-friendly Hell Temple where statues depict grotesque scenes of punishment in the afterlife. Expect disembowelment and gore aplenty in the otherwise peaceful setting of the temple grounds.
No exploration of Chiang Mai’s quirky side is complete without a visit to the Erotic Garden and Teahouse just outside the city. The elegant Katai, owner of the garden, will guide you around a well manicured space pointing out genitalia-shaped plants and explaining the specially commissioned art works of a dreamily sensual nature before treating you to tea and cake.
7. Best things to do in Chiang Mai – Shop, eat and shop some more at the night markets
The Saturday and Sunday Walking Street markets in different parts of the town are a must-do for many visitors to Chiang Mai. In both markets the streets are closed to vehicular traffic in the late afternoon so the stall holders can set up. The markets really come alive as night falls and the Sunday Walking Street in particular can get very crowded so it’s best to get there early for the most comfortable experience.
Saturday Walking Street is close to the famous Silver Temple, Wat Sri Suphan, and runs for about a kilometre along a street with several silversmiths’ shops. Sunday Walking Street runs from inside the moat towards the centre of the old city at Thapae Gate. Both markets, along with the 7 nights a week Night Bazaar close to the river sell clothing, ornaments, lanterns, woodwork and all manner of handicrafts. And, of course, there are plenty of places to pick up snacks or get a meal.
8. Best things to do in Chiang Mai – Whip up something tasty at a cooking class
Chiang Mai is spoiled for choice with cooking classes and you’ll probably be surprised to find out how easy it is to whip up some Thai favourites like pad Thai or mango sticky rice. There are some vegetarian/vegan classes but most cooking schools will alter the non-veggie dishes to suit you if you prefer to cook without animal products.
Some schools include a visit to a local market which is well worth doing for a guided tour and explanation of the exotic fruits and vegetables and other items on sale. Aroy Aroy cooking school is particularly good as they will transport you to the huge Wororot market via a boat ride up the River Ping and include a short visit to a garish Chinese temple as well.
9. Best things to do in Chiang Mai – Watch the ‘sport of 8 limbs’ at a muay Thai fight
Muay Thai in Chiang Mai is big business, both for watching and for doing classes. Lots of people visit the city to train at one of the many muay Thai camps around town. It’s a great way to get fit and agile and a perfect antidote to possible excesses in the islands.
If you want to see a professional muay Thai fight then Thapae stadium is a great place to go. There are several fights each evening, usually including one with female fighters. Often the last fight of the night will be between a foreigner who’s been training in one of the city’s camps and a local Thai fighter. The fight nights are great fun and a uniquely Thai experience.
10. Best things to do in Chiang Mai – Chat to a monk
Several temples around Chiang Mai offer ‘monk chat’ sessions. Relaxed and easy, the encounters allow visitors to interact with novice Buddhist monks and are a good opportunity for the monks to practice their English.
The young monks will be keen to ask you about your country, from what the weather is like to what football team you support, and you can ask them about their lives at the temple and their families back home. There are regular monk chats at Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Doi Suthep, and Wat Suan Dok.
Important note: I’ve deliberately left animal attractions out of this list. The tiger ‘attraction’ is despicable and the vast majority of elephant camps are ethically dubious at best. Most elephant camps offered riding and shows until around two years ago when it became more commercially attractive to advertise as a ‘no ride’ camp. As long as they are buying and training elephants they are part of the circle of abuse.