This vibrant hub in the north of Thailand has so much to offer – in this guide, I break down the 11 Best Things to do in Chiang Mai, you will find all of these adventures in and around the city.
Chiang Mai has a special feeling of magic to it, it is a feeling I will remember for the rest of my life, especially within the ancient walls of the old town you really do feel a deep connection to its history.
The city of Chiang Mai, nestled amongst the mountains, is the largest and the most well-known in the north due to its popularity within the tourism industry over the years.
Here you are well connected with an international airport and can use it as a starting point to explore more of the north such as Pai and Chiang Rai.
Only after you’ve explored all that Chiang Mai has to offer though!
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11 Best Things to Do in Chiang Mai
Visit an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary
When people think of Thailand they instantly think of Elephants, Chiang Mai has become one of the most popular places in the country to make the dream of meeting these gentle giants come true.
However do not be under the impression that all of the encounters on offer in Chiang Mai are ethical, many still have a long way to go to ensure the Elephants are free from stress and cared for properly.
Check out my Top 5 Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries in Chiang Mai – here I help you understand what makes a sanctuary ethical, why you should do your research and rate my top 5 choices in Chiang Mai to help you make your own fully informed decision.
Explore Old Town
If you look at Chiang Mai on a map it is easy to see where the old quarters are!
When Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 by King Mangrai the city was built in the shape of a square surrounded by walls and a moat, this was to ensure it was protected from invasions from the neighbouring Thai and Burmese kingdoms.
Within these 4 walls you can feel the history of Chiang Mai, I recommend spending a day just exploring – walking around the city admiring the architecture and visiting all the boutique shops, markets and unique restaurants.
Whilst you wander make sure to visit the Three Kings Monument, here you can see the founder of Chiang Mai, King Mangrai, along with King Ramkamhaeng and King Ngam Muang who worked together to build the city.
Visit the many Temples
The Temples of Chiang Mai are some of the city’s most famous attractions, here you can choose from over 100 different temples to visit.
The magic of the temples can be felt throughout the city, if you’re an early riser like me you can often hear the monks chanting at around 5/6 am.
Whilst some are very well known and open to tourists many of the temples are much smaller and only used by the locals.
Some incredible temples not to be missed are:
- Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
- Wat Chedi Luang
- Wat Suan Dok
- Wat Phan Tao
Meditate with a Buddhist Monk
Looking to spread the Buddhist teachings and help more people understand the Buddhist approach to life, MCU Buddhist University started Monk Chat.
This is a program that runs weekly allowing visitors to chat with the monks, you can ask questions about the monks’ lives, Thai culture, traditions, Buddhism etc.
Monk Chat, located at the university, also runs meditation retreats, these can be half days, 1 day, 2 days, 3 days and 4 days long.
For the half and 1-day courses, you visit the Monk Chat office located at Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai.
But if you would prefer to try an overnight course, these are held at the meditation training centre in the nearby mountains.
I took part in the half-day course and even this short experience with the monks gave me an insight into their way of life. First, we ran through the background of Buddhism and meditation, and then we practised meditating both standing, walking and sitting, we then finished with a Q&A.
The course is free but donations are very much appreciated. You can book this by walking in, calling or emailing them. Check out the website for more information about each of the courses.
🙋🏻♀️ It is an experience I highly recommend if you are interested in meditation and Buddhism, it opened my eyes to a whole new meaning of presence, and how it is much simpler than we often allow it to be.
Explore the famous Chiang Mai night markets
The night markets in Chiang Mai can be a lot to get your head around at first.
Multiple different night markets run throughout the week, however, the biggest and best two are held on Saturday and Sunday nights.
We visited Tha Pae Sunday Walking Street market, which is held in the Old City and goes as far as the eye can see!
It is the most famous night market in Chiang Mai and is not to be missed, just because of the outstanding size of it! Make sure to arrange your visit over the weekend so you don’t miss out.
Starting from Tha Pae Gate going towards Ratchadamnoen Road the road is closed from 4 pm, which allows the locals to set up and creates a temporary walking street.
Here you’ll find everything you could imagine from yummy street food, clothes, decorations, handmade souvenirs, artwork and so much more.
Every Sunday 4 pm – 10 pm.
Take a day trip to Doi Inthanon
Doi Inthanon is not on many people’s radar when they visit Chiang Mai, at 2,565m above sea level and high above the clouds it is the highest mountain and point in Thailand and is considered a very sacred place.
Located about 2 hours south of Chiang Mai the long journey can put many people off, however, I think it is well worth it to see the royal twin Pagodas.
Whilst you are there you can also discover many waterfalls, Kew Mae Pan Nature trails, the Thai Observatory, Ang Ka Nature Trail and the mountain summit.
To visit Doi Inthanon you can either book a pre-organised day trip or hire a car and take the adventure into your own hands.
Visit the Chiang Mai Arts and Culture Centre
Located on Prapokklao Road which was once the centre of the Old City stands the arts & culture centre.
Chiang Mai is rich in cultural history, the city was created by King Mangrai in AD. 1296 as the centre of the ‘Lanna Kingdom’, meaning in English ‘kingdom of a million rice fields’.
Learning about the history of Chiang Mai, how it was created and how it has evolved over the years gives you a new sense of appreciation for the place and its people.
Inside the museum the way of life since the prehistoric period is exhibited. 15 halls represent the prehistoric period, the city establishing history and the rise and dawn of the city up to Chiang Mai in the present day.
Once you have visited all of the exhibitions there is a small cafe and shop on site, make sure to check out the shop as they sell beautifully crafted local handmade products – these all come from the surrounding hill tribes.
Eat Khao Soi
Khao Soi is the dish of Northern Thailand, so where better place to try it?
Originating from Northern Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, Khao Soi is a curry noodle soup made up of a rich coconut milk broth, spices, thick noodles and meat, it is then topped with crispy fried noodles.
You can find Khao Soi at many places around Chiang Mai, make sure it’s not a dish you miss.
Watch the sunset over the mountains from a rooftop bar
As Chiang Mai is beautifully nestled amongst the mountains you can witness some stunning sunsets.
However, as Chiang Mai is a city the best place to see these is from one of the many rooftop bars.
Some great spots to check out are:
- Monday Sick Leave
- Myst Maya
- Woods Bar
- Yayee Rooftop Bar
- Rise Rooftop Bar
- Akyra Rise Bar
💡 If you don’t fancy a bar then visit Maya Lifestyle Shopping Centre, head to the top floor and here you can watch the sun go down for free from their open rooftop.
Chat with a Buddhist Monk
After Monk Chat was established more and more temples have started to encourage their Monks to take part in ‘Monk chats’.
You can either take part in an organised chat at the Monk Chat office at Wat Suan Dok or head to Wat Chedi Luang temple, this is a great place to find a Monk chat in the Old City.
Once inside the temple head to the northern side, where you will find some younger Monks either talking to someone or chatting amongst themselves.
The Monk chats are beneficial in both ways, the younger Monks get to practise their English while tourists get to learn.
Whilst you ask questions about their lives, Buddhism and their beliefs don’t forget to share some bits about yourself too as they will be just as curious as you are!
Hop from Cafe to Cafe
If you are a lover of coffee or an aesthetic brunch then Chiang Mai is the place to go, here you can discover an array of amazing places to eat or drink!
Whilst wandering the pretty streets you will notice they are filled with cute coffee shops, make sure to stop off in them, grab a drink and enjoy some people watching whilst you take a break from walking.
💡 Our favourite spot was Stories Cafe & Bistro – this was by far the best brunch spot we found.
There is plenty to keep you busy whilst in Chiang Mai both within and outside the Old City walls.
This former heart of the Lanna Kingdom is blissfully calm and oozing with magic. It is the perfect place to relax and take your time slowly wandering around the city streets.
I recommend spending at least 4/5 nights here to ensure you get the most out of your visit and can see as much as possible.
This gem in northern Thailand is more than just a stepping stone to the rest of the country, it is not one to be missed.
I hope my 11 Best Things to Do in Chiang Mai can help you fill your itineraries with some exciting adventures.
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