We’ve lived in Chiang Mai for a few years and have tried hundreds of places in and around the Old City. Whether you’re into culture and food, pampering yourself, or into exploring what the nearby mountains have to offer, here are some of our favorite things to do in Chiang Mai.
01 Go to a Thai Cooking School
Thai food features an incredible balance of sweet, spicy, tangy, and salty flavors. Conveniently enough, many Thai dishes can be easily prepared even by the most novice cook. Although there are dozens of Thai cooking schools in Chiang Mai, our experience at Best Trip Cooking School rocked. Our instructor is temporarily taking a break from teaching, but her friend at Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School comes highly recommended.
02 Eat at the North and South Gate Food Stalls
Want to try Thai street food? The food stalls at the Chang Puak (north) and Chiang Mai (south) Gates along the Old City’s square moat are not only easy to find but they offer a great variety of Thai dishes, too. From stir-fries to curries to vegetarian food, fruit smoothies, and Thai desserts, this is a fun and easy way to sample Thai food on a budget. TIP: The Chiang Mai Gate is easier to order from because many of the vendors offer English menus. Plus, we’ve dedicated an entire post about how to order from these food stalls and what you can find there.
03 Walk Among the Clouds
If you want to spend some time in the outdoors and experience some breathtaking views, visit the Doi Inthanon National Park. About an hour and a half drive from Chiang Mai’s Old City, the national park is home to Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain. There are temples, flower gardens, waterfalls, caves, and stunning hiking trails. Make it a day trip or spend the night in a Thai styled bungalow.
04 Shop in Extravagant Malls
Cool off in the air conditioning and meander through any one of Chiang Mai’s malls. Featuring movie theaters, familiar Western brands, and a great selection of international food options, we recommend checking out just how spectacular the MAYA, Promenada, or Central Festival Malls are. No third-world country here! In fact, they’ll probably give your malls back home a run for their money.
05 Take a Temple Tour + Monk Chat
Chiang Mai Old City has over 300 temples. Although we’ve only been to a fraction of them, we think Wat Sri Suphan and Wat Umong are among the most stunning. Wat Sri Suphan is the only temple in Thailand made entirely of silver and located less than one kilometer south of the Old City’s square moat. Wat Umong is peacefully situated in shady groves and moss-covered brick caves about two kilometers directly west of the Old City’s square moat.
Another favorite of first-timers is Wat Chedi Luang. It’s in the heart of the city and offers a unique service – chatting with local monks!
06 Learn About Northern Thai Lanna Culture
In the heart of the Old City is the Lanna Folk Museum. Converted from what was once an old royal residence, rich art displays offer insight to the colorful Lanna culture of the northern Thai people. Spend an hour browsing there and then hop over to the Cultural and Arts Center just across the street for more.
07 Enjoy High Tea in the Thai Country
For a unique East meets West cultural experience, try dining on English pastries and tea surrounded by beautiful Thai surroundings. Treat yourself to an afternoon enjoying a variety of muffins, scones, other sweets, and finger sandwiches in addition to several coffees, teas, and juices. The prices A perfect balance of sweet and savory. The Dhara Dhevi, Four Seasons, and Anantara are three beautiful places to try.
08 Treat Yourself to a Luxurious Spa Treatment or Cheap Thai Massage
Any guide book will mention getting a Thai massage as one of the top things to do in Chiang Mai. The luxury treatments and spa packages are so affordable here that it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to pamper yourself. Treat yourself to a facial or aromatic oil massage at some of Chiang Mai’s finest spas such as De Chai Spa, Oasis Spa, and Fah Lanna Spa. They’ll cost a fraction of what you’d typically pay in the West. On the other end of the spectrum, try a cheap Thai or foot massage. There are several massage shops on Loi Kro Road (across the street from the Raming Lodge) that offer a satisfying 30 minute foot massage or back and shoulder for less than 3 USD. As an added bonus, you can enjoy a cool evening breeze and people watch as patrons from the nearby bar and club scene meander down the road in your direction.
09 Play With Elephants
One of the most memorable things to do in Chiang Mai is spending the day with elephants. Our experience at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary was captivating, soul satiating, and unforgettable. It’s one of the very few elephant parks in Thailand that treats their elephants humanely; there’s no riding, no tricks, and no performances! We’re happy to be part of the movement for responsible tourism and encourage others to do the same. The Elephant Nature Park is another popular organization and a great alternative.
10 Climb Waterfalls
A must see activity for nature lovers! This incredible set of waterfalls, dubbed the Sticky Waterfalls (also known as Bua Tong Waterfalls), is unusual due to a natural limestone deposit that creates a non-slippery rock surface on which to climb up against the cascading waters. Beautiful, refreshing, and relaxing.
11 Visit Hill Tribe People
Although many tours in Northern Thailand offer visits to hill tribe visits and claim in one way or another to be part of the ‘ethical tourism,’ consider taking a trip to Mon Cham instead. Mon Cham (or also called Mon Jam) is an agricultural community run by local Hmong people. They even built a café and a restaurant that incorporates their organic, cool-weather crops. Diners can relax in thatched room picnic areas that overlook the terrace fields. While you’re there, get a sneak peek of the Hmong children in traditional clothing playing in the nearby flower gardens.
12 Over Indulge at a Beer Buffet
Beer is cheap in Thailand, but 115 baht ($3.50 USD!) all you can drink beer buffet from 6:30 pm to 9:00 pm is a steal. Serving up Tiger Beer, a gluten-free Asian lager, enjoy a posh outdoor atmosphere and nearby live music at Club Corner in the up and coming Nimmanhaemin area on Soi 7.
On the off-chance you’d rather have the critical (yet time-consuming) details taken care of, check out our four themed 7-Day Chiang Mai Self-Guided Tour, which are packed with hotel recommendations, must-try foods, and exact mapped locations of activities in Chiang Mai. These perfectly packaged week-long (seven days and six nights) itineraries may be exactly what you’re really looking for.
Guesthouses and Hotels in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai has countless places to stay in. From hostels and guesthouses to hotels and villas, there’s something here for any budget and taste. Here are the gems we’ve found in town:
Shared Dorms from 5 USD
This backpacker-friendly hostel is in the heart of Chiang Mai’s Old City. The hostess, Bee, may even show you around town.
Deluxe Rooms from 25 USD
The boutique guesthouse is decorated with authentic Londonite items. Run by a fun Thai and British couple who bake their own pastries and blend their own teas. Located on a quiet street in Nimmanhaemin.
Double Rooms from 48 USD
This relaxing boutique guesthouse has teakwook furniture and northern Thai decor. Conveniently located between the Old City and the trendy Nimmanhaemin area.
Studio Suite from 95 USD
Sleek, modern hotel with many Western amenities. Onsite pool, restaurant with delicious brunch and dinner buffets, and just a short walk from the hip Nimmanhaemin area.
Double Deluxe from 120 USD
Nestled in a rain forest garden, this teak hotel is has Lanna-style furnishings in a luxurious colonial setting. Situated just south of the famous Night Bazaar and a stone’s throw from the Ping River.
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