What to Do in Chiang Mai, Thailand (13 Must-Sees and Must-Dos)
Chiang Mai is one of my favorite places in Thailand. It is not necessarily the oldest city in the country, but it is one of the most important, and the Old City district is a sight to behold. Home to literally hundreds of temples, with some of the most intricate carvings in the country, there are hundreds of activities to do and places to see when you visit this city.
If planning a trip to Thailand, I would recommend devoting at least three days just to Chiang Mai—and more if you can spare them. Here are some of my favorite things to do in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
13 Musts When in Chiang Mai
- Visit the Elephant Nature Park
- Tiger Kingdom
- Go For a Hike
- Visit the Rice Fields
- Go to a Cooking Class
- Visit the Street Markets
- Take a Day Trip
- Catch a Movie at the Airport Plaza Cinema
- Relax at the Peak Spa
- Go to One of the Temples
- Doi Inthanon
- Huay Tung Tao
- The Chiang Mai Arts and Cultural Centre Museum
1. Visit the Elephant Nature Park
This isn’t actually in the city, but it is very close to the city, and because it is an incredible experience, it has to be included on this list. It is widely regarded as one of the best things to do in the area. While we all know that the best place for elephants is in the wild, elephants who have been harmed by poachers and would die in the wild find a home here in the nature park.
What makes this park different from other parks? You have the opportunity to interact with the elephants, doing just about anything short of riding them. Guests can spend a whole day feeding, washing and hanging out with the elephants.
2. Tiger Kingdom
You will probably only have few opportunities in your life to get up close and personal with a tiger. These beautiful creatures are incredible to see, and depending on what package you choose when you get there, you might actually be able to interact with some of the tigers.
Elephants are the most popular attraction for visitors to this area (and the Elephant Nature Park gives you the opportunity to interact directly with these awesome animals), but when else are you going to get the chance to pet a real tiger? Don’t pass up this experience.
3. Go For a Hike
There are innumerable hiking trails around the city, and for good reason. All of Thailand is beautiful, but this city is surrounded by some of the most spectacular jungle in the entire country. You can strike out on your own or find a guide.
Even if you just want to hike for an afternoon, there are lots of trails to choose from, many of which will get you away from the city and allow you to commune with nature. If you are lucky, you might even get to see some of the local wildlife.
4. Visit the Rice Fields
It’s no secret that rice is big business in this part of the world. Why bother visiting the rice fields? Because they are amazing. Especially if you are from the West, you probably have never seen anything like a fully-functioning Thai rice field.
While this might not be as much of an adventure as visiting the Elephant Nature Park, the rice fields near the city are a sight to behold, and they welcome visitors.
5. Go to a Cooking Class
You can bring back plenty of souvenirs from your adventure to Thailand, but why not try to bring back a skill? You’re probably going to fall in love with the food while you are visiting. To ensure that you can recreate it for yourself when you return home, I suggest taking a cooking class while in Chiang Mai.
There are a few different schools to choose from, so pick one that is offering to make a dish you want to learn and sign up.
6. Visit the Street Markets
As in any Eastern city, there is a strong tradition of street markets in Chiang Mai. If you want to get a good idea of what life is like for the average resident, this is a good place to go, especially if you also want to look for souvenirs while you are there.
Chiang Mai Gate Market
There are lots of different markets to visit in Chiang Mai, but if you have the time, make sure to put this market on your list. Not only is it the perfect setting—near the Chiang Mai Gate—but there is plenty to do and see when the vendors start setting up.
Make sure to save your appetite and eat dinner at the market. Plenty of street food will be available, including pad kra pow and mango sticky rice. Unlike some markets in the city that only set up once a week, this market is open every single night, but you will find more vendors during the week than on the weekend.
Sunday Walking Street Market
The Sunday Walking Street Market is a great market to visit. It starts to set up shop around four in the evening, and there is always a great variety of products, ranging from street food to scarves to shoes.
7. Take a Day Trip
Because the city is very used to visitors, there are a number of companies that have prearranged day trips available to tourists. While you might not consider yourself a tourist, you might still want to look into these trips—a day trip out to the White Temple, especially. It is a glittering white temple (as the name suggests) that is often accessed by boat, depending on which company you choose to travel with.
You might also be taken to visit some of the tribes that live in the area, including some that participate in traditions like long-necked women. Make sure you have your passport on you, as you sometimes dash across borders to get to your destination in a timely manner.
8. Catch a Movie at the Airport Plaza Cinema
While seeing a movie might not be the ideal vacation activity for some people, I always like to visit a local cinema and see how they present movies. The Airport Plaza is actually a mall (not an airport), and the cinema is probably the best part of the mall.
The most unique part of seeing a movie here is that they play the national anthem before they start the movie and you do have to stand up. This is a very luxurious place to see a movie, despite being extremely cheap.
9. Relax at the Peak Spa
While in Chiang Mai, you absolutely must visit a spa. Thailand may be a bustling country, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take some time to get away from the noise and the chaos of the city and pamper yourself. Spas in Thailand are especially fantastic, and they are very affordable, too.
You can get a massage, a facial, and just about any other type of treatment you might want—even a haircut! The treatments are high-quality and, especially when compared to what a similar excursion would cost in the West, you cannot beat the deal.
Elephant Nature Park
Beautiful Rice Fields
Chiang Mai Gate Market
Airport Plaza Cinema
Wat Chedi Luang
10. Go to One of the Temples
You are bound to find a monk that is trying to learn English (or your language) and will be thrilled to chat with you about life in the temple, his culture, and Buddhism in general. This really is a special experience, no matter what philosophy you subscribe to.
The monks are serene yet eager to talk to people from other countries and to talk about their beliefs and their country. If you are nervous about interacting with people from another culture and especially about trying to communicate with people that might not speak your language, the temples are a great place to alleviate some of those concerns.
Wat Pra That Doi Suthep
Chiang Mai has a staggering number of temples to visit, and you are sure to be able to find a beautiful, spiritual site, no matter which one you choose to visit. That said, if you can only visit one or only want to visit one, consider choosing Wat Doi Suthep.
Set atop a mountain, Wat Pra That Doi Suthep is one of the most sacred places in the city and in the country. It is a bit of a climb to the top of the mountain, but you can always hop on a motorbike or grab a ride on one of the trams.
You’ll first be greeted by a pair of demons, beyond whom the temple complex stands. The climb and the demons are well worth the beautiful temple within the walls.
Wat Chedi Luang
You are probably not going to notice a shortage of ruins in Thailand, or even just in Chiang Mai, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hollow out time in your schedule to visit one.
If you can only visit one or want to see what is arguably one of the most haunting and beautiful sites in the entire city, choose Wat Chedi Luang. It was built more than 600 years ago, and though it was damaged by an earthquake, is still mostly intact.
If you visit Wat Chedi Luang, make sure to walk around the entire perimeter and see all of the huge carvings of elephants that decorate the exterior.
11. Doi Inthanon
This site requires another climb, but again, the view and the attraction is well worth the effort you put in to get there. This is an incredible national park, poised on the highest peak in the country.
If you are interested in trekking, the park offers ample opportunity to do so, but if you prefer just to stroll around the park, there are opportunities to do that as well. You can spend as much or as little time in the park as you want to.
While this park isn’t technically in the city (it is about two hours away), if you are in the area, definitely make the effort and see what Doi Inthanon has to offer.
12. Huay Tung Tao
If you are looking for a place to just blow off some steam and have a calm, relaxing day, this is the place to do it. This is a reservoir that is popular with not just visitors, but locals, too.
You can actually rent a hut on the water, and there are lots of street food vendors in the area that give you the opportunity to try a wide variety of different dishes. This is an ideal day trip, especially if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and just enjoy the beautiful Thai scenery for a while.
13. The Chiang Mai Arts and Cultural Centre Museum
This museum is in the middle of the old city, which makes it a great part of any day spent exploring this part of the city. There really is some amazing art to see here, as well as many different cultural exhibits. Best of all, the captions are usually provided in more than one language, so you do not have to worry about not being able to learn about Thailand and its people.
© 2019 Sam Shepards