Chiang Mai, the unofficial capital of northern Thailand, has been on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 2015. In recent years, the city has become increasingly popular with travellers. People come for a perfect family holiday with a huge variety of activities, affordability and vicinity to some great natural and cultural gems. Here are the best things to do in Chiang Mai, from learning to be a masseur to trying the local food.
1. Take a stroll along the old city walls
Chiang Mai's old city, with its crumbling brick walls and protective moa, has a medieval feel. Its gates face the cardinal directions with red brick bastions in each corner. Although the first city walls were built here in the late 13th century, the bastions that remain today date from the late 18th century and have been extensively rebuilt over the years.
Grassy banks and shady trees border the moat, and within the walls, a hushed atmosphere prevails. Take an improvised stroll along the old city's narrow lanes and see what surprises await.
On this tailor-made trip to Chiang Mai, you'll have a chance to escape from Bangkok’s humidity. Regarded as the cultural heart of the country, come here for nature, lovely Lanna-style temples, museums and the infamous night bazaar.
2. Discover Chiang Mai's history in local museums
Since it was founded in 1296, Chiang Mai (which, ironically, means ‘new city’) has had a turbulent history. It was once the capital of a vast kingdom called Lan Na (meaning 'a million rice fields'). It was then ruled by the Burmese before being completely abandoned and was eventually merged into the Kingdom of Siam.
3. Go shopping in various markets
The city’s fresh markets are the best place to feel the pulse of life in Chiang Mai. Take a stroll around Muang Mai, the wholesale fruit and veg market, and breathe in the pungent air. Snack on dried wild strawberries, sweet Thai tea or the infamous durian fruit.
Local markets spring up at daybreak – a popular one can be found at Chiang Mai gate – and you can sample local delicacies such as sai oua (Chiang Mai sausage) or nam phrik num (chilli and aubergine dip).
Come nightfall, markets are a great place to sample some of the best street food in Chiang Mai. One of the most famous dishes is kow kah moo, or slow-cooked pork with rice, served at Chiang Phuak night market by the backpacker's favourite chef, 'Cowboy Hat Lady'.
4. Sample local cuisine
While we’re on the subject, Northern Thai cuisine deserves special mention. Most visitors love the city’s signature dish of khao soi, a bowl of soft and crispy noodles in a mild curry broth with chicken or pork that is a favourite lunchtime meal.
Another delicious option is the slow-cooked kaeng hang lay, a melt-in-your-mouth pork curry with ginger. And look out for miang kham, a do-it-yourself dish of green mango, shallots, peanuts and ginger rolled into a cha plum leaf – yum!
5. Head out for some local crafts
North Thailand is a hotbed of traditional crafts, so finding a unique reminder of your visit (or gifts for friends) is easy. This is the place to buy hand-woven silk or cotton, along with lacquerware, silverware, ceramics, and even umbrellas.
Good hunting grounds include the weekend 'walking streets' (Saturday on Wualai Road, Sunday on Ratchadamnoen Road). To see how these crafts are made, head out to the workshops along the Handicraft Highway, the road heading east to San Kamphaeng.
While planning your trip to Thailand, find some useful advice in our list of tips for first-time travellers.
6. Visit Chiang Mai temples
There are around 300 temples in and around Chiang Mai, so finding one you want to visit shouldn’t be difficult. Northern Thai temples typically have multi-tiered roofs and low-slung eaves that make them very photogenic, and their carvings and murals reveal much about local Buddhist culture.
Wat Phra Singh in the old city is the most visited – here, the Viharn Lai Kham (a small assembly hall) and the Hor Trai (scripture library) are superb examples of Lan Na architecture. Atmospheric Wat Chedi Luang with its crumbling brick stupa is well worth the visit too, while exploring the city's smaller and lesser-known temples is sure to throw up unexpected wonders.
7. Attend the local festivals
The Thais love having fun – the concept of sanuk, or finding enjoyment in what you do, is a way of life here. It comes as no surprise then that there’s a festival in Chiang Mai almost every week of the year. It’s the best place in the country to celebrate Songkran (the water-throwing festival held for Thai New Year in April) and Loi Krathong (November's lantern festival).
Though the big festival gets the most attention, it’s also worth timing a visit to witness a purely local event such as the Flower Festival in February or the Inthakin Festival, where locals worship the City Pillar, in May or June.
8. Learn new skills
If combining new experiences with learning new skills is your idea of a holiday, then Chiang Mai is your spot. The city has an enviable reputation for providing affordable and well-planned courses in Thai cuisine, Thai massage, insight meditation and Thai boxing to name a few. There are also plenty of options for visitors dreaming of becoming a jeweller, a weaver, or a yoga or t’ai chi instructor.
9. Explore the sacred surroundings
Spirits are everywhere in Thailand – in folklore, in tiny spirit houses that adorn the gardens of most houses, and in the wilderness. Doi Suthep, the mountain that rises over 1,000 metres to the west of town, is believed to house the guardian spirits of Chiang Mai, and is home to the city’s most sacred temple – Wat Doi Suthep.
This temple is a great place to look out over the city and the Ping Valley below. For a more in-depth look at these sacred surroundings, you can overnight in a national park bungalow and explore the mountain’s leafy trails.
Take this tailor-made trip to Thailand's Islands and Highlands and experience the best of Thailand. Compare the bustling, lively capital with the glorious rolling hills and lush interior of mountainous Chiang Mai before heading south to beach bliss and unexpected cultural delights in Phuket.
10. Help rescue elephants at Elephant Nature Park
From Chiang Mai the route towards Tha Ton heads north along Highway 107, retracing the Mae Hong Son Loop as far as Mae Malai. About 3km after Mae Taeng, a signposted left turn leads 9km to the Elephant Nature Park, which is essentially a rescue centre and hospital for sick, orphaned and neglected elephants, where hands-on educational visits by the public are encouraged.
On a daytime visit, you’ll get to feed, bathe and learn about the elephants close up, but it’s also possible to stay for two days or sign up as a paying volunteer for a week. The park’s owner, Sangduan (“Lek”) Chailert has become something of a celebrity in recent years, being featured on the BBC and Time magazine for her efforts. Visits must be booked in advance and include transport from and to your accommodation in Chiang Mai.
On this tailor-made family trip to Thailand, you will explore the incredible Bangkok city before heading to the verdant Chiang Mai area to meet elephants in their natural habitat. From here, it’s down to the spectacular beach resort of Khao Lak for complete family relaxation.
11. Take a boat trip on the Mae Ping River
A pleasant way to get a feel for the city and its layout is to take a boat trip on the Mae Ping River. Hourly two-hour cruises operated by Mae Ping River Cruises depart from Wat Chaimongkol on Thanon Charoen Prathet.
You will sail 8km upstream through lush countryside to a riverside farmhouse for a look around the fruit, herb and flower gardens, plus refreshments and fruit-tasting. Mae Ping River Cruises also offer trips to Wiang Kum Kam.
12. Relax at the San Kamphaeng Hot Springs
San Kamphaeng Hot Springs is located in the San Kamphaeng district of Chiang Mai province. It is a popular tourist destination primarily for its mineral waters, which are rumoured to have healing properties.
The springs flow out of the ground and form several pools and hot baths. The pools are distributed according to temperature from the hottest to the coolest, so you can choose a bath with the temperature that suits you best.
One of the interesting features of the springs is that there are facilities for cooking eggs in hot water. You can have this unique and fun experience by buying raw eggs and boiling them in small baskets that are lowered into the hot springs.
13. Climb the Sticky Waterfall
Another one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai is to visit the Bua Tong Sticky Waterfalls, or "Sticky Waterfalls". The waterfalls are located in Sri Lanna National Park and offer a wide range of exciting activities.
The main difference with many other waterfalls, where climbing is forbidden or dangerous, is that Sticky Waterfalls provides a safe environment to climb and explore. The limestone cliffs provide excellent grip, allowing you to climb up to the waterfall and enjoy stunning views from different levels. In addition, the area around the falls is well-maintained and there are plenty of walking trails and picnic areas to enjoy the lush local scenery.
14. Enjoy the natural beauty of the Doi Inthanon National Park
Covering a huge area to the southwest of Chiang Mai, Doi Inthanon National Park, with its Karen and Hmong hill-tribe villages, dramatic waterfalls and panoramas, gives a pleasant whiff of the northern countryside. Its attractions and concrete access roads are kept in good order by the national parks department.
Often shrouded in mist, Doi Inthanon’s temperate forests shelter a huge variety of flora and fauna, which makes a visit here one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai for naturalists in Southeast Asia. The park supports about 380 bird species, the largest number of any site in Thailand, as well as, near the summit, the only red rhododendrons in Thailand and a wide variety of ground and epiphytic orchids.
Take a guided tour to Thailand’s highest point at Doi Inthanon National Park, above the mountains of Chiang Mai. Find tranquillity at the beautiful cascades of the Sirithan and Wachiratharn waterfalls, and explore the Karen Tribe community at Sobhad Village.
- For an authentic Thai feel: Pingviman Hotel
- For peaceful relaxation after a busy day: El Barrio Lanna
- For stylish stays: Nampiangdin Boutique Hotel
- For price and quality: CREW Hotel
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
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Top image: Inthanon temple in Chiang Mai Province © Arkkarapol Wongkitikhun/Shutterstock