Known as the ‘Rose of the North’ Chiang Mai is steeped in history and surrounded by beautiful architecture. Founded over seven centuries ago Chiang Mai is the capital of the Lanna Kingdom and home to more than 300 temples. Due to its location in the north of the country the temperature is cooler than you would find in Bangkok or any of the more southern regions meaning you can spend longer each day sightseeing without feeling the same levels of fatigue.
The locals of Chiang Mai are some of the nicest and most laid back in all of Thailand and the city has a charm will instantly make you fall in love with the place, whittling this list down to just 25 was incredibly hard so with further hesitation let’s get started on the top things to do in Chiang Mai:
1. Take A Visit To Doi Suthep
The most famous attraction in all of Chiang Mai is Doi Suthep, every travel agent and driver will ask you if you want to go, it is like Big Ben is to London. Doi Suthep is about 12km outside of Chiang Mai and is a mountain that has a fantastic view over all of the city. Standing at 5400 metres the mountain also houses Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a 13th century temple that is home to a large white elephant shrine as well as a replica of the Emerald Buddha.
Tip: This Doi Suthep & Hmong Hill Tribe Village Visit includes a scenic throughthe historic areas of Chiang Mai, a visit to Doi Suthep and a visit to the Meo Hill tribe
2. Be Fashionable At Nimmanhaemin Road
Nimmanhaemin Road is the trendiest part of Chiang Mai, full of fancy bars and restaurants it is the place where all the up and coming citizens of the area hang out. The main road has several high end bars and the side streets (soi’s) are full of them as well. There is a new shopping mall at one end of the road which contains many designer shops as well as a multiplex cinema and many famous restaurant names. The area is the most expensive part of Chiang Mai both in terms of property and general eating out.
3. Take A Trip Down The San kamphaeng Road
Also known as the ‘Handicraft Highway’ a 10km stretch of road where you will find outlets famous for their pottery, silverware, lacquerware, sculpting, wood carving and silk products. The area is especially famous for its pottery which is known as Celadon, it has a green glaze which in turn makes it look like Jade, there are several outlets on this road where you can pick these up. Not many know but Chiang Mai is famous for some of the best silverware in Thailand and if you stop into Louis Silverware you will be able to watch the master artist carrying out his work.
4. Visit Doi Inthanon National Park
Doi Inthanon National Park is home to the highest mountain in all of Thailand, an extension to the Shan Hills and made mostly from granite. The park covers a land area of 48,240 hectares, The highest point of the mountain is 2565 metres tall and has been known to hit lows of -8 degrees centigrade, whilst visiting the Park you cannot help but notice the number of birds that you will see, Doi Inthanon is home to more species of bird than anywhere else in Thailand.
5. Eat Khao Soi
Northern Thailand is famous for many things but its greatest export surely has to be Khao Soi. It is a coconut and curry flavored soup filled with yellow egg noodles and chicken, sitting on top of the soup are crispy fried egg noodles giving a real mix of textures to the dish. At the side of soup bowl you will be given a small plate that has chopped red onions, pickled green mustard and a wedge of lime. If there is no other local food you try whilst you are in Chiang Mai you cannot leave before trying Khao Soi, it is absolutely delicious. There are also several food tours available.
6. Shop Again At Warorot Market
Right next to the Ping River is the Warorot Market. Most of the other markets in this city are night markets but Warorot opens early in the morning and closes when darkness descends. This is the market where the locals shop so the prices are low and not inflated like so many of the tourist markets. You can find just about everything at the market such as vegetables, fruit, meat, clothing, jewellery, souvenirs, fireworks and many other things. When you come out the market and venture into the side streets you will find a lot of Thai Handicraft goods made by the local Hill Tribe and again at much cheaper prices than anywhere else.
7. Take A Boat Trip On The Mae Ping River
A two hour boat trip along the Mae Ping River is an excellent way to spend an afternoon, you get to watch as the scenery along the river changes, you will also get to see many beautiful traditional teak houses as well as a lot of rural greenery along the wat. There are a couple of tour companies (book online) that carry out the boat trips and they both sail for about forty five minutes before stopping off at a local farmers house for lunch, whilst at the house you can also see how the production of jasmine rice is completed as well as further relaxing in the luscious gardens.
8. Watch Elephants at a Sanctuary
Be sure to NOT visit any camp that allows you to ride these animals, instead visit a one of the elephant sanctuaries or retirement camps where you’ll find rescued elephants. Here you’ll learn why you should not ride these animals. You’l see them play in the mud, bath and you might even be allowed to help with the feeding.
9. Stop For Coffee At The Cat Café
Popular in China and Japan, Chiang Mai now has its very own Cat Café and it is aptly named Catmosphere, the café is designed to fit in with its name with pictures of spaceships and cats floating around in UFO’s adorning the walls. There are fifteen cats currently living in the café and they are free to roam around as if it is their home (after all it is their home.) Drinks are a little pricier than a normal café which you would expect as a lot of time and money is spent grooming the cats and making sure everything is as clean as possible. During busy periods a two hour maximum stay is put on visitors but that should be ample to get your weekly cat fix.
10. Stop at Chiang Mai’s Very Own Grand Canyon
An old soil quarry this place is still very much unknown, it is a huge canyon that is now filled with water and has some absolutely staggering views. The Canyon is very deep and the water filling it is collected rain water that is now estimated to be forty meters deep. At the entrance is a nice restaurant to stop for a drink in before you start off on your adventure. There is not a lot to do here except for continuously wowing yourself with every turn as the sights are stunning and you will never get bored of them.
11. Enter The Cages At Tiger Kingdom
Located about 10km outside of Chiang Mai in the Mae Rim District is Tiger Kingdom, There are tigers of all varying ages that you can get up close and personal with.
12. Have Fun Bartering At The Night Bazaar
Chang Klan Road is just another road during the day, but at night the whole place lights up as the stall holders drag out their stalls and get set up for the night. Hundreds of traders line the road selling various goods such as fake designer items, lanterns and other handcrafted goods. A lot of things will not have a price on and bartering is openly encouraged. The market is open every single day of the year whatever the weather.
13. Make A Visit To Wat Phra Singh
Wat Phra Sing is a Buddhist temple and monastery that was founded in the 14th century. Known as the Temple of the Lion Buddha it houses two Buddha statues. There are 700 monks living in the temple who regularly come to talk to the tourists and are normally very friendly. The largest building at the site is the assembly hall which was rebuilt in 1925 and houses Phra Chao Thong Tip, a very large copper and gold cast of the seated Buddha, various other buildings can be found on the site giving you a lot to explore when you arrive. Is included in several available temple tours.
14. Check Out The Ruins Of Wat Chedi Luang
Known as the Temple of the Big Stupa, Wat Chedi Luang is the ruins of an ancient temple situated in the center of Chaing Mai. Before the temple was in its current state it used to be the home of the Emerald Buddha, the holiest religious object in all of Thailand. An earthquake in 1545 damaged large amounts of the temple and when the Burmese captured Chiang Mai five years later the temple was left to fall into ruin. The temple is still an active worship place so you will still see monks going about their daily work as well as several Buddha shrines.
15. Relax At Bai Orchid And Butterfly Farm
The Orchid is the symbol of Thailand and Thai Airways so it is no surprise that Orchids are very popular amongst the people. Situated just outside Chiang Mai, visitors can marvel at the year rounds exotic blooms as well as buying seedlings. The souvenir shop has fresh orchids that have been dipped in gold and made into different jewellery items. The Butterfly Farm is just next to the orchid farm and houses thousands of butterflies in their natural habitat.
16. Visit The Long Neck Karen Tribe
The Karen are a tribal group who are originally from Myanmar but fled to Thailand during the political unrests of the past. They now live in small villages one of which is in Mae Rim just outside of Chiang Mai. The visits to the villages are enlightening experiences as you get to see the tribal people going about their everyday life whilst having to sell their products to tourists in order to feed themselves. Always go with a tourist guide as they will be able to communicate with the locals and ask any questions you may have of the tribe’s members whilst you are there. There’s a full day tour available: Chiang Dao: Five Hill Tribes Trek
17. Hail a Songthaew
Chiang Mai is home to the Songthaew , the most common being a bright red one which the locals refer to as a ‘red car’ it is an easy and cheap way to get around the city. The Songthaew’s spend their days driving around the narrow roads picking up customers and dropping them off in their chosen locations. You sit in the back of the car on a bench with the other tourists and locals, the car drives around dropping people off whilst picking up new ones. Not every Songthaew will want to give you a lift as it depends if you are on a similar route to the other customers the driver has already picked up. This is a much cheaper alternative to getting a ride in a tuk-tuk.
18. Participate In The Loi Krathong Festival
Chiang Mai celebrates the Loi Krathong festival more than any other city in Thailand, an annual event that ties in with the twelfth lunar month. A Krathong is a basket that is shaped like a lotus and has a candle sitting in the center of it, these are placed in the water of the moat that surrounds part of Chiang Mai and left to float of into the distance, this is done to show respect to Buddha. At the same time as the Krathongs are being released you will see thousands of lanterns filling up the sky above, the whole festival is incredibly special and something you must put on any bucket list you have.For those considering coming to Chiang Mai during the festival you should book early as the hotels fill up fast at this time of the year.
19. Visit The Chiang Mai Night Safari
Split into two sections the Savanna Night Safari and the Predator Prowl zone. The Savanna Night Safari is home to over 300 animals including White Rhinos, Kangaroos and Water Buffalos, you travel around the Safari in an open top tram which takes about an hour. The Predator Prowl Zone has about 200 animals including Tigers, Lions, Wolves, Crocodiles and African Hunting Dogs. As you travel around the park the tram driver will stop and point out the various animals with his spotlight. Each night there is a later light show with accompanying music which is certainly worth waiting around for.
20. Visit The San Kamphaeng Hot Springs
Nestled within a wooded area and surrounded by mountains are the San Kamphaeng Hot Springs. At the hot springs are mineral baths and a traditional mineral water swimming pool. The waters in the springs have Curative powers due to the high sulfur content in the water. Whilst you are there pampering yourself you can also take advantage or a full body Thai massage or bizarrely you can buy eggs to boil in the water for your lunch.
21. Have A Traditional Khantoke Dinner
Chiang Mai is famous for its rich traditional Lanna culture so when in Chiang Mai take advantage of a Khantoke dinner. When you arrive at the dinner you will be seated on the floor at a large round table (called a toke) and traditional northern Thai food will be served. During the meal you will be treated to traditional Lanna entertainment. Depending on where you choose to go for your dinner you may also be treated to some classical Thai orchestral music.
22. Party At The Songkran festival
Songkran happens each year between the 13th and 15th April and is the Thailand traditional New Year celebration. However Chiang Mai takes the celebration to another level where the celebrations can go on for five or six days and sometimes even longer than that. Songkran has a religious meaning with Thai’s believing that the throwing of water will cleanse your sins. Chiang Mai can often come to a complete standstill during the celebrations with people standing at the side of the roads with buckets of water ready to soak every passer-by. People will often visit the many temples during the festival to pray and give food to the monks living there. You will see many images of Buddha paraded through the streets during the festival with locals throwing water over them, this is also to help with the cleansing of sins.
23. Get Involved With The Nightlife.
Chiang Mai is full of bars and clubs and with prices being a lot lower than Bangkok it is worth getting your partying done here. Nimmanhaeman Road has a very large number of trendy bars but is also home to The Monkey Club and The Warm-Up Cafe, both of which are frequented by locals as well as tourists. Thapae Gate is another popular area for drinking with Zoe’s bar filling up each night and the drinking carrying on until the early hours. In Chiang Mai it is very common to buy a bottle of spirit and sit down with soda or coke and an ice bucket, all the bars sell spirits by the bottle and it is the cheapest way to have an evening’s drinking.
24. Enjoy A Traditional Thai Massage From An Ex-prisoner
Wherever you look in Chiang Mai you are likely to see a massage parlor, most of the massage parlors are very reputable with fully qualified staff but maybe it is time for a slightly different experience. The Woman’s Prison in Chiang Mai has various programs that are run where the soon to be released women are taught life skills and one such program is the ex-prisoner massage parlor that has been set up. The women are watched over at all times without it being intrusive and is an excellent opportunity for the women as finding their way into work after prison life is over is often incredibly difficult.
25. Shop Till You Drop At The Weekend Market
Also known as the Sunday Market or the Walking Market this is probably the most famous of all the markets in Chiang Mai, it opens every Sunday starting at Thapae Gate and running along the entire length of the Ratchadamnoen Road. A lot of the stalls on the market sell handmade goods and as you walk through the market it is not uncommon to see the stall holders sitting down and carrying on with their handicraft in-between selling their goods. Dotted along the Ratchadamnoen Road are several Buddhist temples, they usually open their forecourts to various food sellers who cook the food in front of you as you wait. If that was not enough in between the stalls you will see a plethora of street artists singing, dancing or performing some other kind of act.