Asia City Travel

Chiang Mai, oh my | Thailand

Pink flowers in the foreground of Doi Suthep

Have you ever gone 5 months without Mexican food? I don’t recommend it. I’m not saying that Chiang Mai is JUST a Mexican food oasis in a Thai food desert, but after several months of teaching in a remote part of Thailand, it was just one more reason to love it. I spent my weekends having big experiences —  motorbike journeys, visiting meditation centers, and pushing my way through packed markets — but between it all were the burrito binges at El Diablo and Italian cheese shopping at Tesco. I’m not proud to admit it, but Chiang Mai was a sort of weekend refuge to my more traditional Thai life. Promise of guacamole can really help overcome tougher days of teaching, you know?

It is this tremendous variety that makes Chiang Mai the perfect city for expats, tourists, and locals alike. You’ll have access to modern comforts while also being in one of the most culturally interesting and beautiful cities in Thailand. With a rich heritage, Chiang Mai has all the scope of Bangkok while still feeling charming and comfortably small. If you want nature, you’re encompassed by some pretty spectacular scenery. If it’s old culture you’re after, slip off your shoes and head to one of the city’s 300+ Buddhist temples. Contemporary culture? Head to any of the university bars for a craft cocktail or a chic clothing boutique. If you’re on a tight budget or looking to splurge, there’s a way to do it (find out what things cost in Chiang Mai at Emily Luxton). If you’re looking to hang, you can even do that.  If you’re seeking incredible vegan food, you’ll find it. And if you’re desperate for nachos like we were, you can find them here too.

Don’t just see Chiang Mai, experience it. Here are 8 extra fun things to do in Chiang Mai.

8 unique + fun things to do in Chiang Mai:

1. Scale the steps to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Just 15km outside of Chiang Mai is the spectacular Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. After ascending a nauseating mountain road by songthaew and scaling 309 steps, Buddhist temple Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a much deserved finale.

Push your way past the usual tourist charades — children parading around in traditional Thai wardrobe and dance troupes repeating the same routine for the 367th time— for the temple’s real intrigue. Inside the temple walls, the pious kneel before statues of young Buddhas and light candles and incense in acts of prayer. Trails of wax drip slowly into thick canary-colored pools on the brick floor as the sunlight shifts, casting new shadows upon the temple.  If you spot a monk between cigarette breaks, you may even be able to get an orange robe in the frame. The gold-encrusted stupas of Doi Suthep are surpassed only by a view that overlooks the entire city (but just barely).

Don’t forget to check out the International Buddhist Center for meditation classes and retreats on Doi Suthep. A foreign visitor fee of 30 Baht allows access into the temple. Take the 40 minute songthaew ride from Chiang Mai for an inexpensive and interesting way to get to the temple.

Fun Things to do in Chiang Mai - Lantern lined steps to Doi Suthep

Fun Things to do in Chiang Mai - Yellow Candles melting at Doi Suthep

Fun Things to do in Chiang Mai - Floral offering at Doi Suthep

2. Cook (…eat) at a Thai cooking class

Thai street food could very well be the best street food ever. A few days in Thailand and you’ll get a taste for Som Tham that you’ll never be able to kick. Sinus-clearing plates of Pad Thai and hearty bowls of Khao Soi priced right around $1 will leave you wondering why you waste so much time on cheese omelettes and pasta. So what’s a person to do?

Learning to cook is one of the most fun things to do in Chiang Mai! I went with the Basil Cookery School, but there are plenty of cooking schools in Chiang Mai to choose from. You’ll select one dish from each of several categories (ex. “Noodles”, “Curry”, “Soup”, etc.) before heading to the market to fill your bag with unfamiliar produce.

Maybe the perfect Tom Yum takes time, but we can promise you one thing: you’ll never celebrate a sub-par plate of $8 fried rice at home again. A half-day Thai cooking class should cost around 1,000-2,000 Baht ($30-$60), but you’re a serious chef, you might want to look into local cooking schools.

Fun Things to do in Chiang Mai - Thai Condiments Fun Things to do in Chiang Mai - Woman selling vegetables in Chiang Mai

3. Hit the road to Chiang Dao

Chiang Dao, or “City of Stars”, is a lovely little escape 72 km North of Chiang Mai, perfectly accessible by motorbike. Sitting above the Menam Ping gorge, Doi Chiang Dao’s peaks touch the clouds climbing as high as 7,174 ft. On a journey from Chiang Mai, you’ll find yourself zipping alongside green pastures and encountering some superbly friendly cows.

Inside the damp darkness in Chiang Dao cave, you’ll wander past stalactites and rock formations resembling elephants and snakes. The cave itself is a huge tourist trap (a 40 Baht electricity and water fee, a 100 Baht lantern fee, and a 100 baht fee for a “guide” that holds the lantern and points at things) but even if you skip the cave, you’ll enjoy the gorgeous temples for Doi Chiang Dao (Chiang Dao mountain) and the surrounding natural wonders.

You can rent a motorbike in Chiang Mai for 150-400 Baht to do this adventure on your own.

Fun Things to do in Chiang Mai - Scenic view on the road to Chiang Dao

Fun Things to do in Chiang Mai - Taylor with a cow on the way to Chiang Dao
Fun Things to do in Chiang Mai - View from the motorbike en route to Chiang Dao

Fun Things to do in Chiang Mai - Temples at Chiang Dao Fun Things to do in Chiang Mai - Chiang Dao Cave outside of Chiang Mai

4. Get worked in a Thai massage

Cheap massages are kinda like cheap sushi — the quality is variable and there are serious consequences when it’s bad. That being said, once you’ve developed a Thai massage habit, you will forever be in the throngs of a Thai woman’s aggressive hands with your arms strung behind your head, and your left thigh folded up to your armpit.

It is safe to say that the American massage experience is only loosely based on any Eastern origins. Forget the rain forest soundtrack, and open your ears to the street noise. Real Thai massage won’t begin with a steam room, unless of course, you come during monsoon season. Your masseuse may or may not be eating Som Thom while she bends you into strange positions, but that’s the closest it gets to aromatherapy. If you can accept that it’s going to be very different, you may just love it.

Thai massages are inexpensive because they serve a different function. Rather than being an occasional relaxing splurge, they are used as a recurring therapy and a part of holistic health. You’ll throw on some cotton pants, lay face down in a communal space, and get kneaded, bent, and cracked through all of your knots and tense spots. It may be a bit awkward at times, and it will probably hurt, but it’s a one of the quintessential things to do in Chiang Mai and you’ll always come out feeling a whole lot better. Standard massages will cost 150-300 Baht and you can get them on a walk-in basis. For more luxurious establishments, you can pay up to 2,000 Baht.

Interested in international spa experiences? Check out my experience in a Moroccan hammam!

Fun Things to do in Chiang Mai - Thai Massage

5. Experience the wilder life

Animal tourism in Thailand is kind of a touchy subject. While elephant rides are ranked as one of the top things to do in Chiang Mai, you really shouldn’t do it. The elephants may be born in captivity, but since they aren’t domesticated creatures, breaking them to perform for tourists is a cruel process. High demand for elephant tourism has led to increased poaching from the wild. As travelers, we have tremendous opportunity to change that.

So what is an ethical traveler to do? There are a few really wonderful organizations that are both elephant-friendly and completely awesome. Our personal favorite is Friends of the Asian Elephant in Lampang, an elephant hospital that cares for recovering elephants and lets you observe them without disrupting their recovery. If you’d like a even more interaction, you can also check out the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai where you can feed, bathe and “pamper” the elephants for the day. Most single day elephant excursions will run you between 2,500-6,000 Baht. If you’re looking to get deep into the mahout experience, you can volunteer with elephants for a week for around 15,000 Baht.

Fun Things to do in Chiang Mai - Elephant Snout (Closeup)

6. Get what you bargain for at the Chiang Mai walking streets

On any given night in Chiang Mai, wander through a gathering of roadside vendors hawking paper lanterns and spicy plates of pad gra prao. Night markets are, hands down, one of the coolest things to do in Chiang Mai at night. The best in market experiences are the Night Bazaar and the Sunday Night Market Walking Street. Whether you come seeking trendy clothing, local cuisine, or handcrafted whatevers, the markets are some of the best shopping in Chiang Mai.

Night Bazaar: You can experience the nightly bazaar by heading outside of the walled city along Thanon Chang Khlan for 1km. The market is open daily.

Chiang Mai Sunday Market: Start your market adventure at the Tha Phae Gate, and wander Ratchadamnoen Road for the roughly 1km stretch of market. The market is open, appropriately, on Sundays.

Whichever market you choose, come prepared to elbow your way through the crowds and bargain.

Fun Things to do in Chiang Mai - Paper lanterns at Chiang Mai walking street[/one_h

Fun Things to do in Chiang Mai - Girl dancing at Chiang Mai walking street
Fun Things to do in Chiang Mai - Temple at Chiang Mai Walking Street

7. Get Soaked at Songkran

Songkran is a perhaps the only weird world festival where it’s acceptable to super soak a stranger. Songkran is a Thai Water Festival coming just before Thai New Year; while the spray-down originally represented purification from evil spirits, the festival has become more of a celebration than ceremony. Tourists and Thais alike arm themselves with serious water guns, balloons, buckets, and entire water tankers, and take to the streets for the world’s best 3-day water fight.

While Songkran takes place throughout Thailand, the thing that makes Chiang Mai the perfect place to celebrate is the giant moat running around the Old City. In preparation for Songkran, the moat is emptied out and refilled with clean(-ish) water so you can reload your water weapons throughout the festival. If you find yourself in Chiang Mai during the second week of April, come prepared for the non-stop party that is Songkran. Hostels will book up fast ahead of Songkran, so be sure to book a hostel early!

Fun Things to do in Chiang Mai - Girls at Songkran

8. Head for the hills with a Chiang Mai trek

Nature was made for exploring. One of the best things to do in Chiang Mai is getting out of it to trek in the surrounding hill country. Whether you venture out for a half-day trek or commit to something more extensive, the Thai jungles won’t disappoint. Expect to wander past tiered rice terraces, thatched-roof houses, and stunning greenery along the way.

Inhabited by diverse hill tribe communities, you can experience a different kind of Thai life on an excursion to these remote places. While the Karen “long neck” villages are a popular tourist attraction, we found them to be more zoo-like than we prefer cultural encounters to be. If you’re looking for a more authentic experience,  Mae Tang and Samoeng are other popular options to consider.

We recommend waiting until you arrive in Chiang Mai to book a trek, as they’re always running and hardly ever full. Rates vary from around 1,200 – 6,000 Baht depending on group size, duration, and level of accommodation. If you’re looking for the best possible experience, dig deep to find a local guide that doesn’t offer standard itineraries. If you  just can’t wait, check out hiking and biking tours on Viator.

Fun Things to do in Chiang Mai - Longtail Boat Ride

Fun Things to do in Chiang Mai - Thai Woman Selling Crafts
Fun Things to do in Chiang Mai - Meet local communities on a village trek

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Heading to Northern Thailand? From cooking classes to crowded markets, you won't miss the 8 best travel experiences in Chiang Mai!Do you think the city is great? Tell us your favorite fun things to do in Chiang Mai in the comments below.

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9 Comments

  • Reply
    Kerri Guisness
    November 14, 2015 at 5:10 pm

    My Thai experience was indeed highlighted by being off the beaten path… I too experienced the elephant atop an elephant but would have preferred the sanctuary interaction. The photos from the mountain villages were raw and real as they didn’t represent people who were bombarded with invading tourists and our group consisted of 3 of us ! Really great article Taylor!

  • Reply
    Rachel A Davis
    December 6, 2015 at 11:09 pm

    It’s been quite a few years since I’ve been in Chiang Mai, I totally got soaked during Songkran! The highlight of my stay was a vegetarian cooking course, I still use those recipes now.
    Great list!

  • Reply
    Saiful Islam Opu
    June 16, 2016 at 6:32 am

    Despite the constant arrival of planes and trains full of sightseers, the former seat of the Lanna kingdom is still blissfully calm and laid-back. This is a place to relax after the chaos of Bangkok and recharge your batteries with fabulous food and leisurely wandering. If you don’t want to participate in the vast array of activities on offer, just stroll around the backstreets, and discover a city that is still firmly Thai in its aspect, atmosphere, and attitude.
    Thanks for sharing this amazing article! Have you been to an another undiscovered astonishing country Bangladesh? For your further study you may peep http://bit.ly/1QdnTuq

  • Reply
    stephanie
    November 11, 2016 at 3:50 pm

    I loved Chiang Mai! Ive been there twice and both times I spend about two weeks there.
    I was lucky enough to celebrate Songkran last year and it was one of the best experiences ever! 🙂
    And the Sunday night market is also great for souvernirs etc.
    x

    • Reply
      Taylor Record
      November 11, 2016 at 10:50 pm

      It’s such an easy city to go back to, isn’t it? Songkran has got to be one of the most fun festivals in the world!

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    […] Songkran is the Thai New Year’s Festival symbolizing transformation and purification. At this unique world festival, you can arm yourself with a bucket, hose, water gun, or really anything you can find, to join in the nationwide water fight.Why you should go: “If you’ve ever dreamed of super soaking a stranger, Songkran is the perfect festival for you. For 3-days, it’s non-stop water gun wielding and water balloon sniping. It’s a hilarious and perfectly weird way to experience Thai culture.” – Taylor + Daniel of Travel Outlandish on Songkran […]

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    HappyLuke Thailand
    April 25, 2018 at 6:29 am

    Who wouldn’t love Thai massage? It’s pretty relaxing, you can have it anywhere in Chiang Mai plus it’s hella cheap.

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