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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
Heading to Southeast Asia? You might also like:
- The Other Halong Bay: Bai Tu Long Bay
- The Other Sapa: Ha Giang
- The Other Ayutthaya: Sukothai
- Thailand Backpacking Guide (The Broke Backpacker)