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Whether it’s an elephant tour or muay thai fight in Chiang Mai we have put together a list of the top things to do in Chiang Mai. We haved lived all over Thailand including 3 months in Chiang Mai and absolutely loved it as a top digital nomad location. One of the reasons we loved living in Chiang Mai was because there were so many things to do and small day trips!
This post can help you plan out your next Thailand backpacking adventure or extended stay. Either way, you’ll definitely be convinced that Chiang Mai is a must-visit destination in Southeast Asia.
If you are looking to hang out with elephants in Thailand there are many places to choose from, but there is a huge problem in this industry as the majority of the places do not treat the elephants ethically. Don’t worry though, there is an amazing place that you can have your cake and eat it too: Elephant Nature Park! They are an amazing organization that rescues elephants from the tourism industry and rehabilitates them. You can book a half day, full day, or overnight trip to hang out with the elephants without feeling guilty! There is no riding or forced activities; the elephant roam freely and you will be able to pet, feed and walk around with them in their natural habitat. All of the elephants have been rescued from the tourism industry and often have seriously mental and physical trauma so you will learn about each of their stories as well! You can also volunteer to work at the park for an even more intimate experience if you have more time and are not scared off by picking up some elephant poop! All of the tours include an amazing buffet of Thai food as well! Make sure and book your reservation online at least 1-2 weeks ahead of time if possible.
Doi Suthep is one the largest and most important temples in Chiang Mai. It sits on top of a mountain right in the city and actually has much more to see than just the main pagoda. It is easy to spent several hours here exploring the temple, terrace and nature! To get to the temple you need to take a Red Truck (song thaew) which should cost no more than 200 baht. It will take about 30 minutes up very windy roads (motion sickness suffers, be warned.) People used to hike for 5 hours up to this temple before the windy road was built less than 100 years ago so just be glad you don’t have to hike it! When you arrive, there will be many little stalls lining the entrance with food and nic-nacs so don’t worry about bringing a snack! Also make sure to wear comfortable shoes as you will have to walk up 309 stairs to get to the main pagoda. Doi Suthep has bells all around the temple and you can actually buy your own bell and write your name on it and hang it around the temple. The bells are believed to bring good luck! After walking up the stairs and seeing the main temple, make sure to walk around the terrace as well. There are a few other temples and shrines around the terrace as well as the best views of the city! Try to go on a sunny day though or else you will be too high up in the clouds to see the views. It is best to come early in the day to avoid the crowds. Also take note that you are visiting a Buddhist temple and must dress appropriately which means covering knees and shoulders for both men and women.
Whether you are looking for a local hike or a more adventurous way to get up the mountain to Doi Suthep, the Monk’s Trail is the perfect lesser known activity. Half-way up the trail there is also a hidden temple along the way, Wat Phra Lat. If you plan on visiting either temple make sure you dress appropriately (you must cover your knees and shoulders.) To get to the Monk’s Trail take a Red Truck (song-thaew) to the rear entrance of the Chiang Mai Zoo and look for the big red and white antenna which is the unofficial marker of the beginning of the trail. To get to Wat Phra Lat takes about 45 minutes. The trail is marked by orange monk’s cloth. You will see monk’s hiking along the way as well as this trail is still used daily. Wat Phra Lat is situated in the forest and decorated with dragons and other shrines and statues. It is an amazingly peaceful place to both relax and explore. If you want to keep going up to Doi Suthep, you will need to go out to the road and go on the path on the opposite side of the road. This portion of the hike should take between 1 – 1.5 hours. Make sure to wear good hiking shoes and bring/wear bug spray as there are lots of mosquitos on this hike.
If you are looking for a unique workout or just curious about Thailand’s famous form of martial arts you can actually learn from professionals and join a muay thai class! There are several gyms around the city but I personally recommend Chiangmai Muay Thai Gym. They offer multiple 90 minutes classes every day which are are all open to visitors. No need to make a reservation, you can just show up for class. They provide wraps and gloves and will cater the class to your level of knowledge. Activities range from learning forms of punches and kicks; bag work; 1-on-1 training in the ring; and HIIT training. Don’t be intimidated if you have never done boxing of any kind before; this is meant for all levels and is a really fun class and experience! You will definitely need a Thai massage afterwards!
Tips: class times are 8 am and 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 pm
While you’ve probably heard of Muay Thai most people don’t realize that they can go watch an actual Muay Thai match while in Chiang Mai! This can be a great night out for family or friends! This sport has been a part of Thai culture for hundreds of years. There are quite a few gyms around the city which offer fights almost every night. The Thaphrae Boxing Stadium is most popular amoung tourists because of its location but for a more local experience I recommend going to Chiangmai Boxing Stadium. They have fights almost every night as well starting at 9pm. Tickets cost about 600 baht and you can buy drinks there as well to turn this event into a night out!
Although it may not be classic Thai style coffee, this coffee shop is truly one of the coolest coffee shops around. It is owned by Arnon – a well-known man in the specialty coffee world – and has become world famous because he is a multiple time world latte art champion. And let me tell ya, the latte art is truly impressive and absolutely picture perfect! Not into lattes? No problem. Ristr8o has coffee from all over the world and makes the most unique drinks from coffee martinis to cold coffee concoctions in test tubes! The shop’s decor and presentation alone is something to go visit! They have two locations but I personally think the “lab” is a much better vibe with a gorgeous porch full of picnic tables and vinery.
Night markets in Thailand are not just a place to buy fruit and clothes, they are a way of life and surely the best place to find cheap local food and cute, handmade crafts. The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar if the most well known night market among tourist. But if you want to avoid some of the touristy crowds and want a better selection of food and crafts, another option is the Saturday and Sunday Night Markets. Yes, you guessed it, one market is only on Saturday nights and one market is only on Sunday nights – so plan your trip accordingly because they are definitely worth the wait. Both market are somewhat similar in offerings. They have extensive street food from pad thai and mango sticky rice to fresh squeezed fruit juices; as well as tons of art and handmade goods such as lanterns, purses, painting and cute trinkets. Although there will still be tons of people at these markets, you will find a much more authentic vibe and better options of both food and goods.
The Saturday Market starts near the south gate (which is where you can be dropped off) and goes down Wua Lai Road. The Sunday Market starts at Tha Pae Gate and goes down Rachadamnoen Road through Old City.
Thai cuisine is full of crazy spices and flavors but many people don’t realize that it varies from the north to the south. The most popular dish in northern Thailand is called Khao Soi. This dish is very similar to classic Thai curry but has a completely different flavor profile. You will find it everywhere in Chiang Mai but if you ask anyone who has lived in Chiang Mai they will most likely tell you that you have to try this dish at Khao Soi Mae Sai. The outside may be simplistic, but don’t let appearances fool you. I recommend going towards the beginning of your time in Chiang Mai just in case you want to go back for seconds!
If you are looking for a quick trip from Chiang Mai to enjoy some fresh air and actually relax in nature, there is a lake with floating houses about 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai that is essentially undiscovered by tourists. However, this is a popular place for local Thai people to come on the weekends so try to go during the week or else make your reservation ahead of time. Because it is so close to the city you can go and come back in the same day, however it is much more fun and relaxing to spend the night there. Eakachai Floating Houses has comfortable little cabanas and a restaurant that are all floating and connected by walkways. The houses are in the middle of the lake surrounded my gorgeous mountains with nothing else in site. It is sure to give you a peaceful break from the hustle and bustle of the city. They offer free kayaks and have an inflatable obstacle course – that yes, is for adults too!
If you enjoy eating Thai food you simply must learn how the magic is made so that you can at least try to replicate it! Chiang Mai offers some amazing cooking classes that teach you step by step how to make multiple dishes and appetizers that are staples in Thai cuisine. Most of the cooking classes will also take you to one the local wet markets and begin class by teaching you about the herbs and vegetables needed to make your meals. By the end you walk away with a cook book full of recipes and bellies full after making 3 full courses!
Thai massages are world famous and you are sure to see a new spa on every corner. But for a truly unique experience (and amazing massage) you must get a massage from the prison inmates at Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institute. This is a program to help inmates learn marketable skills. It is absolutely safe and a truly delightful spa experience. You can get a foot massage or classic full body Thai massage. Make sure to go early or walk by to make a reservation as they tend to fill up fast for the day.
In Thailand transvestites or “Ladyboys” have an amazing, very open community and you may see many men dressed as gorgeous women at bars or on the streets. In the Anusarn Night Market (near the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar) there is a cabaret show full of comedy, costumes, and dancing that ladyboys put on and it is such a great way to experience the pride and culture in Thailand, as well as see a very professional, entertaining show! The ladyboys are very talented and the show has great energy and music for a fun night out! The show starts every night at 9 pm and includes a free drink.
Sak Yant tattoo are traditional Thai tattoos that can only be performed by a Buddhist monk and are believed to provide various protections and blessings. Because they are traditionally done in a temple with a piece of bamboo, many people express concern of safety and cleanliness in getting a traditional sak yant. Luckily there are some monk’s that provide both the authentic tattoo and ceremony, as well as modern tattooing hygiene and tools such as Master Daam. He does not have a huge fancy tattoo shop but he has tattooed for many, many years, and sticks to the traditional guidelines while also providing sterilization that he learned in Switzerland as well as many other credentials. Further, Master Daam speak amazing English and is able to explain to meaning behind each of his Sak Yant designs which really enhances the experiences. This is not something to take lightly, but is a truly unique experience while in Chiang Mai. You will be able to pick out your design and after the tattoo is finished, the monk will perform a ceremony to bless the tattoo.
Whether you are a thrill seeker or just want to enjoy some sun and water, the Chiang Mai Grand Canyon is great “off the beaten path” adventure. It is only 30 minutes away from the city center making for a perfect little getaway. The “canyon” is a quarry that has become a popular spot for swimming, cliff jumping, sunbathing and playing on giant inflatable obstacle courses! There is even an onsite cafe with a few snacks and drinks to keep you energized and give you an extra boost of energy to make the tallest jump at 50 feet!
While it would be extremely dangerous to climb most waterfalls, this lesser known waterfall is quite unique in that you can easily climb the wet rock feeling somewhat like a super hero! Because of the mineral deposits in the rocks the texture is actually grippy and thus very easy to climb without slipping. Further adding to the “non-slipperyness,” there is no algae or plants can stick to or grow on the rocks. The waterfalls are about an hour from Chiang Mai making for an easy half day hiking venture!
You know all the pictures of gorgeous rice fields covering the mountain sides? Well you can actually stay the night on a farmhouse on one of those rice fields and it’s simply magical. Ban Pa Pong Piang Rice Field are claimed to be some of the most beautiful (if not THE most beautiful) rice fields in Thailand but they are still not very accessible thus most people don’t know how to go see them or that is even possible. If you are willing to go on a little adventure getting there, this is an absolute must-do experience while you are in Chiang Mai. There are a few homestays and farmhouses available to house you for a night and allow you to explore the rice fields. It is an all inclusive experience as there is not really any other way to see the rice fields since they are privately owned by the farmers. If you have time to spend a night there, it is absolutely amazing to walk through the rice paddies, hike through the forest, and sleep under the stars. The Ba Pa Piong rice fields are on the edge of Doi Inthanon National Park which is the highest mountain in Thailand so you are definitely in for some breathtaking views.
The Old City is the heart of Chiang Mai. It is technically the main part of the city surrounded by the old, brick city walls and mote. This area is full of stunning temples on every corner (no really I mean it) such as Wat Chedi Luang. The east gate – Tha Pae Gate – is where the most cafes, restaurants and night life are, and also leads towards the main Night Bazaar (although go back and read tip #7 for my personal favorite night markets.) There are tons a cute old alleyways to explore and the best part is it is very walkable!
Nimman is an area right outside the Old City part of Chiang Mai that has a hip, growing scene of Instagram-able coffee shops, and upscale restaurants and shopping. Every week there are some free classes for locals, expats and tourists alike such as yoga and ballroom dancing. It is a great way to meet people or just enjoy a new experience. One Nimman is the building and shopping center that hosts these classes and also contains all the shopping and food, including an upscale street food market every night! The free yoga classes are on every Tuesday and Thursday at 9:30 am.
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