From exploring ancient temples to getting a bamboo tattoo from a monk, here is our list of the absolute best things to do in Chiang Mai!
Thailand is a nation that continues to draw visitors back time and time again. From the world-class beaches in the South to the mountain forests in the North, Thailand really does have something for everyone.
While Bangkok is its bustling capital, the north is the heart of culture and creativity, and there are hundreds of things to do in Chiang Mai.
The Best Things to Do Iin Chiang Mai!
You could easily spend a month (or more) in Northern Thailand, making Chiang Mai a base for exploration.
With the best restaurant and cafe scene in the country, excellent nightlife, a strong Buddhist presence and enough activities to fill a calendar year, there is definitely no shortage of things to do in Chiang Mai, Thailand!
It really is a cultural capital of Thailand, and no doubt you’ll fall in love with it on your next visit. Best of all it’s very affordable compared to the south of the country.
Update – We actually found ourselves based in Chiang Mai for 2.5 months, and really loved our time there.
There are so many places to visit in Chiang Mai, and every day we found more and more to do! If you want to know what to do in Chiang Mai, have a read of this article and come visit the city for yourself!
1) Visit Elephant Nature Park
Unfortunately, Thailand has a history of animal abuse to help boost its tourism economy. Activities such as riding an elephant or visiting the sedated tigers in many of the temples only add to this cruelty and should be avoided at all cost.
But in Chiang Mai there is one sanctuary that is committed to education and rehabilitation. The Elephant Nature Park is a rescue centre for elephants that have been abused by the tourism industry over the decades.
Here you can either visit the elephants in their natural environment or volunteer at Elephant Nature Park to help out around the sanctuary.
Riding elephants are prohibited; instead, the focus is on treating and protecting these beautiful creatures. Definitely one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai.
Elephant Nature Park is also the most expensive option for visiting elephants in Chiang Mai, but that’s because they are the absolute best company in town.
2) Enjoy The Cafe Scene
Ok, we admit it – we’re suckers for a city with a great cafe scene. And in Thailand few places offer the kind of coffee-hopping joys that Chiang Mai does.
Because we work online, we love a good cafe with tasty coffee, a comfortable setting, funky music and fast wifi.
After a huge morning seeking out all the Chiang Mai attractions, we’d often find ourselves in the one of the quirky cafes to while away the afternoon hours.
Our favourites were Good Morning Chiang Mai and Bird’s Nest Cafe, but you could spend weeks bouncing from place to place and never get sick of it.
The cafes really are the bomb and one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai.
3) Ride The Mae Hong Son Loop
Ok, this isn’t exactly in Chiang Mai, but no trip to Northern Thailand would be complete without renting a scooter or motorbike and riding this incredible four-day loop.
Starting from Chiang Mai, you complete a circuit, spending nights in Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son and seeking out the best things to do in Pai, before returning back to the city.
It is known to be one of the best motorbike loops in Southeast Asia, and after we spent 10 months riding two motorbikes 15’000km around the region, we can honestly agree that it is well worth doing.
There’s a lot to see and do along the way, and first up is the sensational mountain scenery. Make sure your travel cameras are charged, because it’s seriously going to blow your mind.
There’s also a lot of cool detours you can take that will take you up to some unique hill tribes. The people up there are very friendly and welcoming, but make sure you are dressed modestly and show them respect.
And if the temperature is getting the better of you, there’s plenty of gorgeous waterfalls to stop off at and take a quick dip.
The Mae Hong Son Loop is probably up there with Chiang Rai as being one of the best trips from Chiang Mai. Take the time to do it, and you certainly won’t regret it!
(Seriously, don’t be one of those digital nomads or backpackers who spend all their time in the city and never leave.)
4) Spend Time With A Local
We’ve been lucky enough to spend months backpacking Thailand, and one thing we never tire of is the welcoming and generous culture of the Thai people.
When you’re in the country you will no doubt have countless incredible interactions that will help convince you Thailand may just be the best country in the world.
If you’re in the city and on a limited schedule, there are plenty of things to do with locals in Chiang Mai, such as trekking and cooking classes.
Our absolute favourite experience with locals is the cooking classes. We did this one with Get Your Guide and absolutely loved it.
5) Explore The Buddhist Temples
Chiang Mai is full of amazing Buddhist temples, known as ‘wats’, and the majority of them are open to visitors. While Wat Doi Suthep is probably the most beautiful, the ones in the city should not be missed either.
Definitely check out Wat Phra Singh, Wat Pan Tao, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Umong. One of the real unique things to do in Chiang Mai is to attend a monk chat.
Basically, this is where you can visit a temple and talk to the monks about Buddhism, life in the temples, or just about anything you can think of.
They are often very excited to practice their English, so it is mutually beneficial. Check out the posters plastered around the temples to see when the regular monk chats are on. The monks might even give you some more tips on what to do in Chiang Mai!
6) Hill Tribe Trekking In The Surrounding Mountains
A lot of people who visit Thailand start in the Southern islands, which are undoubtedly beautiful, but can lack a bit of culture and authenticity.
It is no wonder then that when people arrive in Chiang Mai, they are often craving to learn about the history and ethnic development of the country.
The jungles in the Chiang Mai province are a trekker’s paradise, filled with waterfalls, valleys, mountains and, perhaps more interestingly, various hill tribes.
Just make sure you sign up for your treks with a reputable and responsible tour operator, where the majority of the money will go to the local people.
Avoid visiting the Karen long neck tribes. These minority people have been forced to continue their paralysing traditions, at the insistence of the government, to keep growing the booming tourism economy.
This one trekking at Doi Suthep Mountain is really cool (booked with Adrenaline Hunters).
7) Wander The Sunday Walking Street Markets
Every Sunday night the centre of the Old City is closed to traffic, and food vendors, craftspeople and artists take over with their unique and bargain-priced street markets.
It’s a wonderful evening out, and you’ll find locals and tourists alike wandering around, checking out the items for sale and just enjoying themselves.
If you’re looking to buy any souvenirs or trinkets this is the place to do it. You’ll find all kinds of things here, from traditional to contemporary, and usually at very good prices.
Or if you would rather spend your money on something different, you can get foot massages for only a few dollars, and literally stuff yourself silly with all the delicious local food that is scattered all over the markets.
Definitely one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai at night.
Hot tip – don’t eat lunch on a Sunday, because you’re going to fill yourself up at the walking street markets for dinner!
8) Do A Meditation Course At Wat Doi Suthep
Chiang Mai is full of ways to get in touch with your inner self, but perhaps the most famous one is the Doi Suthep Vipassana Meditation Centre. Situated on top of Suthep Mountain, this temple receives thousands of visitors every single day.
For those that want to stay longer and learn more about this life-changing method of meditation, the monks open their doors and provide courses that range from 3-28 days.
Speaking is forbidden during your time in the temple, and all your energies are focused on breathing and clearing your mind of thoughts and troubles.
Courses are run on donations. Alesha completed a 7-day course in 2014 and absolutely loved it. Click here to find out more about her Vipassana meditation course in Chiang Mai.
9) Get A Massage At The Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution
That’s right – get a massage at the women’s prison. Before you turn your nose up at this idea, it is important to realise that this is actually a wonderful and hugely beneficial enterprise.
The women in this correctional facility are all serving short sentences for minor offences, and this is a way for them to learn a new skill to help them migrate back into society.
There’s a cafe and crafts store on site, and the massages and spa facilities are very reasonably priced (expect 180 Baht for a massage). One of the strangest, but more interesting, things to do in Chiang Mai.
10) Cliff Diving At The Hang Dong Rock Quarry
If jumping off of high things into water sounds like your idea of fun (it is for us), then make sure you head out to the Hang Dong Rock Quarry.
Originally used as a mine to clear out limestone, the quarry has now filled with water that glows a vibrant turquoise green. The massive pool is deep enough to launch from the highest cliffs, some of them up to 12m high.
If you would rather take a dip without taking the dive, there are plenty of spots you can just swim out. It can be hard to find, so hiring a scooter or songthaew is the best way to get there. This page has some good directions.
Buy your ticket for the canyon here.
Bonus Activity – Get A Sak Yant From A Monk
If you’ve ever wanted to get a bamboo tattoo, then Chiang Mai is the place to do it. Luckily there’s an incredible way to have this experience too.
A sak yant is a traditional, sacred tattoo in the Buddhist religion that is performed by an Ajarn, or tattoo master. These Ajarns are often Buddhist monks, and the sak yants given are ancient script and designs that offer protection and strength to the person wearing it.
Getting a sak yant is often something many travellers want to do on their trip around Thailand, but finding a clean and hygienic place to do it can be tough.
Not wanting to risk an infection, we signed up for a sak yant tour with Where Sidewalks End and even had an English-speaking guide to help translate the entire experience for us with the monk.
It was one of the real highlights of our time in Chiang Mai, and if you’re interested in doing this yourself, we highly recommend it.
Check out our detailed article about our experience getting a sak yant in Chiang Mai.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai has a huge number of accommodation options to match every budget, from backpacker hostels and tiny guesthouses to 5-star luxury resorts.
We stayed in a few places during our time in Chiang Mai, and they were all very decent. If you are a backpacker, check out the options on Hostel World.
If you are a couple or would prefer something a bit higher end, Agoda has a huge selection of accommodations.
Which Neighbourhood in Chiang Mai?
If you’re trying to find a base for yourself to find the best things to do in Chiang Mai, it’s important to choose the right neighbourhood to stay in.
While a lot of expats and digital nomads choose the popular Nimmanhaemin area for its abundance of cafes, bars and restaurants, the truth is it’s a bit far away from the tourist attractions.
If you’re a backpacker you’ll want to stay near the old town, which is the most picturesque, and is walking distance to most of the Chiang Mai points of interest.
However high quality hotels are quite limited in the old town, so you’ll have to venture further afield. Don’t worry though – you’re never too far from anything in Chiang Mai, and tuk tuks and motorbike rentals are very cheap.
Best Backpacker’s Hostel in Chiang Mai
There’s an overwhelming number of awesome hostels in Chiang Mai, and it can be daunting trying to narrow it down to just one.
If you’re looking to party, then the absolute best place to stay in Chiang Mai is the new Mad Monkey Hostel. This chain started in Cambodia, and has been spreading around Southeast Asia like wildfire.
Besides having epic parties, safe and secure rooms and amazing staff, they also put a share of their profits into local community-based charities and organisations, so you can feel good while you drink another cocktail.
If you would rather somewhere a bit quieter, but still want to keep your budget down, then check out Hostel Lullaby. It’s pretty luxurious, comfortable and quiet at night. It also gets amazing reviews on Hostelworld and TripAdvisor.
Best Mid-Range Accommodation in Chiang Mai
There’s no shortage of mid-range accommodation in Chiang Mai, but one of our favourites is the Sakorn Residence and Hotel.
It’s just outside of the old town, so it’s a quieter place to rest your head and it really has a stunning set up.
There’s a pool, huge, bright and clean rooms, a great restaurant and friendly staff. It really has just about everything you would want for a stay in the city.
Best Luxury Hotel in Chiang Mai
If money isn’t an option and you really want to splurge out on the most brilliant accommodation in Chiang Mai, then you need to check out Akyra Manor.
It is arguably the best 5-star hotel in the city, and when you see it for yourself you’ll understand why. The suites surround private courtyards, and there’s art galleries and delicious cafes and restaurants on site.
Seriously, if you want to live in pure luxury in Chiang Mai, this is the place to do it.
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