Surrounded by lush mountains and dotted with temples of cultural importance, Chiang Mai is the best hub for exploring northern Thailand. If you’re wondering what to do in Chiang Mai, we’ve got you covered with a list of fun and unique things to do in Thailand’s fourth largest city.
Many travelers come to Thailand for the beaches as see little else. But the northern part of the country, with its laidback vibe and insurmountable natural beauty, is definitely worth a stop on your trip to the “Land of Smiles”.
We have visited Chiang Mai on a few occasions, and even returned to this charming city to live for 5 months while working online. We are constantly amazed by just how much there is to do in Chiang Mai — from the typical tourist activities to local hotspots to off the beaten path experiences that few know about.
We put together a list of our favorite unique things to do in Chiang Mai, as well as a couple things to avoid. We hope this helps you plan your visit (or fuels your wanderlust!).
1. Cliff Jumping at Chiang Mai Grand Canyon
Even if the sight of this picture makes your stomach crawl into your throat, Chiang Mai’s “Grand Canyon” is still worth a visit.
This “canyon” is an old quarry that now attracts mostly foreigners trying to get “off the beaten path”. While it is no secret anymore, it still has a feeling of being relatively unknown to most travelers passing through.
Just a 40-minute drive from town, a trip here will allow you to escape the city and soak up some rays while watching a handful of daredevils make this 50-foot jump. If you are a confident cliff jumper, we would suggest making the leap! We did, and had a blast.
Start with some of the smaller jumps and work your way up. If you are nervous though, just observe others. It isn’t uncommon for people to get hurt here, so listen to your own body.
How to visit the Chiang Mai Grand Canyon
Get there by motorbike (an easy drive) or by tuk tuk/songathew (red pickup truck). Split the fare with other travelers to make it more affordable. The entrance fee is 50 baht and includes a free herbal drink at the onsite café. They also serve a small selection of food that is a bit on the pricey side and just mediocre, but it “fills the hole”.
Update: We have been told the Grand Canyon has now been turned into a water park of sorts with platforms and inflatable toys. It sounds like a bunch of fun, but it may cost a little bit more now.
2. Learn Thai cuisine in a Chiang Mai Cooking Class
If you’ve been following our blog for a while, you know that we LOVE to eat. Anything and Everything. No exaggeration.
And you probably also know that we are constantly raving about taking cooking courses in other countries. We’re up to 7 now. We wholeheartedly believe that there are few ways to learn more about a culture than through its cuisine.
There is no better place to learn how to make your favorite Thai dishes than Chiang Mai. The tricky part is choosing a cooking school, as the options seem endless.
In our research, we found 3 cooking schools that are clear winners. They all have a 3 things in common:
- They bring you to a local market instead of the one ridden with tourists in the Old City
- Each person is able to make 5 dishes that they have selected
- All 3 of these cooking schools take place on an organic farm from which you can gather your own produce and herbs
We chose Secret Thai Cooking School because the Thai Farm Cooking School was fully booked during the 2 weeks that we spent in Chiang Mai (I guess you have to book really, really far in advance!). Even though it was our second choice, we were incredibly impressed.
Sidenote: We also heard great things about Sammy's Organic Thai Cooking School.
Our teacher, May, gave everyone in our class of 11 individualized attention as she taught us how to make dishes from a menu we created – not the case at many cooking schools! (Ben and I love to try everything, so we each chose different dishes so we’d be able to try 10 separate meals. Best idea ever!)
We were able to pick our own vegetables in the onsite garden, and had our own gas stove and cooking station in our host’s home. Additionally, we learned how to make our own coconut milk the traditional way and received a cookbook that was made especially for us with our own photos inside.
We visited during the Loi Krathong festival and were lucky enough to make our very own krathong, which we floated down the river alongside locals that evening.
We are seriously obsessed with Thai food, so friends and family at home better watch out! You'll be our guinea pigs as soon as we return to the States.
3. Chat with a monk in Chiang Mai
You will spot the iconic saffron robes everywhere you venture in Thailand, but in Chiang Mai you can have the rare opportunity to go beyond gawking and get personal with a monk. There are 5 temples with “Monk Chat” programs in the city, but we chose to visit Wat Suan Dok Temple due to its proximity to town.
We spent an hour asking the monks questions about daily life and anything else that popped into our minds. They were incredibly open and willing to talk. I only wished we had thought more about what we would ask them ahead of time because after we left I started coming up with many more questions on some of the hot topics in today's society... What is the Buddhist stance on gay marriage? Guns? Refugees? ISIS?
If you have the chance to ask any of these questions, I'd love to know the answers!
How to do chat with a monk:
It's super easy. At Wat Suan Dok, just show up between 5-7 p.m. on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday. You will sign in with your name and nationality and be assigned to a monk. Be sure to wear appropriate clothing that covers your shoulders and everything above your knees.
4. Support a sustainable farm with your taste buds
Pun Pun Farm is located amongst jungles and mountains in the countryside of northern Thailand and is renowned worldwide for the sustainability methods practiced there.
You’ll have no problem finding vegetarian food in Chiang Mai, but one of the best options to get your veg on is undoubtedly Pun Pun Restaurant. The produce is organic and is sourced from the farm, so you can feel good about what you’re eating.
We ordered 3 meals (don’t judge!) and a smoothie, and all of it was delicious. Even though eating here is healthy and supports the sustainability movement, you won’t be paying much more than any other local restaurant.
The restaurant is located behind the grounds of the Wat Suan Dok temple and is only open until 4 p.m. Have a leisurely late lunch/early dinner before participating in a Monk Chat.
5. Get massaged by a prison inmate
If you’re picturing laying in an 8-by-8 concrete cell with bars, getting rubbed down by a surly woman clad in orange, you’re sorely mistaken. My masseuse was sweet and giggly, and looked more like a pigtailed schoolgirl than a convict.
So, here’s the question everyone is wondering… What are the women in prison for? Could you potentially be massaged by a serial killer? No, silly! Most of the women are serving short sentences for minor crimes. The Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution has created a program to give its inmates the opportunity to learn marketable skills. The women are also allowed to save their wages and tips for their release date.
There are three options for massages (In 2015, Prices may have increased since): 1-hour foot massage (150 baht), 1-hour Thai massage (180 baht), and 2-hour Thai massage (360 baht).
We chose the 1-hour Thai massage and were led into a big, dimly-lit room with nearly 20 beds on which people were getting cracked, rubbed and stretched. The air was filled with the strong scent of menthol and eucalyptus… Mmmm, Tiger Balm.
The only thing that distinguished this establishment from the hundreds of other massage joints in the area were the women wearing police uniforms that paced the room every once in a while with clipboards in hand.
On the TripAdvisor site, many people rave that they received “the BEST massage in Thailand”, and Ben said his was fantastic. Mine, on the other hand, was mediocre. I’ve had better, and probably have had worse… but still, I felt good contributing to this organization that enables women to create a better life for themselves.
If you decide to get a massage, remember that this isn’t a tourist attraction to be gawked at. These women are trying to make a better life for themselves, and by visiting you are helping contribute to their self-improvement, but it's not a place to leer rudely or take pictures of your masseuse.
Our advice is to arrive early. We got there just after 10 in the morning, and weren’t able to get on the schedule until 2:45 p.m. Arrive much later than we did, and you'll be outta luck! If you want to find another place to get a good massage, our friend, Justine Wharton, has a detailed article describing where to find the best massages in Chiang Mai. She tried 30 different massage places in the city and these are her favorites.
Also on the premises is a souvenir shop and a reasonably priced restaurant serving Thai and Western dishes as well as a coffee and fruit shakes.
Hours: Monday - Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. & Saturday - Sunday 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
6. Climb up the Sticky Waterfalls (Bua Thong Waterfalls)
Most waterfalls you think of are extremely slippery due to the massive build up of mossy rocks or fast moving water. The Bua Thong Waterfalls, known as the Sticky Waterfalls, near Chiang Mai are unique because they are fed by a spring rich in minerals. Due to the mineral deposits in the water, the rocks have become porous and slightly spongey, allowing you to walk up them with bare feet (Perfect for any two wandering soles! Ha!)
There are a couple sections to the tiered-waterfall, but our favorite was at the very bottom where the falls drop about thirty feet and you are able to climb around them. It's a great way to excape the heat in the city.
There is a small set up stairs opposite of the falls, and it leads to the source of the spring. The spring itself is a deep blue hole filled with vibrant colors.
How to get to the Sticky Waterfalls near Chiang Mai:
The drive takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes from the Chiang Mai Old City north on Route 1001. You'll know you're getting close when the road starts winding up hill and bordered with trees. You'll see a sign for Bua Thong Waterfall on the right and take that turn to enter the park.
If you don't feel comfortable on a motorbike, you can always ask a red truck (songthaew) to take you along with some friends (typically up to 8 people). That way you can split the cost of the trip there and back.
7. Eat Khao Soi in Chiang Mai
Unlike Pad Thai and Green Curry, this Thai dish is not very well-known in the Western world, but it should be!
With a Burmese influence, this dish most commonly found in the north of Thailand, and Chiang Mai is a perfect place to try your first bite.
I’d like to think that Khao Soi would be the love child if chicken noodle soup and yellow curry ever got together. A combination of egg noodles, coconut curry broth, chicken, shallots, lime and chilies make each bite of this dish a party in your mouth! It is typically topped with crunchy fried egg noodles and served pickled vegetables on the side for a flavor and texture explosion.
The best place to eat Khao Soi is on the street. We sampled several bowls, but our favorite was at a vendor near the entrance of the Ming Muang Market on the inside border of the Old City.
UPDATE: Unfortunately when we arrived back to Chiang Mai in 2017, the stand was not there and when we asked the neighboring stalls, they said he closed. NOOOOOO! We are still searching for a street cart Khao Soi that lives up to this stand, but we'll let you know when we find it.
In the meantime, Khao Soi Nimman is a pretty good alternative that is over by Nimman Road area. And for the old town, we hear Khao Soi Khun Yai was pretty good and they great reviews on Tripadvisor. If you can't make it to those, here is a list of the best Khao Soi in Chiang Mai.
While we're on the subject of food, there are so many Northern Thai dishes to try, you're going to leave this city fat and happy. This article from bloggers Tieland to Thailand does a great job describing some Northern Thai food you have to try in Chiang Mai.
8. Release a Lantern in Chiang Mai
If you’re lucky enough to be in Chiang Mai during the month of November, you can observe the Loy Krathong and Yi Peng festivals, which take place around the same time. The date changes each year due to the lunar calendar, so do you research.
Also, book your accommodation well in advance. We were without a bed for one night because it seemed like the entire city had “no vacancy” signs. (Our amazing hosts at Big and O’s Hostel saved the day and set up a mat on their porch – they called it a "jungle bungalow" – so we didn’t have to sleep on the streets.)
Here's a detailed article on activities during Loy Krathong and Yi Peng festival, but this is a list of a few notable activities that take place during these festivals:
Wat Phan Tao lantern ceremony: Watch young monks light hundreds of candles and release wish lanterns in a beautiful, but painstakingly long ceremony.
Release a wish lantern: Head to Tha Phae Road near the Ping River and buy a lantern from one of the many vendors (30-40 baht), make a wish, and watch it float into the night sky amidst hundreds of others.
Observe the parade: Each night of Loi Krathong boasts a parade bigger than the last, with the third night being the best. Watch the beautifully dressed people proceed past you, or watch from the comforts of a bar on Kotchasan Road with a beer in hand like we did.
Float a Krathong down the river: Make your own (we fashioned ours using banana leaves and flowers at our cooking class – information above), or purchase one from a street vendor (30-60 baht) near the Ping River. Light 3 sticks of incense and release your Krathong onto the water. This is a symbol of letting go of the bad in your life and welcoming the good.
9. Go hiking around Chiang Mai
There are plenty of green jungle trails to explore once you get outside the city. We did a hike that is called the monk trail, because it leads from Chiang Mai up to Doi Suthep. Another trail we hiked starts from Huay Tung Tao Reservoir and takes an easy climb up to the Taab Mook Waterfall.
We found all these hikes by going a group on Facebook called the Doi Suthep Walkers, who have weekly meet-ups to go hiking, typically on Saturday mornings at 7:30 a.m. sharp.
Note: This group is great, but the crowd tends to get large, espcially for the shorter hikes. The hikes we have been on have had about 50 people going up the mountain with us (I mean just look at the size of the Facebook group). The people who join are really fun and are typically foreigners living in Chiang Mai long-term, with a few other travelers sprinkled in. If you are excited to meet new people and get outside the city, this is a fun (FREE) option for you, but do know that the group is not small.
10. Visit Doi Suthep Temple in Chiang Mai (Wat Phra That)
Someone told us once that if you haven't visited Doi Suthep, then you haven't visited Chiang Mai. Now, we don't fully believe that, because one place can't simply make a city.
But after been to Doi Suthep, I can't believe it took us so long! This one of the most beautiful temples in all Thailand. Plus, you'll also have a pretty great view of city.
Tip: Try to go early in the morning, as it can get very, very busy.
How to get to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep:
Take a red truck from anywhere in the city and kindly ask them to go to Doi Suthep. It should be about 60 Baht per person. The ride will take about 30-45 minutes depending on traffic up the winding hill. Or you can take the 2-3 hour hike to the top. You can do it on your own, or try joining the local hiking group and check their schedule to see if they'll be making that hike while you're in Chiang Mai.
11. Explore Chiang Mai Markets
Chiang Mai has a market in what seem like evvery corner of the city. Here is a list of the biggest markets in town:
- Chiang Mai Night Bazaar: Open every night of the week, vendors line the street on Chang Klan Road selling every souvenir you can imagine from t-shirts to stuffed elephants to pillow cases to jewelry.
- Saturday Night Market: Starting from the Old Pagoda by the south gate and stretching down the Wua Lai Road, this is another souvenir market.
- Sunday Night Market: Tha Phae Gate is where this market starts and the vendors and crowds pack down Rachadamnoen Road into the old city. There are plenty of food stalls and vendors selling anything and everything.
- Warorot Market (Kad Luang): This is where many locals shop for clothes or home goods. It's cheaper than the tourist markets but is only open during the day.
- Malin Market: If you are over by Chiang Mai University, pop over to Malin Night Market. There are artists selling jewelry and clothes stalls with cheap price tags. The food court is great too! You won't find many forigners here, mainly Thai university students.
12. Ride in a Songthaew (Red Truck)
When you visit Chiang Mai you can't miss the numerous songthaews or red trucks on the roads. Songthaews, literally translated means "two rows", are converted red trucks with two padded bench seats in the bed and act as shared "taxis" throughout the city.
Red trucks are our favorite way to get around Chiang Mai. Not only are red trucks plentiful and help reduce the number of cars on the road, they are fairly inexpensive costing only 30 THB ($0.93 USD) per person anywhere within the old city.
Ethical Travel Tip: Make sure you are paying you drivers fairly. Most red trucks are labeled as 30 Baht per person. But you have to understand those prices were probably set years ago and with anything, prices tend to increase. You can negociate with the drivers, but please be fair to them too. Don't be that guy who argues hard over 10 baht ($0.31 USD). Also, try to pay in smaller bills, it's easier for them to break. Here is our rule of thumb for red truck costs:
- Anywhere within or around the Chiang Mai Old City: 30 baht per person
- Chiang Mai Old City to Nimman Road area: 40 baht per person (sometimes only 30 if they already have a load of people)
- Chiang Mai Old City or Nimman Road to Airport: 50 baht person
- Old City to Doi Suthep Temple: 60 baht per person one-way
How to get in a Songthaew Red Truck:
Hail down a red truck just like you would a cab or a tuk tuk, and they will pull over on the side of the road. Say hello (sah-wah-dee) to the driver and tell them the general area you are going. It may confuse them if you request a specific hotel or restaurant. We typically request one of the old city gates, or a popular market, and then just walk the rest of the way.
If they know where you are going, they will either say "Okay" or state a price per person. No need to say "How much?" if they don't say a price because then it is understood that the price is 30 baht per person. Once they say "okay" or you agree on a price, hop in the back and enjoy the ride.
The drivers are pretty good about getting to where you want to go, but if they go past your stop, you can rign the bell on the ceiling and they will pull over. Hop out and pay the driver.
13. See Elephants in Chiang Mai the Responsible Way
Seeing an elephant up close is almost on everyone's bucket list in Thailand. But we wanted to let you know a little insight we've learned while living in Chiang Mai.
There has been kind of a trend in the past few years where elephant parks are calling themselves "sanctuaries", but after tourists leave the way they treat their animals (and staff memebers) isn't always great. Our first time traveling together in Thailand, we visited Elephant’s World in Kanchanaburri. While we didn't experience or see any mistreatment of the animals, we are now more aware about this issue still facing the Thailand tourism industry.
We have heard mixed things about Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. We've had some really close friends rave about it and can't wait to return someday. While other people we have met here didn't have the best experience and told us their concerns for the elephants.
One place we have heard from others that is ethically run and the elephants are returned to their natural habitat (and not fenced in) is Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (no affiliation). They provide a better life for the elephants and also work to improving villages and alternate work for the mahouts.
We want to encourage you to do your research ahead. The good places book up in advance - so plan ahead if seeing elephants is a must for you.
Also, if you go somewhere that is not ethically run, SPEAK UP. Tell their management of what you saw. If you feel uncomfortable in person, write a review online so others can be informed and decide if they want to support it.
Other things to do in Chiang Mai area:
Zip-lining: Flight of the Gibbon is by far the most popular of the zip-lining companies, but there are many high-flying adventures to choose from.
Floating Houses: If you're looking for a weekend trip out of the craziness of Chiang Mai, the Mae Ngat Dam Floating Houses look like they could be a great getaway. Check out Tieland to Thailand's detailed post about their experience and how to get there.
Muai Thai Boxing: You can't go a day without seeing men on scooters handing out flyers for that night's Muai Thai Boxing match. Chiang Mai is famous for the fights, and we heard from other travelers that they are worthwhile if you're into UFC-style action.
Trekking: Every travel agency in Chiang Mai will offer 1-, 2- or 3-day treks around the area. Make sure to shop around and find a company that doesn't exploit the locals or animals. (Many include visits to local villages and elephant trekking – both of which can be harmful to the community and the environment. Keep reading for more information.)
Visit the Temples: Okay, not unique per se, but you can't come to Chiang Mai without seeing temples. You can try, but they are everywhere! This city is dotted with several temples, ranging in size and appearance. The best is Doi Suthep, which is located on a hill a little ways from the center of town.
Things NOT to do in Chiang Mai
We decided long ago that we will not knowingly contribute to attractions that exploit people or animals while traveling. A picture, in our opinion, just isn’t worth the suffering of others. We know all too well that it is often times hard to know if a company is socially responsible, so we try to share what we’ve learned along the way. We hope this information helps you formulate your own opinion about visiting some controversial sites on your travels.
As with any controversial issue, research the subject, and formulate your own opinion so you can make a socially-responsible decision.
You will undoubtedly be pestered by tuk tuk drivers shouting “Tiger Kingdom! I take you to Tiger Kingdom!” After doing lots of research on the subject and talking to others who have visited this attraction, we have very strong feelings about this type of tourism.
And we made a firm decision not to support it even though, yes, having a picture with a large cat would be quite cool.
At the “sanctuary”, tigers are treated in a way that is undoubtedly inhumane. Hordes of people line up daily to have their photo taken with these animals that are living a harmful and unnatural lifestyle.
Many of the treks advertised in Chiang Mai include an elephant ride. As we’ve written before, riding on an elephant’s back is actually very harmful to these gentle creatures. There are a few elephant sanctuaries in Thailand that treat them well, but the overwhelming majority are terribly cruel.
We had a wonderful experience at Elephant’s World in Kanchanaburri (near Bangkok). But if you are in the northern part of the country and desperately want to see these giants, visit the reputable Elephant Nature Park.
Here, you can be assured that your contribution is not harming the animals, but instead is ensuring they have a healthy and happy life.
Visiting the "Long Neck" Hill Tribes
Several tour shops advertise tours that take you to a hill tribe village where you can see the famous “Longneck” people (this actually refers to a subgroup of the Karen people). Although we can’t speak from experience, some people we spoke to who had done these tours said it felt like group of people on display in the name of tourism. Others claim that many of these villages main source of livelihood comes from tourism.
We, too, are intrigued by the indigenous tribes, but are still unsure of how we feel about this. It is no doubt a complicated issue that brings up many feelings in different people.
Our advice would be to do a little research and decide where you stand on this topic. If you do decide to visit a hill tribe village, be sure to choose a company that is paying the villagers fairly and operating in an ethical way. Also, do some research on the history of these indigenous group - many of whom are refugees - and you will have a much more meaningful experience.
Hotels in Chiang Mai
Luxury Hotel: Bodhi Serene Chiang Mai Hotel - In the heart of the old city, but secuded on a small street that makes it the perfect combination. With nice outdoor pool and a business center, it's great for families or business professionals.
Couples/Mid-Range: Vieng Mantra Hotel - Situated steps away from the Chiang Mai Tha Phae (East Gate), you and your hunny can have a great night out downtown or relax by the pool and bar at the hotel.
Budget Accommodation Best Location: Vida Guesthouse
Simple, clean and comfortable rooms for just 350 baht ($10 USD) a night is a steal! The rooftop terrace is lovely, the staff is helpful and not super pushy, and the location is top notch.
his tree-shaded neighborhood in the Old City is quiet and has an abundance of adorable cafes. It is close to a local market, street food, and isn’t too far from the major sites. Based off of location and value for our money, this was our favorite place in Chiang Mai.
Budget/Best Staff: Big and O’s Guesthouse
We weren’t as crazy about the location as at Vida Guesthouse, but it's near the night market and main gate which is packed with street food in the evenings. The location isn't bad, but it is in a pretty crowded, busy and noisy area.
The guesthouse itself is nice, with comfortable dorm beds and AC, but the thing that makes it a winner is the staff. We have never experienced hospitality like we did at Big and O’s. The family who lives there is lovely, and they sleep near the entrance so it almost feels like a homestay. If you’re looking to find a home away from home and a family you’ll fall in love with, stay here.
Restaurants in Chiang Mai
There are countless delicious resturants in this city and we are a bit biased because we love Thai food. But here are a few special place we recommend you try when exploring Chiang Mai:
- Free Bird Cafe: Non-profit, health food cafe where 100% of the profits go to their charity supporting a community learning center for refugees.
- Food 4 Thought: Tucked away near the Nimman Area, they serve Western Fusion cuisine in a beautiful setting.
Bars in Chiang Mai
Looking for a night out? Check out these bars:
- Loi Kroh Road, Chiang Mai: Take your pick of cheap bars along this street in between the old city and the night market
- Mellowship Jazz Club: Music every night of the week. A little bit more upscale, but a pretty nice place.
- RAM Bar: Get ready for a good time at Chiang Mai's Cabaret Show. Shows start at 10 p.m. every night of the week.