Surrounded by lush mountains and dotted with historic temples, Chiang Mai is the best hub for exploring northern Thailand. This city has a rare combination of adventure, nature, culture, history, food, and modern comforts; a blend that makes it one of our favorite cities in the world.
If you’re planning a trip to Thailand, we’ve got you covered with a huge list of fun things to do in Chiang Mai. And this isn’t just any list you’ll find online or in the guidebooks…
We’ve spent a lot of time in Chiang Mai. Like a LOT. We even called it home for a year, so we know this city really well. We’ve rounded up the top attractions as well as our favorite off-the-beaten-path things to do in this city. And trust us, with this handy guide, you’ll never find yourself wondering what to do in Chiang Mai.
This guide is chock full of insider tips and hidden gems, so you’ll definitely want to bookmark this page or pin it for later! We genuinely hope this guide helps you as you plan your trip to Thailand (or fuels your wanderlust!).
Psst! We are in the process of updating this article, so please bear with any strange wording or formatting!
Article Contents: Best Things to Do in Chiang Mai
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Adventure Seeker: Adventurous Things to Do in Chiang Mai
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Adventurous Things to do in Chiang Mai
With mountains looming behind the city as well as nearby waterfalls and national parks, there are countless opportunities to get outside and do something memorable.
1. Climb up “Sticky 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 (also known as "Sticky Waterfalls") 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 anyone with "wandering soles"! Haha!)
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 cool down on a hot day!
After you're done playing the falls, head up the small set of stairs opposite of the falls which leads to the source of the spring. The spring itself is a deep hole filled with vibrant blue water.
How to get to the Sticky Waterfalls near Chiang Mai:
We rented a motorbike for this journey, and found it quite easy. The roads are all paved and flat, but you'll have to watch out for traffic.
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 and a group of friends (typically up to 8 people) to the falls.
Local Tip: Sometimes Google Maps falls short of details around Chiang Mai. The best app to find hiking trails around Doi Suthep mountain is Maps Me. Download the app and then download Chiang Mai region.
2. Hike the Pilgrim's Path to a Jungle Temple
There are dozens of temples in Chiang Mai, but Wat Pha Lat is our favorite temple we've visited by far.
First, it is surrounded by the jungle, so it has a completely different feel than the temples within the Old City. Second, it can only be reached by hiking, which eliminates many tourists. The crowds at Wat Pha Lat are far fewer than at many of the other temples in Chiang Mai, so it feels really special.
After an easy 30 - 40-minute hike on the Pilgrim's Path, you'll be rewarded with bamboo forests, the sound of chirping birds, a trickling waterfall, and monks completing their daily chores. Allow yourself at least 30 minutes to wander around, take photos and enjoy this beautiful place.
There is a small stand selling coffee and clean restrooms on the temple grounds.
How to get to the Wat Pha Lat Temple via the Pilgrim’s Path
Take a red truck to the D Condo Apartment building (30 baht from old city). Walk west towards the mountain and at the first intersection after D Condo, turn right and walk about 200 meters and turn left. You are now on Pilgrim’s Path road.
Keep heading west towards the mountain until you see the trailhead and a motorbike parking area. This is where you will start your hike. It should take you about 30 minutes from the trailhead to reach Wat Pha Lat (1.5 km).
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3. Get soaked at Songkran celebrations
Songkran, or Thai New Year, is celebrated in April. (The exact date changes, as it follows the lunar calendar.)
If you’re planning to visit Chiang Mai for Songkran, get ready for a festival you’ll never forget! Songkran lasts for 3 days, and the whole city plays along. Everyone carries water guns and buckets, and there is no way you can walk down a street without getting wet.
As long as you’ve got your phone protected, you’re in for an incredible time. Families will drive down the street with the bed of their pickup truck lined with plastic and filled with water, creating a makeshift “pool”. Kids or teenagers sitting in the back will find every opportunity to douse passersby with buckets of water.
Music plays on every block and spontaneous dance parties will break out on the streets, and everyone — tourists and locals — come together with smiles on their faces. We’ve never really witnessed a celebration like it.
Good to know: One thing to look out for is that some of the water being thrown as you walk through the streets is from the moat that surrounds the Old City. Close your mouth and be sure not to swallow it.
Also, be sure to shower once you get back to your hotel, as the water in the moat can be filled with bacteria. I hope that little health tip doesn’t scare you away, because it is seriously such a fun celebration!
4. Splash around at the Chiang Mai Grand Canyon
We’ve visited the Chiang Mai Grand Canyon twice — once in 2015 and again in 2019 — and boy oh boy has it changed! What used to be a sort of hidden secret is now super built up, and it’s certainly not off-the-beaten-path anymore.
Back in the day (aka 2015 and before), this old quarry was a haven for backpackers looking for an adventurous and cheap way to spend the day. There was one small cafe onsite and it cost 50 baht ($1.60 USD) to enter, and this fee included a complimentary drink.
From there, you were on your own. Locals hung out and dove off cliffs — some as tall as 15 meters (50 feet). There were a couple of rickety bamboo rafts to float on, and that was pretty much it.
Today, things have changed quite a bit. For one, the entrance fee is now 650 baht ( $21 USD) — that’s a huge price increase! But an even bigger difference is how built up it is. What was once a simple, no-frills quarry is now basically a waterpark with tons of inflatables.
The changes haven’t been all bad. Honestly, the Grand Canyon was pretty dangerous before it was built up (there were a few cliff jumping deaths). Now, there are lifeguards and cliff jumping is only allowed in designated areas.
Today, the quarry is filled with inflatables (think a Ninja Warrior type obstacle course!), and if you want to channel your inner child for a day and get out of the heat, you’ll have a great time. We visited the Grand Canyon on my birthday and had a really fun time just acting like kids.
But I will say, it is a lot more TIRING than it looks! (Do I sound like a grandma?!) After about 2 hours, we were ready to go back to town. Also, we think it would have been more fun with a group of friends. So factor that in to determine if the cost will be worthwhile for you.
Don’t want to pay a huge entrance fee? Not into the inflatables?
Listen up because there is an alternative…
Instead of navigating to the “main” Grand Canyon entrance, you will go to Grand Canyon Gamnanboon. There will probably be a parking attendant trying to get you to come here instead of the bigger one, so just park as soon as you see them flagging you down.
The entrance fee here is just 100 baht ($3.20 USD), and you can hang out on the floating dock, use kayaks or jump off the designated platforms. There is also a small onsite restaurant selling food and drinks.
How to visit the Chiang Mai Grand Canyon
Just a 30-minute drive from town, a trip here will allow you to escape the city and soak up some rays. 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. You can also order a Grab (rideshare) to bring you there.
Entrance fee: 650 baht for adults
5. See Elephants in Chiang Mai the Responsible Way
Seeing an elephant up close is on pretty much everyone's bucket list in Thailand. But before we delve into where to see elephants in Chiang Mai, we are going over some very important things to consider when you book your elephant experience. If you just skim this section over and don’t do much research, your actions can actually be very harmful to the elephants you just wanna cuddle.
Read this before you visit an Elephant “Sanctuary” in Thailand
Today, many travelers are educated about why you should not ride elephants, and instead decide to visit “elephant sanctuaries” while on vacation in Thailand. While this is a great shift, there are some things you should know before you book just any “sanctuary”…
Here’s a little insight we've learned while living in Chiang Mai: As the demand for sanctuaries grows, there are unfortunately some places that are capitalizing on this and calling themselves "sanctuaries" without truly doing what’s right for the elephants.
We've heard stories that after tourists leave, the way they treat their animals (and staff members) isn't always great.
To be totally honest, the best thing you can do for elephants is to donate to reputable organizations without visiting them. I mean, think about it… It’s not natural for elephants to have the stimulation of people around them each day. Interacting with elephants is for our benefit, not theirs.
But we get it… seeing these beautiful creatures up close is a dream. It was for us, too. So if seeing elephants is a must for you, keep reading. We’re going over the best places to see these gentle giants in Thailand.
Best places to see elephants in Thailand
From our knowledge, Chiang Mai and the surrounding area probably has the best selection of actual sanctuaries in the country.
The positive thing about visiting a reputable elephant sanctuary is that the money you spend there will (mostly) go back to taking care of the elephants.
Elephant Nature Park: We had heard great things about ENP for many years, and it took us to the end of our time living in Thailand to visit for ourselves. Overall, we were pretty impressed with how the elephants are cared for. Tourists are limited in how they can interact with the elephants, which helps protect them by setting boundaries.
I will say, however, that this is not an intimate experience. This is by far the most popular and well-known elephant sanctuary in Thailand, so it’s also one of the more busy ones.
Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary: This is a lesser-known place we have heard from others that is ethically run and the elephants are returned to their natural habitat (and not fenced in). They provide a better life for the elephants and also work to improving villages and alternate work for the mahouts.
Important Tip: The reputable places book up in advance – so plan ahead if seeing elephants is a must for you.
Our advice for you: We encourage you to do some research ahead of time and choose a place that is (hopefully) treating elephants well. And if you end up somewhere that is not ethically run, SPEAK UP. Tell their management of what you saw. Write a review online so others can be informed and decide if they want to support it.
On a related note: Thailand faces its fair share of negative impacts from tourism, and the exploitation of elephants is probably one of the most well-known of this country’s issues. If you’re interested in learning more about how you can travel more ethically in Thailand, we have a whole article devoted to this topic.
6. Paddle down river with a Bamboo Raft
Similar to river tubing, you can cool off on a hot day by floating on a bamboo raft!
Imagine floating on a rustic bamboo raft on a river that cuts through the jungly Thai countryside. While you’re less than an hour away from Chiang Mai, you’ll feel a world away from the city.
Psst! We’re putting together a complete guide for this activity very soon!
7. Take an adventurous day trip to Lampang’s “Floating Pagodas”
If you are up for a full day of adventuring off the beaten path, we have just the idea for you…
The town of Lampang is not on most Western tourists’ radar, but it is home to one of the most magical sites in northern Thailand. The “floating” white pagodas perched in the cliffs outside of Lampang is a hidden gem that most visitors will never see. And if you make the journey there, it will likely be a highlight of your time in Thailand.
Known as Wat Chaloem Phra Kiat, these pagodas are not only undeniably beautiful, but they still very much feel like a hidden gem.
Now we have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is it can be quite a long and somewhat tricky journey to get to these pagodas. But the good news is we have you totally covered with an in-depth guide to Wat Chaloem Phra Kiat that goes over exactly how to get there and how to make it an epic road trip!
8. Relax at Huay Kaew Waterfall and Swimming Hole
Not far from the Nimman neighborhood, Huay Kaew Waterfall is hidden in the jungle, and few travelers know it exists. A visit to these little-known waterfalls is a good way to escape the city and find some solitude. When we went, we only crossed paths with a handful of people.
Unlike Sticky Waterfalls (see #1 on the list), you can't climb on the actual falls, but if you stick to the side path you'll make it to a swimming hole, complete with a rope swing! Keep going up the path and you’ll find more and more small pools to hang out in.
On a hot day, this is a great place to bring a picnic and relax. Check out our hike to Huay Kaew Waterfall video on YouTube.
Responsible Travel Tip: If you bring food, please, PLEASE carry out your trash and bring a bag to collect any rubbish you find along the way.
How to get to Huay Kaew Waterfalls
It is really simple to get to the Huay Kaew Waterfalls. From the old city you can take a red truck to the Chiang Mai Zoo (30 baht per person). Starting from the entrance of the Chiang Mai Zoo, walk west toward the mountain.
You can take the mountain road uphill until you see the official entrance, or walk our favorite way through a local street to the left just as the road begins to go up hill. Stroll through this tiny neighborhood with a stream passing through the middle and walk to the end of the street. There will be a small foot path the leads uphill slightly and will take you to the waterfall.
Related: Some of the best waterfalls in Thailand are north of Chiang Mai in a town called Pai. Check out our detailed guide to Pai, Thailand for more information.
9. Explore Doi Inthanon National Park
Just under 2 hours away from the city, Doi Inthanon National Park is a great place for getting some fresh mountain air, going hiking, and seeing some of the most iconic pagodas in the north of Thailand.
Oh, and Doi Inthanon is the highest mountain in all of Thailand! (Save that knowledge bomb for your next trivia night!)
Things to do in Doi Inthanon National Park
Hike the Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail: The trail itself is not very difficult or steep, but it offers sweeping views of the mountains and landscapes below. It is required that you hire a guide on this trail, which provides a job for a local. The guides are at the trailhead and you can simply show up. It costs 200 baht for a group (maximum 10 people), and should take roughly 2 hours.
Visit the Twin Pagodas: Without a doubt the most iconic sight in this national park, the two pagodas — also known as the Queen and King Pagodas — are a must-see when you’re visiting the national park. They house some historic relics and are great spots for photo opportunities.
Go Waterfall Hopping: The national park is home to a handful of waterfalls, and if you have the time, see as many as possible. But if you’re on a tight schedule, we think Mae Ya Waterfall (just south of the park) is the most impressive, and makes a great stop on your way back to Chiang Mai. (pictured below)
Eat a local meal: If you feel your tummy rumbling and you haven’t packed enough snacks, there is a small restaurant right by the Kew Mae Pan trailhead that serves up cheap, local and tasty dishes! We got some crispy fried chicken, sticky rice, and noodle soup, all for 150 baht (less than $5 USD).
Good to know: It costs 300 baht for foreigners to enter Doi Inthanon National Park.
How to get to Doi Inthanon National Park
From Chiang Mai, you can hire a driver for the day (either a red truck or a car). This will be the most comfortable option, but also the most expensive. If you are an experienced motorbike driver, you can drive yourself (this is what we did). But be prepared for a rather long drive.
10. Go Hiking Around Chiang Mai
If you love the outdoors, but you don't want to hike solo, we've got a perfect solution for you! There is a hiking club in Chiang Mai that meets every Saturday (as well as some weekdays) to go hiking in the jungle surrounding the city. Some days the hikes are short and for beginners, while other times they are full-day expeditions and lead to hill tribe villages in the mountains.
Check out the hiking club's Facebook page, Doi Suthep Walkers, for details and upcoming hikes. These weekly meet-ups are typically on Saturday mornings at 7:30 a.m. sharp.
Note: This group is great, but the crowd tends to get large, especially for the shorter hikes. The hikes we have been on have had about 50 people going up the mountain. The people who join are really fun and are typically foreigners living in Chiang Mai long-term, with a few 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.
11. Hang out at this secret waterfall
If you love waterfalls, we’ve already got a few on this list for you to check out. But if you’re looking for an adventure to a secret waterfall, we gotchu. Mork Fa Waterfall is a bit outside of the city, and feels like a hidden oasis.
This tall and majestic waterfall is beautiful and lacks the crowds of some of the other more accessible or popular falls in the area. We arrived around 9:00 a.m. and were the only ones there for a while. There’s a sandy area and a nice pool for swimming right by the falls, a lush jungle and cave, as well as some smaller pools further out. Bring some snacks and find a sunny patch to have a little picnic.
Getting to Mork Fa is an adventure in itself because it’s not really near anything else. If you’re confident driving a motorbike, that’s the cheapest way to get here.
Otherwise, you can hire a songthaew or a Grab for the roughly 1-hour drive. Just put the location into Google Maps, and you shouldn’t have any trouble getting there. Once you’ve parked, the waterfall is just a short walk away.
Cost: 100 baht entrance fee for foreign adults to enter, plus 20 baht to park a motorbike
Cultural Experiences in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is the culture capital of Thailand. Around just about every corner you’ll see beautiful temples, and seeing monks in saffron robes on the streets is a common occurrence. If you want to learn about Thai culture and history, Chiang Mai is the place to be.
12. Chat with a Monk
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 a Monk Chat: 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.
13. Go temple hopping
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s epicenter of culture, and one of the best ways to really dive in is to visit some of the city’s best temples.
There are so many temples in Chiang Mai that you won’t have to wander far to find one (or five!). Some are small and seldom visited, while others are iconic must-see places for most visitors, and each has its own unique characteristics.
Here is a list of some temples to visit while in Chiang Mai:
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep: Arguably the most iconic place in Chiang Mai, if you only visit one temple, make it this one. (See #14 for more info)
Wat Suan Dok Temple: Situated about 1 km west of the Old City’s West Gate, this temple has a hauntingly beautiful mausoleum garden which is the resting place of many past leaders. This is also a great temple for doing a Monk Chat (explained in #12).
Wat Pha Lat: Hidden in the jungle, this is our very favorite temple in all of Chiang Mai. The best way to get here is by hiking the Pilgrim’s Trail. (See #2 for more info)
Wat Chedi Luang: Almost smack dab in the center of Chiang Mai’s Old City, Wat Chedi Luang is a sight to behold. It is one of the most famous temples within the Old City walls.
Wat Sri Suphan: The most notable characteristic about this temple is its silver exterior. Located right beside the Saturday Night Market, it’s an easy temple to visit after picking up some souvenirs.
Wat Phra Singh: This temple in the Old City is known for its striking gold exterior, and is well worth checking out.
Wat Umong Suan Phutthatham: Located outside of the city walls, this temple is situated in a forested area and is known for its underground tunnels.
Wat Phan Tao: This temple is made from teak wood and being that it is right next to the much more famous Wat Chedi Luang, this wooden complex is often overlooked. It is most notably the site where young monks release lanterns during the Yi Peng festival.
Wat Chet Yot Phra Aram Luang: Located outside of the Old City, this temple is situated near the Super Highway and is less visited than those within the city walls.
Wat Phra That Doi Kham: Known for a Buddha that stands 17 meters tall, this temple is perched on a hilltop to the southwest of the city and is more popular with Thai visitors than foreigners.
Fun Fact: The word wat refers to a Buddhist temple or monastery in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. The most iconic example of this is Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat, which was originally built as a Hindu temple, but was transformed to a Buddhist complex in the 12th century.
14. Visit Doi Suthep Temple (Wat Phra That)
The temple on Doi Suthep gets its own section because it is by far the most iconic temple in all of Chiang Mai.
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 Thailand. Plus, you'll also have a pretty great view of city if the skies are clear.
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 and be sure to stop at Wat Pha Lat along the way (see #X for more info).
15. Have a local plan your Chiang Mai itinerary
Feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of things to do in Chiang Mai? We know the feeling (and we’re not even halfway through this list yet!). Wouldn’t it be great if you could have someone plan your itinerary for you!? Well, your wish is about to come true…
ViaHero is a really cool company that connects travelers with locals in the place they’re visiting. You tell the local what kinds of things you are interested in and what you really want to do and see on your trip. And they’ll put together a customized itinerary just for you.
Insider Tip: Our advice would be to ask them to include lots of cultural experiences and food spots on your itinerary, because who better to get tips from than a local?!
Not only are you providing a valuable job for someone in the community, but you will get a complete itinerary for your trip to Chiang Mai that is totally tailored to your interests. Follow their advice and get off the beaten path for an authentic and memorable trip!
16. Celebrate Loy Krathong 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 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.)
More Info: Here's a detailed article on activities during Loy Krathong and Yi Peng festival that will help you make the most of this celebration.
17. Meditate with monks
Some people come to Thailand for the adventure while others come to get in touch with their spiritual side. If you’re interested in the latter (or want a healthy mix of both!) you might want to consider fitting in some time to slow down and quiet your mind.
Whether you’re totally new to meditation or have been practicing for years, there are meditation centers in Chiang Mai (and all around Thailand, for that matter) for all levels.
Here are some meditation centers in Chiang Mai:
Wat Ram Poeng
Wat Suan Dok
Body and mind healing
Personal Note: While we haven’t done any of these meditations in Chiang Mai, we stayed at a monastery in northern Thailand (between Kai and Mae Hong Son) where we meditated for 3 days (pictured above). It was an incredible experience, and we’ve written all about it.
If you have extra time in your Thailand itinerary, we’d highly recommend making it here. But if time is tight, one of the meditation centers in Chiang Mai here (or listed above) will be a good alternative.
Best Food in Chiang Mai
Eating your way around Chiang Mai will make your taste buds feel like they have died and gone to heaven. From street food to world-class dining, and from traditional Thai to any type of international cuisine you can think of, you really can find a restaurant for every mood in this city.
18. Take a Thai 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 classes in other countries. We’re up to 12 now. We wholeheartedly believe that there are few ways to learn more about a culture than through its cuisine.
And when it comes to Thai food, there is no better place to learn how to make your favorite dishes than Chiang Mai. The tricky part is choosing a cooking school, as the options are plentiful.
In our research, we found 3 cooking schools that are clear winners:
Thai Farm Cooking School
Secret Thai Cooking School
Sammy's Organic Thai Cooking School
Psst! When you’re booking be sure to check out Cookly website where they compare cooking schools and sometimes have cheaper prices.
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 and were incredibly impressed.
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.
Tip: If you are visiting in November during the Loi Krathong festival, you might be lucky enough to make your very own krathong in your cooking class, which you can float down the river alongside locals in the evening. Book ahead because classes during this season fill up quickly!
19. 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.
Where to get the Best Khao Soi in Chiang Mai
The best place to eat Khao Soi is in unassuming mom-and-pop shops. We sampled several bowls, and each has their own unique flavors. Traditionally, Khao Soi is eaten in the morning and afternoon, so many Khao Soi street stands will close before dinner time. You'll still be able to find it on the menus of many restaurants.
If you're looking for recommendations, here are some restaurants that serve up some of the best Khao Soi in Chiang Mai:
Khao Soi Mae Sai: this is a hot spot among locals and is not far from the Nimman neighborhood. This is our favorite spot for Khao Soi!
Khao Soi Khun Yai: this tiny little stand on the edge of Old City is always packed with tourists. It earns rave reviews on TripAdvisor, on other blogs and is one of the more famous Khao Soi shops in the city.
While we thought it was good, we didn’t think it lived up to the hype as we’ve had better khao soi elsewhere (but try it out, it might be your favorite!). Their Khao Soi has a broth that is a bit thicker and spicier than most, but I was a little disappointed that it comes with pieces of chicken instead of a whole leg, and the crunchy noodles on top weren’t as fresh as some other places.
Khao Soi Nimman: a decent choice in the Nimman Road area with many different choices. Broth is on the sweet side and prices are a bit higher than most Khao Soi.
Khao Soi Arak: located in the Old City and known for serving a killer bowl of Kaho Soi. Plus the couple who owns this tiny restaurant is lovely. At just 30 baht, you can't go wrong!
Vegetarian Khao Soi? Try it at Aum or Pun Pun. These are two good choices to try vegetarian versions of Khao Soi, allowing you can give this famous dish a try even if you don't eat meat. Unless you’re
20. Sample as many Northern Thai dishes as possible
While Khao Soi is our favorite northern Thai dish (see above!), it’s far from the only meal you should try in Chiang Mai.
Many Thai restaurants in Western countries have a focus on food from the south of the country, so there are many dishes you’ve likely never heard of. And they can be hard to find in other regions of Thailand (or the rest of the world), so be sure to eat up while you’re in the north of the country!
Below you’ll find a list of more Northern Thai dishes to try during your time in Chiang Mai:
Sai Oua (northern Thai sausage): This pork sausage has a unique taste that’s all its own. The meat is seasoned with fresh Thai herbs and spices like turmeric, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, lemongrass, coriander, shallots, galangal, and chillies. It is an explosion of flavors!
Laab (spicy salad): This spicy minced meat “salad” is usually served with parboiled veggies and cabbage or lettuce leaves. You can eat it like a lettuce wrap, or as a “dip” for the vegetable sticks.
Khao Niaw (aka sticky rice): Sticky rice is a much more common side dish in northern Thailand than in other regions.
Nám prík nùm (green chili dip): This is a green chili dip made from a mashed combination of long green chilies, shallots and garlic. This spicy paste is often served with parboiled veggies like carrots and green beans, cucumber slices, cabbage, and deep-fried pork cracklings.
21. Eat on the street!
If you like street food, you’ll love Chiang Mai! While street food is easy to find basically anywhere in Thailand, you’ll find the most options at the night markets and around the gates of the Old City walls.
You’ll find everything from super cheap pad thai being cooked in a gigantic wok to grilled meat skewers to noodle soups. If you’re traveling with a partner, order a few different dishes so you can sample them all!
Psst! Don't miss the famous Cowboy Hat Lady featured on Anthony Bourdain's show Parts Unknown. She serves up a damn good Khao Kha Mo (Thai-style stewed pork leg).
Her stall is located near the north gate of the old city at the Chang Phuek Market. The pork and rice dish can be served in a small size (40 baht) or a large size (50 baht) and it literally melts in your mouth.
Insider Tip: We don't like fatty pieces of meat, so order ours “mai ow nang” which means without skin and fat.
22. Spoil yourself with a fine dining meal
Feeling fancy?! Treat yo’self to a fine dining experience that you’ll be talking about long after your trip.
David’s Kitchen is known as the best fine dining restaurant in Chiang Mai (and one of the best in all of Thailand), so if you have a special occasion to celebrate this the place to do it! It seemed like pretty much every table was celebrating something: a honeymoon, an anniversary, a birthday… We were actually there celebrating my birthday! (Go figure!)
We were escorted to our table where a personalized birthday card was waiting for us. And as the waiter pulled out the chair for us to sit down (yes, it’s one of those kind of restaurants), he told us that Spike Lee, who was in town shooting a movie, had just been sitting in the chair Ben was about to sit down in. Lucky for Ben’s butt!
The waiter went on to say that this was Lee’s second time to the restaurant. So if it’s good enough for Spike Lee, it’s good enough for me!
The menu is primarily focused on Western dishes with a bit of a Thai flair. Choose from classics like Lobster Thermidor to inventive dishes like pan-seared ahi on a bed of lemongrass and green mango. We ordered cocktails and an assortment of dishes, and everything was excellent. The service was impeccable as well.
Our total bill came to just over $100 USD, which is an absolutely insane amount of money to spend on a meal in Thailand. But when you consider that we each had 2 cocktails, an appetizer, two entrees and dessert, it’s really not that bad for Western standards.
Things to know:
There is a dress code. Don’t wear flip flops, athletic shorts, baseball hats, or a singlet (aka a “man tank”).
Be sure to make a reservation, as they are fully booked nearly every night of the week.
David’s Kitchen offers a pick-up and drop-off service to and from the Old City (200 baht one way and 400 baht round trip). Coming from most places, it will probably be cheaper to take a Grab.
23. Be vegan for a day
If you don’t eat meat, you will be in heaven, as there are endless vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Chiang Mai. I should mention that vegetarianism is not typical in traditional Thai culture, and in rural parts of the country it can be very difficult to find meatless dishes. However, with the influx of foreigners in Chiang Mai as well as a change in the times, there are vegetarian and vegan places popping up everywhere.
Here are just a few of our veg favorites:
Free Bird Cafe: Located in the Nimman neighborhood, this non-profit, vegan cafe donates 100% of profits to their charity which supports a community learning center for Burmese refugees.
There is also an attached zero-waste store where they sell items that are good for the environment, like bamboo straws, menstrual cups and reusable bags. Plus, there's an section of second hand clothing and accessories where you can pick up (old) new clothes or donate any items that are weighing down your backpack!
Pun Pun Restaurant: The produce at this restaurant is organic and is sourced from their own farm (renowned worldwide for their sustainability methods), so you can feel good about what you’re eating.
Anchan: One of our very favorite restaurants in the Nimman neighborhood, this small restaurant serves veg versions of Thai dishes as well as yummy smoothies. Their portions are huge and their curries are rich and delicious.
Goodsouls Kitchen: With two locations, this is one of the more well-known vegan restaurants in Chiang Mai.
Cat House: With a diverse menu of world cuisine as well as Thai dishes, it’s hard to go wrong at Cat House.
Shan Tou Hao Chi (vegan stand in the Maya Food Court): The cheapest option on this list, this is a small stand in the Maya Food Court (located underground). The family who owns this is so sweet, and all the Thai dishes served here are vegan and cooked with coconut oil. For just 40 baht, you can get 3 different items (you choose from a buffet of options) as well as rice.
Aum Vegetarian Restaurant: Located just south of the Old City walls, this is a cozy spot to enjoy vegetarian versions of traditional Thai dishes. We’ve heard good things about their veg khao soi!
24. Eat ALL the tropical fruits!
My name is Katie, and I am fruit-a-holic. (Anyone else with me?!) If you’re nodding your head you’re in luck because Chiang Mai is heaven for tropical fruit-lovers.
Visit the local markets and you’ll see all sorts of colorful fruits you’ve likely never seen before. I made it my mission to search for unfamiliar fruits and buy them. Fresh produce is really cheap in Thailand (from the local markets), so there’s really no risk!
It would be nearly impossible to list all the fruits you’ll find in Chiang Mai, but here are some of my favorites that you should definitely try:
Mangosteen (my absolute favorite!)
Oh, and while they’re probably not unfamiliar, if you like papaya, pineapple and mangos, be sure to try a few while in Thailand, as they’re likely more fresh and delicious than the imported ones we get in Western countries.
Feeling adventurous? Try durian. Some people love it (it has a cult following), and others — myself included — hate it. I consider myself someone who likes pretty much all foods (except ketchup, and now durian). I can’t even stand the smell. But give it a taste and let me know what you think!
25. Take a Food Tour
If you’re a serious foodie, going on a food tour in Chiang Mai will be a perfect way to sample the best dishes the city has to offer and spots chosen by locals.
We took a food tour in Bangkok and loved squeezing into the tiny mom-and-pop shops in back alleys that we never would have found on our own.
If you squeeze a food tour into your itinerary just be sure to come with a (very) empty stomach and pencil in some time afterwards to relax because the chances of a “food coma” are high!
Free & Cheap Things to do in Chiang Mai
If you’re lucky enough to have several days Chiang Mai and you want a bit of time to relax and do some things that are off the beaten tourist path, we’ve got a handful of ideas for you…
26. Get a Thai massage
Traveling to Thailand without indulging in a Thai massage (or seven!) would be crazy. Unless you’re like my mom, who doesn’t like massages in the slightest, I would highly recommend getting a massage in Chiang Mai. And when you can find hour-long massages for $6 USD, why not get a couple?!
You won’t have to wander far before you hear “massage, massage” being called after you. (You can’t blame them for trying to advertise for free!) Our advice would be not to go for the first place you see. There are plenty of amazing massage places around Chiang Mai, but there are just as many (if not more!) sub-par establishments.
Where to get the best Thai massage in Chiang Mai?
We’ve read lots of reviews on Google Maps, talked to many friends about their favorite places, and done some “research” ourselves. Here are just a handful of good options to start with:
While most of the massage places listed above are very budget-friendly, there are certainly higher-end massage parlors where the prices (and facilities) will be closer to what you’d pay in Western countries. You’ll have to do a little comparing to decide what’s best for your budget. Good to know: At some of the cheaper places, you may be in a communal room with other guests.
So what do you wear to a massage in Thailand? In most massage parlors in Chiang Mai, you will be given clothes to change into. They are typically a baggy cotton one-size-fits-all pants and shirt. For some treatments — like an oil massage, for instance — you will be given disposable underwear and will be nude.
Good to know: Traditional Thai massages involve a lot of cracking and stretching, and can leave some people sore. If you don't think you'll like this "hands on" massage, try a "Neck, Back and Shoulder Massage" or a foot massage instead. They are quite a bit tamer.
Pssst! Check out this detailed article describing where to find the best massages in Chiang Mai. The author tried 30 different massage places in the city and ranked her favorites.
Unique Experience: 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:
1-hour foot massage
1-hour Thai massage
2-hour Thai massage
We chose a 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 TripAdvisor, 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.
Responsible travel note: 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!
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.; weekends from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
27. Explore Chiang Mai’s Local Markets
Chiang Mai has a market in what seem like every corner of the city. Whether you're looking for elephant pants and other souvenirs, looking to pick up some fresh fruits, or you're wanting to be surrounded by locals, there is a market for you!
Discovering local favorites is one of the best parts of travel. Get more tips on where to go and what to do from locals in Thailand when you use ViaHero to plan a personalized itinerary.
Local “Everything” Market
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.
Organic Produce Market
Jing Jai Market: Here you'll find cute coffee shops and stores, but the main reason to visit Jing Jai is for their organic produce market every Wednesday and Saturday morning. There are also vendors selling crafts and food, as well as live music and caricature artists!
Bor Sang (Umbrella Village) Market: A little outside of Chiang Mai, this market is famous for its handicrafts and popular decorated umbrellas. Go here for a color explosion.
Our Favorite Market
Malin Market: This is our favorite market to get dinner and do some shopping. 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 (not souvenir-type items). The food court is great too! You won't find many foreigners here – mainly Thai university students.
Responsible Travel Tip: When shopping at Chiang Mai's many markets, don't forget to bring your own reusable bag and turn down plastic ones whenever possible. Check out this article for more eco-friendly travel gear!
Psst! We didn’t forget about the famous Chiang Mai Night Markets! (See #39 for more info!)
28. Have a Pool Day
If you're craving a day relaxing in the sun, head to one of the many pools in Chiang Mai. Oh, and don't forget your sunscreen!
If you’re really smart, you can plan ahead and book a hotel with a nice pool. But if your hotel is pool-free, here are a few options that are open to the public:
Le Meridien: This upscale hotel has a rooftop pool with a fantastic view. If you're lucky you can be there when Le Meridien hosts their pool parties which are a good time! Check their Facebook page to see if they have any upcoming events.
Green Hill Apartments: Lay out by these two massive pools all day for only 80 baht per person. If you get hungry, they also have a restaurant on-site.
Center of the Universe: Located just north of the Nimman area, this salt water pool (less chemicals, yay!) is 200 baht for an all day pass.
29. Grab a coffee at one of Chiang Mai's many cute cafes
Chiang Mai is home to thousands of digital nomads, which means there are coffee shops on every corner. And we're not just talking your run-of-the-mill Starbucks. In Chiang Mai, you'll find super interesting and quirky cafes all around the city, like ones with ball pits and cotton candy lattes! Here are a few to put on your list if you love coffee shops:
Ristr8o: With 2 locations in the Nimman neighborhood and another in Central Festival Mall, this coffee shop serves up some seriously good coffee inspired from around the world. The baristas here are second to none and have won several coffee art awards! (We like the Ristr8o Lab location because it's in a more peaceful setting than the one right on Nimman Road.)
Catmosphere Cat Cafe: Cuddle friendly felines while sipping a specialty drink.
Clay Studio Coffee: This garden oasis will make you forget you're in a city.
The Coffee Club Thapae: With chic decor and decadent drinks, how can you go wrong?!
Akha Ama Coffee: With a couple of locations in town (one in the Old City), Akha Ama is known for serving up some of the best coffee in town.
My Secret Cafe in Town: This coffee shop doubles as a vegan cafe and is a nice place to rest your legs while exploring the Old City.
Art Roastery: Located a bit of a drive outside the Old City, this coffee shop is peaceful and is complete with a duck pond, indoor and outdoor seating, and a pretty decent food menu.
30. Catch sunrise at the Huay Tung Tao Reservoir
Huay Tung Tao Lake is a place many foreign tourists never visit. In fact, we didn't hear about it until our third time in Chiang Mai. This lake is a popular place for locals and expats to go for morning runs and hiking in the surrounding trails.
If you're feeling up to it, we'd recommend hiking while you're at the lake. The hike to Taab Mook Waterfall is quite easy and you'll be rewarded with a beautiful sight!
Have lunch at one of the floating restaurants
At lunchtime, people come to eat in one of the many floating restaurants around the lake. While the food isn't anything spectacular and it's a bit pricier than you'd pay in the city, it's a unique dining experience.
The restaurants seem to be more or less the same, and they charge a per person fee to eat in the bungalows over the water. The restaurant we ate at charged 20 baht per person for the lakeside tables, while the ones a few meters back on land were free.
How to get to the Huay Tung Tao Reservoir
Traveling by motorbike would be your best option to get to the Huay Tung Tao Reservoir. From the old city travel west on Huay Kaew Road and turn right on Highway 127. Travel north for about 4 km and then turn left when you see signs for the lake. If you come to Highway 107, you have gone too far.
You could also order Grab car (Asia’s version of Uber) and it should cost about 100-150 baht. Another way to get there would be to talk to a songthaew (red truck) driver and negotiate a price. You would probably play about 100 baht per person and you would need at least 4-6 people.
Cost: There is a 50 baht entrance fee for foreigners. If you enter before 7 a.m., it is free.
31. Practice Yoga
If you're stiff from a long plane ride, Chiang Mai is the perfect place to get your downward dog on! With plenty of yoga studios throughout the city, you'll have no trouble finding a class.
Free Yoga in Chiang Mai
If you're on a budget, you might want to try one of the free yoga classes offered daily in Chiang Mai.
Nong Buak Hard Park: Free classes daily from 9 - 10:15 a.m. If you don't have your own mat, you can rent a straw mat for 15 baht. Join the Yoga in the Park - Chiang Mai Facebook group for more info.
One Nimman: Every Tuesday (Hatha) and Thursday (Hatha Vinyasa), there are free yoga classes at One Nimman from 9:30 - 10:30 a.m. They also offer free Swing Dance and Salsa lessons throughout the week. This article has more information. (It is in Thai, but you can have Google translate it.)
Yoga Studios in Chiang Mai
If you'd prefer to practice your inversions within the walls of a studio, there are plenty to choose from. Most classes are quite affordable, usually starting at 200 baht. If you purchase multiple sessions up front, the price per class will be cheaper.
Ananda Yoga: There are two locations within Chiang Mai (Jing Jai Market and Nimman). We had a membership at the Nimman studio and really loved the classes. We always felt challenged and got a good workout.
Yoga Tree: One of the most popular studios in Chiang Mai, this studio is located in the southwest corner of Old City.
Yoga Kuukan: Located not far from the north gate of Old City, this studio is inside a traditional wooden Thai house, giving it a nice atmosphere. We went to one class here, and were joined by only 3 other students.
32. Get lost inside the Old City walls
A lot of Chiang Mai’s charm comes from the fact that it remains a walled city with a moat surrounding the walls. Chiang Mai’s Old City is where most first-time visitors to this city will want to base themselves, and for good reason. You’ll find temples on just about every block, and there is an abundance of cute restaurants and massage parlors.
Wander through the narrow alleyways, stumble upon street art, and take a break with a smoothie or coconut ice cream from a street vendor.
One of our favorite areas of the Old City to wander is the northeast corner. Start at Blue Diamond restaurant (a good choice for a meal!), and walk around the narrow streets nearby. There’s a small local market at the very edge of the city wall, and lots of tree-shaded streets with murals to get lost in.
33. Explore this secret Art Village
Unknown to most tourists, there is a cute “art village” that’s not far from the airport. With small cafes, tree-shaded paths, art studios and shops selling handcrafted items, this is a sweet spot to spend part of a relaxed afternoon.
If you want to get artsy, there is even a pottery studio where you can book single-day classes or multi-day courses and get your hands dirty!
How to get there: We haven’t really been able to find the name for this village (comment below if you know the name!), but if you plug this address into Google Maps or direct your Grab driver here, you’ll find the parking lot and will be able to wander around from here.
Hungry? There are a handful of restaurants in the area serving local dishes, but if by chance you’re craving pizza, Adirak Pizza is just down the street and serves us the best pizza we’ve had in all of Asia. This stuff is the real deal and is worth the splurge. Oh, and they have wine too! Can I get a hell yeah?!
34. Hang out in the AC in one of Chiang Mai's Luxurious Malls
Whether you're visiting during rainy season or you want to escape the midday heat, popping into one of Chiang Mai's malls can be a surprisingly fun way to spend part of the day. While we aren't exactly "mall people", we’re always pretty impressed by the shopping centers in Thailand.
While there are several malls in Chiang Mai (Central Festival, Central Plaza, Promenada Resort Mall, to name a few), we are most familiar with Maya Mall.
Even if you don't feel like trying on clothes, there's plenty to do in Maya Mall:
Have a drink at the rooftop bars: Take the elevator to the 6th floor, where you'll step out onto the rooftop. Whether you just want to see the view or you want to enjoy a beer with the sunset, it's worth a stop before you leave the mall.
Watch a movie in style: The movie theater on the 5th floor of Maya shows the latest movies, and most are in English. On Wednesdays, movies are just 100 baht. If you want an extra special experience, go for the VIP theater where you can enjoy super comfy chairs, complimentary popcorn and a soda for just a bit more money.
Explore the cutesy shops: Moshi Moshi and Daiso are Japanese shops that sell inexpensive items that you don't really need, but you'll definitely want.
Visit the food court: The floor below ground level has a food court filled with local options that are tasty and affordable.
Get your WiFi on: If you need to use the Internet for a bit, pop into CAMP, which is a co-working space on the 5th floor of Maya Mall. Purchase a beverage or snack and get 2 hours of complimentary WiFi, or buy an Internet card at the AIS store on the 3rd floor. It is 150 baht and can be used to access the Internet in CAMP and other places around the city for one month.
Entertain your inner child: On the 5th floor you'll find an arcade with air hockey, arcade dance games and more. And nearby, you'll find virtual reality pods that cost 100 baht for a simulation of your choice.
Cross the street and make your way to Nimman One: This upscale covered shopping center has European-inspired architecture and a food court with local dishes.
35. Try a Co-Working Space
It’s no secret that Chiang Mai is one of the most popular digital nomad hubs in the world. A combination of high speed Internet, low cost of living, long-term rentals, and an active DN community are just some of the reasons that make Chiang Mai such an appealing city for remote workers to settle down for a while. We’re no exception. In fact, we’ve called Chiang Mai “home” two different times for a collective year.
If you’re at all interested in the digital nomad lifestyle give it a try by popping into one of the city’s many co-working spaces. There are tons all throughout the city. Simply type “coworking space” into Google Maps and you’ll see what we mean!
Here are a few of our favorites:
Punspace: This is kind of the OG in co-working spaces in Chiang Mai. With 3 locations around the city, Punspace is well-known in the DN community for their networking events and prime working conditions. That said, they are one of the more expensive co-working places in the city.
CAMP at Maya Mall: Located on the 5th floor of Maya Mall, this is a cool spot to check out if you’re just curious about co-working. It is free to work from here, though you are supposed to buy a drink in order to access the Internet. This space is often full of Thai university students and can get very crowded at times.
Heartwork: Located southeast of the Old City, this space is beautiful and quiet.
Are you a DN thinking about living in Chiang Mai? We’ve put together a guide to living in Chiang Mai as a digital nomad just for you!
36. Go on a Street Art Scavenger Hunt
You don’t have to wander far in Chiang Mai to see displays of street art on walls or the sides of businesses. Whenever we’re in a city known for its street art scene, we love scoping out as many murals as possible.
There are a handful of well-known resident artists in Chiang Mai, plus, it’s a city that attracts muralists from around the world to leave their mark.
Where to find street art in Chiang Mai:
The Old City (especially the eastern section) is a great place to do a little self-guided street art scavenger hunt.
The Abandoned Women’s Prison is known as a good place for spotting a variety of murals. You can see many pieces of art from the outside without trespassing.
You’ll also see lots of smaller pieces on the smaller streets in the Nimman neighborhood.
And if you’re really interested, this is a pretty comprehensive guide to street art in Chiang Mai.
37. 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". They 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.
Here is our rule of thumb for songthaew 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. If they don't say a price, it is understood that the price is 30 baht per person.
The drivers are pretty good about getting to where you want to go, but if they go past your stop, you can ring the bell on the ceiling and they will pull over. Hop out and pay the driver.
Nightlife in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai's nightlife scene isn't as lively as many other major cities, as the bars must "officially" close at midnight. Oh, and while we’re on the topic, if it is a crazy night out you’re looking for, Zoe in Yellow (a popular backpacker bar/club) is going to be the best place to find that scene.
But there are plenty of fun things to do at night (whether that involves drinks or not!). We’re sharing some unique bars, and other nighttime activities.
38. Enjoy a drink with a view at a Rooftop Bar
Whenever we're in search of a good view, we head to a rooftop bar!
Unlike some of the popular rooftop bars in Bangkok, which are seriously overpriced (in our opinion), you can make a toast above Chiang Mai at a reasonable price. (That said, don't expect to be 40 stories up like you would in Bangkok.)
Rooftop Bars in Chiang Mai
Hotel YaYee: Hand-crafted cocktails and panoramic views… what more could you want?!
Rise Rooftop Bar at Akyra Manor: Lounge beside their rooftop pool with a fancy cocktail in hand. They have 2-for-1 drinks for their happy hour special from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Enjoy the views as the sun sets behind Doi Suthep.
Xanadu Rooftop and Restaurant: This classy rooftop is on the 17th floor in the Furama Hotel. You can get great views of Nimman and Doi Suthep as you order a meal and drinks.
Oasis Rooftop Garden Bar: Tucked away in the northeast corner of the old city, Oasis presents a relaxed vibe and a nice place to meet up with friend.
39. Shop for souvenirs at one of Chiang Mai’s Night Markets
You can find night markets all over Asia, and we’re obsessed. You’ll typically find inexpensive souvenirs, local street food, and a lively atmosphere.
And Chiang Mai has some incredible — albeit crowded — night markets. Depending one which days you’re visiting, you can visit a couple and compare!
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.
Insider Tip: You can find smaller (less crowded) night markets near Maya Mall and near Chiang Mai University (Malin Market).
40. Watch a Muay Thai Boxing Match
Translating to “Thai boxing”, Muay Thai is to Thailand what baseball is to the United States. This beloved sport is practiced all around the country, and seeing a match in person is on many travelers’ Thailand bucket list.
Just inside the Old City’s east gate (Thaphae), is a Muay Thai area where you can watch a handful of fights up close. This facility is outdoors and is quite small, but we went with a group of friends and had a fun time!
The quality of fight is really going to depend on the athletes. We’ve heard some people say they came on a night when the fights seemed “rigged”. However, on the night we were there, we had an acquaintance that was fighting (there is often times a foreigner in the last fight), and it seemed real to us!
Also, the matches typically start with young fighters and go up in age as the matches progress.
How much does it cost?
Normal Ticket: 400 baht ($12.70 USD)
VIP Ticket: 600 baht ($19 USD)
Large beer: 120 baht ($3.80)
there are also cocktails for a bit higher price
What time are the matches? The Muay Thai fights start around 9 p.m. (you can be seated earlier) and they are held on most nights.
Insider Tip: In our opinion, the normal seats were just fine and weren’t much farther away than the VIP seats (in the photo above, you’ll see the men ahead of us were in the VIP seats but weren’t that much closer). Also, it is possible to reserve your seats in advance, but we had no trouble showing up and getting tickets at the door. It is also a bit cheaper to get the tickets in person.
Really interested in Muay Thai? Why not take a course and try it out for yourself. There are many Muay Thai boxing gyms in Chiang Mai where you can learn from a trained instructor.
41. See a Cabaret Show
If you're looking for a fun night out on the town, consider seeing a Cabaret Show! RAM Bar will show you a good time with live performances every night starting at 10 p.m. The dancers are super talented and you'll see several acts during this 1.5-hour show.
Our advice would be to arrive early, as these shows fill up quickly and it is a very tiny venue. The drinks are on the expensive side, but the show is free, so we found it worthwhile and a fun experience!
P.S. Maybe you’ll get lucky like Ben and get called up on stage for a “special dance experience” haha!
42. Cheers with local craft beer (sort of…)
Any fellow craft beer lovers out there?! Listen up because we have some good news and some bad news.
The bad: Thailand is well known for its light beers, like Chang, Leo and Singha. In fact, Chang has a monopoly on brewing in Thailand, meaning no other companies can actually brew inside the country.
To get around this, some small craft brewers source local ingredients, then send each batch off to Cambodia to be brewed and then returned to Thailand. Talk about red tape! Since this process comes with a big cost and is a logistical nightmare, the craft beer scene is still a very small overall.
The good: Things are changing. Since my first visit to Thailand back in 2011, things have changed a LOT when it comes to craft beer. Chiang Mai actually has a decent craft beer scene for being in a country where they have to outsource the brewing process.
There are a handful of craft beer bars where you can get imported brews as well as “local beer”. (Remember, it maybe be sourced and combined in Thailand, but it is technically brewed outside of the country.)
One more thing we should point out is that because the brewing much be outsourced, craft beer in Thailand is very expensive. It is at least as expensive as you’d pay for a craft brew in a Western country, and a lot of times it’s even more than you’d pay at home.
But the cravings are real, friends, and if you want to some of Chiang Mai’s best (sort of) local beers, here’s where you’ll find them:
My Beer Friend: With a few locations around the city, My Beer Friend brews some pretty decent beers including IPAs and Stouts. You can also find their bottled beer in some of the bottle shops around town.
Mind Cafe: With several taps and a refrigerator filled with craft bottles, this quaint shop in the Old City has a big selection.
Q-Bar: Located in the Nimman neighborhood, this bar almost has speakeasy vibes and has a decent selection of craft beer.
Renegade Craft Beer & Billiards: If you’re looking for a true sports bar vibe with a good beer selection, this will be your jam!
Parallel Universe of Lunar 2 on the Hidden Moon (trippy name right?!): to get here, you’ll need to take an elevator to the top floor of the Nimman One Plaza, and you’ll have great views over the city (pictured above). They have some local beer on tap as well as imported bottles.
Beer Lab: This place probably has the largest selection of imported beer in the entire city, but we weren’t overly impressed by the vibe or the prices.
MALT: an outdoor venue on the busy street next to Maya Mall, this is a good place to catch live music, people-watch and enjoy a craft beer. Though when we went right after they opened they only had craft lagers (whatever that means!), but they did say they’d be expanding their selection.
43. See Live Music in Chiang Mai
If you love live music and are craving a jam session, you'll be pleasantly surprised to hear Chiang Mai actually has a pretty decent live music scene. Here are some venues that regularly host live music:
Northgate Jazz Club: This ultra-popular venue can get super crowded, especially on Tuesdays when they host an open mic night. Expect to be standing on the street, mingling with other music-lovers.
Thapae East: This venue is super cool and hosts many events.
7 Pounds: This bar is a hidden oasis, and we’re obsessed! With a garden lit by fairy lights, decently priced drinks and a big stage for performers, this low key bar is tucked away in a quiet street not far from Maya Mall and will make you feel as if you’ve discovered a local secret!
Manung Bar: This 50’s diner themed bar is popular with a young Thai crowd and is a great place to catch some live music. We arrived around 8 p.m. and it was empty, so we had a cute vintage booth to ourselves. But beware, this place fills up fast once the music begins! There were hardly any foreigners in this bar, which gives it a totally different vibe than many places in Nimman.
Mellowship Jazz Club: Live music every night of the week. A little bit more upscale, but a pretty nice place if you want seating, food and nice drinks while enjoying live music.
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.
Related: Easy ways to Travel More Responsibly
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. This article outlines several reasons to avoid this tourist hotspot.
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 the very 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.
Best time to visit Chiang Mai, Thailand
Now that we have shared all the fun things to do in Chiang Mai, we want to pop in quickly to discuss the best time to visit Chiang Mai (and when to avoid at all costs!).
Thai “Winter” has the best weather (November - January): Don’t be fooled by the word “winter” — temperatures are comfortable (warm during the day and slightly crisp at night). Also, during this time of year, rain is rare and the air is fresh!
AVOID Burning Season (February - April): We would absolutely avoid visiting Chiang Mai during “burning season”. This falls during the months of February, March and April, and is a time when farmers in many parts of Southeast Asia burn their fields to prepare for the next season. Paired with dry weather, the air becomes extremely polluted and smoky. It can be difficult to breathe, so outdoor activities are not recommended. Plus, during this time, you can’t even see the mountains because the air is so thick with smoke.
We would strongly advise against visiting Chiang Mai during this time. We lived in CM during this time, and it made most activities outside pretty miserable. Thankfully, weather in many of the Thai islands is very nice during this time of year.
Hot & Rainy Season (May - October): Rain is frequent during these months and the temperatures can be unbearably hot and humid. Often times, the rain doesn’t last all day, but when it falls, it falls hard!
Related: Read up more on the best time to visit Thailand. This country is huge and spans many different micro-climates, so the weather varies a lot!
Getting Around in Chiang Mai
Getting from one place to another is quite simple in Chiang Mai due to all the options of transportation. Here are just a few of the most common ways to get around:
Songthaew (Red Truck): These “shared taxis” are everywhere in the city and can basically take you anywhere you want to go for about 30-60 baht per person. More information above in #37.
Grab: Southeast Asia’s version of Uber and Lyft, this ride sharing app is super handy when wanting to get to a specific place. Grab constantly has promotions going on and we have gotten across the city for 20 baht before! Typical rides around town vary from 50-100 baht.
Motorbike: We only recommend renting a motorbike if you have driven one before and are comfortable with driving in a busy city and on the left side of the road. Additionally, you should always respect the rules of the road and don’t ride like an idiot to try to impress people.
Now that I’ve gotten that warning over with: Renting a motorbike can be one of the cheapest ways to get around and explore the outskirts of Chiang Mai. Rentals start at around 250 - 300 baht per day. You’ll need to leave your passport at rental shop for collateral.
And please, please, PLEASE… where a proper helmet (with wind-guard and facemask). It’s worth the extra 50 baht ($1.66 USD). We have seen/heard off too many travelers getting in accidents and we don’t want that to be you.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
There are plenty of amazing hotels in Chiang Mai. If you're looking for the best place to stay during a short visit, we'd recommend finding accommodation near Tha Phae Gate (the east part of the Old City or just outside).
Here are some hotel recommendations for a visit to Chiang Mai:
Luxury Hotel in Chiang Mai
Bodhi Serene Chiang Mai Hotel - In the heart of the old city, but secluded 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.
Hotel Yayee - Located in the ideal Nimman neighborhood, within walking distance to all kinds of restaurants, bars and things to do, is this boutique hotel. The beautiful decor and rooftop restaurant/bar makes this the perfect stay for couples.
Couples/Mid-Range Hotel in Chiang Mai
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.
NORN Boutique Hotel - Right in the heart of the Nimman neighborhood, this boutique hotel has top reviews for it’s location and value. A swimming pool and fabulous breakfast buffet make this a perfect Chiang Mai stay.
Budget Accommodation in Chiang Mai
Vida Guesthouse - Basic, yet clean and comfortable rooms for a super affordable price makes this a decent stay if you’re looking for a private ensuite room on a tight budget. The rooftop terrace is lovely, the staff is helpful and not super pushy, and the location is top notch.
This 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.
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 pretty basic, but the thing that makes it a winner is the staff. 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.
Have more time in northern Thailand?
We’ve got you covered with some info-packed guides for other amazing places to visit nearby:
Things to do in Pai: Situated in a stunning part of the Thai countryside, what used to be a small, laidback town has become something of a backpacker mecca. While it’s no longer a hidden oasis, we still think it is worth visiting (as the surrounding countryside is amazing!). We’ve traveled to Pai a couple of times and even spent some time volunteering on an organic farm just outside the town. We have a list of all the best things to do in this area.
Meditation Retreat in Northern Thailand: If you’re at all interested in meditation (and have the time), we’d highly suggest staying at this monastery in northern Thailand. You’ll learn the basics of meditation from monks who call this beautiful place home. Staying here will likely be one of the most unique things you do in Thailand (and yes, it is suitable for beginners. We’ve explained exactly what to expect in our info-packed guide.
Lampang White Pagodas: Making the trip to these stunning pagodas perched in the cliffs outside of Lampang was one of our favorite day trips from Chiang Mai. (Though we think it would have been even better if we had spent the night in Lampang so we didn’t have to rush.) We’ve written up all the details so you can visit this hidden gem yourself!
More Thailand resources…
And, if you’re traveling throughout the country, we’ve got even more articles to help you plan your Thailand trip!
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We want to hear from you!
Have you been to Chiang Mai? What was your favorite thing to do in Chiang Mai? What would you add to this list? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below.