Visiting an elephant sanctuary had to come first on the list as this is one of the main reasons why many people visit Chiang Mai.
Seeing an elephant up close is on a lot of people’s bucket lists, but it’s important to do this responsibility and at an ethical sanctuary. Nowadays, you have to be so careful with what ‘sanctuary’ you choose as many claim to be ethical just to attract more tourists.
We recommend Elephant Nature Park, located some 60km from Chiang Mai, which provides a safe sanctuary for dozens of rescued elephants that would otherwise be mistreated and overworked. The sanctuary has won numerous awards and visibly does its best to care for the elephants.
There are lots of different experiences available; learning about the elephants, feeding and bathing them or simply wandering alongside them through the jungle.
The length of experiences also vary from half to full days, or you could even volunteer for a longer period of time. Prices start from 2500 baht and places tend to go fast so we do recommend booking in advance.
Note: We often recommend booking online tours with Klook, however we only include these suggestions if we think it’s one of the best options. In this case, we cannot guarantee that the Jungle Sanctuary trip offered by Klook is truly ethical.
#2 Wander the historical streets of the Old City
Aside from being a great place to stay, the Old City is also the cultural heart of the city which is guarded by it’s rustic red-brick walls and almost perfectly square moat. Step through Phae Gate and be transported back 700 years to the capital of the Lanna Kingdom.
When people say that the best way to explore a city is to get lost in it, it couldn’t be more true in this instance. Simply wander through the narrow alleyways, absorbing the history that surrounds you before stumbling upon street art that juxtaposes with the old. The best way to explore is simply by foot or bicycle.
And, when your feet are tired, you can take a break in one of the many cafes or restaurants within the city walls.
PRO-TIP: A great choice is Khunkae’s Juice Bar to grab a refreshing fruit juice or smoothie bowl. The prices are very reasonable, costing only 50-60 baht for a juice or 80 baht for a smoothie bowl.
#3 Explore Chiang Mai’s history through the temples in the Old City
A large proportion of Chiang Mai’s temples can be found within the Old City’s walls. You’ll practically find one on every street!
The 300 odd temples in Chiang Mai help to tell the history of this largest city in the North of Thailand. Offering insights into the Lanna Kingdom and the importance of Buddhism to its identity.
If you’ve only got time to visit a few temples, here are our top 3:
Wat Phra Singh – a striking gold temple built in the 14th century and is one of the finest examples of Lanna architecture (Entrance fee 20 baht)
Wat Chedi Luang – is conveniently located at the centre of the Old City. The complex is hard to be missed with a 98m chedi, surrounded by 15 stone elephant sculptures. (Entrance fee 40 baht)
Wat Chiang Man – the oldest temple in Chiang Mai, built in the 13th century by one of the first Lanna Kings. Take a seat on one of the many benches and just breathe in the tranquility. (Entrance fee 20 baht)
#4 Venture outside the city to visit hilltop temples
Two temples that should be at the top of your lists are Wat Phra That Doi Kham and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. A visit to one of these offers not only a temple but breathtaking views of Chiang Mai.
So which one should you visit? Both temples are about a 40-minute drive outside of the city. Most travellers go here by hiring a motorbike, but you can also hire a songthaew for 120 baht round trip. The entrance fee for each temple is 30 baht.
The temples are both located on the west side of Chiang Mai, with Doi Kham located slightly more to the south. You can easily visit both temples in one day, but bear in mind that the drive between the two takes almost one hour.
If you decide to visit one, it has to be Wat Doi Suthep. This is the most popular one and there is a lot more to see. However, if you want to have the best views and prefer a more quiet place, then visit Doi Kham.
Wat Doi Suthep
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is the most well-known temple in Chiang Mai and also one of the most sacred temples in the whole of Thailand as it is an important pilgrimage destination during Buddhist holidays.
The magic of the temple alongside the phenomenal views makes it hard not to be speechless once you reach the top. Although, this could be due to the fact you will have just climbed 309 steps to get there.
As an alternative, there is also a cable car for 50 baht if you don’t fancy the walk.
But it’s not only the view that makes Suthep temple so beautiful. Within the temple complex there is a separate area with a large, gold-coloured chedi in the middle. Next to the chedi, you’ll see an umbrella that symbolizes the independence from Burma and its union with Thailand.
To take this experience to a whole new level, you can admire the temple under the stars and take a night time tour of Wat Doi Suthep. If you’d prefer to see the temple’s golden exterior glimmering in the sunlight, you can join an organised tour with very knowledgeable guides that can tell you a lot about the history of these temples.
Wat Phra That Doi Kham (Golden Temple)
Wat Doi Kham is less visited than Wat Doi Suthep, creating a sense of intimacy during your visit.
On top of the mountain proudly sits a 17m tall Buddha draped in gold, surrounded by a number of shrines and statues that you can admire for hours.
Similar to Wat Doi Suthep, the reward always requires a bit of work. You’ll have to climb 300 steps up the winding staircase decorated with a serpent.
Fun fact: In 1966, the chedi of Wat Doi Kham collapsed after heavy rainfall. Within the damaged chedi, they discovered a number of Buddha images inside the structure. The Buddha images were then sold to raise funds to restore the Chedi.
One of the best things about travelling and visiting new places is getting to talk to people who live a completely different way of life to you.
The Monk Chat programs in Chiang Mai are a truly eye-opening and enriching experience that allows you to discover and learn about the life of a Monk. The conversation topics are completely open and a great opportunity for the Monks to practise their English.
Some of the places where you can find these chats are: Wat Chedi Luang daily between 9am and 6pm, Wat Suan Dok – Monday, Wednesday and Friday between 5 and 7pm – and Wat Sri Suphan daily between 5:30 -7pm.
The chats are free but it is always good to give a donation to the temple. Also make sure to dress appropriately.
#6 Discover a temple hidden in the depths of the jungle
A temple that is often missed by most tourists is Wat Pha Lat, surrounded by lush green jungle, the tranquil rush of a waterfall and monks going about their daily lives.
The reason why it’s often missed is due to the 40-minute hike along the Monk’s Trail to reach the temple. Trust us it’s worth it – if not only for the sole reason of not being surrounded by other tourists.
The hike begins just beyond the university and is marked on the way up by strips of orange Monk’s robes, adding to the peaceful and sacred feel of the area.
#7 Try a popular Northern Thai dish: Khao Soi
A mostly unknown gem that you must try when in Chiang Mai is Khao Soi, a variation of a noodle curry soup. This mouth-watering dish is famous in this area and is often known as Chiang Mai noodles.
A great spot to grab some of the best noodles in your life is the relatively modest Khao Soi Mae Sai – a real hotspot for the locals.
Aside from Khao Soi, you can try plenty more cheap and delicious dishes at the Sunday Night Market in the Old City. Try not to fill up on your first dish (we know it’s hard), so you can try a selection.
Thai Cooking Class
Can’t get enough of Thai food, why not learn some skills to take back home with you? There are a number of cooking classes available, with the Asia Scenic Thai Cooking Class being our favourite.
They not only show you how to cook a number of dishes, but they also take you on a tour of their organic garden whilst you pick your ingredients.
Top tip: If you can’t handle spice then we recommend learning ‘Mai Phet’ which means ‘not spicy’ so you don’t end up accidentally setting your mouth on fire!
We’re not done yet with food! Chiang Mai has become a hub for vegan and vegetarian cafes/restaurants. Even if you’re a meat lover, we’re sure some of the delicious plant-based dishes can convince you that not every meal needs meat.
Some of our top recommendations are V Secret Vegan for simple but flavorful food served on banana leaves, Aum Vegetarian for a tasty, cheap eat and Free Bird Cafe, a social enterprise whose profits support Burmese refugees.
#9 Live amongst the Digital Nomads
Like bees to honey, wherever there is a thriving cafe culture, you’re almost guaranteed to find some digital nomads conquering the world from their laptops.
Chiang Mai has become a popular base for digital nomads as a result of the hundreds of cafes, good wifi and low living costs, but also the number of great coworking spaces.
One of the most popular in Punspace Ninnman which has a quiet buzz about the place but can get quite busy at times. A quieter alternative but part of the same chain is Punspace Tha Pae Gate. Wake Up is also a good option if you like the blend of a 24/7 coffee shop with a coworking space.
#10 Relax and enjoy a massage by a prison inmate
Most of us will enjoy a Thai massage or two when in Thailand, but Chiang Mai offers something slightly different.
As part of a program run by Chiang Mai’s Women’s Correctional Institution, female prisoners are given the chance to learn a marketable skill which will then help them to reintegrate back into society and find employment.
Choosing to have a massage at one of these parlors is helping to better someone’s life and some people claim ‘it’s the best massage they’ve ever had!’
The prices are relatively low, a 1 or 2-hour traditional Thai massage is 200 or 400 baht respectively. You can also opt for a 1-hour foot massage for 200 baht, but in order to get one of the highly demanded appointments you’ll have to go to the parlour early in the morning to book one in.
#11 Splash about at Chiang Mai’s Grand Canyon Waterpark
Originally an abandoned limestone quarry, the 48,000 square meter area has been transformed into a spectacular waterpark.
Hang Dong Canyon a.k.a the Grand Canyon of Thailand is actually split into two separate parks.
Waterpark 1 with cliff jumping
The one on the right is the more quiet option, costing 100 baht, where you can enjoy 15m cliff jumping, zip lining (300 baht extra) and rock climbing.
If you want to save some money, you can purchase your ticket in advance via Klook and pay just 83 baht instead.
You can also just paddle board, float in a rubber ring or drift on the bamboo ridge, all whilst soaking up the sun’s rays.
Waterpark 2 with lots of obstacles
Head to the left side of the canyon and you’ll see a vibrant inflatable obstacle course with people slipping and sliding about everywhere. This park is more expensive and costs 650 baht for the day but it gives you plenty of time to perfect your face planting technique.
The Grand Canyon is a 45 minute drive out from Chiang Mai city centre.
#12 Join one of Thailand’s famous festivals and celebrations
If you’re going to celebrate a festival, you want to do it properly right? Well the locals in Chiang Mai certainly know how to do that!
Songkran – welcoming the new year with a waterfight
Celebrated with a soaking every mid-April, Songkran welcomes in the new year by having a massive water fight! This actually symbolises the ridding of any bad luck as the new year begins.
It’s virtually impossible to avoid getting wet, so as they say – if you can’t beat them, join them.
Loi Krathong – the lantern festival
Another favourite with the locals is Loi Krathong, the ‘festival of light’, which usually occurs in November.
Small krathongs (banana leaf bouquets with candles and incense) are set free down the river, symbolising the release of spirits and bad luck from the community.
Alongside this, khom (glowing paper balloons) are launched into the night sky, creating a striking contrast between the glistening lights against the dark blanket of the night.
#13 Refresh your mind at a free yoga class
A word we all like to hear is ‘free’, especially if you’re travelling on a budget.
Yoga in the Park is run by yoga teachers willing to give their time, passion and expertise for free. All levels are welcome and classes usually last for 60-75 minutes. All the information can be found on their Facebook page.
#14 Spice up your Instagram at Art in Paradise 3D
Even if you’re not a fan of art galleries, don’t write this one off just yet! The interactive art at Art in Paradise isn’t there to just be admired, you’re meant to get involved!
The 130 3D paintings, created by a group of artists from Korea, are split into 8 different worlds for you to explore; aqua, zoo, dinosaur, Surrealism, classic art, Lanna, Thai and Egyptian.
You can get some mind-blowing pictures surfing a wave or flying on a magic carpet like Aladdin!
An adult ticket will cost you 300 baht, while a child’s is 200 baht.
#15 End the day with a taste of Chiang Mai’s nightlife
Chiang Mai isn’t really known as being a place to party due to all bars in the Old City having to close at midnight, cutting the fun times short for most.
However, there is still plenty of nightlife to enjoy including cocktail bars, rooftop bars or plain and simple beer bars. Essentially something for everyone.
If you’re a backpacker, one place you must try is Zoe in Yellow! The place is always packed with both young Thai locals and backpackers enjoying cheap alcohol whilst bopping along to electronic music. It’s essentially a taste of Koh Phangan but in Chiang Mai.
#16 Stroll around the Sunday night market in the Old City
If food heaven and shopping heaven were merged together, you would get the Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai Old City. That’s the best way to describe it!
Smells float up into the air, enticing you to every food stall that you walk past. The great thing about the market is that the food is so cheap, so you can try lots of different dishes without blowing your budget.
And when your stomach can’t take anymore, just lazily wander around, browsing the hundreds of ornate and vibrant souvenirs on offer.
One minute you’re looking at clothing, the next an intricate painting before turning around and seeing every type of noisy, flashing electronic you can imagine!
The market starts at 4 pm and continues until around midnight, but to avoid the crowds, it’s best to avoid 7-10pm. It begins at Tha Phae Gate and then continues down Rachadamnoen Road in the Old City.