Chiang Mai is affectionately known in Thailand as the ‘Rose of the North’.
Located in the foothills of the Thai Highlands, 688 kilometres north of Bangkok, the city is famous for its serene temples, cooking classes and market shopping. From backpackers to luxury travellers, Chiang Mai attracts everyone looking for an authentic Thai cultural experience.
Here are ten top things to do in Chiang Mai.
Immerse yourself in temple culture
It’s not hard to find a beautiful temple (wat) or ten in Chiang Mai; there are hundreds to choose from in and out of the city centre. Start with Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (just Suthep for short), which probably holds the title for the most visited wat in the region. Tourists and locals alike love this temple, which is set high up in the hills.
In the Old City you’ll find Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh and the small and rustic Wat Phan Tao. Remember to dress appropriately: cover knees and shoulders and remove footwear before entering.
Shop in the markets
Chiang Mai has daily and weekly street markets that will tempt your fancy and challenge your haggling skills. The Night Bazaar is hugely popular with visitors. There you’ll find everything from watches and passport covers, to funny t-shirts and fish foot spas. Street food is also a specialty.
Then there are the Saturday and Sunday Walking Street Markets held in the Old City, which often have live entertainment. There are even market stalls at the temples. Bring cash and haggle for the best price.
Enjoy a traditional Thai massage
A Thai massage is a must-do on any visit to Thailand and certainly one of our ten top things to do in Chiang Mai. A one-hour massage will cost 200-250 THB (less than $10 AUD) from street-side or walk-in salons, which you’ll find everywhere.
Thai massage does not use oil like a traditional Swedish relaxation massage. In fact, it’s not that relaxing at all! There’s a lot of pushing and pulling and twisting and prodding, but it’s all good. You’ll feel amazing afterwards and you’re sure to go back for more.
Chat with a monk
It’s not every day that you get to pick the brain of an ordained Buddhist monk. ‘Monk Chat’ has become popular in recent years as a way for tourists to learn about a monk’s life and for monks to practise their English. Come prepared with questions and be sure to leave a donation on your way out.
Wat Chedi Luang, which shares a location with Mahamakut Buddhist University, is a popular spot for a monk chin-wag.
Take a cooking class
A cooking class is one of our ten top things to do in Chiang Mai and one of those tourist activities that will give back to you, your family and friends for years to come. Sammy’s Organic Thai Cooking School offers a full day option that includes making and eating six courses, a take home cookbook and two hours of nap time in a hammock if you choose. Classes are taught in English by Thai staff.
Try Khao Soi — Chiang Mai’s signature dish
There’s a Thai saying that goes something like: ‘If you haven’t been to Wat Phrah That Doi Suthep or tasted Khao Soi, then you haven’t really been to Chiang Mai’. We’ve ticked one off, now here’s the other. Khao Soi is the city’s signature dish. This noodle-based meal is mix of sweet, sour and spicy; soft and crunchy noodles; and a sprinkling of spring onion. Add chilli, onion, pickle and lime to enhance the already yummy Thai flavours. Ask for Khao Soi Gai for the chicken version.
Ride like a local in a tuk tuk
Getting around in Chiang Mai is easy when you know how. If you’re brave enough, rent a car or moped (check what your travel insurance covers you for first), but if you want to save some stress, use the tuk tuks and hop-on-hop-off red truck taxi. Wave the truck down and ask the driver if he’s going near your destination and how much it will cost before you get in the back. Once there, pay him via the passenger side window.
Tip: Take a business card from your hotel so you can show the driver the address and get ‘home’ more easily.
Walk the streets of the Old City
The Old City is a gated square-shaped neighbourhood that is home to several of our ten top things to do in Chiang Mai. You will find many of the best-known temples, markets and restaurants here. Spend a day walking the busy streets and painted alleyways to uncover hidden treasures.
Feet tired? Hop in a tuk tuk or the red truck for a rest, while you continue sightseeing from the road.
Go zip lining
Chiang Mai is surrounded by rolling hills of rainforest that is alive with wildlife and adventure. An exciting way to see it all is on a zip line trip. Flight of the Gibbon is Thailand’s original zip lining tour. Test your limits on a series of zip lines, suspension bridges and abseiling challenges that are sure to raise your heart rate and confidence. At the end of the course tuck into a delicious fresh lunch (included in the tour cost). You’ll need it!
Bathe with an elephant
Love them or loathe them, elephant attractions are common in Northern Thailand. However, they can be vastly different experiences, so do your research carefully if you decide to visit one. Some are simply about riding the elephants (in which case, chains may be used to contain them), but others focus on the health and wellness of the animals.
On Elephant Family Care’s half day tour you get to feed the gentle giants, before jumping in the pond with them for a cooling mud bath. Don’t worry, you’re given suitable clothing to wear so yours stays dry and clean! A jungle-style lunch and a ride back to town are included. Full-day and two-day tours are also an option.
The RarinJinda Wellness Spa Resort offers luxury accommodation and is perfect for those who like to indulge in a little pampering. Situated near the Ping River, this spa hotel is a 10 to 20-minute walk to the Night Bazaar and Old City. The resort caters for all types of travellers, including families. Relax by the pool, have a workout in the fitness room, zen out during a complimentary yoga class or leave all your worries behind as you enter the spa for a massage or body scrub.
Enjoy a daily buffet breakfast of Thai and Western dishes at Deck 1 — the riverside restaurant across the street. The peaceful view of the river may just entice you back for dinner.
Jennifer travelled as a guest of RarinJinda Wellness Spa Resort.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in Chiang Mai? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Jennifer Morton is a freelance writer and photographer. The Canadian expat has lived all over Canada, New Zealand and Australia. She also spent six months working on a cruise ship in Europe. When Jennifer is not writing about travel, you may find her lounging on the beach, fishing with her son, sipping coffee at a cafe, reading a book or zooming in on a beautiful scene. She’s also likely to be boarding a plane — or jumping out of one.