According to my Thai cooking guide, there are three seasons for weather in Thailand: hot, very hot and fricken hot (she used somewhat spicier words). At this minute, I believe I am in the latter category. After a long-haul flight from Europe and a late-night Bangkok to Chiang Mai flight, I arrived tired and still, somehow, buzzing with excitement. After a long, cold winter, I was so ready for a few days of sun on my skin and heat in my bones. Four days in northern Thailand was my remedy.
I woke gently to the sounds of birds chirping and then somewhat abruptly to the harsh crow of a rooster. I looked over at my phone – it was 8 am, and I was already feeling the sweat bead over my brow. Excellent, I thought to myself, I could feel myself thawing already. Throwing on an easy, flowing (aka sweat-wicking) dress, I wandered the bustling streets in search of a morning coffee. On the way back to the hotel, I felt a bounce in my step as I sipped on the dewy condensation-covered cup. I couldn’t decide if it was the ice-cold caffeine or the fact that it only cost me a negligible $1.45 USD, which had me feeling a little extra peppy this morning. Either way, I was dreamily awaiting everything I had planned for the four days in this concrete jungle paradise.
If you are planning a trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand and are looking for iconic Chiang Mai things to do to inspire your itinerary for Chiang Mai, I have you covered with this guide to the best things to do in Chiang Mai.
Whether you are smitten with street markets, excited to discover Thailand’s growing coffee culture, want to explore the ancient gold-trimmed temples and visit a Chiang Mai elephant sanctuary or taste your way through four-course cooking classes, Chiang Mai is a sensory explosion that you simply must experience for yourself. In the meantime, let me give you a taste of what to expect with my top tips for choosing Chiang Mai hotels, the cost of travelling around Chiang Mai, as well as the best things to do in Chiang Mai.
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Where to stay in Chiang Mai
Before we discuss the best things to do in Chiang Mai, let’s tuck into where to stay and the best places to find accommodation in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai Nimman
During my short four-day adventure to this bustling northern city, I stayed in two starkly different neighborhoods. The first was close to the airport in the Chiang Mai Nimman neighborhood. This area was filled with local eateries (no tourist tax here!) and was great for experiencing a more local way of living. However, it was around 30 min walk to the Old City center. This did not bother me in the slightest, as I ended up spending the two days exploring the local food and sleeping off the jet lag by the pool. If you did want to stay here and make your way into the city, be sure to add transport to your budget.
The second area we stayed was in Old Town, just east of the Old City walls. This area was significantly more touristy and busy, but it was still possible to find cheap eats and places to stay. In fact, we found a little hole-in-the-wall back-street hotel where we bartered to pay only 600 Baht a night (around 17 USD). Despite the hustle and bustle, this area is hands down the perfect location to explore the city on foot.
Cost of travelling in Chiang Mai
One of the perks of travelling to Thailand (and south-east Asia in general) is to enjoy the cheaper experiences and food. Diving into the cuisine here in Chiang Mai is one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai – without a doubt! But how much does everything cost exactly? Well, below, I have included a list of the average cost of food and experiences during my time in Chiang Mai*.
- Iced Coffee – 50 Baht ($1.50 USD)
- Sidestreet restaurant lunch for two – 150 Baht ($4.5 USD)
- High-end dinner for two – 500 Baht ($14 USD)
- Chiang Mai 3 star hotel per night – 600 Baht ($17 USD)
- Chiang Mai 5 star hotel per night – 1000 Baht ($30 USD)
- Taxi to and from the airport – 250 Baht ($7 USD)
- Thai massage – 300 Baht ($9 USD)
- Cooking class – 800 Baht per person ($23 USD)
*Information accurate as of May 2023
Getting around Chiang Mai
Overall, when exploring a new city, I love to walk most places. And if you stay in Old Town, much of Chiang Mai is very walkable. However, it’s good to have a few other options if the weather gets too hot or you are planning an adventure to the foothills a little out of the city.
I know what you may be thinking – Túk-túks, right? They are, after all, the very iconic ‘south-east Asia transport’. So much so that when I arrived, I was a little shocked to be picked up from the airport in an oh-so-normal car. When we enquired about taking a ride in these iconic open-air scooters, I discovered they were more for the experience than actually being an effective (or affordable) transport method. In lieu of a túk-túk, there are a few options for getting around Chiang Mai:
- Ride in a ‘rót daang’ – This translates literally to mean ‘red truck’ (these are also referred to as Songthaew). These trucks feature an open seat plan and easy access from an open door in the back. I rode in one of these to my cooking class and saw plenty around town during my four days. These can start at around 20-30 Baht for a short ride and are a great ride-share version of a taxi.
Maxim App – From my experience, if you have a local sim, the best and cheapest way to get around is using the Maxim app. This service is similar to Uber and ordinarily comes out cheaper than a taxi or other pickup service (e.g. from our hotel in Old Town, the taxi would have been around 250 Baht, but with Maxim, we paid around 70 Baht).
Okay let’s dive into the best things to do in Chiang Mai! You ready?
Best things to do in Chiang Mai
So what are the best things to do in Chiang Mai? Let’s dive in.
1. Eat traditional Thai food
If nothing else, Chiang Mai knows good food. So, of course, one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai is to sample the incredibly fresh cuisine. Whether you’re a noodle fanatic obsessed with a Pad Se Ew, love the spice and flavour of a curry, or can’t look past the sweet and salty pairing of mango sticky rice, Chiang Mai is bound to please.
However, with this being a country with a compromised water source and minimal restaurant health standards, it’s important to be diligent when choosing places to eat. Some of the best advice we were given was to look at each place and see if the locals eat there. If there are a few locals, chances are it will be good (and safe!).
2. Visit a Temple/’Wat’
Aside from the food, Chiang Mai is overflowing with ancient beauty and stunning temples. When you enter the Old City walls, it feels like there is a temple (‘Wat’) on every corner. Some of the most iconic temples include:
- Wat Phra Sing – A popular temple amongst the local Thai people
- Wat Chiang Man – The oldest temple in Chiang Mai
- Wat Si Suphan – The ‘Silver Temple’ built primarily using silver
Wat Prah That – A stunning temple on the outskirts of the city offering unmatched views of the city.
3. Get a traditional Thai massage
After a long day exploring in the sweltering heat, there is no better way to end the day than with a traditional Thai massage. Can we included that as a best thing to do in Chiang Mai? I think so – there’s no massage like it! Be warned – a traditional Thai massage is unlike a regular ‘relaxation’ massage. The best way I can describe it is that it feels like a competitive wrestling match with a tiny and strong human pulling and twisting at your body in ways you may not have imagined it could twist.
And yet, despite being so different, it is still incredibly good and (in my experience) gives a longer-lasting sense of relaxation— an essential must-do on any itinerary for Chiang Mai.
4. Stroll through the markets
There are plenty of great markets to explore in Chiang Mai, and wandering these chaotic sidestreet pop-ups is a must-do on any itinerary for Chiang Mai. Some of the top markets to check out include:
- Night Bazaar (night market) – this iconic night market is found on Chang Klan Rd
- Warorot Market – one of Chiang Mai’s oldest markets
- Chang Puak Gate Market – is considered one of the best street food markets in the city
Top tip: If you are hoping to test your stomach at a street market and want to avoid any chance of food poisoning, be sure to choose more permanent stalls. If someone is whipping up a spread from a scooter, you may want to keep walking.
Strolling the markets is one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai if you’re a foodie and love tasting new flavours and spices – this will get your senses going!
5. Try the coffee
One thing that surprised me about Chiang Mai was its thriving coffee scene. As an Australian travelling abroad, finding those cafe gems like home can sometimes be hard, but in Chiang Mai, great coffee was in surplus. After stumbling upon many beautiful cafes with pretty incredible coffee, I did some digging. Turns out, unbeknownst to me, Chiang Mai is known as the coffee capital of Thailand. Best of all, there is no reason not to at just 50 Baht ($2 USD) per coffee!
6. Have clothes tailor-made
Have you ever felt like clothes never quite fit you right?
Or maybe you have a special occasion coming up that you want to have something uniquely tailored?
Thailand is known for their cost-effective and quick tailor-made clothes, making this one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai.
My partner and I were gearing up to attend a vegas themed wedding, and so my partner decided to have a suit made for the occasion. For 3000 Baht (85 USD), he got tailor-made pants and a jazzy-looking shirt – all made within 24 hours!
7. Take a Thai Chiang Mai cooking class
When I was a kid, my dad would take me to a Thai restaurant at least once a month. From a young age, I learnt to appreciate the tender flavours of green curry and to do my best not to devour the Pad Se Ew immediately. When I had begun planning this trip, I knew I wanted to learn how to cook some of these childhood favourites in a Thai cooking class.
After doing a little research, I stumbled upon a highly-rated Chiang Mai cooking class offered by Thai Akha Kitchen. This Chiang Mai cooking class was everything I could have imagined and more! The class began first thing in the morning at 8 am, where we were picked up in a rót daang and delivered to the markets near the south gate of the Old City. Here we grabbed some of the fresh ingredients for the class, and the guide showed us some traditional Thai food. When we finished, we made our way to the kitchen. The eight people in the class each got their own cooking station, and over the course of the four hours, we cooked (and devoured) two entrees, two mains and mango sticky rice for dessert.
The food at the Chiang Mai cooking class was the best I had ever tasted – even as good as many of the Chiang Mai Thai restaurants I had frequented these past few days. I could hardly believe my hands had helped create such flavoursome dishes. For just 800 Baht per person (around $23 USD), it was worth every penny and easily one of my top things to do in Chiang Mai – a must-do on any itinerary for Chiang Mai.
8. Other great things to do in Chiang Mai, Thailand
I had only a short time in Chiang Mai, so I decided to stick to the city limits. However, there are so many great things to see outside the city. Some other popular activities and experiences to add to your itinerary for Chiang Mai include:
Go to a Chiang Mai elephant sanctuary
Visiting elephants in Thailand has definitely gotten a bad rep over the years, but they are not all bad. If meeting an elephant has been on your bucket list for a while, visiting a Chiang Mai elephant sanctuary is one of the best places to do just that. Just be sure to research that it is run ethically and enjoy these peaceful creatures from a distance (and be sure to say no to any offers for back riding to keep these creatures safe).
Fly to Bangkok for a day to explore the city
When I had finished my 4-day Chiang Mai itinerary, I made my way to the Chiang Mai airport to fly to Bangkok for the day before flying out of the country. This airport has a train that goes directly into the city, where you can see top attractions such as the giant Buddha and more.
Stay at one of the top Chiang Mai resorts
If there were an occasion to act like a queen/king for a day, it would be in Chiang Mai. Why not treat yourself to a spa day at one of the top Chiang Mai resorts or a 5 star Chiang Mai hotel? Sit by the pool, get a massage, and order great Thai food, all without leaving the comfort of your hotel (and for a fraction of the price anywhere else in the world!).
Visit Wat Phra That at Doi Suthep National Park
This ‘temple on the hill’ is best known for its stunning design and for the unmatched 360° views of Chiang Mai and its surroundings. There are also plenty of other stunning attractions to explore in the park, including the Huay Kaew Waterfall and Bhubing Palace.
Are there any other things to do in Chiang Mai or other top experiences that should be on an itinerary for Chiang Mai? Are there any Chiang Mai hotels or Chiang Mai Thai restaurants you would recommend? As always, happy adventuring.
What are your favourite things to do in Chiang Mai?
Anything you’d add to this Chiang Mai travel guide?
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