What to do in Chiang Mai Thailand
As an old Thai saying goes, “If you haven’t tasted Khao Soi or seen the view from Doi Suthep, you haven’t been to Chiang Mai.” Said another way: Did you even Chiang Mai bro?
Chiang Mai Thailand is a great destination in Northern Thailand that is relatively easy to get to, but deciding on what to do in Chiang Mai can be challenging!
From the Chiang Mai Night Market to temples and nightlife, there is no shortage of activities and attractions.
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First things first, it’s important to understand the “city” layout for Chiang Mai. Constructed during the 1200s, Chiang Mai was built within a four-wall structure, which is known as Old City Chiang Mai today.
When deciding on where to stay in Chiang Mai, you can stay within the Old City walls or just outside the walls.
Honestly, you really can’t go wrong either way as Old City is very walkable and getting from wall to wall is a little over 1 mile (2 km) and will take you about 20 minutes to walk it.
Not knowing much about the city layout beforehand, we chose to stay at Amora Tapae, a hotel just outside the city walls.
This hotel is located right at The Tapae Gate, one of the most famous gate entrances to Old City. Amora Tapae is a nice hotel with free WiFi in the lobby and mezzanine areas, as well as on-site dining, spa services, and even a beer garden!
While the rooms were pretty standard with air conditioning, the view of Old City was impressive and what really set this place apart.
What to do in Chiang Mai
The Old City
Tha Phae Gate
As mentioned, the city center is only 1 square kilometer and it’s relatively easy to navigate. A moat surrounds the old city of Chiang Mai and several sections of the ancient city wall date back as far as 700 years.
Take a stroll around the Old City, ducking in and out of the city’s dozens of temples! And don’t forget to try Thai coconut ice cream from a street vendor!
Chiang Mai Temples
With an overwhelming number of temples in Chiang Mai, more than 300 to be exact, we opted to do a Chiang Mai Temples tour to see the top temples in and around the Old City.
This tour included: Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, and the Reliquaries of Northern Thai Royalty. It will cost you $85 USD, but that includes transportation to and from your hotel, an English-speaking guide, and all of your entrance fees.
The cost to get to Doi Suthep alone (about 45 minutes from our hotel) was about half that cost, so a tour seemed like the best route.
Important note: Attire. You must have your shoulders and knees covered to enter any of the temples in Chiang Mai. We suggest purchasing a pair of elephant pants (you’ll find them all over Thailand) that you can put on over your shorts and wearing a short-sleeve shirt if you’re in a tank top.
Although the weather in Chiang Mai is a bit cooler than in Bangkok, it’s not that much cooler, so you’ll be happy to be in as light of clothing as possible while touring these temples.
Wat Chedi Luang – Temple of the Big Stupa
The first building that you’ll see on the site is actually a men’s only temple and houses the City Pillar, which is said to protect the city of Chiang Mai. Luckily, Chris (being a dude) got to venture in and snap some photos.
Still a very active religious site, you can witness part of a prayer service by sitting in the back of one of the temples while all the monks kneel before a large Buddha shrine. Your guide will remind you, but remember to never point your feet towards Buddha as it is considered rude.
The famous Chedi inside the temple once measured over 200 feet (60 meters) tall, but a third of it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1545. During the 1990s, the Chedi was reconstructed with a copy of the Emerald Buddha (made from black jade) placed on its original throne.
Wat Chiang Man
Constructed in 1306, Wat Chiang Man is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai. While added to over the following centuries, this extensively decorated temple is a site to see. You can travel back in time as you meander around the meditation halls, golden stupas, and stunning grounds.
Exploring the grounds, you’ll find a hidden Lotus Pond acting like a moat to a smaller temple.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
A 40-minute drive up a winding mountain road is worth every nauseating second to get to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, aka “Doi Suthep”, which is the name of the mountain on which the temple is located.
To get to the top for the magnificent views and beautiful temple, you’ll have to make a choice between a serpent-lined, 307-stair climb or pay 50 baht ($1.50 U.S.) to take a cable car that takes 30 seconds.
Our advice – cable car up and walk down! There are food vendors at the top in case you climb and need some food to replenish your energy.
Once you reach the top, there is plenty to see! Believed to be constructed during the late 1300s, the temple overwhelms the senses, breathing in the crisp, fresh mountain air while gazing at an 80-foot (24 meters) tall gold Chedi.
At the rear of the temple, you will find a gorgeous, sprawling view of Chiang Mai. Even on a hazy day, you can take in the magnitude and beauty of the city.
On your way out, in the Doi Suthep parking lot, you will find food stands offering a wide variety of…BUGS!
This was the only time we encountered bugs for eating, so if you are daring enough to try, now is your chance!
You can choose from already-fried critters or if you prefer (and are braver than us), pick a few live ones to fry on the spot!
Reliquaries of Northern Thai Royalty
The Chiang Mai Night market /bazaar is located near the Ping River and is 110% worth your time. Home to hundreds of merchants, a large “food court”, massage parlors, dancing, and live music, this place was massive and full of life. Grab a bite to eat in the “food court” while the bands cover a wide range of American music.
If you’re brave, you can cool your feet off in a tank of fish which nibble on your legs and feet. If you’re doubly brave, try the local fruit called Durian.
It is super smelly though, so be warned!
Some hotels and businesses have even banned it from being brought inside because of its strong smell!
We tried it and it was a familiar flavor, but the texture and consistency were not agreeable for our palate. The Chiang Mai Night Market will start to wrap up around 11:30 p.m.
Sunday Night Market
Yes, we are aware this is a crappy photo.
If you thought the Chiang Mai Night Market was impressive, you haven’t seen anything yet.
Sprawling over a full half-mile (1 km), from Tha Phae Gate down the full length of Ratchadamnoen Road, this market has it ALL! Filled with tourists and some locals, this market will be wall-to-wall with people.
They close down this main road in the Old City each Sunday night and fill it with musical acts and vendors selling food, treats, jewelry, souvenirs, clothing, arts, shoes, etc.
Make sure you pick up a pair of elephant pants! We walked around for 2 hours in search of the perfect pair of elephant pants and other miscellaneous souvenirs and still didn’t get to the end of the market.
While walking back to our hotel from the Night Market (not the Sunday Night Market) along Loi Kroh Road, we stumbled into this cove of bars, for lack of better words.
To be specific, there were about 20 bars all clumped together in one narrow building. Having a large amount of themed bars to choose from, we grabbed a drink at the bar, Shamrock, which just so happens to be the Ladyboy Bar in Chiang Mai.
What is a ladyboy you ask?
In the western world, we call them transvestites or transgenders, but they are far more popular in the Thai culture.
We were greeted by a very pretty ladyboy, who was friendly and inviting! We quickly enjoyed our drink and moved on.
Unless you like very sugary drinks, stick to the beer. The liquor drinks were loaded with extra sugar!
Not a must-do, but we stumbled into this bar and really enjoyed it. John’s Place is a very touristy bar/restaurant on the main street near the moat that surrounds the city. Pop in for a drink and great people watching during the day! Head up a few flights of stairs to the rooftop bar to overlook the street and the city wall.
Other notable bar hopping places included Chiang Mai Saloon and The UN Irish Pub.
Thailand is known for many things and it would be criminal to not mention getting a Thai massage. And before you ask…no, get your minds out of the gutter.
The Tok Sen Massage in Chiang Mai is very specific to the region. This is an incredibly unique massage and can trace its ancient roots to Northern Thailand. While it may seem unorthodox, there is a wooden hammer used and this strangely distinct massage will leave you relaxed, possibly confused from the treatment, and wanting more.
Local lunch at Aroon Rai
A true local restaurant, Aroon Rai was suggested by our temples tour guide and happened to be a short walk from our hotel.
The local dish is Khao Soi and was absolutely delicious!
Even the chicken fried rice was mouth watering. They don’t speak English so make sure you learn the phrase for “not spicy” which is ไม่เผ็ด (because that is helpful). ไม่เผ็ด is pronounced “my-pet”. You are welcome.
Cooking Class in Chiang Mai
Technically, not a place to eat, but we did eat dinner here so we are counting it.
Offering several classes throughout the day, Asia Scenic cooking class provided 4 hours of authentic Asian cooking instruction as well as yummy food that you create yourself! We chose the 5:00-9:00 p.m. class and were joined by fellow travelers from America and Germany.
By now, you will have undoubtedly read about the horrors of elephant “rescues” in Chiang Mai Thailand.
While we are keeping our opinion on that particular subject to ourselves, we chose to visit Ran-Tong Elephant Rescue based on several hours of research.
Considered one of the more ethical elephant sanctuaries, Ran-Tong rescued all of its elephants from circuses or riding camps.
Important note: the elephants can’t roam free while you are there so they do have on long leashes. This is for your safety and theirs too, but if you don’t know that going in, you might be alarmed.
Ran-Tong Elephant Rescue will pick you up at your hotel and take you an hour outside of Chiang Mai Old City to their sanctuary.
It was pouring down rain on the day we went, which didn’t really matter to us since we were going to get muddy with the elephants anyways.
Upon arrival, they give you a quick tutorial on the elephants and provide a change of clothes for the day.
We recommend bringing shoes that can get destroyed by mud (shoes you might even consider leaving in Thailand).
We had sandals and fresh clothes for the car ride back. So fresh and so clean clean!
The highlight of this trip consisted of: bathing a baby elephant in a mud bath, showering them off in the stream, and hand feeding them their favorite treat, bamboo.
After 2 hours with the elephants, they allowed us to shower and change and served us lunch with northern Thai cuisine, including Khao Soi and chicken.
What to do in Chiang Mai Review
Chiang Mai feels more like a big town than a city, especially walking around the Old City.
It’s fairly easy to navigate, and you’ll know if you’ve ventured outside the city walls if you’ve crossed the moat!
From the copious amounts of night markets in Chiang Mai to the Chiang Mai Temples and exploring the Old City, what to do in Chiang Mai is an easy question to answer.
Whether you are going for a quick 2-day trip or staying for a couple of weeks, you will have plenty to see and lots to do.
Take in the vibrant life of Chiang Mai.
You won’t be sorry!
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We are Samantha & Chris and we are Boozing Abroad (literally). Both stateside and overseas, we are connecting people with local cultures through local booze!