If you’re planning a trip to Northern Thailand, then chances are that you’ll spend plenty of time in Chiang Mai. In fact, for a lot of people, Chiang Mai is Northern Thailand. It’s by far the biggest city in the north and there are heaps of things to see and do, as well as some excellent day trips from the city. Keep reading to find (most) of the best things to do in Chiang Mai, including temples, waterfalls, more temples and some cute traveller back alleys.
Explore the Old City
The old part of Chiang Mai is also where most of the tourist action is, so you won’t have to walk far to reach atmospheric temples, hectic night markets and crumbling city walls. It’s not as consistently old as a lot of “old towns”, meaning most of the buildings you’ll see actually aren’t that old at all. Still though, you’ve some beautiful old temples to explore, a few museums as well as remnants of the impressive city walls. It’s a fun place to go for a stroll with no particular destination in mind – if it gets too hot you won’t have to look too hard for a place to grab some food or drink! How old is Chiang Mai…? It was founded in 1296 and was the capital of the Thai Lanna Kingdom until 1558, a similar time frame to Ayutthaya.
Visit Some Temples
Visiting temples is one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai, but what ones should you actually visit? I’d go for Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Chiang Man — they are two of the older temples in Chiang Mai and they are probably the most interesting in an architectural sense. You’ll pass heaps of others while strolling around the city, and while they do start to blend into each other they are always worth a quick look.
This small mountain overlooking Chiang Mai is home to a famous temple as well as a palace. It’s easy to reach from the old city (catch a songthaew at the Northern Gate) and a trip there definitely won’t break the bank. The views are apparently nice, but it was too hazy to appreciate them when I was there.
The temple itself is impressive, and it attracts a decent crowd. There’s also a little shopping and eating village nearby and the Bhubing Palace is a short songthaew ride away (although there isn’t much to see there). If you have half a day to kill in Chiang Mai and you want a bit of a “local” adventure, I’d highly recommend taking the songthaew to Doi Suthep.
A Day Trip to Doi Inthanon
You could spend days in the old town of Chiang Mai, sampling the world class food, relaxing in garden bars and enjoying the vibe of the city. I’d recommend tearing yourself away from that comfort for at least a day though, because a day trip to Doi Inthanon shouldn’t be missed! I didn’t end up going there until my third visit to Chiang Mai, but it quickly became by favourite thing about the city.
Doi Inthanon is the tallest mountain in Thailand and it’s only around 90 minutes from Chiang Mai. There are heaps of tour options which take you to the mountain, including stops at waterfalls, temples, small villages and beautiful viewpoints. Make sure to do a tour that includes hiking at the Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail– that’s where you’ll see the best views!
Eating and Drinking
Whether you seek out local dishes at street-side stalls or upmarket restaurants scattered around the city, you’ll always find something to satisfy your cravings. The local food in Chiang Mai is delicious and cheap – you can get a simple noodle or rice dish for a couple of dollars (look for places that are popular with locals) or pretty much any Thai dish at any number of small restaurants. The options are endless and I reckon the food will likely be one of the most memorable parts of your Chiang Mai trip. As for Chiang Mai specialities, it’d be hard to look past Khao Soi – the most famous noodle dish in the area (which I didn’t get a photo of, that’s a chicken coconut soup dish — so good!).
Shopping comes in many different forms in Chiang Mai. You’ve got massive air-conditioned malls, sweaty night markets and shops lining the streets of the old town selling your typical souvenirs and clothes. I went to the night market in the old town one night and it was unbelievably crowded, so you might want to avoid that if you’re afraid of crowds. I’d avoid it if you’re hungry too – the lines for the food places were really long and there was nowhere to sit!
If that’s not enough options, you could also check out Warorot Market. I looked around for about an hour and it was huge (and more geared towards locals) – it was interesting to see though.
Digital nomads have been flocking to Chiang Mai over the last 10 years or so, seduced by cheap prices and a good standard of living. A lot of them choose Nimmanhaemin as their base, and after spending a few hours there I can see why. It’s one of the more upmarket areas of Chiang Mai and there are heaps of cool bars and restaurants around. It’s also pretty close (walkable, just) from the old town. There’s a big mall there as well as some boutique shopping areas, and the whole place has a vibe which is quite different to the rest of the city.
Pai is four hours from Chiang Mai, and it’s the next logical destination for a lot of people. Minibuses ply the route regularly or you could rent a car and driver if you’re budget allows it. I’d spend at least two nights in Pai, although you could do it quicker if you wanted. Check out my post for more information on Pai!
Elephant tours have long been popular in Chiang Mai, although they have changed a lot recently. Ever since the (justified) backlash against riding elephants, most operators in Chiang Mai have stopped offering elephant rides, instead opting for a more hands-off experience. I’m still not convinced about this industry, so I didn’t do any elephant tours. I’ve heard Elephant Nature Park is one of the better ones, so maybe look into it if an elephant tour is something you’re after.
Back Alleys and Side Streets
The back alleys and side streets of Chiang Mai’s old town are fun to explore. There are heaps of restaurants, bars and guesthouses scattered around and the alleys and streets themselves are very cute. It can be a bit of a shock going from a quiet back alley to a main street though, so try and stick to the more relaxing areas if you’re sick of loud traffic! I’d recommend staying in this area as there is heaps to see, lots of places to eat and it’s far more relaxing than most other parts of town.
Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai
After a few days relaxing in Chiang Mai you might feel like heading a little further afield. Chiang Rai is a great option — there’s heaps to do nearby and it’s a fun town to spend a a couple of days in. It takes 3-4 hours to travel between the two (the photo below was taken on the journey) and it’s a reasonably straight-forward trip. Stay tuned for my post about Chiang Rai coming soon!
Are you planning a trip to Thailand? Will you seek out some of the best things to do in Chiang Mai? Let me know in the comments below!
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