Rather than focus on specific activities and things to do in Chiang Mai (for that have a look at our ‘things to do in Chiang Mai’ article) we’re going to look some different regions and general areas for places to visit and to factor in when planning your travel adventures in Chiang Mai. There is so much to see, do and experience in Chiang Mai that you could easily spend months exploring both the city and province and still be left with so many places you can’t fit in and hopefully after one visit to the ‘rose of the North’ you’ll be hooked and keep coming back for more!
We’re not going to cover every district in the province – we’ve got to leave some for you to explore and find out about on your own – but are focussing on the core districts for visitors plus a couple of more ‘left field’ alternatives that receive very few visitors but are stunning areas to visit.
The city and surrounding area
Chiang Mai city is a great place to start your Northern Thailand adventures and offers lots to see and do. The city itself is split into different districts with many of them full of interesting places to explore, sites to see and fantastic food to enjoy.
The Old City
The very centre of Chiang Mai and a great hub for hotels, guest houses, coffee shops, restaurants, small shops and, importantly, some of the most significant Temples in Chiang Mai. Set inside the old city walls there is a maze of streets, and tiny side streets, and it’s well worth a day of your visit to just wander around the old city soaking up the atmosphere. Pop into several of the key Temples such as Wat Phra Singh, enjoy people watching in a laid back coffee shop, watch people taking selfie’s at Thapae Gate and then make sure you have a big appetite for an evening trawl of some of the great street food all around the old city in the evening. Full of atmosphere, a great part of the city to get a sense of Chiang Mai.
A much newer part of the city and very much a hub for the Chiang Mai’s cool crowd. Lots of coffee shops, art galleries, bars, restaurants and boutiques and more than a few great hotels / guest houses, this is a great area to explore from late afternoon / early evening to see Chiang Mai’s smart young things and hipsters enjoying the night life of the city. With some of the city’s most famous bars and ‘clubs’ – Warm Up Café has been one of ‘the’ places to enjoy a night out for years and enjoying cocktails on the rooftop terrace of the Yayee Hotel with great views of Doi Suthep are a must – a great area for the young and young at heart once the heat of the day is over.
The district of the city at the foot of Doi Suthep and definitely a fun area to explore in the evening. With Chiang Mai University in the heart of the area, Suthep is full of cheap places to eat, cool little bars, markets, street food and has the great ‘vibe’ that student areas around the world all seem to have. Much cheaper than nearby Nimman and a bit more down to earth (and nothing wrong with that!) it’s a great place to see young Thailand at play. The arboretum in Suthep is a nice place to explore and relax and of course this is the area to jump on a red taxi bus to head up to Wat Di Suthep
Wat Ket / Riverside
Wat Ket is a very atmospheric part of the city running along the river – there’s always something about districts by rivers isn’t there. With yet more great coffee shops (it seems as if every other person in Chiang Mai runs a small coffee shop), restaurants, bars and hotels alongside galleries, boutique shops and a very nice laid back vibe, Wat Ket is a really pleasant part of the city to amble around and explore. Head across the river to take a look around Warorot Market (not strictly speaking in Wat Kat district but…) which is far more interesting than the Night or Weekend markets and then cross the river to enjoy a few drinks at two of Chiang Mai’s most famous bars – Riverside (OK food, good live bands and always pretty lively) and Good View (much better food, great Thai music – a very Thai night out) – or sample some of the funky tiny bars down little side streets. A great area to enjoy a very Chiang Mai night out.
One of the most popular districts ‘just’ outside the city and location of several smart hotels, The Four Seasons is in Mae Rim. Mae Rim is home to many wealthy Chiang Mai people – there are some amazing homes hidden between the forests and rice fields here – and there are plenty of cool restaurants and bars dotted all around the district. With great views of the mountains and roads up into the mountains Mae Rim is a great place to explore but relatively tricky to do so without your own transport, whether that’s a car or motorbike. We’d recommend heading up the road towards Pong Yang and beyond – lots of lovely places to eat and drink on the roadside, great views and twisting mountain roads up to Mon Cham and other great mountain villages
Don’t miss: Visiting Mon Cham
Around 90 minutes drive North from the city, the district of Chiang Dao is perfect for those looking for stunning views, outdoor activities and some peace and quiet. Nestled at the foot of one of Thailand’s highest mountains – Doi Chiang Dao – the views are simply awesome. Rice fields to one side, mountains to the other – about as Northern Thailand as you can get. There are lots of different treks in this district – with perhaps the best heading up to the summit of Doi Chiang Dao (most people do this over a 2 day / 1 night hike). There are forest hot springs to enjoy, Temple caves and more than a few great laid back guest houses / hotels and restaurants, our favourite being Chiang Dao Nest, one of the first to set up in Chiang Dao and still one of the best.
Don’t miss: Hiking up Doi Chiang Dao
A large district around 60 minutes North of the city and home to stunning forest, rivers and some of the most famous elephant homes in Thailand. Very pretty – get off the main roads and you’ll soon find yourself in the middle of traditional villages and feel like you’re miles off the beaten track – but the areas near the famous elephant homes can get busy at times. The best spot around for kayaking with Chiang Mai Kayaking who run a range of superb adventures (both by kayak and mountain bike)
Don’t miss: Kayaking
Very few travellers get to this district and whilst it doesn’t offer lots of standard activities, for the adventurous with their own transport it’s well worth a visit. Starting around 90 minutes North of the city Wiang Haeng district is full of wild mountains and takes you all the way to the border with Burma. The roads are steep and winding with spectacular views and roughly half way to Wiang Haeng town there’s a fantastic coffee shop set in a tree house. Superb views back to Doi Chiang Dao and just a great sense of space and nature. The border region has some fascinating villages with great early morning markets and a day or two exploring this district is well worth the effort – Chiang Mai countryside, mountains and people are their very best
Only 45 minutes of so South West of the city, Mae Wang is a very pretty area heading from the lowlands all the way up the steep sides of Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain. Far less visited than districts such as Mae Rim and Mae Taeng, Mae Wang has plenty of activities to keep you busy. From bamboo rafting to visiting elephants, hiking to forest Temples – and that’s all in the relative lowlands. If you have your own transport head high up into the mountains of Mae Wang and explore the remote Karen villages, sample the mountain coffee and explore Giant Buddha images towering out of the forest. Mae Wang is the home of The Tuk Tuk Club – chosen for it’s fantastic small roads, stunning scenery and access to the best mountain roads in the region. And for those in the know, Mae Wang offers the best route up Doi Inthanon – ignore the busy main road that most people take and head through the mountain back roads from the Mae Wang valley, 10 times as beautiful and 10 times as adventurous!
Don’t miss: Chiang Mai’s best adventures – The Tuk Tuk Club
Most famous for being the district that has Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain at over 2,500 metres. Whilst we would also say the route up Doi Inthanon via Mae Wang is far more beautiful, 95% of people heading to the summit of Doi Inthanon will head first to Chom Thong town and then up the mountain from there. It’s well worth visiting Doi Inthanon on a trip to Chiang Mai – there’s always something special about standing on the highest peak in any country – and there are plenty of treks to enjoy and villages to explore in the area. However, do note that as from 2021, Doi Inthanon National Park will be closed from May to July to give the park area time without human visitors. You can still explore the villages and surrounding area but won’t be able to head to the summit itself
Don’t miss – Exploring Doi Inthanon
A huge district and one that’s hardly touched by most visitors to Chiang Mai. A 2 hour drive to get to the start of the district but Mae Chaem is well worth exploring. From stunning rice terraces around Pa Pong Pieng, the super cool waterfalls of Mae Pan and tiny villages in the foothills of Doi Inthanon, Mae Chaem then stretches through wild countryside and mountains all the way to the province of Mae Hong Son. Mae Chaem itself is a pleasant market town acting as a hub for the farming communities of the mountains all around but the real highlight is travelling along the small road North out of the town. Heading up and over mountain after mountain the views are simply breath taking. You’ll pass through a number of small Karen communities – well worth a stop to see what’s going on – and if you enjoy mountains, quiet roads, traditional communities and a sense of getting right off the beaten track then don’t miss out on a couple of days exploring Mae Chaem, you won’t regret it.
A district for the adventurous. In the far South West of the province Om Goi is home to tiny remote villages, mountains and rough mountain tracks best suited to 4WD’s and experienced drivers. Rarely visited by overseas travellers there are some fantastic treks in this part of the province, some stunning viewpoints and a couple of days deep into the mountains here will take you into some of the most traditional Hill Tribe villages you’ll find anywhere in Chiang Mai.
Another pretty remote district but worth the effort to explore and a great option to travel through on your way to Pai rather than sticking to the busy main road. Full of Hill Tribe villages, rural farmland, mountains, forest and rivers Galyani Vadhana gives you a sense of travelling back in time. Friendly laid back people, hundreds of places you just have to stop and soak in the views and superb strawberries (!) at the right time of year. If you’re adventurous and have your own vehicle it’s well worth routing your trip through Galyani Vadhana.
Don’t miss: Staying overnight in the heart of the mountains
We could go on and on – you may well thing we have already – and for certain have missed out some incredible spots to explore in Chiang Mai. But hopefully we’ve given you a taste of just how much there is to experience in the province and why Chiang Mai is the perfect place to visit for a holiday or adventure. Once the North of Thailand gets under your skin it’s very hard to think of travelling anywhere else!
Keen to learn more about Chiang Mai? Have a look at all our travel articles on Chiang Mai covering everything you need to know and more about the gateway to Northern Thailand
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