THINGS TO DO IN CHIANG MAI
So you’ve decided, rightly, to spend some time in Chiang Mai and explore some of the North of Thailand, the best part of the country in our somewhat biased view! But what to do? There are so many things to do in Chiang Mai and the surrounding area that it can be difficult to choose. We’re going to break down some of the best things to do in Chiang Mai into different categories and hopefully our suggestions will help to get you off to a great start when planning your Chiang Mai adventure.
There’s so much to do in Chiang Mai that this is a pretty lengthy post – so get a nice mug of tea, pull up a comfy chair and enjoy….
Culture – different ways of life
So you’ve visited some important and beautiful Temples and still haven’t satisfied your thirst for culture. Don’t worry, Chiang Mai is the perfect spot to get a sense and learn about different ways of life.
It’s quite hard really to pinpoint exactly how to best learn about / experience different ways of life of curse as it covers so much. But here are a few suggestions:
You’ll notice straight away that the people of Chiang Mai are much more laid back than those in Bangkok and the South. Life runs at a different pace here and there’s a definite feeling that people have more time for each other. It doesn’t harm also that the city has become a creative hub for people from all over Thailand and there are plenty of galleries throughout the city. If you’re interested in dipping into the Thai art scene then have a wonder around the Nimman district of the city where you’ll come across plenty of small galleries and showings and more than a few great coffee shops.
But its outside of the city where the way of life gets noticeable different. There are several different ethnic groups living in the mountains of Chiang Mai with the most populous being Karen and Hmong and you don’t have to travel very far at all to come across Hill Tribe communities going about their daily life. We’d recommend avoiding the ‘show’ villages and also the ‘Hill Tribe’ village just above Wat Doi Suthep and instead trying to get a little more off the beaten track.
Without travelling too far – and very easy to get to if you rent a car or motorbike – the Karen communities around Doi Inthanon (Thailand’s highest mountain) are well worth exploring, whether you’re driving, trekking, cycling or motorbiking. The communities are always very friendly, there’s often much more English spoken than you’d imagine and the surrounding mountains are spectacular. One simple way to experience a Karen village is to stay at Ban Mae Khlang Luang which has a number of different small ‘lodges’ with lovely views over the rice fields and you can walk up into the village, enjoy fantastic coffee brewed over a fire and get a real sense of how Karen communities live today.
For the slightly more adventurous there are a series of Hmong villages only 25km from Chiang Mai city itself. Rarely visited – other than by adventurous cyclists and motorbike enthusiasts – these villages are on what’s locally known as the ‘avocado loop’ (yes, they grow lots of avocado’s here!) and feel like they’re 250km from the city rather than 25km. Thai is no longer the first language and the villages are fascinating to wander around, sit and have a cold drink and just soak up the very different feeling.
Mountains and Trekking
Chiang Mai is the gateway to the mountains of Northern Thailand and it’s well worth exploring the National Parks and hills all around, whether you’re just out for a short stroll of looking for a multi day trekking adventure.
Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s highest mountain at over 2,500m and location in the National Park of the same name. Easy to reach from Chiang Mai city (it’s roughy 110km from ‘downtown’ to the summit) with great roads the whole way, visiting Doi Inthanon is a great day out. Head up to the summit (note – the park is now closed from May to July each year) to enjoy the cool weather (and very cold if you go in winter) and enjoy the nature trails around the summit area. A little further down the mountain are two chedi’s with stunning views down to the valley below and the route up to the mountain top is a superb drive. There are some very well known trekking routes around Doi Inthanon with Kew Mae Pan and Pha Dok Siew being two of the best for their views and, in the case of Pha Dok Siew, the stunning waterfalls.
There are a huge number of other mountain areas to explore all over Chiang Mai and you could spend months exploring these awesome natural areas. A couple of simple suggestions for visitors – easy to access and not requiring Bear Grylls like skills – would be:
Mae Khampong – a beautiful road into the mountains takes you to a stunning, picturesque village deep in the forest. Not exactly off the beaten track but worth it nonetheless for the superb scenery, great coffee shops and hikes up above the village. You can even stay here over night in a number of different homestays
Mon Chaem (also spelled Mon Jam) – a mountain top community which has been converted into Chiang Mai’s most popular camping site during the winter. Very well known amongst Thai visitors, far less with international travellers, the views up here are superb, overnight stays in tents great fun (make sure you have ‘moo gratha’ – Thai BBQ) and the temperatures lovely and cool. And all only around 60 minutes from the city
The Samoeng Loop – a fantastic 80-90km loop through the mountains just outside the city. Taking up high into the hills and passing through some spectacular villages, this is a great loop to spend a day doing. If you start from the Mae Rim end of the loop things are busy for the first 15km of so but after that everywhere is lovely and peaceful. Lots of side roads to explore, some great coffee shops, superb strawberries from the roadside at the right time of year and, for those with limited time, a fantastic introduction to the mountains that is sure to encourage you to come back for more.
Thailand has a ‘thing’ about waterfalls and Chiang Mai is no different. All over the country you’ll find families and groups of friends hanging out, eating and relaxing by waterfalls and, when you live in a hot country, why not?
Here are some of Chiang Mai’s best waterfalls to think about visiting on a Northern Thailand adventure
Mae Pan waterfall – not the most famous and not the easiest to get to (it’s on the ‘other side’ of Doi Inthanon from the city) but a spectacular double ‘stage’ waterfall that’s worth visiting any time of the year. You need to hike for 20 minutes or so through the forest on a relatively clearly marked trial but the effort to get here is 100% worthwhile
Pha Dok Siew waterfalls – a series of waterfalls through the forest in the foothills of Doi Inthanon. Spectacular at all times of year and even more so towards the end of the rainy season. A must visit if you’re anywhere near Doi Inthanon and part of the wonderful Pha Dok Siew nature trail
Bua Thong waterfall – perhaps better known amongst travellers as the ‘sticky waterfalls’! You can become Spiderman for the day at these waterfalls as the limestone features make it possible to climb up the falls as if you too have been bitten by a radio-active spider. The steeper sections have ropes to help you – and they are there for a reason – and whilst the falls are sticky you do still have to be careful. But, a great fun day out and, as with so many places in Thailand, there are some great food stalls nearby to keep the hunger at bay.
One of the most popular ‘things to do’ in Chiang Mai is to visit and see beautiful elephants. We have a full article about elephants in Chiang Mai that’s worth a look (LINK) including the do’s and don’ts what to look out for etc etc – but a well planned visit to meet elephants can be one of the highlights of any visit to Thailand. It’s not always the case that the most famous elephant homes / sanctuaries are the best places (sometimes it seems that marketing outweighs everything else) but there is a great choice of elephant ‘experiences’ throughout the province – from the spectacularly remote Huay Pha Kood (needing an overnight stay) area to a number of great small homes in Mae Wang, including MaeVang Elephant Home and Chai Lai Orchid which combines elephants with an amazing hill top ‘resort’, and some very well known elephant homes in the Mae Taeng district of Chiang Mai. Despite what you might read online, the vast majority of elephant homes in Chiang Mai are deeply passionate about and committed to their elephants and are continually working to continue to improve the lives of these wonderful animals whilst enabling visitors to learn about and meet them.
Rafting / Kayaking / Boats
Perhaps not the first thing you’d think about when travelling to Chiang Mai but there are some great adventures to be had on the water here. An afternoon bamboo rafting can be a wonderful way to escape the heat and see the countryside from a different perspective and Mae Wang is a great location for this – and visit during University holidays and you’ll get a great insight into young Thailand at play. Alternatively there are some superb kayaking adventure outfits in Chiang Mai offering everything from half day experiences all the way through to multi-day adventures through remote valleys where you camp and cook up your dinner each night. Now that’s a proper Chiang Mai adventure!
Right in the city you can also take boat trips up the river. A lovely way to spend an afternoon seeing a different side of the city and of course enjoying the cool breezes from the water.
Chiang Mai is, to those in the know, one of the best places in the world for cycling and if you’re a fan of two wheels then you’re in the right place. Superb road quality, incredible mountain climbs and stunning scenery make Chiang Mai the perfect hub for both one day and multi-day cycling experiences. From cycling up to Wat Doi Suthep (10km at around 6.5%) to the, quite frankly terrifying Doi Inthanon at 40km at 6% (with ramps well over 20%) there is enough for even the most hardcore of hardcore cyclists. Plus of course the never ending superb food and fruit to keep you powered up.
There are also a huge number of fantastic mountain bike trails throughout the province meaning it’s not just a road bike paradise.
Spend a day or two cycling in Chiang Mai and we doubt you’ll ever want to leave. And to get you started there are a number of superb cycling tour companies in the city where you can either rent good quality bikes or join a guided day out.
Culture – Temples
Chiang Mai is rightly very proud of it’s Lanna heritage and culture. The city was founded in the 13th Century and was the capital of the Lanna Kingdom until the 18th Century when the region became part of Thailand. It’s now the unofficial capital of ‘The North’ and the largest city in the region and a major draw for travellers looking to experience Northern Culture and of course the mountains and the different ethnic Hill Tribe groups living throughout the province.
Starting in Chiang Mai city, there are a number of Temples that are well worth a visit. Even if you feel a bit ‘Templed out’ after experiencing the crowded Grand Palace and Wat Pho in Bangkok don’t miss out on taking in at least a couple of the most important or most stunning Temples in city.
The most famous Temple, and a must see, is Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. Perched on a mountain overlooking the city the views are fantastic, the Temple itself stunning and even just the journey up the winding road to the Temple is well worth the time. Or, if you’re feeling particularly fit, why not cycle or even walk up to the Temple. The best time to visit is either in the early morning or the late afternoon. There are less people around, it’s cooler and there’s always something special about mountains and sunrises and sunsets
Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang are two other Temples in the ‘old city’ that are definitely worth a visit. Walking round the old city soaking up the atmosphere is a great way to spend some time and these two Temples are very definitely worth spending some time at as part of your time exploring. Both are very famous and feature on most people’s itineraries but don’t let that put you off.
A little further afield Wat Umong is well worth a look. Featuring a series of ancient tunnels, Wat Umong has a very different feel to most Temples and is located in a very ‘cool’ part of town with lots of laid back café’s, restaurants and a great artsy vibe to the whole area.
Further afield still, but only 15-20 minutes taxi ride from the city, is Wat Doi Kham. Perched on a small hill (although the views make it feel like you are much higher up than you are) this Temple is hugely popular with Thai visitors but far less so with those from overseas. It became very famous locally a few years ago after someone made merit at the Temple and then won the Thai lottery and many people now come and make merit hoping for business and financial success. Whilst it can get very busy it’s a great place to watch how Thai people make merit, to get a sense of how Temple’s are still very much part of life in Thailand and the Buddha images and views are fantastic.
Two more Temples for those with a little more time.
Wat Luang Khun Win is around 1.5 hours West of the city in Mae Wang district and nestled deep in a mountainous forest. You can get here by regular car although the last 10km or so of the route is fairly rough concrete rising steeply into the forest. However, for those that persevere you are rewarded with a range of stunning differently designed Temple building and an incredible sense of peace all around – not surprising as you are 10km deep into the forest with nothing else around. And for the truly adventurous – and those with a 4WD or pick truck, definitely needed in the rainy season – you can follow the forest trail from the Temple over the mountains, through some stunning villages into the town of Samoeng and from there back to Chiang Mai city. Fine in any car during the winter and summer seasons, a bit more tricky during the rainy season.
Whilst we could go on forever – there are so many significant and beautiful Temples all over Chiang Mai – our final pick is a bit of a cheat as it’s in Lampang (the next door province) rather than Chiang Mai. Wat Chalerm Prakiat (not to be confused with the Temple of the same name in Nonthaburi – you’ve gone a long way off route if you end up there!), this is one of the most spectacular Temple settings anywhere in Thailand. It takes around 1.5 – 2 hours to get there (but it’s 100% worth it) and then you jump into the back of a songtaew up very steep roads before the final 1000+ steps up the top of a mountain ridge where there are a series of stunning white Chedi’s and a very small Temple building. The views are spectacular – both of the Temple itself and the surrounding countryside – and if you are up here whilst a monk is chanting it feels incredibly other worldly
For more on Temples in Chiang Mai have a look at our blog devoted to just that (insert link)
Slightly obvious and something you have to do wherever you are but Chiang Mai is a great foodie hub, particularly in the city. Great street food is not hard to find, there are some fantastic restaurant throughout the city covering Northern Thai food, regular Thai food and pretty much every other food you can think of. And there are also a huge number of choices for those looking for high quality plant based food – not something that’s always super easy throughout the rest of Thailand. Eating is one of the pleasures of any visit to Thailand and Chiang Mai is no different. We’d strongly recommend an evening filling up at any of the street food locations around the old city and also heading into the hills around Chiang Mai to sample some of the great restaurants that have set up taking advantage of the stunning views
Cool places to stay
Whilst we have a whole article on ‘where to stay’ in Chiang Mai, enjoying a cool place to stay or something very unique should definitely be part of any visit to Chiang Mai.
The city has a huge range of hotels to suit all budgets and tastes but here are a few suggestions for something a little different
Chai Lai Orchid – a spectacular laid back ‘resort’ on a hill top overlooking a small Karen community. Stunning views, great food and all the profits from the resort go directly into funding the training and education for vulnerable Hill Tribe women. And, they also have a small herd of elephants who wonder around the resort and pop into to say hi when you’re least expecting it
Giant Bamboo Hut – as the name suggests this is a giant bamboo hut that you can rent overnight. Set half way up Doi Inthanon surrounded by mountains and forest this is a unique and very different place to stay
Pa Pong Pieng – simply stunning. This valley will take your breath away and there are a number of small simple homestays where you can stay overnight. Don’t expect the Four Seasons – this is simple, rustic style accommodation – but the views and whole atmosphere of the location and just incredible.
Tuk Tuk Adventures
If you’ve not already booked up every second of your time in Chiang Mai then don’t forget Chiang Mai’s very best adventures run by The Tuk Tuk Club. With durations ranging from 1 to 11 days (the longer trips head through Mae Hong Son too) the Tuk Tuk Adventures cover many of the highlights listed above – and many more that there isn’t the room for here. Taking you deep into the heart of the mountains and communities of Chiang Mai and making sure you’re in the heart of the adventure throughout. Book a Tuk Tuk Club adventure to experience the very best of Chiang Mai.
Of course the list of things to do in Chiang Mai could go on and on – and you’re thinking this was long enough! These are just a few of the highlights of things to think about when planning a trip to Chiang Mai and please don’t hesitate to get in touch with The Tuk Tuk Club for any advice – even if you’re not looking to do a Tuk Tuk Adventure we’re still more than happy to make suggestions for you. We just want everyone to fall in love with Chiang Mai and the North of Thailand!
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
Ready to book Thailand’s best travel adventures? Choose from The Tuk Tuk Clubs fantastic adventures throughout Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand