Top Seven Things to Do in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai offers exotic culture, interesting courses, outdoor adventure, and wonderful food all in one small city. Here’s seven great things to do in Thailand’s northern gem

Chiang Mai has plenty to keep you entertained during a visit, even though it’s much smaller and more laid back than Bangkok. You can visit a temple, learn to cook a Thai meal, coast down a mountain on a bicycle, or munch on insects for dinner. Alternatively, buy a hand-painted paper umbrella, go on a silent retreat, ride an elephant, or lunch on the local soup, khao sawy (pronounced ‘cow soy‘, and spelled several different ways). You can do almost anything in Chiang Mai.

Pick and choose according to your own interests, but be sure to include some of the top seven things to do in Chiang Mai.

1. Go on a jungle trek

Known as hill tribe treks, these trips include stops at some of the tribal villages that live in the hills around Chiang Mai. The visits will be artificial, you’ll be charged to take pictures, and pushed to buy souvenirs, but they are still the most popular activity around, the thing that Chiang Mai is known for, and are a very different experience from visiting a wat (temple).

2. Visit Wat Doi Suthep

This is where everyone gets those little string bracelets you’ve been noticing. The wat (temple) sits at the top of a hill out of town. Once there, you can either climb an endless set of stairs or take a cable car to the top to be blessed by a monk, receive your string, and enjoy the cooler temperatures and the views.

There are over three hundred wats in the Chiang Mai area, sometimes several to a block. I dropped in for a five-minute look at nearly every one I passed.

Chiang Mai reclining buddha

3. Take a Thai cooking class

The classes range from half-day sessions to several weeks. Try to get one that takes you to the market to shop for ingredients and allows you to cook a meal rather than watch a demonstration. While in class, and for a while afterwards, be very careful not to touch your face, especially your eyes. The oil from the chilies can be devastating.

4. Get up close and personal with an elephant

You can spend two days at the elephant sanctuary, helping to care for them and learning how they are trained, or you can take a tour that involves an elephant ride. A popular trip to Chiang Rai uses elephants and a trip down river on a raft as part of your transportation. After an overnight stay in Chiang Rai, you go on to visit the Golden Triangle. I spent most of the elephant ride getting used to being so high up, expecting that precarious-looking platform seat resting on the elephant’s back (howdah) to slide off carrying me with it. I also wondered how such a big animal could walk on that narrow path, the one with the big drop-off. It was on my side, of course.

5. Get a massage

Even for something this simple, the options are endless. You can go to a spa, have a masseuse come to your room, visit a center for the blind, stop at a temple, or try one of the sidewalk places. You can have Thai, shiatsu, or reiki. A sidewalk massage will usually be limited to a foot massage or a neck and shoulder massage. Foot massages are a good option in the middle of a long day of sight-seeing. I got one whenever my poor abused feet started to protest, which was fairly often. Prices are minimal compared to what you would pay at home. A half hour foot massage can be had for as little as 60 baht, or about $2 US. It’s easy to find a sidewalk or temple massage on the main streets.

6. Join the crowd at the Sunday walking street

On evenings, one of the main streets is turned into a pedestrian mall, and lined with stalls selling souvenirs and household goods. Parking lots become hawker centers that sell a wide variety of foods. Eat while you stroll, or select samples from various stalls and perch on the low stools while you pick through the goodies.

Go early if you really want to shop. Later in the evening the street will be so crowded that it will be nearly impossible to move. Prices are often better than at the night market. If you are braver than I am, you can try the crispy scorpions.

7. Investigate the sois

A narrow crooked lane that twist through the spaces between the major streets is called a soi. Many guesthouses are situated back on these sometimes quieter lanes, but some are empty of any sign of a foreign presence. Spend some time just walking, turning on a whim, and seeing what’s there. You could stumble on a terracotta factory, an isolated wat, or quiet sleepy streets.


  1. I commented on a previous post saying how helpful this site had been. I was wondering if you could recommend any particular elephant trekking company with good animal welfare policies/ ideals? I have heard that some are not good to the elephants.

    Also slightly off point, I heard that the tiger temples are a huge con and that the tigers are heavily drugged and often mistreated.

    I’m sure I’ll post again with more question! Thanks very much for all the wonderful advice and tips!

  2. Hi Katie – thanks for the kind words :) Unfortunately I don’t personally know of any elephant trekking companies with sound reputations – you might want to ask and/or search on the forum about that. I’d be interested to know myself.

    Re tigers – yes, there is a lot of controversy about this. I was initially positive about the temple when I first visited 5 years ago, but have subsequently updated my story about the tiger temple with links to National Geographic’s report on the temple and other people’s comments. You live and learn.

    Happy travels!

  3. Hi Chris!

    I have enjoyed reading your articles that I have bookmarked some of it already. With this second post, I did everything in your list except the thai cooking class. When I was in Chiang Mai last December I booked the elephant ride, the bamboo raft, and the hilltribe visit. I enjoyed also the Doi Suthep experience, climbing those stairs.I stayed in IMM ECO Resort which is near the British Council, a tourist spot in itself, good location, comfortable hotel with a swimming pool for only 300 BHT.Chiang Mai is really a walking city.In my 3-day vacation in Chiang Mai, I lost almost 2 kgs just by walking (smile) from the hotel to the night market, passing to the river, going to visit the wats, and haggling for some trinkits at Sunday market.I am going back there this coming November 2011………

  4. Nice post… “Investigate the sois” My personal favourite and after all these years I still enjoy it. Like you say you never know what you will find and you really get to see the area from the locals point of view. I think it should also be done early in the morning. As it is great to see a town as it wakes up

  5. Hi, I think your post is indeed informative especially for me who’s planning to backpack to this place. This will be helpful for me in my future backpacking experience in Thailand.:)

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