Updated: 12/2/18 | December 2nd, 2018
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s northern version of Bangkok. It’s the second largest city in Thailand, and is the gateway to the jungles and cities of the north. Once a quiet little village, the city has morphed into a major business and tourist center in the last 10 years. Large amounts of Westerners began flocking here for jungle treks and a quiet mountain setting, but the crowds kept increasing and the locals soon followed to make money off them. Chiang Mai now has a population of 500,000.
While the city has lost some of the charm that originally made it so popular, it is still a vibrant place to be, and there is a lot to do here despite the growth, smog, and package tourists.
The city’s historic grandeur is evident in the ruins of the old city wall. These thick stone sections give an indication of the power that Chiang Mai once wielded, though they’re now left crumbling. Now, modern buildings surround the wall, and the only real evidence of Chiang Mai’s ancient past are the temples. The city is dotted with amazing and numerous Buddhist temples. The city has over 300 temples, but the main historic ones are:
- Wat Chiang Man (the oldest temple in Chiang Mai)
- Wat Phra Singh (built in 1345 and offers meditation classes)
- Wat Chedi Luang (founded 1401)
- Wat Chet Yot (founded 1451)
- Wiang Kum Kam (an ancient 13th-century city before the population re-settled in Chiang Mai)
- Wat Umong (built in 1297, this temple offers meditation classes)
- Wat Suan Dok (built in 1370)
The main attraction is Wat Doi Suthep, located outside the city on a mountain with the same name. According to legend, a monk from Sukhothai had a dream that told him to find an ancient Buddhist relic. He found the relic and brought it to King Nu Naone. The relic was split into two pieces. The smaller piece went to a temple in Suandok. The other piece and this is the important part of the legend, was placed on the back of a white elephant and released into the jungle.
Supposedly, the elephant climbed up Doi Suthep, trumpeted three times, and then died. His death was supposed to be a sign that a temple was to be built on this site. The temple is designed with two large Naga snakes guarding the long walk up the staircase to the temple. The temple also has many Buddhist reliefs and, of course, a statue of a white elephant. Moreover, you get stunning views of the city.
But you don’t come to Chiang Mai just to see temples. They’re just a bonus. You really come here because of all the activities you can do. Not only is Chiang Mai a major jumping-off point for the more rugged northern cities like Pai and Chiang Rai, but it is a starting point for numerous jungle treks. Here are some of my favorite things to see and do in Chiang Mai.
What to See and Do in Chiang Mai
1. Go zip lining
If you are looking for an adrenaline rush, go zip lining. Chiang Mai has many operators offering beginner and advanced zip lining courses. The two biggest operators are Flight of the Gibbon and Eagle Trekkers. Expect to pay around 4,200 THB per person, which includes lunch and around 3 hours of zip lining.
2. Visit the zoo and aquarium
In the 1950s, Harold Mason Young, son of American missionaries, started rescuing and caring for injured animals. Eventually, his collection started getting visitors which led to the birth of the zoo. The local government donated 24 acres to aid in his efforts, though the zoo has grown to over 200 acres now. It’s home to over 400 species of animals as well as two aquariums. The marine aquarium is the largest in Asia, and they also have one of the very rare giant pandas ever born in captivity.
Doi Suthep-Pui, chiangmaizoo.peam.biz. Open daily from 8:30am-5pm. Admission is 150 THB for adults for the zoo or 520 THB for a combined zoo/aquarium ticket. Discounts are available for children.
3. Visit the Tribal Museum
Highlighting Thailand’s minority hill tribes, this ethnographic museum offers exhibits ranging from tribal clothing and jewelry items, videos on tribal life, and outdoor gardens modeling reconstructed tribal huts. Once a month, there is also a tribal market with people selling handmade goods. Open Monday-Friday from 9am-4pm.
9 Chotana Rd, +66 53 210 872. Open Monday-Friday from 8:30am-4pm. Admission is free but donations are appreciated.
4. Visit an Elephant Sanctuary
There’s a growing movement to protect the elephants, led by Lek Chailert, the founder of Elephant Nature Park. Elephant Nature Park (ENP) has been around since 1996 and is the biggest conservation and elephant rescue organization in Thailand. Located outside of Chiang Mai, it is currently home to 37 elephants (plus a menagerie of other animals).
It’s the most popular place for ethical elephant interactions in the country, so demand is high (not only for visitors but volunteers too). Make your reservations in advance to visit to guarantee a spot. For volunteers, that might mean up to a year in advance). If you can’t get a spot, please don’t visit another non-ethical elephant “sanctuary” that encourages elephant riding.
1 Ratmakka Road, Phra Sing, +66 53 272855, elephantnaturepark.org. Single day visits start at 2,500 THB per person while overnight stays (2 days, 1 night) will cost 5,800 THB per person.
5. Bargain at the Night Bazaar
This market is famous around the world, and people come here to buy cheap goods. The outdoor night market covers several city blocks. You can buy anything and everything here for much cheaper prices than you can in Bangkok. Clothes are especially cheap, as they are usually made in the surrounding area. Buyers and sellers haggle over prices through calculators. Getting the cheapest price takes patience, persistence, and the ability to walk away.
Intersection of Tha Pae and Chang Klang Roads. The market is open daily by 6pm and goes late into the night.
6. Go Jungle Trekking
This town is the main starting point for all sorts of jungle trekking tours. I like the three-day ones the best but the longer the tour, the more interesting and secluded places you visit. Be careful with whom you sign up, as many guides simply walk with you and don’t tell you much about the land or wildlife. Moreover, if you visit a tribal village, make sure the money stays with the villagers, and that they aren’t being exploited — which happens a lot here!
Though tours can be more rustic and less touristy if you leave from places like Chiang Rai, most people leave from here and there are plenty of tours to choose from. You can sign up for one, two, three, or five-day jungle treks. The longer you go for, the further into the jungle you get and the less like a Disney attraction the tour seems. The one-day treks are very rushed and pretty generic. You need a minimum of two days. Expect to spend between 8,000-12,000 THB per person for a 3-day trek.
7. Take a cooking class
Chiang Mai is one of the best and most popular places in Thailand to take a cooking class. There are tons of options available depending on your interest, skill level, and diet (vegan and vegetarian classes are available, for example). Most classes begin by going to the local market and learning about Thai produce. You’ll buy the food you need fresh before heading to the kitchen and learning how to make your own classic Thai dishes. Prices will vary but expect to pay around 800-1,000 THB.
8. Warorot Market
Located near the river, this market is perfect for those who want clothes and cheap food during the day. It’s a fun place to people watch and take in the local flavor of the city. Plus, if you need clothing or souvenirs you can find them here for cheap! The market is located in Chiang Mai’s Chinatown and has both indoor and outdoor areas. There are tons of fruit vendors too in case you need a snack.
Muang Chiang Mai District, warorosmarket.com. Open daily from 5am-6pm. The night market is open daily from 5pm-11pm.
9. Yi Peng Festival
This annual festival takes place in November and is celebrated throughout the entire country. For Thais, it’s one of the most important days of the year. Chances are you’ve probably heard of it by another day: the Lantern Festival. During the festival, citizens and visitors alike release thousands of paper lanterns into the air, meant to symbolically carry their dreams and wishes toward heaven. The festival is a breathtaking, memorable experience and is well worth adding to your bucket list. Just make sure you book everything in advance because the city will be incredibly busy!
10. Eat a khantoke dinner
This is a cultural show where visitors are seated on the floor around a circular tray piled high with delicious northern Thai food while they watch traditional Thai dancing. If you’re looking to get a glimpse of more traditional cultures (while eating delicious food) then be sure to check one of these shows out! Prices vary but expect to pay around 500 THB per person. Some suggested shows are:
- Khum Khan Toke (139 Thetsaban 2 Sai Nai Alley, +66 5 330 4121 khumkhantoke.com)
- Mae Ping River Cruise (133 Charoenpratet Road, Changklan, +66 5 327 4822)
How to Get to Chiang Mai
If you’re on a budget, chances are you’re going to take the bus to Chiang Mai. Buses leave almost hourly from Bangkok and take around 12 hours. Expect to pay around 750 THB. There are both regular day buses as well as night buses. Night buses aren’t comfortable and they stop often, but taking them is a simple way to save on accommodation (just bring headphones because they often play movies).
The train isn’t any faster, but it might be a little more comfortable. Expect tickets to cost between 700-1400 THB. There is also a very slow, scenic train that you can take. It will take a couple days, but you can stop off along the way and it’s a really neat way to see the country. If you’re in a hurry and plan on flying, flights from Bangkok take about an hour, with prices starting around 1,000 THB for a one-way flight.
Get the In-Depth Budget Guide to Thailand!
My detailed, 170+ page guidebook is made for budget travelers like you! It cuts out the fluff found in other guidebooks and gets straight to the practical information you need to travel and save money while in Thailand. You’ll find suggested itineraries, budgets, ways to save money, on and off the beaten path things to see and do, non-touristy restaurants, markets, and bars, and much more!! Click here to learn more and get started.
Book Your Trip to Thailand: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels. I use them all the time. My favorite places to stay are:
- Julie Guesthouse – Clean, has comfy beds, and tons of space for hanging out.
- The So Hostel – This place has more of a hotel vibe, so come here for a comfortable and quiet stay.
- Kodchasri B&B – If you want a more luxurious stay, this affordable 4-star hotel has a pool, gym, and free WiFi.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
Looking for the best companies to save money with?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel! I list all the ones I use to save money when I travel – and I think will help you too!
Want More Information on Chiang Mai?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on Chiang Mai for even more planning tips!