Chiang Mai is the largest and most culturally significant city in northern Thailand and the main base of activities for most travelers who come up north. The city is full of culture, friendly locals, incredible food markets, dozens of beautiful temples, a relaxed vibe, beautiful landscapes. It’s become something of the new “it” spot for expats and digital nomads in the last few years. You can now find a lot of delicious Western food, cafes, and bars all around the city but despite that the old Thai-ness of the city hasn’t gone away and a visit here will leave you enamored. Be sure to budget extra time – it’s easy to get stuck here! Lots of people plan to stay for a few days and end up staying for a few weeks or more! I love the city and always find something to do here.
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Chiang Mai
1. Visit the Elephant Nature Park
2. Tour all the temples
3. Visit Wat Doi Suthep
4. Bargain at the night bazaar
5. Celebrate the Yi Peng Festival
Other Things to See and Do
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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.
2. 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 up here!
3. Take a cooking class
Chiang Mai is the most popular place in Thailand for cooking classes, offering a great variety of classes and amazing deals. You begin your class by going to the market and learning about Thai produce before heading back to the kitchen to cook a few dishes and eat a lot of food. Class prices range from 800-1,000 THB.
4. Eat a kantoke dinner
Experience both the Northern Thai food and culture at the same time. At this event, visitors are seated on the floor around a circular tray laden with Northern dishes, and eat while watching traditional Thai and Northern dances and hill tribe culture shows.
5. Cruise down the river
Cruise down rural Mae Ping on a two-hour journey that will take you past beautiful scenery in the heart of Chiang Mai. Enjoy the pleasant pace of the boat. Stop to visit a local farm and its herb and fruit gardens – or relax and have a Thai dinner on board. It costs 240 THB for one way, 450 THB for a round-trip.
6. Chat with monks
Monk chats are a chance for visitors to learn about the country’s religion and culture and for monks a chance to practice English. It’s a popular cultural activity that occurs on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 1pm-3pm at Wat Dok Suthep in the city.
7. Go whitewater rafting
It’s possible to go whitewater rafting on the Maeteng River. Rapids range from levels two to four and are at their most intense during the rainy season, August-October. Tours start at 1,800 THB.
8. Shop at Warorot Market
If your nights are already fully-booked, consider visiting this popular market during the day. Located near the river, it’s open daily until 6pm. This is a great place to shop for clothes and get some really cheap food.
9. Chiang Mai Zoo and Aquarium
In the 1950 Harold Mason Young, son of American missionaries, started rescuing and caring for injured animals, and his collection started getting visitors. Hence the birth of the zoo, when the Chiang Mai government donated 24 acres to aid in his efforts. The zoo has grown to over 200 acres now, and houses a large variety of animals, and boasts two aquariums. The marine aquarium is the largest in Asia, and they also have one of the very rare giant pandas every born in captivity. Admission is 500 THB.
10. 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.
11. Spend time at Documentary Arts Asia
This gallery space usually brings in exhibits highlighting humanitarian and activist materials, focusing on the plight of the Burma refugees and the minority hill tribes. If you are looking to inform yourself more about these efforts, this space usually is showing documentaries and artwork, and also offers a library. It’s a great resource to find out more about the historical and political contexts of the region.
12. Climb up the Bua Thong Sticky Waterfalls
While a little outside of the city, this makes for a great day trip. The falls, due to the type of limestone lining the waterfall, produces an almost stickiness – allowing you to climb up the cascading water! You feel a bit like Spiderman – not gonna lie. The rocks themselves are interesting, looking a bit like fluffy clouds. Not only is it a neat experience, it’s also a great workout! Pack a picnic, find a spot, and “stick” around for lunch.