Top 10 things to do in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai, the 'Rose of the North' is one of the best destinations for the active traveler. There are so many great things to see and do! But how do you really get the most out of your trip, with so many options to choose from? We have been living in Chiang Mai for over 4 years and seen a lot in the city and out in the province. By now, we really know the best spots and day tours. So, let us take you on a tour of the Top 10 things to do in Chiang Mai so you can plan the best trip possible!
This is our favorite town in Chiang Mai province. Chiang Dao means city of stars and is located 60 km north of Chiang Mai city. It's hardly a city though; a pleasant sleepy town is a more accurate description. The town is out of the way enough to not have mass tourism, and most resorts, hotels and guesthouses are situated outside the town, near the Chiang Dao cave. A nice temple to visit is Wat Tham Pha Plong, but for an amazing view you should go to the Golden Temple.
Located on the foot of the Doi Luang Chiang Dao mountain and surrounded by jungle, the town is the jump-off point of some of the best trekking in Thailand. You can climb the mountain, but there are also some excellent nature trails that wind around the hills and valleys. You can rent a motorbike and drive up the mountain yourself, enjoying the view and cold air (bring a warm jacket if you go in the winter!) but you can also opt for an organized trek.
We organize one day and two-day treks in Chiang Dao with our experienced guides, and these are available every day. The trekking tours depart from Chiang Mai or Chiang Dao and will see you trek through the lush green jungle around Chiang Dao’s Doi Luang, the 3th highest mountain in Thailand. You will be able to learn about local plants, coffee plantations and wildlife and visit the hill-tribes in the area. The two-day trek includes an overnight stay with one of the tribes in a tiny mountainside village.
Doi Inthanon National Park
When you want to escape from the heat in Chiang Mai, Doi Inthanon is where you want to go. On the summit the temperature will be as low as between 5 and 15 degrees Celsius, depending on the season and weather. Doi Inthanon is Thailand's highest mountain and a very popular destination for locals for exactly this reason. It is also a beautiful nature park with some of the best elephant sanctuaries and nature trails of Northern Thailand.
Doi Inthanon National Park is located about a 1,5-hour drive south of Chiang Mai. The best time to visit Doi Inthanon is during winter (between November and February) because of the clear skies and therefore amazing views. Popular spots in Doi Inthanon national park are of course the summit, the beautiful King and Queen Pagoda’s, and some of the many waterfalls, such as the impressive Wachirathan waterfall.
To get the full experience of Doi Inthanon National Park, we recommend a day tour that includes trekking on the mountain-side. Trekking for example the Pha Dok Siew Trail (about a 3 hour hike) will take you through forest and rice fields, next to waterfalls and includes spectacular views of the mountainside and a visit to the White Karen hill-tribe, where you drink coffee fresh from their plantation.
Read our full Doi Inthanon blog HERE.
The mountain overlooking Chiang Mai city is called Doi Suthep. LEGEND has it that an ancient king chose the site to build a temple, after his elephant chose it. The temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, is a beautiful complex of buildings and statues that is attracts flocks of Buddhist worshipers all year, but especially during religious holidays. From the old city, it is easy to catch a Songthaew (red cab) up the mountain to the temple, for as little as 60b.
But why not make a hike of it? Before there was a road, there was the Pilgrim Trail, and it is still there. You find the start right at the foot of the mountain, next to the Chiang Mai Zoo Entrance 2. It is about a 4,5 km trek that winds up the slope under a green canopy, as you follow the orange strips of cloth tied around the trees. Halfway, you cross a little bridge and find Wat Pha Lat: the temple on the waterfall. Further up, when taking a breather or having a snack, you can enjoy some great views of the city and the surrounding country-side.
Probably the best way to visit Wat Doi Suthep is at night. The temple is beautifully lighted and the view over Chiang Mai by night is magical. We offer a special night-tour that also includes a visit to Wat Umong (the Tunnel Temple) that is sited on complex of tunnels and caves
Have you ever gone rafting? It is incredibly fun! Especially during the rainy season and in the winter, the rivers are full, putting the 'white' in white-water rafting. Paddling down the river at top speed, with an expert guide in the boat to keep things safe is one of those adventures you shouldn't say no to. Especially when you can have them in such a beautiful surrounding as the jungles that surround Chiang Mai.
The rafting day tour we offer includes rafting, a lunch and a visit to Phachee waterfall which you can jump and slide down from and of course swim below.
Night Bazaar and the Street Markets
Street markets are a part of Thai culture. Traditionally, the markets allow people from the province to offer their produce and wares for sale in the city. Yes, some of the markets in Chiang Mai attract a lot of tourists, but that doesn't mean they cater to just tourists. Going to a 'Walking Street' such as the excellent one you find in Chiang Mai is really a Thai thing.
There are several excellent markets and 'traditional shopping centers' in Chiang Mai, in and around the old city. Probably the most well-known one is the Sunday-night Night Market (the Sunday-night Walking Street). Near the end of the afternoon, vendors start setting up their stalls on and around Rachadamnoen Road, which leads to Tha Pae gate. You will find delicious food, clothes, hand-made jewelry and statues and other accessories for sale. The market keeps going until about 11. Similarly, the Saturday Night market can be found outside the south gate of the old city.
The Night Bazaar and the surrounding area is something else; it is a physical complex of shops and food places located close to the river. As the name suggests, it comes alive at night, with the main market popping up every night on the sidewalk of Changklan road, between Tha Pae road and the Pantip Plaza shopping center. The bazaar itself features shops, a food court and bars, some of which have live music. Don’t forget to visit the hilarious ladyboy show located inside the Anusarn Night bazaar. This cabaret show starts at 9:30pm and admission fee is 350 Baht per person
The most popular thing to do in Chiang Mai is to visit one of the elephant sanctuaries, and rightly so. Elephants are amazing and impressive animals, not because of their size but because of their intelligence and characters. Elephants and humans have been living and working together for centuries in Chiang Mai province and wider Thailand, but the animals have often drawn the short end of the stick. However, there is and has been a growing awareness that elephants deserve and need to be treated better.
Elephant sanctuaries make that possible. Many elephants now live better lives with enough food, social lives and space to do what they want. Elephant sanctuaries allow tourists to visit and learn about the elephants and in this way support the sanctuaries. You are able to visit them in parks like Elephant Nature Park, Happy Elephant Home, Into the Wild Elephants and Maeklang Elephant Conservation Community.
Read our full blog about what ethical elephant sanctuaries are and do HERE.
The natural beauty of Thailand is surely one of the reasons you are traveling here. For us, some of the most beautiful natural spots around Chiang Mai are its waterfalls. The soothing sound of water, the cool mist in the air and of course a refreshing dive: what is not to like?
When driving or using a red cab, there are several worthwhile waterfalls to visit around Chiang Mai. Two of the locally famous ones at Mae Sa and Bua Thong. The Mae Sa waterfall is located in Doi Suthep National Park, close by Chiang Mai. It has 10 different 'levels' or steps, each with its own marker. There are many places to swim and some great platforms to get great photos from. The Bua Thong waterfall is also called the 'sticky waterfalls' because of special minerals in the water. The effect is that you can actually walk up the waterfall because the stones are 'sticky' and not slippery at all! It's a great morning/afternoon of fun, and a real one of a kind experience.
Alternatively, there are several tours we offer that include travel arrangements that allow you to some 'waterfall hopping'. One such tour is our Walk Only Trek and our trips to Doi Inthanon National Park.
Chiangmai Boxing Stadium
Muay Thai is the national fighting sport of Thailand. Even if you are not 'into' professional martial arts, seeing a Muay Thai match is part of the experience of visiting Thailand. The best place to do this in Chiang Mai is at Chiang Mai Boxing Stadium. It is where the locals go, where the traditions are still taken seriously and where you will see the best fighters perform their art.
There are fights Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday night starting at 9pm until midnight. The evening starts with talents and slowly builds up to the main fights. Fight 4 and 5 are usually the best professional fighters, so don’t walk out disappointed after the 3rd fight. Part of the fun is betting on fights. Though PM Tours of course does not condone betting, you can test your luck (or knowledge?) betting on the fights with the Thai guys in the crowd.
Read our full blog about Muay Thai at Chiang Mai Boxing Stadium HERE.
Thai Cooking Class
The Thai cuisine is famous for its curry's, Phad Thai, stir fried dishes and spicy salads (like papaya salad). You may have tried your hand at Thai cooking at home, but why not learn from the experts? Learn the basics of Thai cooking in Chiang Mai at one of the many cooking schools and surprise your friends and family at home with a delicious self-made dish!
The Northern Thailand food culture is called Lanna (after the ancient Lanna Kingdom) and offers some great original dishes. One our favourites is probably Khao Soi, a great-tasting noodle curry. (want to eat Khao Soi in Chiang Mai? Find out where by reading our dedicated BLOG)
Cooking classes can be taken for a half or a whole day and therefore can include a 'shopping lesson' at the local market. They are a lot of fun and of course you get to eat some delicious food. Plus, when you book one with us you get a Thai recipe book for free!
Mae Ngat Dam Lake
You can find this giant fresh water reservoir about 55 kilometers north-east from Chiang Mai in Sri Lanna National park. The lake was created by the damming of the Mae Ngat River and is a really nice place to relax. It’s a great place for swimming, fishing and kayaking and relax at one of the house boats in the middle of the lake.
You can even spend the night here, but we have to warn that the accommodation is very basic. Mass tourism hasn't touched this place yet. That's also why it is one of our personal favourite spots to come with friends for a day of swimming and relaxing while eating and having drinks. Go here during the week and you will have the whole lake for yourself. During the weekends though, it can get quite busy with Thai families.
It is really nice to go kayaking on the lake and that's why we offer an organized kayaking tour on the Mae Ngat Dam Lake leaving daily from Chiang Mai city.