As the most visited city in Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is a great “home base” for exploring this part of the country. This city has something for everyone – from temples, national parks, and wildlife to festivals, markets, and food.
Chiang Mai is also a fantastic destination because of its shopping, food, Muay Thai, and proximity to national parks.
So here are the best things to do in Chiang Mai!
If you’re in Thailand on April 13, then you’ll be able to experience the water festival of Songkran. Songkran is the national holiday for the Thai New Year, and in Chiang Mai, the festivities last from April 12-16.
For Songkran, everyone carries around water guns and water buckets. You can’t walk more than a couple of steps outside without being soaked.
Chiang Mai is home to one of the country’s biggest Songkran celebrations. The water throwing, parades, and festivities are more extravagant, begin earlier, and end later in Chiang Mai than the rest of the country.
Most streets in the center of Chiang Mai become pedestrian streets for water fights. The old city of Chiang Mai is also surrounded by a moat, providing a free never-ending refill station for buckets and water guns with no lines – a Songkran luxury most other cities don’t have.
Songkran is truly a one-of-a-kind experience!
Do a Thai Cooking Class
Thai food is fantastic! So, you should spend some time while you’re here learning to cook a dish or two. Plus, you get to eat what you cook!
There are an abundance of Thai cookery classes ranging from a few hours to a full day. And most also include at least one trip to a local market.
Take a day trip to the Chiang Mai Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
The Chiang Mai Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is an ethical and sustainable eco-tourism project located about 60 kilometers from Chiang Mai.
You can feed, bathe, and play with the elephants at this nature park. And most importantly, you can learn about these amazing creatures and how to help and protect them. You cannot ride elephants here because it hurts these magnificent creatures’s spines.
Please, don’t support or visit a place that offers elephant rides. Looking elephants in the eye, rubbing mud on them to help keep them cool, and feeding a herd – is immeasurably more rewarding than riding an elephant would be.
This sanctuary offers a variety of tours and excursions. You can book tours and transportation to and from the nature park on their website for half-day, full-day, and overnight experiences.
Stroll Through a Night Bazaar
I find night markets to be one of the most authentic experiences you can have in a new place. Night markets allow you to immerse yourself in the local culture and experience a city or town in a new way.
Even if you don’t want to buy anything, you should still go for a stroll through a night bazaar. An ordinary street during the day transforms into a communal hub of music, sights, smells, and tastes that paint a beautiful picture of the city’s identity.
There are several bazaars every night in Chiang Mai. Some are more popular and “touristy” than others, so take a look at this list of night bazaars to decide which one will suit you best.
Visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Legends tell that a white elephant carrying a bone from the Buddha’s shoulder died where this temple now stands. So this is a very sacred site. You’ll need to have your legs and shoulders covered and remove your shoes to enter.
This temple, which is named for the mountain it’s built on, is about 9 miles (15 kilometers) from Chiang Mai. So you’ll have some impressive views of Chiang Mai and the surrounding jungle from here.
You can reach this temple by car – park at the temple’s base and climb 309 steps – or take a tram to reach the pagodas. You can also hike up to the temple from Chiang Mai on the Monk’s Trail.
Watch a Muay Thai Match
Muay Thai (Thai Boxing) is known as the “art of eight limbs” because it uses elbows, knees, fists, and shins. This sport is incredibly popular in Thailand, so you’ll find matches all over the city.
Most matches will take place in stadiums. The cost is usually 400-600 Thai Baht ($13-20, €12-18, 93-140 Yuan). Sometimes there are street or exhibition fights outdoors that you can stop and watch in passing. But I recommend the stadium experience to appreciate this fighting style fully.
Pro tip: if you don’t want to risk getting blood on you, I recommend having at least a couple of rows or tables between you and the ring.
Visit Flora Ratchaphruek Botanical Gardens
The Royal Flora Ratchaphruek is an exhibition of thousands of species of trees and flowers in landscaped gardens. You can walk or bike around the gardens. And there’s a “hop-on, hop-off” bus that loops the park.
Highlights include the orchid pavilion and the Ho Kham Royal Pavilion (pictured above). The park is open from 8 am to 6 pm, and I recommend visiting in the morning or late afternoon. There’s very little shade in the gardens.
The gardens are a short tuk-tuk ride from downtown, and you can rent bikes once you get there. Food choices can be limited, so bring snacks or a picnic.
Take A Day Trip to Doi Inthanon National Park
Doi Inthanon National Park is famous for its waterfalls, remote villages, sunrise/sunset views, and birdwatching. It’s also known as “The Roof of Thailand” because it’s home to Thailand’s tallest mountain.
Bring layers for visiting this park (even in the summer), because the higher elevations will be chilly.
The main park entrance is about 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) southwest of Chiang Mai, so plan on this being a full-day trip, though there’s also camping options if you want to stay overnight.
The must-visit site in this park is Two Chedis (pictured above). They’re located on the main road through the park just below the summit of Doi Inthanon.
The Thai National Park website lists the best drives, hikes, waterfalls, and villages to see and experience in the park. This site also gives up-to-date information on entrance fees and transportation options.
Visit Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chedi Luang is a Buddhist temple in the historic center of Chiang Mai. Construction on this temple started in the 14th century and continued for about a hundred years. Shortly after its completion, an earthquake caused most of its upper structure to collapse.
The temple was rebuilt in the early 1990s with a mixture of Central Thai and Lanna architectural styles. Wat Chedi Luang is also the site of the city pillar of Chiang Mai a pillar and shrine to honor and protect the city.
While here, you can participate in the daily monk chats where visitors can speak with novice monks about Buddhism or Thailand.
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