Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s most popular cities among tourists. Situated in Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is way calmer and quieter than Bangkok. We immediately fell in love with this city: friendly locals, a laid-back vibe, shiny golden wats, lush green countryside and great food. Need we say more? Keep reading for the most fun things to do in Chiang Mai.
Did you know Chiang Mai is popular with digital nomads? We ourselves lived in Chiang Mai for 1 month back in December 2015, working on our online business. We stayed at The Bliss, well outside of Chiang Mai old town. Check out our review of The Bliss if you want to know more.
Chiang Mai Old Town
The old town is the square shaped historical centre of Chiang Mai, easily recognisable on the map. It used to be surrounded by a thick brick wall of which you can still see the remains at some points. Within the moat surrounding the walls, is a maze of small streets packed with hostels, restaurants and spas. Outside of the moat is modern Chiang Mai: shopping centres, a hospital and large electronic shops.
So, what to do in Chiang Mai, Thailand?
Visit the best markets in Chiang Mai
Wandering over markets is without a doubt one of my favourite activities, no matter where or what kind. At home I have girlfriends to join me, but during our trip around the world Brecht has to suck it up. Unfortunately for him, I’m known to take my time at markets to closely inspect everything every stall sells.
In Chiang Mai, we only visited a fraction of the many markets they have. We visited the 2 touristy weekend night markets and a couple of local markets.
Sunday Walking Street Market Chiang Mai
The first market we visited is the famous Sunday Walking Street Market. It’s a night market, starting somewhere between 16:00 and 17:00, and ending late at night. It occupies the whole length of Ratchadamnoen Road, including some side streets. This Chiang Mai old city night market seems endless!
The roads are closed to traffic and become walking streets, packed with local vendors and shopping tourists. We arrived at about 18:00 when it was already very busy. By the time we were leaving we got pushed around by streams of people moving in different directions. We did no shopping, although there are lots of nice things, perfect to buy some original souvenirs.
Countless stalls sell everything from handicrafts (key rings, hand carved soaps, stuffed animals, …) to clothing (hippie pants, colourful dresses, …), accessories, arts and of course food. That’s where we spent some money, at the food stalls.
We enjoyed some great Thai street food snacks: freshly (on the spot) made donuts (5 for ฿15, yummy!), a black pepper chicken and pork skewer (฿10 each, good), an egg boat (฿15, had a taste to it we didn’t like), spring rolls (4 for ฿20, good!), and a Nutella waffle (฿40, yummy but heavy on the stomach!). But there is plenty more choice, like grilled corn, homemade coconut ice cream, and deep-fried bananas. Make sure you start out hungry!
Our favourite snack of the night were the delicious ice cream rolls from Ice Mania. You can choose three flavours and a topping for ฿50 and the vendor will make your rolled ice cream on the spot which makes for a great show. I went with vanilla brownie M&M ice cream and Brecht with vanilla blueberry blackberry ice cream. Yum!
At the end of our market visit, we got a foot and calves massage for ฿90 per person for 30 minutes. It’s really relaxing! Unless you get giggly of someone touching your feet of course.
Saturday Walking Street Market Chiang Mai
The less popular little sister of the Sunday Walking Street Market is the Saturday Walking Street Market, also known as Wualai Market. It’s another weekend night market, starting at about 16:30 and ending around 22:00. Wualai Market is situated just outside the Chiang Mai old town. It occupies Wua Lai Road (the old silver-making district of Chiang Mai) and Thipanet Road.
Just like on Sunday, these roads are temporarily closed for traffic, becoming walking streets. We arrived around 17:00, while some vendors were still setting up their stalls. It’s definitely worth it going that early to avoid the big crowds. Although this market is not as famous as the Sunday Market, it still attracts a lot of people. When we were making our way back to the moat where we parked our bicycles, it suddenly became crowded. By crowded I mean walking two steps, waiting a moment, getting pushed, walking two steps, waiting a moment, you get the picture. That was around 19:30.
This market is very similar to the Sunday Walking Street Market, as most vendors set up on both markets, Saturday and Sunday. Unfortunately we didn’t find the Ice Mania stall for some more delicious ice cream rolls, but we did find stalls selling insects. Besides eating some egg fried rice (฿20), corn (฿20), croquette (฿35) and mango sticky rice (฿40), we bought some souvenirs: a T-shirt, a little (Kindle) bag and bracelets.
We prefer the Saturday Walking Street Market over the Sunday one, as the walkway between the rows of stalls is broader and there seem to be less people if you’re early.
Warorot Market Chiang Mai
Another market we visited is Warorot Market, locally known as Kat Luang. This non-touristy day market is opened daily from 6:00 till 18:00. It’s a covered market, occupying three floors, including a food court in the basement. We went there looking for cooking utensils and ended up buying a wok pan, a sauce pan and large spoon for ฿365 in total. They also sell all kinds of fresh and dried food, eating utensils, clothes and accessories.
We had lunch at the food court, trying the Chiang Mai signature dish khao soi. It only cost us ฿30 per bowl and there was free drinking water. This was one of the few times we actually ate among (only) locals. We were surprised to find out we liked it! Guess this is one of the first local dishes we really like. Later on we discovered there are other, more spicy, versions of khao soi we didn’t like quite as much. You can read about it in our post about where to eat in Chiang Mai.
Somphet Market Chiang Mai
During on of the cooking classes we took in Chiang Mai, we visited Somphet Market. It’s an authentic Thai market located at the edge of Chiang Mai old town. Somphet Market, opened daily from 8:00 till 19:00, is mainly made up of fresh produce and food stalls.
Don’t go to Somphet Market for souvenir shopping, but rather for a coffee or fresh fruit juice while wandering between the colourful fresh produce stalls.
Attend the Chiang Mai Festival of Lights
If you have the chance, align your visit to Chiang Mai with Loi Krathong and Yee Peng. This event, also known as the festival of lights, is held every year on the evening of the full moon of the twelfth month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar, usually in November in our Western calendar.
It’s truly magical and romantic when all of the sky lanterns light up the night. You should attend it at least once in your life!
Visit Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep
A temple is called a wat in Thailand, and there sure are a lot of them in Chiang Mai. However, there’s one temple you should definitely visit: Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, the temple on the mountain. Some say you haven’t really visited Chiang Mai if you haven’t been to Doi Suthep.
It’s about a 40 minute drive (literally) up there, so we decided to take a songthaew instead of our bicycles. We read online you get the best rates when you go to the North Gate of the Chiang Mai old town (Chang Phueak Gate). At the little kiosk just outside of the moat there are always one or more songthaews waiting to drive to Doi Suthep. You do have to be patient if you want a good rate though: we waited for 50 minutes for another six people to arrive. When there’s ten people it’s ฿100 per person for a return trip. We paid ฿120 per person.
If you prefer driving up there in a car instead, you can book a private tour to Doi Suthep and combine it with some attractions nearby. Tommy from TakeMeTour will gladly show you around!
The first part of the 309 stairs you’ll have to climb at Doi Suthep are lined up with stalls selling drinks, snacks and souvenirs. Then there’s the real stairs, flanked by colourful snakes. On top of the stairs you have to pay a ฿30 entrance fee per person (only for tourists, not for locals). Don’t forget to dress appropriately (knees and shoulders should be covered).
From the top, you have a wonderful view over Chiang Mai and beyond, worth the steps! If you’re up for it, the sunrise is supposed to be stunning from up here as well. Book Witthaya’s private Sunrise Tour of Doi Suthep and he’ll take you for a local breakfast and some snacks as well.
Note that you should circle the temple counter clockwise, as clockwise is for funeral rituals. To enter the central plaza of the temple, you have to take off your shoes. It says on the signs you have to be quiet but everyone was quite loud. The central Golden Chedi is beautiful and surrounded by numerous Buddha statues.
I love the legend of the White Elephant who determined the location of this temple. A holy relic, believed to be Buddha’s shoulder bone, was found. King Kue Na put the relic on the back of a white elephant, believing the relic would perform a powerful miracle to stop the elephant at a suitable place to keep it. The first time the elephant stopped at Phalad. He trumpeted three times before he continued to Doi Suthep, where he turned in a circle and sat down. That’s where Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep was built and still stands today, with an impressive view over Chiang Mai.
Take a cooking class in Chiang Mai
One of the most popular activities in Chiang Mai is taking a Thai cooking class. It’s a great way to get to know the local cuisine and learn to cook your favourite dishes to recreate back home. On 2 separate visits to Chiang Mai we tried 2 different cooking classes.
Our first cooking class was at Thai Farm Cooking School. As the name might suggest, it’s located on a Thai Farm outside of Chiang Mai old town. It had great ratings and seemed to be very busy, so we booked a one day class with them for ฿1,300 per person. We had a wonderful day, learning about Thai food and spices, and cooking some delicious meals! Check out our post about our cooking class at Thai Farm Cooking School for more information.
Our second cooking class in Chiang Mai was at Zabb-E-Lee, a Thai cooking school in the old city of Chiang Mai. We did the evening cooking class, which cost us ฿1,000 per person. The food was great, partly thanks to ourselves, but mainly because of Bo’s clear instructions. We had a lovey evening! Check out our post about our cooking class at Zabb-E-Lee for more information.
Join a Chiang Mai food tour
If you’re not that into cooking, you might prefer a (street) food tour. Unfortunately we didn’t join one, but it’s also a great way to get to know the local cuisine, without having to put on an apron.
You can enjoy a local classic called Khao Soi and some other Thai dishes on a private evening street food walking tour at Chiang Mai Gate with Vipavee. Or spend the day tasting the 10 must-try dishes in Chiang Mai according to Chidprang. Check out TakeMeTour for more truly local experiences with local experts!
If you prefer (small) group tours, you can also check out these Chiang Mai food tours on GetYourGuide:
Visit an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai
You haven’t properly been to Thailand if you haven’t met an elephant up close. But don’t book an unethical elephant ride, rather visit an ethical elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai.
We booked a single day visit to Elephant Nature Park for ฿2,500 per person. It’s an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center, about an hour from Chiang Mai old town. Lek and her team save elephants from their horrible lives as slaves: logging, doing tricks to entertain humans, and even begging on the streets. The rescued elephants now live a peaceful life in the beautiful green valley called Elephant Nature Park.
If you want a picture of yourself with an elephant, be a responsible traveller and let it be one where you’re next to a happy elephant at Elephant Nature Park instead of on top of a sad one somewhere else.
Take a swim at Chiang Mai Grand Canyon
We first heard about Grand Canyon Chiang Mai from one of our new friends from the CouchSurfing community we met up with for Loi Krathong. The photos were promising, so we decided to take a look for ourselves.
Back then the Grand Canyon was a hidden gem, but by the time of our second trip to Chiang Mai, things got more organised, and they added a water park next door.
In these photos you can see how much things have changed over the years. With stairs, fences and life guards the place definitely got a lot safer. They also added a zip line, seating, palm trees and lockers. Not as much of a hidden gem anymore, but we still really enjoyed ourselves!
Both parts of the Chiang Mai Grand Canyon require a separate entrance fee, granting access to different activities. The original part is great for a relaxed swim, some (supervised) cliff jumping, and a zipline, while the water park part ensures some more action with a Wipeout-style obstacle course among other things.
Hang out at Huay Tung Tao Lake
While tourists tend to hang out at Chiang Mai Grand Canyon, locals seem to prefer Huay Tung Tao Lake. This serene lake is situated against a backdrop of green mountains, surrounded by small huts, some of which are (cheap) restaurants.
Huay Tung Tao Lake is a 25 minute drive northwest of Chiang Mai old town. Foreigners will be asked to pay a ฿50 entrance fee, as opposed to locals, who’ll enter for ฿20.
You can lounge in one of the surrounding huts, swim in the lake, or stroll around it. If you want to secure one of those huts for some shade, best go on weekdays or early on weekends.
We didn’t really get to enjoy Huay Tung Tao Lake, as we visited on a particularly cloudy day. We left for the lake too late as well, so just stopped for a quick look around before heading back.
Climb the Bua Tong Sticky Waterfall
During our second visit to Chiang Mai we visited the Bua Tong Waterfall. You can climb this unique waterfall on your bare feet, explaining why it’s also known as the Sticky Waterfall. A worthy bucket list item, right?
Do the Flight of the Gibbon
The Flight of the Gibbon is a zipline tour through the Thai rainforest, with a high chance of wild gibbon sightings. We were quite excited about it, but it’s pretty expensive: ฿3,999 per person. You are supporting a range of conservation projects when booking though, so Flight of the Gibbon is an eco-friendly adventure activity.
We eventually decided to visit Elephant Nature Park and skip Flight of the Gibbon. If you go with the zipline tour though, let us know in the comments if it was worth it!
We had a great time in Chiang Mai (twice!) and hope our tips will help you have a wonderful visit as well! In our opinion, one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai is definitely meeting elephants up close. What do you think? Let us know in the comments!
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