Chiang Mai is one of those places we just knew we were going to love before even arriving. There is a legend surrounding this perfectly sized city surrounded by a wealth of activities, culture, food and amazing Chiang Mai budget accommodation. Chiang Mai had a lot to live up to, but thankfully it didn’t disappoint and very quickly grew to being one of our favourite cities in the world… after almost 2 weeks here we just didn’t want to leave! Here are our highlights of our Chiang Mai things to do list!
Chiang Mai things to do:
Head up above the city to Doi Suthep
Looming above the city of Chiang Mai is the mountain of Doi Suthep and the glittering temple which sits on top of it. Jump on a bike and ride up the winding roads towards the summit and feel the change in temperature shift literally over one turn. Or grab your hiking boots and follow the sacred Monks Trail up here following a path of orange robes tied around tree branches. On your list of Chiang Mai things to do this has to be a must do, you haven’t really visited this city properly until you’ve been up here!
Don’t forget to stop along the way to visit the many smaller temples and waterfalls as well as soaking in the magnificent view over this mountainous region of Northern Thailand. A peaceful retreat that makes a great ride or magnificent hike heading up to Doi Suthep is one of the reason why Chiang Mai seems to have it all!
Watching the sun go down over the city from up here as the smell of incense burnt into snake like wisps, the hanging charms dance a jangling pitch and the monks sing sweetly in the background is one of the most magical experiences we’ve ever had.
Experience the best of Thai food for next to nothing!
Chiang Mai is a food lovers heaven. From bustling markets stalls with an amazing array of local foods including Pad Thai and Red Curry for ridiculously cheap prices to trendy food markets offering up gourmet burgers, burritos and grilled cheese… amongst a whole host of other treats. The city also has some great cafes as well as more upmarket dining options and all for amazing prices. Food is a big part of the best Chiang Mai things to do!
As veggies we were also spoilt for choice with a dedicated stall on the local markets, a vegan cafe called Morning Glory and plenty of veggie burgers, hot dogs, pizzas and Mexican dishes on offer!
Buy the weird and wonderful on the weekend markets
By this point I’ve been to a LOT of markets all across South East Asia and those usually catering for the tourist crowd I can tell you are around 90% the same gear wherever you are! It’s strangely reassuring in a way, if you forget to buy something in once country you can bet it will turn up again a few weeks down the road, but it’s also pretty uninspiring and symbolic of the dumbing down of the rich cultures of each region for “craft markets” aimed at tourists.
However, Chiang Mai, especially for a large city, does seem to have one of the most varied selections on offer with each stall genuinely offering something different on the famed weekend markets. Sure, it does also have some of the usual tat, but we were pleasantly surprised by the products on offer here as well as the colour and life of the happening market place!
Visit the many stunning temples
Chiang Mai might be known as a modern and happening city on the digital nomad circuit but it is also quite a traditional and religious place too. The old centre of the city has a wealth of amazing temples and as a result it is quite a common sight to see the orange robe clad monks wandering gracefully around town. Temples such as Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh offer the most well known and historic sights. Partially ruined the ancient Royal temples of the Chiang Mai kings, Wat Chedi Luang is part relic and part shimmering working temple, it really is a wonderfully peaceful place despite the crowds.
But if you really want to tour the cities temples then there are so many more out there, the most impressive and important include Wat Suan Dok, Wat Pan Tao, Wat Pansao, Wat Lok Malee, Wat Sri Suphan (The silver temple), Wat Chiang Man and Wat Jet Yot. Each of these offer a historic, atmospheric and beautiful look into ancient Chiang Mai. For those even more interested in the religious side of the city you can even attend the regular “monk chats”, morning Alms giving and even meditation classes! The city is a religious centre too so visiting at least the main temples is a must on our Chiang Mai things to do list!
Go trekking and see the rural side of Chiang Mai
One of the best things about Chiang Mai is the diversity of things to do and see. On the surface it is a busy city of medium size that spreads out further than you initially suspected. It’s modern, full of everything you could ever wish for, hip and happening. But travel just an hour outside of the city and the Thailand you know and love changes dramatically. The modern country begins to fade into memory and villages complete with bamboo huts and deeply traditional ways begin to appear.
It’s a refreshing change from the multinational feel of Chiang Mai and also a chance to get out into the dense jungles and bat filled caves of the region. Trekking can last anything from an afternoon to a few days hiking and sleeping in villages in the steep jungles of Northern Thailand. Bathing in rivers, walking for hours and meeting the minority tribes of the region. This really is a very rewarding and eye opening part of Thailand to discover!
Swing like a Gibbon through the jungle
If hiking is a little on the tame side for you… or like us you just can’t get enough of this enchanting environment then you can strap your harness on and fly like a gibbon. Well, maybe not all that gracefully but around the jungle lined outskirts of the city there are many amazing high ropes and zipline courses to take your pick from. The allow you to take a birds eye view of the amazing ecosystem here in Northern Thailand or if you what just have an amazingly fun day swinging around 100ft above the forest floor!
Our favourite, and the original, has to be the Flights of The Gibbon. This course is mostly centred around ziplines with them having the longest jungle top line in the world at almost 1km long. But not only that but by visiting this wonderful place you are also contributing to the conservation of this cute and cheeky endangered species. In the city of adventures ziplining is a must on our Chiang Mai things to do list!
Read more here: Flying through the jungle of Thailand!
Look after the amazing elephants
You can’t come to Chiang Mai without seeing the most amazing inhabitants of this region, the beautiful Asian elephants, its top of our Chiang Mai things to do list! However choosing the right place is key to making this a trip to remember for all the right reasons or one to be ashamed of. The practice of riding elephants is one that is cruel and completely abhorrent, these gentle giants are tortured into submission and spend years in pain as their fragile spines are not designed to carry anything on their backs, despite what their size might have you think.
But spend the day, or even longer, at either Elephant Nature park or Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and you can have the most amazing day looking after and interacting with these wonderful animals. This gives you a chance to not only get up close to these stunning and characterful creatures but also contribute to their rescue, rehabilitation and care rather than their suffering. We had one of the most amazing days of our 7 months in Asia here and it totally exceeded our expectations!
Read more here: Visiting the most wonderful Elephant Sanctuary
Rent a bike and ride up to the amazing hippy heaven of Pai
Some 762 turns from Chiang Mai along winding mountain roads brings you to the hippy paradise of Pai, a place that can’t fail to make you happy! This relaxed backpackers heaven set in a wonderfully beautiful landscape is like an escape from the pressures and the horrors of the modern world into one where anything goes and it usually does. From living in huts practicing circus stills to lazing in hot springs, watching the sunset over the canyon or lazing your day away in a hammock after eating your way through the street food stalls, Pai has a lasting charm that will keep you dreaming of its wonders long after you have left.. if you ever do!
We recommend taking your own bike up here, but we warned the roads do often cause first timers to fall fouls of their challenging contours. If you fancy yet more adventure then take the bike along even more turns to the amazing Lod Cave where you can take a bamboo raft through its enormous caverns and glance at mysterious thousand year old coffins! Even though it’s not in the city itself heading off to Pai is a backpackers rite of passage and one of the top Chiang Mai things to do!
Read all about Pai here: Pai: The hedonistic hippy heaven in the mountains we almost never left, Thailand!
Read about the ride up the mountain here: Taking the 762 turn Chiang Mai to Pai scooter trip & the information on the bus from Chiang Mai to Pai, Thailand
Stay a while and become entranced by this wonderful city!
Chiang Mai has an endless list of amazing things to see and do, even just being here is a treat as the city has such a unique and welcoming atmosphere. Chiang Mai is a place to stay a while, relax and explore. We stayed at City Capsule Hostel which cost us £2 a night per bed for amazing capsule pods, we met some amazing people here too including the owner Boon who is just the loveliest man and such a great help when figuring out what to do and where to go! But if you are after somewhere a bit more lively then there are some great party hostels in Chiang Mai, it really is a city where there is something for every type of traveller.
We even rented our bikes through them and they let us keep our things here whilst on the trekking tour overnight in a locker and our big bags whilst in Pai for a week! Our Chiang Mai things to do list could go on and on really, we just love this place!
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