Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand and the second largest city in the county. It is a city full of culture, beautiful temples, great shopping and most importantly, elephants! Chiang Mai has a large variety of things to do and see. It’s no surprise that it’s one of Thailand’s most popular tourist destinations.
1. Visit Elephant Nature Park
Elephant Nature Park was the primary reason why I put Chiang Mai on my itinerary. I had seen many photos from the park and it seemed like such a wonderful experience! Elephant Nature Park is one of the few true elephant rescue and rehabilitation centers in Thailand. The park provides a beautiful environment for not only elephants, but dogs, cats, water buffaloes and many other animals.
Visitors can choose to spend a day, or volunteer for a longer amount of time at the park. I chose to do a short day visit. This included a tour, feeding, observing the elephants, and lunch. There is no riding of the elephants and no legitimate sanctuary will offer this. An elephant’s back is not built for riding and it is incredibly painful for them.
Elephant Nature Park offers some wonderful off-site activities as well. I participated in their full day Elephant Highlands program. It was one of my favorite days to date! I was able to help prepare food for, feed and walk with the elephants through a beautiful, remote area of Chiang Mai.
2. Shop at the Night Markets
Chiang Mai has a few options when it comes to night markets, but the Saturday and Sunday Night Walking Streets are a must. Both have plenty of crafts, clothing, and food to chose from. They even offer live music! Although Sunday night is larger in size, I found Saturday to be much more enjoyable. The crowds are fewer and I found it had more hand-made items.
The roads close to vehicles beginning around 4pm and the public is allowed to stroll the streets until about midnight. Saturday Night Walking Street can be found near the south gate of the Old City on Wulai Rd and Sunday Night begins at the ThaPae Gate and runs all along Ratchadamnoen Rd.
3. Take a Day Trip to Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai is located about three hours north of Chiang Mai and although it can be a bit of a long day trip, it is definitely doable. I highly recommend making the trip to visit both Wat Rong Kun and Wat Rong Sear Tean, also known as, the White and Blue Temples. Both are very modern and incredibly beautiful temples.
The White Temple is the creation of visual artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat. The temple has been a work in progress since 1998 and it will be 2020 before the main temple is completed. The other structures will likely take decades and will not be completed in the artists’ lifetime. The indoor murals tell stories of the Buddha’s life and his teachings through the use of pop culture and recent events. You may spot Michael Jackson, Freddy Kruger and scenes depicting 9/11.
Construction on the Blue Temple began in 2005 and the main hall was completed in 2016. The surrounding structures remain a work in progress. The outside is of course, blue, and has the most beautiful gold detailing. The inside, also a bright blue, has a large white Buddha statue.
4. Tour the Old City Temples
There are so many beautiful temples in the city of Chiang Mai. If you have the time, I would start by walking around and just exploring the Old City. The temples are hard to miss and are fairly close to one another. There are a few that you absolutely should not pass up. These are Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh, and Wat Sri Suphan.
Wat Chedi Luang is my favorite temple in the Old City, mainly because it is so different from the others. It was built sometime in the 14th century and it was the only brick temple that I came across on my trip.
Wat Phra Singh is an absolutely stunning temple. It went under renovation not too long ago and has been very well kept since. Its main building has a beautifully decorated facade and everything is intricately detailed.
Wat Sri Suphan is another that I enjoyed because I found it so different. The entire building is painted silver and is turned into a multi-colored light display at night. It’s really incredible!
5. Explore the Nimman Area
You will definitely want to explore the popular area of Nimman, located north of the Old City, on Nimmanhaemin Road. The university is nearby and the youth gravitate toward this trendy and modern area. There are malls, individual boutiques, and street markets.
The Maya Lifestyle Shopping Center can be found here and is a large mall. It has both local and international retailers, as well as a movie theater and restaurants. Another large shopping center, One Nimman, can be found across the street and serves up street food inspired items in a market on the first floor.
The Nimman Promenade has a good selection of individual boutiques. Most of them selling clothing and fashion items and range from inexpensive to upscale.
You will also want to venture off Nimmanhaemin Road and onto the side streets, called sois. There are lots of great restaurants, cafes and boutiques tucked away. Rustic & Blue is a great spot to grab brunch or a coffee. For more on dining in Chiang Mai, please read my post here.
6. Explore Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a temple outside of the Old City, is an absolute must-do. It is the most visited temple in Chiang Mai and for good reason. It is located about thirty minutes outside of the city walls, up a steep and windy road. I hired a songthaew, or red car, which is a type of public transport to take me there. I found it to be the most affordable option.
Once at the top of the hill, you have the option to climb 309 steps to reach the temple or take a quick lift. I opted for the lift, since I was still sore from my hike the day before. The temple is gold-plated and really beautiful! There are also places to relax and enjoy the gorgeous views.
7. Get a Massage by an Ex-Prisoner
It’s easy to find an inexpensive massage in Thailand, but what if you could give back to the community at the same time? Inmates at the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution are trained in traditional Thai massage as part of their rehabilitation. Women who are soon due to be released are given these skills in hopes that they will be able to earn an income once they are out and will be less likely to return to a life of crime.
You can visit the correctional facility for a massage or go to a handful of places employing ex-prisoners. I visited the Women’s Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners in the Old City and had a amazing hour long massage for around $8 USD.
8. Stop for Coffee
Coffee culture in Chiang Mai is huge. Over the years, Thailand has gravitated from tea to coffee. Nowadays, you can not go a block in Chiang Mai without walking by a cafe. The cafes are super cute and the coffee is ridiculously good, making them hard to pass up.
I visited too many cafes to count, but a couple of my favorites in the Old City are Into the Woods and Akha Ama. Into the Woods, is an adorable storybook themed cafe. It has faux trees, beautiful murals and a small but tasty menu. Into the Woods is where you go for the atmosphere, whereas Akha Ama is where you go for the coffee itself. It has some truly unique and delicious varieties!
Chiang Mai truly has something for everyone. By the end of my my visit, I had fallen in love with the city. I hope this post guides you through the many things Chiang Mai has to offer, but definitely don’t limit yourself to it. I know I will be back to continue exploring this amazing city! (Please do your research before participating in any activity involving animals. Many of them involve the mistreatment of these animals.)
Want to learn more about Elephant Nature Park and how to visit? Read my post, Elephant Nature Park: Visiting an Ethical Ethical Sanctuary.