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Chiang Mai is the second-largest city in Thailand and is commonly used as a base for tourists exploring the northern part of the country. Chiang Mai has been popular with backpackers for years due to its affordability and has become increasingly popular with ex-pats and nomads in recent years. It’s relatively inexpensive and the dollar can go far, making it the perfect place to spend either a few days or an extended period of time. Chiang Mai is an easy-to-explore city and has so much to offer. It is the cultural center of Thailand and within its ancient walls, you’ll find beautiful temples, bustling markets, friendly locals, and delicious food. Just outside of the city is something much different- a beautiful jungle landscape surrounded by mountains. It’s no surprise that Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s most popular tourist destinations. Continue reading to discover the best things to do in Chiang Mai, Thailand:
Best Things to Do in Chiang Mai
1. Visit Elephant Nature Park
Elephant Nature Park is one of the top things to do in Chiang Mai. It’s is one of the few true elephant rescue and rehabilitation centers in Thailand. The park provides a beautiful environment, not only for elephants but for dogs, cats, water buffaloes, and other animals. Visitors can choose to spend a day at the park or volunteer for a longer period of time.
I chose to participate in a short park visit. The short park visit includes a tour of the grounds, feeding and observing the elephants, and a vegetarian lunch. Elephant Nature Park does not offer elephant rides and no legitimate sanctuary will. An elephant’s back is not built for riding and it is actually extremely painful for them. Elephant Nature Park offers some wonderful off-site activities as well. I participated in the full-day Elephant Highlands activity, which is part of the Saddle-Off program.
The Saddle-Off program was created to improve the lives of elephants at independent camps. Elephant Nature Park works with these once unethical camps to develop a new business model- one that treats the elephants with respect. The Elephants Highlands activity is incredible. I was able to feed and walk with the elephants through a beautiful, remote area of Chiang Mai. To learn more about Elephant Nature Park, please continue to my post, “Elephant Nature Park: Visiting an Ethical Ethical Sanctuary”.
2. Shop at the Night Markets
The city of Chiang Mai has two amazing night markets called the Saturday and Sunday Walking Streets. On Saturday and Sunday nights the roads close to traffic around 4 pm and are accessible only to pedestrians until about midnight. The Saturday night market is just outside of the Old City walls and is located just beyond the south gate. Sunday Walking Street is located within the Old City. It begins at the Tha Pae Gate and runs all along Ratchadamnoen Rd.
Shopping at the markets is a must. They are the perfect place to find souvenirs and lots of great deals are available, although some vendors are more willing to bargain than others. You can expect to find beautiful crafts, inexpensive clothing, live music, and lots of street food. The Sunday night market is larger in size, but I found Saturday to be more enjoyable. The crowds were fewer and I found it had more one-of-a-kind hand-made items.
3. Take a Day Trip to Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai is located about three hours north of Chiang Mai and although it is a long day trip, it is definitely doable. I highly recommend making the trip to visit both Wat Rong Khun and Wat Rong Sear Tean, also known as the White and Blue Temples. They’re much more modern than those found in Chiang Mai and are stunningly beautiful. The White Temple is the creation of visual artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat.
The temple has been a work in progress since 1998 and the main temple is set to be completed this year (2020). The other surrounding structures will likely take decades and will not be completed in the artists’ lifetime. The temple’s indoor murals tell a story 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 painted on the walls.
Wat Rong Sear Tean, or the Blue Temple, is just a short drive from Wat Rong Khun and is another very modern temple. An ancient temple sat abandoned at the site for almost 100 years until villagers decided to build a new one in 1996. Construction commenced in 2005 and the main hall was completed in 2016. The surrounding structures continue to be a work in progress.
Both the outside and inside are a vivid blue with beautiful gold embellishments. Inside, a large, white, seated Buddha is surrounded by tall columns and intricate artwork. The artwork on the walls may look familiar. The artist, Phuttha Kabkaew, was once a student of Chalermchai Kositpipat, the man behind the White Temple. Unlike the White Temple, though, visitors are allowed to photograph the interior.
4. Tour the Old City Temples
There are many incredible temples within the Old City walls of Chiang Mai. I recommend exploring the area on foot. The temples are hard to miss and located fairly close to one another. Must-see temples include Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh, and Wat Sri Suphan. Wat Chedi Luang is one of Chiang Mai’s tallest and most important temples. It’s known for once housing Thailand’s famous Emerald Buddha before the statue was moved to Bangkok. The massive brick chedi was built in the 14th century and later destroyed by an earthquake in 1545. In the 1990s the temple was partially restored but the top was never reconstructed since it’s not known what it originally looked like.
Wat Phra Singh is one of the most visited temples in Chiang Mai. It was built in 1345 and renovated in the early 19th century. It was built in the traditional Lanna style, a style characterized by multi-tiered roofs, small windows and doors, and beautiful carpentry. Wat Sri Suphan, also known as the Silver Temple, is a small but unique temple. It too was built in the traditional Lanna style. Its original construction was completed in 1502 and it served as a temple for a silversmith village. Renovations began in 2008 and it was at this time that the temple was rebuilt entirely from silver and aluminum. The detailed silver work is incredible and it is especially beautiful when it’s lit up at night.
5. Explore the Nimman Area
To experience a more modern side of Chiang Mai, I recommend getting out of the Old City and visiting the popular area of Nimman. Nimman is located just north of the Old City on Nimmanhaemin Road. The university is nearby and the youth gravitate toward the trendy neighborhood. There are large malls, stylish boutiques, and street markets.
The Maya Lifestyle Shopping Center is a large mall that has both local and international retailers, a movie theater, and restaurants. One Nimman is another large shopping center and is located directly across the street from Maya. It has a great food hall on the first floor that serves all kinds of street-food inspired items.
Nimman Promenade is another great place to shop. It has a good selection of individual boutiques that mostly sell clothing and accessories and range from inexpensive to upscale. I recommend venturing off Nimmanhaemin Road and exploring the side streets, called sois. There are a lot of great restaurants, cafes, and boutiques tucked away. Rustic & Blue is a great spot for coffee or brunch. For more dining suggestions in Chiang Mai, continue to my post “A Guide to Dining in Chiang Mai“.
6. Discover Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a temple located about twenty minutes outside of the Old City. It is the most visited temple in Chiang Mai and is a must-do on your itinerary. The best way to get there is by songthaew. A songthaew is a red, open-back vehicle that is used for public transport throughout the city. They depart for the temple from Huay Kaew Road and will wait until the vehicle is nearly full before leaving. The cost is about 40 baht/person. Chartering a songthaew from anywhere in the city is also an option and is still very reasonably priced.
The songthaew will take you on a windy road up Doi Suthep mountain and drop you off near the top. The mountain is covered in jungle and there are a handful of waterfalls in the area. Upon arrival, you’ll have the option to climb the roughly 300 steps or take a lift to the temple entrance. The temple is spread out and has outdoor terraces and a pathway that leads to a beautiful 79-foot tall gold-plated chedi. There are also great spots to relax and enjoy the incredible 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. The women are given these skills in hopes that they will be able to earn an income upon release and will be less likely to return to a life of crime. You can get a massage at the correctional facility or go to a handful of places around town that employ ex-prisoners. I visited the Women’s Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners in the Old City and had an incredible hour-long massage for 250 baht ($8 USD).
8. Stop for Coffee
Coffee culture in Chiang Mai is huge. Over the years Thailand has transitioned away from traditional tea to coffee. Nowadays, you can not go for more than a block without walking by a cafe. The cafes are cute and the coffee is ridiculously good, making them hard to pass up. I visited too many to count but two of my favorites within 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. Akha Ama is another great cafe but it is more about the coffee and less about the atmosphere. Its Akha farmers are some of the most skilled in Thailand and produce some truly unique and delicious varieties.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
Pingviman Hotel is conveniently located in the old quarter of Chiang Mai and is an excellent value for the money. The rooms are spacious with huge bathrooms and jacuzzi tubs. They’re are tastefully decorated in a traditional Northern-Thai style and have private balconies/patios. The hotel has a beautiful pool area and offers a complimentary shuttle service to/from the airport.
M5 Hotel is also located in Chiang Mai’s Old City and is a great budget option. It has large, clean rooms and each has its own private patio. The hotel has a pool on-site and a great rooftop area. It offers free bike rentals as well.
U Nimman Chiang Mai
U Nimman Chiang Mai is a great option if you wish to stay in the Nimman area. The location is very walkable and close to lots of restaurants and shopping. The hotel is modern and has a rooftop pool, fitness center, and sauna. It also offers free bike rentals.
Have you visited Thailand? What are your favorite things to do in Chiang Mai? If you’ve enjoyed this post, please leave a comment or share using the social media buttons below. Thinking about visiting an elephant sanctuary? Continue to my post, “Elephant Nature Park: Visiting an Ethical Sanctuary” for more information.