Tip: If you’re staying for a longer period of time, consider staying outside of the center in Nimman.

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Looking for the best things to do in Chiang Mai, Thailand? I’ve got you covered!

Escape Thailand’s busy capital city and make your way north to Chiang Mai. From mountainous landscapes and greenery to scattered temples and markets throughout the Old Town, there is no shortage of great things to do in Chiang Mai .

Chiang Mai caters to all travelers, from shopping to mountain adventures. You can find both budget-friendly accommodations and activities, but also your slice of paradise at a luxury property.

Plus, the Chiang Mai region is home to a number of elephant rescue sanctuaries, so that’s definitely a plus in my book. I have visited Chiang Mai five times over the years (most recently in November 2023) and I always discover more and more things to do!

Where is Chiang Mai located?

Chiang Mai is located in Northern Thailand. It is the largest city in Northern Thailand, located within the Chiang Mai Province. While it is definitely still a big city, it is much more mountainous and less busy than Thailand’s capital, Bangkok. It is always way more walkable, which makes the city feel more manageable when tackling all of the best things to do in Chiang Mai.

temples in chiang mai thailand
Chiang Mai’s Old Town is filled with beautiful temples

Chiang Mai Basics:

Language: Thai

Currency: Thai Baht (THB), 35 THB = $1 USD (as of 11/2023)

Country: Thailand

Airport: Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX)

How many days in Chiang Mai?

I would recommend giving yourself at least three days to explore Chiang Mai. You could easily spend a week or two in the city (which I’ve done before), without running out of things to do!

However, three days will allow you enough time to explore the city, take a cooking class (a must-do experience in Chiang Mai), and even make your way to a elephant conservation center. 

How to Get to Chiang Mai 

Chiang Mai is located 435 miles (700 km) north of Thailand’s capital, Bangkok. If you are arriving from an international destination, you’ll most likely land in Bangkok. However, there are a few destinations in Asia with direct flights to Chiang Mai.

From the Chiang Mai airport it is just a 10-15 minute drive (you can grab an airport taxi for 150 THB). There is also an easy airport bus option for those on a budget. 

By Plane – The Fastest Way

Arriving in Chiang Mai by plane is probably the most common method. You can find cheap flights from Bangkok, as well as other major cities around Asia. Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX)  is serviced by a number of airlines including Bangkok Airways, Thai Vietjet Air, AirAsia, Thai Lion Air, and more. I’ve flown from Bangkok to Chiang Mai for as little as $20 USD.

By Bus – The Cheapest Way

You can travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai by bus in 9-11 hours, depending on which company you book with. Bus travel is a bit quicker, and a bit cheaper than train travel, but in my opinion it is not nearly as comfortable. It is also a much less scenic ride than traveling between the two cities by train. 

Ticket costs vary, but you can expect to pay around $20 USD for a one-way ticket. Chiang Mai is also well-connected by bus to a number of other cities in Thailand. 

By Train – The Most Fun Way

Taking the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is personally my favorite way of getting between the two cities. The route between Bangkok and Chiang Mai is easily the most traveled train route in Thailand. The journey takes between 11-15 hours, depending on which train you choose. While there are daytime train options, I always choose the overnight train. It’s definitely a long ride, but you have the opportunity to not waste any travel time during the day, and you’ll save on a night of accomodation. Plus, watching the sun come up from the train is one of my favorite experiences in Thailand. Make sure to book a bottom bunk for the best window access. 

Ticket costs vary, but you can expect to pay around $38 USD for a one-way ticket.

Make sure to pack your own dinner. The options available on board are overpriced, and not particularly tasty. There is a shop at Hua Lamphong Train Station in Bangkok to buy small snacks, but if you’re looking for a full meal, I’d make sure to pick it up beforehand.

When to Visit Chiang Mai

Luckily, it is possible to visit Chiang Mai just about any time of year. This means that you can make sure to add it to your Thailand itinerary no matter what, yay! That said, there is one season you probably should avoid if possible: the burning season. I’ll touch on more of that below.

Chiang Mai has 3 distinct seasons: wet season, dry season, and the hot season.

Wet season

The wet season typically lasts from June to September. This is by far the wettest time to visit Northern Thailand, and most of Thailand for that matter. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t still visit! In fact, some prefer this time of year because the rice fields are super green! Plus, there are far less tourists, so you can expect less crowds and cheaper rates on activities and accomodation. The rain tends to happen in the afternoon, so this works well for early birds!

Dry season

The dry season in Chiang Mai lasts from October to March. begins around October and lasts until March. Temperature tend to be much cooler, so you’ll want to make sure you pack a light jacket and some long pants.

Hot season

By far the hottest time of year to visit Chiang Mai is from April to June. Temperatures tend to be hot and humid, easily reaching over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Honestly, I don’t mind it at all, but I’m a total sunshine girl! Just make sure to hydrate well if you’re visiting during this time.

Extra Season – The Burning Season

There is actually a bonus season in Chiang Mai, and that’s the burning season for a few weeks in late February and early March. During this time, the local farmers intentionally burn their fields to make way for a new crop. This can lead to hazy, smokey conditions and poor air quality, so I would definitely avoid if possible.

Getting Around Chiang Mai 

There are a number of different ways to get around Chiang Mai. While the city itself is quite big, most tourists choose to stay in, or close to, the Old Town. If you’re staying in the Old Town, then you can get around this area easily on foot. 

If you’re staying for a more than a day or two, you should also consider staying in Nimmanhaemin, or Nimman. This area itself is also very walkable, but its a bit of a trek (45 minutes to an hour walk) between Nimman and the Old Town.

Songthaew

Taking a Songthaew (pronounced “song tail”) is the most common way to get around Chiang Mai. It is also a cheap and easy way to get around the city. Simply flag one down when you see one, even if there are already people in it, as these are shared rides. Cost is negotiated with the driver based on your specific pick up and drop off points. For reference, you should be able to get to most places within the city for around 30 THB. 

You can also request a private Songthaew, at a higher price, through Thailand’s popular ridesharing app, Grab. 

Taxis

Taxis are available throughout the city, but they are much harder to wave down than Songthaews. However, you can ask your hotel or hostel to call one ahead of time for you. Taxis operate on a meter system. 

Grab

As I mentioned above, while in Thailand you can take advantage of the popular ridesharing app. For those who aren’t familiar with Grab, it is very similar to Uber. However, in most parts of Asia you can book a ride on the back of a motorbike, in addition to shared or private cars. It is also great to use Grab pricing as a reference point when hailing down tuk tuks to ensure you’re getting a fair rate.

Chiang Mai Things to Do

Spend the day with elephants 

Seeing and spending time with elephants is definitely one of Northern Thailand’s biggest highlights. There are so many different elephant camps to choose from, however some are definitely more ethical than the others. It is important that you do your research and avoid supporting parks that have unethical practices.

I recommend checking out Elephant Nature Park. Although it is admittedly a bit touristy, Elephant Nature Park is a great place to get up close to the elephants in a humane no-riding environment. 

Chiang Mai Guide - Elephant Nature Park - Visit the Elephants
Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Another very popular option is to book an overnight stay at the Chai Lai Orchid. Prices start around $100/night and offer an up close opportunity with the elephants. Although I’ve never been myself, it is definitely quite the bucket list experience. It books up early (months in advance) so make sure to book well in advance.

Photo credit: Booking.com

Chai Lai Orchid

Chai Lai Orchid is truly the definition of bucket list. Book a night here in one of the bamboo suites to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime intimate elephant experience.

Check rates and availability

Temple-hopping in the city 

There are tons of incredible temples within Chiang Mai’s Old Town, you could spend days just exploring each one. If you’ve had enough of the formal temple hopping, you can simply wander the town and easily come across plenty that you may want to stop in.

Here are a few of my favorite temples in Chiang Mai:

  • Wat Chedi Luang
  • Wat Phra Singh
  • Wat Suan Dok
  • Wat Chiang Man
Wandering the streets of Chiang Mai
Wandering the streets of Chiang Mai
Beautiful temples around Chiang Mai
Beautiful temples around Chiang Mai

Go shopping at the markets 

Chiang Mai is home to some of the best markets in Thailand, and probably the world if you ask me. Whether you’re looking for fun souvenirs, tasty bites, or just a fun evening, the following markets are a must on any Chiang Mai itinerary. 

visiting the markets in  chiang mai thailand
Fresh veggies at the market in Chiang Mai

Sunday Walking Street

The Sunday Walking Street market is not only my favorite in Chiang Mai, it might just be my favorite in all of Thailand! If you can find a way to be in Chiang Mai on a Sunday then it is one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai, and a must on your itinerary. The market opens in the afternoon and lasts all evening. The name itself is a bit misleading, because rather than a street, the market actually stretches 1km down Rachadamnoen Road, from one end of the Old Town to the other.

What this means is that you’ll find endless streets of local goods and amazing (and cheap) street food! My favorite part is getting to try all of the different food options along the way. Plus, you’re going to need that extra energy for all of the walking and shopping you’re going to be doing. 

Saturday Night Market

Although the Saturday NIght market is not as extensive as the Sunday Market, it is still a great option for some fun shopping and Chiang Mai fun. You’ll find areas off to the side reserved for street vendors as well, where you can grab some delicious food for dinner!

Chiang Mai Daily Night Market

If your trip to Chiang Mai doesn’t line up with a weekend, don’t worry! The Daily Night Market is another fun option any day of the week. The market is composed of a series of both indoor and outdoor shopping areas. My personal favorite is Anusarn Market, where in addition to fun handmade goods and souvenirs, you’ll find some great sit down dinner options and cheap massages!

Take a yoga class

Chiang Mai is filled with amazing yoga studios for you to practice in. You can’t really go wrong with any of the studios, but my favorite studios are:

  • Wild Rose Yoga
  • Satva Yoga (aerial classes available)

Join a Thai cooking class 

Taking a cooking class is one of my favorite things to do in Chiang Mai, and really in all of Thailand. I absolutely love Thai cuisine, and spending a day learning to cook all of these authentic dishes is such a blast. While Chiang Mai has tons of cooking schools to choose from, I have personally attended the class at Siam Rice Cookery a handful of times and couldn’t recommend it more. 

For $25 USD for a full day course you will receive hotel pick up/drop off, a tour of the local market, a selection of seven dishes to cook and a cookbook to take home. There are also options for half day morning or evening classes.This class is suitable for all levels (don’t worry if you’re awful in the kitchen) and will definitely make you feel like you’re ready to sign up for the next season of Masterchef.

As a note, they no longer use their website for bookings but you can book directly via Whatsapp at: +66 85 038 8600.

Visit the famous Wat Doi Suthep

This temple is located right outside of Chiang Mai up a (very) windy mountain road. You can easily order a Grab to take you to the top, or hop in a shared tuktuk.

Once you’re dropped off you’ll have a quick climb up some gorgeous steps before arriving at the temple. Entrance tickets cost only 100 THB (about $2.5 USD). As this is an active temple it is important to make sure that you have your shoulders and knees covered.

If you’re looking for a bit of adventure, you can also hike up to Wat Doi Suthep from Chiang Mai. It’s a steep climb but an amazing adventure. You’ll even stop at another beautiful temple along the way. On my latest visit we hiked up starting at the Monk’s Trail (we took a Grab car to this point), and then took a songthaew back down.

Go jungle-trekking

Chiang Mai is perfectly located within mountainous Northern Thailand. This means that there are plenty of great one-day and multi-day hiking opportunities for anyone looking for a bit of adventure.

I always recommend booking a tour in person, rather than over the internet. This is the best way to get the best deals and get a better sense for the quality of the experience you’re going to have.

Ride in a Tuk Tuk (or Chiang Mai’s traditional Songthaew)

Did you really visit Thailand if you didn’t ride in a tuk tuk? I think no! Even if you’re just taking a ride around town, make sure to hail a quick tuk tuk at least once.

Additionally, as I mentioned above, taking a Songthaew is the most common way to get around Chiang Mai. It is also a cheap and easy way to get around the city. Plus, it’s a great way to meet locals and other travelers.

Try Chiang Mai’s most famous dish – Khao Soi

Khao Soi is a soup-like curry dish filled with both boiled and deep fried egg noodles, as well as a meat of your choice. The dish is topped with shallots, limes, greens, and chilis. It is also so so delicious, and a must-try while in Northern Thailand.

My favorite spot in the Old Town to have it is Khao Soi Khun Yai by the North gate.

Wander the Old Town

Many of the things to do in Chiang Mai’s Old Town are already on this list, but I think dedicating an afternoon (at least) to simply wandering around the town is so important. You’ll come across temples, restaurants, and plenty of massage parlors. Let yourself get lost and simply wander! Make sure to either dress appropriately or bring along something to cover up, as you will need to have your shoulders and knees covered to enter any of the temples.

Get a Massage

I could write an entire post about all of the incredible massage options available in Chiang Mai. Daily massages were definitely a part of my Chiang Mai routine, and I only wish I could keep up that daily routine back in NYC. One thing to know about Thai massages is that they are much rougher than your average massage in the US.

Don’t be surprised when the masseuse starts bending your body this way and that. Also, unlike most massages in the West, you don’t undress at most places in Asia. Instead, when you get a massage in Chiang Mai, you’ll most likely be provided an outfit to put on. The outfit is a loose cotton top and pants.

You can expect to pay 250-300 baht ($7-8.50) at most places for an hour Thai massage, but of course there are fancier spas with higher prices as well.

Explore Chiang Mai’s Art District

Located just across the river from Chiang Mai’s Old Town you’ll find an area full of quaint art galleries, boutique shops, and adorable cafes. This is where you’ll find Woo Cafe, one of the food recommendations in this guide, so a visit there is a great opportunity to check out the area. Take a stroll in this area to experience a different side of Chiang Mai.

Chat with a Monk 

One experience that I have not personally had in Chiang Mai, but have only heard great things about it the opportunity to chat with a monk. There are several locations throughout Chiang Mai that offer this experience, but Wat Chedi Luang is the most popular. Simply show up and strike up a conversation!

Try Mango with Sticky Rice 

Although not unique to Chiang Mai specifically, a visit to Thailand is not complete without a taste of this delicious dessert. Sliced fresh mango with a sticky rice, topped with a sweet cream sauce. I could eat this every single day!

Mango with sticky rice (a must-try dish in Thailand)
Mango with sticky rice (a must-try dish in Thailand)

Take a Trip to Chiang Rai 

Chiang Rai is the northernmost city in Thailand, and an excellent trip (ideally an overnight trip, but a day trip is possible) from Chiang Mai. Chiang Rai can be reached from Chiang Mai by bus in approximately 3.5 hours. If you leave early enough in the day it can definitely be done as a day trip, but I’d definitely recommend a day or two if possible. The famous White Temple is a must, but there is also an awesome blue temple!

Visit Doi Inthanon National Park

Okay, here is another thing on the Chiang Mai Things to Do Itinerary that I’ve never done, but I’ve heard such great things that I just had to include it! Located approximately 90 minutes by bus from Chiang Mai, I’ve heard that it is definitely worth the trek.

Note: I want to flag that I don’t recommend visiting the Tiger Temple on my list of best things to do in Chiang Mai itinerary. I will admit that I did visit this place myself in 2015. Yes, it was a cool experience to be so close to tigers. Do I think that it is okay and ethical to keep tigers caged up in this way? No.

Where to Eat in Chiang Mai 

Chiang Mai Gate Food Market

Chiang Mai is filled with fun food markets, where you can try lots of different local dishes at cheap prices. The market located at Chiang Mai Gate is one of my favorites! There is a large selection of stalls available, catering to the needs of vegetarians and vegans as well!

If you happen to be in this area in the morning you will find a fresh fruit market! However, the evening vendors start setting up around 5pm.

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Woo Cafe

While Woo Cafe is definitely a little fancier than your traditional Thai locale, it definitely deserves a mention in my opinion. Located in the art district, the cafe itself is like an art installation.

Every inch of the cafe is picture-worthy, with flowers, paintings, and homemade cakes and other desserts decorating the premises. The menu offers a wide selection of both Thai and Western dishes at moderate prices.

Make sure to check out the upstairs art gallery and the gift shop!

Chada Vegetarian 

This is probably my favorite place in the Old Town for breakfast, but its really great for any meal. If you’re dining in for breakfast, I recommend the fruit plate and a mango smoothie. But really, everything on the menu is great. 

น้ำเงี้ยวป้ารุณ ตามสั่งราคาไม่แพง

This is easily my favorite restaurant in Chiang Mai. It is super casual but the food is so so good and so affordable. Every on the menu is delicious but don’t miss the Pad See Ew (stir-fried noodles). 

You may also like…

Bangkok Food and Restaurant Guide

Khao Soi Khun Yai 

This casual restaurant by the North Gate of the Old Town is a great option if you want to try Northern Thailand’s popular dish: Khao Soi. Khao Soi is a delicious soup made with a spicy broth, egg noodles, and chicken, and topped with dried noodles, red onion and lime. 

Khao Tom Baht Diao

This is a great option in Nimman if you’re looking for local Thai food at great prices. The menu is extensive so you’re sure to find something that you love. It is also a great late night option, as they are open all day from 9am to 2am. My favorite dish is the Penang Chicken. 

Papaya salad in chiang mai thailand
Papaya salad
Fresh fruit plate from Chada Vegetarian
Fresh fruit plate from Chada Vegetarian

Cafes in Chiang Mai

  • Zalux Coffee Cafe – beautiful cafe in the Old Town with outdoor jungle vibes 
  • Wabi Sabi – the best oat milk matcha latte in Chiang Mai 
  • Khum – beautiful outdoor cafe within the Lanna Architecture Center, centrally located in the Old Town
  • Sunflower Smoothies and Coffee – delicious smoothies and smoothie bowls 
  • Brownie Yeesib – delicious brownies starting at 20 baht
  • Roastniyom Coffee – overall great coffee and tea, laptop friendly 
  • Nine One Coffee Chiang Mai – great cafe for getting work done, high quality coffee with slightly high prices 
  • Memories – the best fruit smoothie in Chiang Mai (order the raspberry + mango combo)

Bars in Chiang Mai:

  • North Gate Jazz Co-op – beautiful jazz bar in the Old Town 
  • Sax Music Pub – casual bar with live music every Sunday 
  • Hotel YaYee rooftop – rooftop cocktail bar with amazing sunset views in Nimman
  • My Beer Friend – casual Nimman bar with cheap beers 
  • Warm Up Cafe – local club-vibes, bottle service, and live music 

Where to Stay in Chiang Mai

I have visited Chiang Mai so many times over the years, so I have had the opportunity to stay in over 10 different hotels and hostels. They all have something a little different to offer travelers, depending on your budget and preferences.

Overall there are two main areas that travelers stay when visiting Chiang Mai: the Old Town and Nimman. The Old Town is great for short-term visits as it is close to everything in the tourist center.

Nimman is a great option for longer-term travelers as you’ll find apartment condos equipped with pools and fitness centers, as well lots of nearby cafes and coworking spaces.

Photo credit: Booking.com

Pha Thai Hotel

A beautiful centrally-located hotel in the Old Town of Chiang Mai. Make sure to book the deluxe room with the balcony. Delicious breakfast included in the room rate.

Check rates and availability

My favorite places to stay in Chiang Mai:

What to Pack for Chiang Mai

  • Sarong – I literally never travel anywhere without a sarong. It seriously has so many uses – a skirt, shawl, scarf, blanket, beach towel.. you name it! You can easily purchase a sarong in Thailand for a buck or two when you arrive if you don’t already own one.
  • Outfits that cover your shoulders and knees – For ladies I recommend packing a couple of maxi skirts or dresses. This is a great way to look cute, keep cool, and remain respectful when visiting the temples or touring more conservative areas. Sarongs also work well as a makeshift skirt.
  • Multiple Credit/Debit Cards – When I’m traveling I always make sure to carry multiple cards. Ideally I like to have at least 1 credit card and 2 debit cards to withdraw cash.
  • Universal Travel Adapter – There are so many different outlet types in Thailand, and throughout Southeast Asia. I recommend always traveling with a universal travel adapter so you’re set.
  • Packing Cubes – I actually only started using packing cubes this past year and they are seriously a game changer, whether you’re traveling with a backpack or suitcase.
  • Electrolytes – I always travel with electrolyte packets, just in case. Between the hot weather, long travel days, and possible stomach issues.. you just never know! I personally love the brand DripDrop, but there are a bunch of great options.
  • Quick Dry Towel – a compact, quick drying travel towel is a must when visiting warm weather destinations.
  • Camera – Thailand is beautiful, all of it! Make sure to bring along a camera to capture all of that beauty. I currently shoot with the Sony a7ii but the Sony a6000 is a great budget option as well.
  • Pixie Cup – this one is for the ladies! While traveling with tampons, or buying tampons in Thailand, is possible, traveling with a Pixie Cup menstrual cup is so much easier. It is also cheaper and more sustainable.

Visiting Thailand? Here are some other articles to check out:

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