Eight Unique Things to Do in Chiang Mai
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Note: This piece was originally published in my old blog in July 2022.
Chaos and beauty collide in Chiang Mai, where darting motorcycles while crossing the street is a feat, and the smell of roasted pork follows your every step. You can admire elaborate Wats (aka Buddhist temples) in every corner, and wander into busy colorful markets to sample unknown fruits at every turn. Lush and quiet mountains await to fulfill all your hiking desires minutes away from the city . For the less adventurous, the green of big trees is always present in the city too.
Located on the mountainous north of Thailand, Chiang Mai is a city of about 1M people, but it feels smaller and very manageable. Easy to get around and with an old center that is extremely walkable, it’s no surprise that is a popular tourist destination. There is also so much adventure to be had around the city, with multiple worthy day trips possible.
Thailand opened to the world recently after heavy Covid regulations prevented entry to most of the world. The city is back to life, but tourism numbers are much lower than on the pre-Covid era, so it’s the perfect time to visit.
I love the city and have spent quite a bit of time there, so I have compiled eight of my favorite – and unique – things to do in Chiang Mai! If you are looking for where to eat, look no further than Where to Eat in Chiang Mai blog post.
Here is the Google Map where you can find everything mentioned below. For more visuals, take a look at IG Stories (Chiang Mai, Surroundings, Chiang Rai, Food) and IG Reels (Street Food, Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Rai Temples, Doi Inthanon National Park, Monk Chat)
How to get around
There are three main ways to get around in Chiang Mai:
Tuk Tuk. Little open air vehicles, can fit only 2-3 people.
Songthaew. Larger shared taxi, usually makes multiple stops along the way, can fit around 10 people. Just flag it on the street when you see one.
Grab. The local Uber. Just download the app and order as you would with Uber.
Top Unique Things To Do
1. Chat with a Monk
There are over 1,000 Wats (Buddhist temples) in Chiang Mai! You will stumble into them even if you don’t want to. Some offer “Monk Chats”, where you can sit down and talk with a novice monk. They practice their English and you get to learn about monastery life, win-win! We did this in Wat Chedi Luang, which has a table under a shady tree daily (9am-6pm) with a big sign, you won’t miss it. Other Wats you can do this at are: Wat Suan Dok (5pm-7pm Mon, Wed, Fri) and Wat Srisuphan (5:30pm-7pm daily). Look online to confirm day and times before you go, or ask around when there.
Below are some other Wats you should not miss. Note that if you are a women you must cover your shoulders and knees to go in them.
Wat Chiang Man. My favorite. It’s in a lush setting with very impressive carvings!
Wat Sri Suphan. Gorgeous silver temple, super elaborate. Go at sunset if you can. Women can’t go inside…
Wat Phra Singh Woramahawihan. Lovely! It’s a complex with several pagodas and temples. Next to Wat Prasat
Wat Bubparam. Big white and golden temple with a pagoda
Wat Mahawan. Pretty and surrounded by nice gardens
Wat Inthakhin Sadue Muang. Small, cute, right next to the Three Kings Monument
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. The temple on top of the mountain, must go! Plan a hike on the mountain afterwards, details in number 5 below
Others: Wat Lok Moli, Wat Muen Lan, Wat Phan On, Wat Phantao
2. Bike around the Royal Park Rajapruek
This is a very large park a bit outside of town but so worthy of the trip. Make sure to rent bikes by the entrance as it’s the best way to see it (you can also take a small tourist truck if you can’t bike). Don’t miss stopping by the orchid gardens, and have lunch at the beautiful Royal Project Kitchen.
3. Admire Kalm Village’s Architecture and Art
A gorgeous art center with a restaurant and a coffee shop. Chiang Mai is considered the art center of Thailand, and this place truly encapsulates why. It has a stunning collection of ceramics and textiles, as well as temporary fun art and crafts exhibitions. Besides, the architecture is stunning! Their coffee shop’s second floor is the perfect place to work from.
4. Stroll around Huay Kaew Arboretum
Very small but worth a stroll if you are in the area. You will pass it if going up hiking in Doi Suthep mountain, which you should definitely do! Next section covers this.
5. Hike Doi Suthep Mountain
Most people go up the mountain to visit the temple overlooking Chiang Mai, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, and that is absolutely worth doing. But, a much better way in my opinion is to see the temple and *then* go for a long hike on the solitary but deeply forested/ jungle-ish mountain of Doi Suthep to reach the summit of Doi Pui. It’s 10 miles of beauty! You could do it by yourself but the trail is not super well marked so I recommend going with @chani_ka . She is a great hiking companion, and will take you for a yummy lunch on a Hmong community along the way.
6. Have a coffee at the highest point in Thailand at Doi Inthanon National Park
I loved this National Park about 60miles outside of Chiang Mai. The Wachiratan waterfalls are powerful and surrounded by so much beautiful jungle. It also boasts the highest point in Thailand and the forest up there is truly whimsical. You can also hike a trail between local communities to see waterfalls, water buffalos, and rice field views (you must do this with a local guide). We did this experience with @happy_bird_tour who also took some great professional photos of us!
7. Observe rescued elephants at the Elephant Nature Park
I really wanted to see elephants in Chiang Mai, but I also wanted to do it ethically, so I spent quite a bit of time doing research and the only place that look legit was the @elephantnaturepark . I am so glad I found them, because this place is the real deal!
The Elephant Nature Park rescues elephants from illegal logging, circuses, and riding camps. Exploitation of elephants in Thailand has been happening for decades, and it’s supported directly by tourism. Today in Thailand there are many elephant trekking camps where tourists partake in elephants riding, and watch elephants perform tricks. The truth about this form of elephant tourism is ugly, with thousands of elephants being kept in cruel, abusive conditions.
The guiding principle of the park is to let elephants live as close to how they would in the wild, so other than walking near them and observing them, there is little direct interactions with them – there is no feeding, no bathing, and absolutely no riding. The park currently has 140 rescued elephants, as well as 1,000 dogs, 1,600 cats, 80 cows, and 100 buffalos! A growing number of elephant tourism operators advertise themselves as sanctuaries, but behind scenes the elephants continue to suffer. It’s important to not support these places.
8. Visit the impressive temples of Chiang Rai
Around 130miles from Chiang Mai, this would a long day trip but it’s doable. However, if you can, stay the night as there is lots of nearby hiking as well. If you stay, have dinner at Barrab and breakfast at Good Carb. About the temples:
Wat Rong Khu (White Temple) is the most impressive! You should start your day here. Have lunch right onsite at ร้านแม่พิมพร ข้าวซอยแม่พิมพร (i couldn’t find the name in English, but it’s right next to the temple)
Wat Rong Seur Ten (Blue Temple) is the smallest one. Make sure to have coconut ice cream in the stalls next door
Baandam Museum (Black Temple) is large and interesting, but it was not my favorite. It’s pretty creepy, with lots of dead animal skins and some weird sexual wooden figures. It’s still worth going, but you have been warned. Here you can have the sweetest pineapple of your life.
If you are looking for what to eat in the city, check out blog post Where to Eat in Chiang Mai for recommendations on markets, street food, restaurants, and cafes.
Enjoy Chiang Mai, it’s a special place!