Chiang Mai, the largest city in mountainous Northern Thailand is a vibrant hub of culture and tourism. Steeped in history, the old city was founded in 1296 on the banks of the Ping river, and remnants of the old city wall and surrounding moat remain today.
The city has since expanded greatly in a place where old sits seamlessly beside new and visitors can enjoy delicious Thai cuisine, colourful festivals, bustling markets and a variety of active and cultural experiences.
As the former capital of Lanna kingdom, the city is home to a vast number of temples dating right back to the 14th century where Buddhist monks in their bright orange robes worship and walk the streets collecting alms.
Its exciting, its beautiful and it’s a great place to base yourself to explore all that Northern Thailand has to offer. We spent a month in the city; you could easily spend several more and still not see everything there is to see in this jewel of the North.
Read on to discover 10 great things to do whilst you visit Chiang Mai and a few to avoid.
Make some enormous new friends at an elephant sanctuary
Given that elephants are virtually synonymous with Thailand, it would almost be criminal to visit Chiang Mai without making some trunky friends, and our day with the elephants was one of the absolute highlights of our trip!
That said, you HAVE to do your research (or take advantage of ours!). Although there are plenty of elephant tourism options available, not all of them are ethical. If you care about elephants enough to visit them, make sure you put your money where your heart is.
Elephant Nature Park consistently receives the most positive reviews for ethical elephant tourism, as well as supporting a number of outreach ‘saddle off!’ projects which promote ethical tourism, animal welfare and education.
Read our Visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai post for a full rundown of our fantastic day at Karen Elephant Serenity (a ‘saddle off’ project), links to a number of ethical tourism options and more information about ethical elephant tourism including why riding elephants just isn’t cool.
Enjoy the magic of the Yee Peng lantern festival
Ever watched the Disney movie ‘Tangled’ and wished you could see the lantern festival for real? Time your visit to Chiang Mai right and you actually can!
The Yee Ping festival is celebrated in Chiang Mai during the full moon of the 12th lunar month which falls in November, although the exact date does vary.
Celebrated in Northern Thailand along with the wider Loy Krathong festival, both festivals are centred around casting away negative energies and bad thoughts in tangible vessels (paper lanterns for Yee Peng and decorated floral boats with lit candles on board for Loy Krathong) to bring good fortune for the year ahead.
Join the locals and thousands of tourists, both national and international in a celebration where it feels like the whole world has come together to take part.
The streets and temples are festooned with brightly colored paper lanterns, candles line the streets after dark and there is a palpable sense of excitement in the lead up to the festival which sees thousands of paper lanterns released into the night sky.
It is a truly magical experience and there cannot be a better time of year to visit Chiang Mai which, as the former capital of the Lanna kingdom from where the festival originates, is the epicentre of the festivities.
Check out our article on Celebrating the Yee Peng and Loy Krathong festivals in Chiang Mai to read all about it, discover how and where to take part and to learn about the iconic novice monk ceremony at Wat Phan Tao.
Be sure to book accommodation and transport to Chiang Mai well in advance if you do decide to go; owing to the festivals enormous popularity, there’s no last minute options here!
Shop ‘til you drop at the night markets
If shopping and markets are your thing then look no further than the walking street night markets held every Saturday and Sunday evening. Think dazzling handicrafts, think delicious street food, think more souvenirs than you could ever carry home, think live music, think total sensory overload!
Rather than being overwhelmed by flimsy tourist tat, both markets offer a wealth of high quality locally produced goods and are therefore a perfect place to find that unique souvenir or gift.
On Saturday nights, the Wualai market kicks off around 16.00 in the streets surrounding the stunning Silver Temple. Smaller than the monster Sunday market, there are nevertheless more than enough stalls to keep you busy for a couple of hours.
Keep an eye out for delicate silver work which is the speciality of this area tucked between stalls pedalling Hill tribe souvenirs, intricate lacquered goods, painted elephant figurines, carved coconut shells and paintings alongside the usual Thailand souvenirs. This is also a great time to see the Silver Temple (Wat Sri Suphan) lit up at night.
There are pockets of food stalls and even a pop-up wine bar to keep your energy levels tip top as you explore, and if it all gets too much you can always stop for a roadside foot massage.
Sunday night sees Ratchademnoen Road transformed into a shopaholics paradise all the way from the Tha Pae gate to Wat Phra Singh at the heart of the old city. Many more stalls spill into the surrounding streets. Better still, the roads are closed to traffic whilst the market is running so you can enjoy the novelty of motorbike free mooching, a rare treat indeed in Thailand!
Beautiful handmade souvenirs and artwork compete for your attention whilst buskers playing traditional instruments and a massive variety of tasty street food assault your other senses from all sides.
You will be spoilt for choice between shimmering scarfs, beautiful bags, colourful pottery, glowing lanterns and the usual selection of Hilltribe goodies and elephant keyrings.
The best place we found to eat was in the grounds of Wat Pan On where a multitude of food vendors tempt you with noodles, sushi, spring rolls and an incredible selection of cakes amongst the sweet treats.
At both markets, haggling is welcomed and you are sure to come away with some beautiful pieces for a very affordable price.
There’s little difference in the variety of stalls between the Saturday and the Sunday market, there are just more stalls on Sunday selling similar items. Likewise, there’s no difference in quality, so if your schedule only catches one of the two, it’s not a disaster. That said, if you’re in Chiang Mai both days, it’s worth a wonder through both for the street food alone; we guarantee this will be one of your best and cheapest eats in Chiang Mai.
Wualai Saturday Market
Time: 16.00 – 22.30
Location: Wualai road extending to Thipanet Road, around 10 minutes from the Tha Pae gate
Tha Pae Sunday Market
Time: 16.00 – 00.00
Location: Ratchademnoen Road from Tha Pae gate to Wat Phra Singh
Both markets, but the Sunday market especially, get very crowded as domestic and international tourists join the locals for the occasion. If you’re keen to avoid the crush, go early as both markets tend to become busier as the evening draws on.
Take plenty of cash – you will want to shop! Even if the souvenirs don’t tempt you, the food options certainly will!
PICKPOCKETS are not unusual around Thailand, especially around the crowded markets; keep your belongings closely guarded at all times
Visit more temples than you can shake an incense stick at
If temple hopping is high on your agenda, then with over 300 to choose from, Chiang Mai won’t disappoint. In fact, Chiang Mai has more temples than anywhere else in Thailand, and more than its fair share of some of the best!
Check out Wat Chedi Luang in the heart of the old city for one of Chiang Mai’s longest standing temples, be dazzled by the Wat Sri Suphan silver temple and enjoy the tiny perfection of Wat Inthakhin Sadue Muang close to the Three Kings Monument.
Head out of town for majestic Wat Phra That Doi Suthep which is said to house part of Buddha’s shoulder bone and into Doi Inthanon National Park to see the chedis of Naphamethinidon and Naphaphonphumisiri.
There are so many temples you will be spoilt for choice, but check out our article on Top Temples you must see in and around Chiang Mai to learn more about our favourites and where to find them.
Learn to cook Thai style at a cooking class
A very popular activity for visitors to Chiang Mai is to take part in a cooking class. There are plenty to choose from all around the city, but we really enjoyed our half day experience at Siam Rice Tai Cookery School.
We were collected from our accommodation and taken to a locals produce market where we met Nina, our teacher for the day. She talked us through the main ingredients for our dishes then sent us to explore whilst she collected supplies.
Back at the cooking school, we chose a noodle dish, a curry and a desert each and were put to work creating our lunch with full step by step instructions.
Stu and I each assisted one of our younger kids whilst aspiring chef Daniel went it alone. We only paid for three to cook but made more than enough food for us all to share.
The highlight of the day was watching Stu making ‘Drunken noodles’ which involves setting the wok on fire! Happily, there were no singed eyebrows and everyone enjoyed chopping, grinding and tasting throughout the day.
Before we left with our bellies and hearts full and our certificates safely stashed away, we received an e-mailed recipe book for all the dishes the cooking school teaches.
Thai cooking is surprisingly easy and our kids loved having a go themselves. This is a really fun family activity where everyone can take part as well as a ‘must do’ for solo travellers, couples and friends.
Learn to make paper from elephant poo
Yes, you did read that right; even elephant poo has a purpose in Chiang Mai, and Elephant Poo Poo Paper Park was one of our favourite visits during our stay.
It ticked all the boxes for us really; educational? Check. Interactive? Check. Eco friendly? Check. Extensive use of the word ‘poo’? you’d better believe it!
Our fantastic guide Pete kept the kids enthralled as he demonstrated the process from start to finish with much humour in his lively commentary and of course, much discussion about poo, a favourite topic for the boys!
We all enjoyed the hands on part where you can choose from the colourful balls of paper pulp to fashion your own sheet of poo poo paper, and not a pong to be put off by.
After the demonstration, you can choose to make a souvenir from a wide selection of poo poo paper blanks embellished with your choice of cut outs (small additional cost applies; we opted out of this one since Australian biosecurity takes a very dim view on items made from poop, much to the boys disappointment)
Once you’ve finished learning and creating, take a self-guided walk around the displays to find out how to say ‘poo’ in every language in the world, and be sure to check out the gift shop for more poo poo products.
A fun visit for all ages, and an absolute must for those with kids.
Location: 87 Moo 19 Mae Rim 50180 Chiang Mai Thailand. 10Km North of Chiang Mai city
Entry fee: 100 THB per person, under 5’s enter free
Time required: The tour will take around 60 – 90 minutes if you make a souvenir after the commentary and explore the gift shop
Learn to walk on water at Bua Tong Waterfall (Sticky Waterfall)
One of the most unique experiences in Chiang Mai is to walk up the ‘sticky waterfall’ of Bua Tong. Fed by a stream which passes through limestone, the waterfall tumbles down rounded boulders which owe their white colour to calcium carbonate deposits carried in the water. These deposits have stuck to the rocks making them sticky rather than slippy to walk on bare foot since algae is unable to grow on them.
Take the steps to the bottom then walk back up the rocks to the top as the water rushes past you for a unique and refreshing activity on a hot Thai day.
It took us a few minutes to trust our feet but its actually pretty easy to make like spiderman and walk up with no hands once you get the hang of it.
There are ropes to help you ascend at the top and routes with varying levels of difficulty, but our 4 year old managed to zoom up all of them easily. Just watch out for any green or grey patches where there is no limestone as these are quite slippery.
Enjoy climbing and splashing and plenty of photo opportunities as you explore the falls. There are no pools deep enough to swim in but plenty of places to let the clear water splash you and cool you down.
Once you’ve finished climbing, take the short boardwalk up to the sacred spring, a crystal clear bright blue pool that passes underground to fill the falls and is said to have healing properties. There’s no swimming lowed here but you can enjoy the view as well as taking a peak into the shrines in which Buddha has been gifted all sorts of curious objects including some toy cars!
There are plenty of tables to enjoy a picnic, but if you haven’t brought food, stop at the café at the far end of the row which sits opposite the car park. The roast chicken here is absolutely delicious and the other food won’t disappoint either.
Cost: Free! (correct of 2020)
Facilities: Car park, picnic area, café’s and toilets / changing rooms
Location: Sri Lanna National Park
Transport: There are no public buses which go directly to the waterfalls so the best option is to hail a songathaew or do as we did and hire a private car/minibus (we saw the sticky waterfall, elephant parade and poo poo paper park on one fantastic day). Alternatively, there are tours which make this stop as well as visiting other sites in Chiang Mai including Wat Doi Suthep.
Meet elephants of a painted variety at Elephant Parade
For an elephant experience with a difference, be sure to check out Elephant Parade Land on the outskirts of Chiang Mai.
Inspired by the plight of Mosha, a baby elephant who had lost part of one of her legs after stepping on a landmine, two Dutch holiday makers set up ‘Elephant Parade’ as a sustainable way to raise funds for her care. Thanks to the work of Marc Spits and his son Mike, Mosha became the first elephant in the world to receive a prosthetic leg, allowing her to walk again. As she grows, Mosha’s prosthetic leg needs to be changed every year and this is funded by Elephant Parade.
So what is ‘Elephant Parade’? Well it’s exactly what it says it is! Full sized baby elephant sculptures are painted by celebrities and talented artists and the finished articles are displayed in cities around the world to raise awareness of elephant conservation. After the exhibition ends, the works of art are auctioned off to raise money for Mosha’s ongoing care.
At Elephant Parade land, you can learn more about the story of Mosha and Elephant parade, see her first prosthetic leg, snap a picture with some of the full sized models on display and watch artists in the workshop make limited edition miniature replicas of the full sized sculptures.
If you’re feeling inspired, there’s a painting studio where you can paint your own elephant or you can buy the artist box and have a go at home.
Be sure to check out the souvenir shop where you can start your own miniature elephant parade with a choice of limited edition hand painted replica’s; not only are they a unique souvenir and a work of art in their own right, but your purchase will directly contribute to the project.
Entry to the exhibition is free although there is a fee to paint your own elephant. The replicas are not cheap, but with the money going to such a good cause, we were happy to bring a couple home.
Location: 180/9, Moo 7, San Phi Suea, Mueang, Chiang Mai 50300
Thee are also a couple of elephant Parade shops in Chiang Mai where you can buy the miniature replicas and admire a couple of the full sized elephants;
Elephant Parade House, 154-156 Charoenrat Road T. Watgate, A. Muang
Elephant Parade Nimman, 45 Nimman Road, Nimmanhaemin Soi 11, T. Suthep, A. Muang
Relax with a massage….. from a prisoner!
Chiang Mai has no shortage of massage parlours where you can choose anything from a quick foot massage to a longer treatment.
One of the most unique places to enjoy this experience though is at the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institute Massage parlour. The employees here are all inmates at the nearby Chiang Mai Women’s Prison who are given the opportunity to learn a profession they can carry back into civilian life and to earn a living which gives them a head start when they are released. There are several external massage parlours which work with the programme to employ these women once they are free.
All convict masseuses undergo rigorous training in line with the usual Thai requirements, clocking up some 300 hours of experience before they’re let loose on the general public.
The massage parlour is very popular, and with no booking option available, you just have to wait your turn. There’s a pretty courtyard with a restaurant and a small shop selling handicrafts made by the inmates to keep you busy whilst you wait which are other ways to help these women work towards a better life on the outside.
Loction: 100 Rachawithi Road
Opening: Monday – Friday 08:00 – 16.30, 09:00 – 16.30 at weekends
Cost: Around TBH 250 for 1 hour
Feed the fish at the park
When travelling with kids, no matter what exciting places you take them to see or whatever fun activities you do, you can guarantee that they will still always want to go to a playground! Luckily, Nong Buak Hard Park just inside the southwest corner of the city walls on Arak road furnishes the spot beautifully.
As well as the essential playground, the park features exercise equipment along the edges of the lush green lawns, and a couple of large pretty ponds complete with water fountains.
The real highlight, however, is that the ponds are absolutely full of fish! Pop to one of the kiosks to buy a bag of fish food and your littlies will be delighted as the millpond surface comes alive with splashing tails and open mouths as koi carp and catfish fight for your offerings.
Our boys ranked feeding the catfish at the park as one of their absolute favourite things to do in Chiang Mai (rather gallingly!) which saw us re-visit the park 3 or 4 times during our stay. Happy, energy expended children for the price of a bag of fish food? Well you can’t say fairer than that.
‘For next time….
As we said at the start, there’s so much to see and do in Chiang Mai that it’s difficult to see everything in one visit, and we certainly have a couple of things on the list for ‘Next time’
Doi Inthanon National Park
Although we were keen to explore Thailand’s highest mountain peak with its wildlife, waterfalls and temples, we were doing several other longer trips from Chiang Mai and decided to sacrifice this one with three young travel weary boys in tow….. but a visit is top of our list for ‘next time’.
To see the park at its most beautiful is rumoured to be in late January to early February when the Siamese Sakura is blooming.
Art in Paradise Illusion Museum
A fun activity we just ran out of time for; immerse yourself in a world where you can become part of the picture at the 3D illusion Museum. Explore a selection of 3D paintings where you can stand in the right place to look as though you’re dicing with death, escaping from various scenario’s and meeting some interesting characters – just don’t forget your camera! Although entry prices are a little steep, reviews appear positive and this will likely appeal to kids of all ages.
Bor Sang Village
The small village of Bor Sang is known throughout Thailand for it’s handcrafted paper parasols. Ranging in size from miniature cocktail umbrellas right up to garden parasols, these hand painted creations sounded like a dream come true for my creative mind and aspiring photography skills. Although you will see a few umbrellas at the markets (pictured in the night market section), Bor Sang is probably worth a visit to see where the craft was born.
Give it a miss….
Although we didn’t get time to do everything that Chiang Mai has to offer during our visit, there are some things that we made a conscious decision to steer clear of;
The Tiger Temple offers tourists the opportunity to get up close and personal with tigers for some pretty impressive photographs that are sure to amaze your friends, but there is a much darker side to this attraction when you scratch beneath the surface.
Have you ever asked yourself why these apex predators with their sharp claws and teeth and killer instincts are docile enough to sit for hours being mauled by a constant succession of tourists? Why they don’t react aggressively to a continuous barrage of camera flashes in their eyes?
The attraction will claim it is simply because they are so accustomed to human contact. If you do your research, however, the truth appears to be rather more sinister. It is reported that these animals are bred purely for the tourist industry, too tame to ever be released back into the wild in line with genuine conservation.
They are hand reared (i.e. separated from their mothers) from a young age, and trained into submission by being hit with bamboo sticks. When they’re not amusing tourists, the animals are reportedly confined to small cages, isolated from their fellow beast to avoid any fighting between animals.
Overall, that doesn’t sound much of a life for these animals and is certainly not something we were willing to support. These attractions can only survive on tourist dollar; if the tourists stay away, the cruelty will end. This article was particularly useful when we were researching our Chiang Mai itinerary and researching for ourselves whether this attraction was ethical.
Chiang Mai Zoo
We had originally intended to visit Chiang Mai’s zoo since it is one of the few zoos in the world where you can see giant pandas, however, a quick recce of the reviews on Trip Advisor soon changed our mind.
The main complaint appears to be all of the hidden costs at the zoo; unlike other zoo’s where, once you’ve paid your entrance fee, you’re free to explore, many of the attractions at Chiang Mai zoo cost an additional fee.
There are mixed reports about the cleanliness and suitability of the animal enclosures and reports that many enclosures are actually empty.
The zoo apparently occupies a large and hilly plot of land and walkways are somewhat rough nd ready which makes exploring a little challenging. You can hire a golf buggy to help, but of course there’s an extra fee to do so.
We are spoilt by living on Australia’s sunshine coast with annual passes to incredible Australia Zoo, so we decided to give this one a miss and see pandas elsewhere.
Visiting the Hill Tribes
This is a tricky one with lots of conflicting opinions and it’s difficult to find a clear answer to the question, ‘should we or shouldn’t we’ when it comes to visiting the Hill Tribes.
There are many traditional Hill Tribes dotted through the countryside in Northern Thailand with the Long Neck Karen being the most famous and undoubtedly the most intriguing to foreign visitors. Other tribes including the Hmong, Lisu and Akha to name a few also call this part of the world home, each with their own traditions, beliefs and traditional dress and their way of life is a source of constant fascination for tourists, myself included.
We had started out when researching our Chiang Mai itinerary keen to visit some of the villages to learn more about the different tribes and gain an insight into their way of life. What we found, however, were reports of human exploitation in ‘fake’ villages set up as a tourist trap by wealthy businessmen with little of the income generated from charging visitors a fee to enter finding its way back into the pockets of the Hill Tribe people. The term ‘human zoo’ was also mentioned frequently.
On the other side of the debate, people describe how tourism is an important source of income for the Hill Tribes, especially the Long Neck Karen who are refugees from neighbouring Myanmer and are unable to gain employment without citizenship, denied to them by Thailand.
In the end, we opted not to go on any of the tours believing that the experience would lack some authenticity. We did find a number of tribespeople selling their handicrafts at the night markets and in shops dotted around the city which gave us a little insight to some of their traditional costumes and creative styles.
Overall, as far as we could work out, you would need to do some serious trecking in the countryside around the city in order to experience authentic Hilltribe life for yourself.
I guess this one is more of a ‘do your research and make your own mind up’ than a ‘give it a miss’ but it was a ‘no’ from us.
Getting About in Chiang Mai
Although many places in Chiang Mai city are easily walkable, if you want to travel further afield, then hailing an iconic songthaew ‘red car’ is an experience in itself for visitors, and something you should aim to do at least once whilst you’re visiting the city.
Expect to pay around TBH 20-30 per person around the city (children often can jump on for free, or suggest to the driver a ‘family price’), a little more for a longer drive and around TBH 100–200 to go further afield, eg, to Doi Suthep temple (correct at the time of writing).
If the price seems a little steep, be prepared to barter rather than accept the first price, although do bear in mind that these guys don’t earn mega bucks so try to be fair. There are plenty of red car’s around so you can always wave one on and try another if you’re not sure or can’t agree on a fare.
If you’re being picked up in a popular destination, don’t be surprised if the driver hangs around to try to get a car full of people heading in the same direction before heading off.