Chiang Mai is one of those places in Southeast Asia where you will find things that you can’t do anywhere else. In fact, Chiang Mai is a centre for leisure, a centre for lazily winding down in wandering lanes, drifting temple to temple, café to café, bar to bar. And, this is also the best place of Thailand to encounter well-treated and happy elephants, one of Chiang Mai’s highlights, along with its stunning sceneries and mountains surrounding the cosy city.
Chiang Mai’s Old Town and Nearby
1. Start your trip by wandering the Old City
Both a good place to start, and the meeting place in the old city, is the Tapae Gate, at around the midway point of the eastern walls. The plaza on the east side of the gate is used for some great markets and shows. You can lazily wander the meandering lanes, between unpretentious cafes, bars and eateries. One café highlight is Dada Kafe (Ratchamanka Road) with its super-healthy vegetarian food and fantastic smoothies.
You can let all the sights simply glide by on a guided Segway tour. But when it all becomes too much, there’s dozens of massage places in which to get prone and pampered, or you can recline on the grass and sip at a fresh coconut in stately Nong Buak Hard park.
2. Take in the Temples
Dating back to the fourteenth century, Wat Phra Singh in the western part of the old city is Chiang Mai’s most revered temple. Pilgrims flock to the temple’s manicured grounds to venerate the statue of Phra Singh (Lion Buddha). The whole complex houses several examples of classical Lanna architecture, lavish mosaic work, as well as coffee stands and massage pavilions.
Dating from around the same period, a short stroll east, is Wat Chedi Luang. Its towering chedi, or stupa, is believed to have been at one time the tallest structure in ancient Chiang Mai. The chedi boasts five striking stone elephant sculptures, a stairway on each side, and despite its mixture of damage and restoration, it is a sight to see, especially when illuminated at night.
For a real insight into Buddhist life and traditions, don’t miss taking part in a guided Spiritual Tour, which includes giving alms to monks and an introduction to meditation.
3. Shop at the Sunday Walking Street Market and Night Bazaar
The Sunday Walking Street, held on Rachadamnoen Road just inside Thapae Gate, is a bustling, carnivalesque kilometre-long experience of sights, sounds, smells … and shopping! Vendors ply their trade from 4 pm until midnight, selling an array of beguiling items – much made by the stallholders themselves. As ever, there’s an army of masseurs on hand at the side of the road, and food stalls from the courtyards of neighbouring temples emit a divine mix of aromas.
The Night Bazaar on Chang Klan Road is also a great place to peruse and purchase. While it’s a great place for a family stroll, the bazaar draws many tourists, so be prepared to haggle if you want to avoid paying over the odds.
4. Learn How to Cook or Massage like a Thai
Travelling and tourism often focus around relaxation and leisure, but learning can often deepen an understanding of a local.
In Chiang Mai, you can take a cooking class that includes, along with the excellent tuition, a tour of a local market, where you can learn how to source the right foods for your dish, along with a Thai food tasting session. You can learn how to make appetizers, curries, soups, stir fry, and dessert, all in traditional Thai style.
Thailand is also famous for its tradition of massage & Chiang Mai is the best place to get introduced to massage learning practices, learning the basic foot, leg and back northern-style at one of the city’s massage courses. There are even shorter courses that can be completed in a day or an afternoon, a must-do in Chiang Mai.
Lastly, you should not miss having a massage at Fah Lanna Spa, a well-known spa salon that used to be featured in a Chinese movie, which made the place so popular.
A Ride Away from Chiang Mai’s Old Town
5. Spend a Day taking care of Elephants
There’s not many places in the world where you can get up close and personal with the amazing animal that is the elephant. Just an hour’s drive outside the centre of the city you can spend an unforgettable day out in nature, feeding and bathing elephants (who, legend has it, won’t forget the experience, either).
With tour companies offering pick up and drop off back in the city, delicious Thai buffet, and a chance to have a dip yourself, hanging with these gentle giants is one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai.
Book here Your Elephant day care experience at Happy Elephant, a place where we can assure you Elephants are well taken care of.
6. Take a dip at the Old Quarry lake
Swim at Huay Tueng Thao Lake, Steam Yourself at the Hot Springs or Leap into the Old Quarry. Around 12 km north of the city centre is Huay Tueng Thao, a picturesque lake at the base of Doi Suthep mountain. Here at this peaceful spot you can take a refreshing swim, swing in a hammock, eat at one of the restaurants or take shade at a stilted hut on the water.
The Chiang Mai Old Quarry, about a thirty-minute drive south-west of the old city, is a little less picturesque, but is still quite a striking body of water with steep quarried sides. Here you can take a swim in the cool water or leap from the sides, if you’re daring, with jumps of varying sizes up to 10 metres.
At San Kamphaeng, around 30 km east of the old city, you can visit the hot springs. Sitting in hot water may sound unappealing in such a climate but it actually proves a real soothing pleasure. You can buy eggs on site to boil in the hottest part of the naturally heated waters, or simply dip your feet in for an invigorating soak. Close by to the springs is the Muang On cave system, featuring huge caverns with beautiful stalactites and stalagmites.
7. Go Climbing in the Great Outdoors – and the Great Indoors!
Around a 45 minute drive from the centre of Chiang Mai is Crazy Horse Crag, known as one of the world’s greenest and diverse crags. Here you can take a climbing course and be introduced to rock climbing in just a day or go deeper with a three-day course where you can learn to be a fundamentally solid, and safe, climber, equipped with the know-how to climb without a guide.
If you get the bug, you can keep training at No Gravity, an indoor climbing centre just outside the north-east corner of the old city, where you can also learn the basics from their friendly staff. A must do for adrenaline seekers in Chiang Mai!
8. Take to the Air over Chiang Mai
If you want to climb even higher, there are several great opportunities on offer. Nothing beats a sunrise hot air balloon flight, drifting peacefully over the trees, villages, lakes and wildlife, and then be greeted with a customary champagne celebration on landing.
Alternatively, you can take a microlight flight, flown by an experienced pilot, and enjoy true freedom of the skies and an elevated view of the beautiful Mae Kueng dam. Finally, you can even charter a helicopter and pilot for a rare view from above the city, then down the Mae Ping river, the lifeline of the region.
9. Have a Peak Experience atop Chiang Mai’s Mountains
For a special view, though with your feet still firmly on the ground, you can head up the mountain closest to Chiang Mai. Doi Suthep is a must for anyone visiting the city. Here at the summit is the temple known as Wat Phra Tat, an important site for Buddhists and a simply beautiful one for tourists. And after a climb of 300 steps to get there, accompanied all the way by an intricately carved serpent, you may feel it all doubly breath-taking!
Doi Inthanon, around 100 km west of the city, crests at 2,565 metres, the highest peak in the country. It can be reached after a drive of around two-and-a-half hours, and almost the very top can be reached by road. There are plenty of beautiful waterfalls to along the way and a plethora of walking trails. The view from the top, across an endless vista of ancient forests, is stupendous.
10. Visit the Northern Hill Tribes and Villages
Some of the most traditional and unchanged communities can be found in the beautiful forested northern hills of northern Thailand. Each tribe often has its own language, beliefs and clothing style. Some tribes offer the opportunity for staying overnight, and longer stays are also possible. One Lahu community offers a residential massage course.
The area is ideal for trekking, through tropical jungles, experiencing the exotic flora and fauna, passing between waterfall and mountaintop, with opportunities for close encounters with elephants, and taking part in adventure sports, like bamboo and white water rafting.