There are too many things to do in Chiang Mai for a single holiday trip. This is the most “Thai-like” city in the Land of Smiles, and the discoveries you will make here will be with you forever, so you do not want to rush these experiences through. You can save some of these experiences for the next trip.
Give yourself plenty of time to just wander about the city, because you will find your own discoveries all over the place. You might stumble upon a street cart selling sweet pancakes with sliced banana and molten chocolate poured on it to fill the gaps. Or you might just walk past an amazing Buddhist temple, where you can do a little thank you prayer for bringing you there, receive a little blessing, and perhaps strike up a conversation with the head monk. Simply wandering around Chiang Mai is one of the most interesting things to do. You will find merchants and monks are all friendly as long as you show respect for their home and are polite.
For the first time visitor to Chiang Mai, the following are “must do” experiences you will not find elsewhere.
Every Sunday from 4 pm till midnight, one of the main roads in the old city beginning at the Thapae Gate is turned into a huge street market. Don’t confuse this market event with the Night Bazaar that sells imitation designer labels and fake Rolex
watches. The Walking Street Market is a great gathering of locals and tourist out to find bargains in artwork, crafts, handmade clothing, jewelry, natural oils and much, much more. The products are of excellent quality (this market is not just a bunch of tourist trinkets and junk) and amazing and it is usually the original artist and craftsman that that is selling at the table. Be sure to bargain. The Sunday Market really comes alive after dark when all the street entertainers, musicians, puppeteers, Thai dancers, and small bands start up. There are many places to stop around the market for a street snack (come hungry), get a good foot massage, or listen to the amazing Thai music.
If there is one Thai Temple (Wat) you should visit, this is the one. Pick a clear day to do this. The temple is perched on one of the higher mountain tops above Chiang Mai giving an unrestricted view of the entire city. It is a 30 minute drive via Songthauw taxi (red pickup truck) from the center of town to the base of the temple. Once there, you should take the elevator to the top of the mountain (unless you are very energetic), and it is an easy walk on the long mountain staircase back down. Inside the temple area are absolutely beautiful and amazing Buddhist shrines, including a very large gold temple. Wonderful to sit in one of the coffee cafes on the temple grounds and enjoy the peacefulness and beauty of it all. There will likely be young Thai traditional dancers putting on a show. Be sure every dress appropriately and try to come up the mountain during the week (to avoid some of the crowds).
Northern Thailand is Elephant Country, and it would be a shame to miss this experience on a holiday here. There are “Elephant Camps” which are fairly tame, with an elephant show and riding on the back of elephant on a wood bench into the forest guided by a trainer on the head of the animal. These visits also often include a ride down a river in the jungle on a bamboo raft, lunch in a nice Thai restaurant, a visit to an Orchid farm and similar activities. If you have a lot of energy and especially if you have some kids that really need more involvement, I recommend going to another level at one of the “Elephant Farms” and getting a more intense experience. One farm I can recommend is the Patara Elephant Farm, which offers a one day experience where you become the elephant owner for a day. As an owner, you will ride right on the elephant’s head yourself (no benches here!) and will be trained in daily elephant activities, like taking the elephant down to the river and hand washing him. And you will be the one to personally feed your elephant. Lots of bonding between person and pachyderm. You will get plenty of riding into the bush and jungle. This is the Real Experience. This is a big “must do”.
Note about Patara Elephant Farm: This is one of the most expensive elephant experience places at about 5800Baht (about $190 USD), but it is by far the best experience you can have for something you are not likely to ever repeat. Patara is far superior to other elephant farms and camps. Here’s an excellent report of a day at Patara: Elephant Kisses at the Patara Elephant Farm.
Khum Khantoke Authentic Lanna Dining and Shows
There are several Thai dinner shows in Chiang Mai, but this is the one that should not be missed. Great Northern Thailand cuisine and an amazing show of traditional music and dancing. Be ready for a lot of great pictures. Everyone loves this show.
Just south of Chiang Mai, there are several villages devoted to various hand-made crafts which are good leaps into Northern Thailand culture and an opportunity to bring home amazing unique Thai artwork. One place to stop by would be the Umbrella Factory in Bo Sang. You literally walk through the assembly line of hand- made umbrellas with hand painted designs, and talk with the craftsmen as they do their work. Be sure to bring a handbag or wallet or simple colored shirt, and for a tiny amount of money they will hand paint a beautiful picture on your personal gear.
While in the area, it is a good time to stop by nearby Baan Tawai, a huge craftsman village where you will find little craft factories making and selling high quality artwork and crafts. A good all-day excursion.
Muay Thai is the National Sport in Thailand, and if you want to experience a serious match, go to the Kawila Boxing Stadium on Friday evening with about ten professional matches. This is not one of those demonstration shows, this is the real thing. Plenty of excitement and betting — a true Thai experience.
What seems to be especially enjoyable for Americans and Brits who have a penchant for a hike, is taking a short nature hike into the tropical forest. Chiang Mai is in a deep valley surrounded by beautiful forested mountains on all sides. There are several nearby national parks with good hiking choices, but I will recommend a good one that is not very strenuous, but offers a great Northern Thailand mountain experience. Just past the Temple on Doi Suthep is the national park headquarters, and just past this on the right is the beginning of the trail to Mon Thaa Than Falls (look for the sign). It is an uphill trail, but it is only 2 km through some amazing forests, flowers, birds and wildlife. At the top of the trail is a small waterfall, which is suitable for swimming.
Thai cooking schools are very popular in Chiang Mai, and they provide an experience that will stay with you for years to come. There are many schools available in town, each with their own style. The one that I would like to recommend is an all day adventure into the country to learn Thai cooking right on the farm: Thai Farm Cooking School At this school, you will go outside the city, visit a rural market to pick up supplies, and then go on to and operating organic Thai farm. You will be preparing your Thai meal from scratch under the instruction of accomplished Thai country chefs, have a wonderful lunch that you prepared, and a chance to wander the rice fields and fruit orchards of this amazing place.
There is a Thai traditional massage shop on just about every block in central Chiang Mai. For $6 to $12, you can have a professionally trained masseuse work very hard for one and half to two hours getting all the kinks out. Some visitors take in a traditional massage almost every day they are in Chiang Mai. And if you want the complete experience — not the cheapest — you should spend 4 hours at the Oasis Spa in Chiang Mai, one of the best there is, anywhere. You will be investing probably somewhere between $50 and $150 USD for a great experience that would be nearly impossible to get in the US.
Chiang Mai is loaded with great restaurants, many with fantastic mountain views or along the Ping River. On your holiday in our city, you will be eating out every night in amazing restaurants, and meeting restaurant staff, other visitors and just regular folk in Chiang Mai that will give you loads of tips. Everyone that comes to Chiang Mai has amazing experiences that will be with them forever. No matter how long your stay in Chiang Mai will be, it will be too short and you will want to return.
I welcome any comments and suggestions for other “must do” Chiang Mai adventures. Please share your experiences. And I welcome any questions or specific suggestions for you.
Note to those looking for the hot adult nightlife that is written about so much. If that’s what you are looking for, Chiang Mai may be a bit of a disappointment. Our “adult” nightlife in Chiang Mai is quite small and frankly, not very good. The place to find this kind of action is in Bangkok or the beach cities south of Bangkok, most notably the city of Pattaya. I am happy to provide advise about what there is available in Chiang Mai and also what is available elsewhere in Thailand.