Top 10 Things To Do in Chiang Mai:
From riding on elephants in the jungle, to hanging out with Buddhist monks, visiting ancient temples, and babysitting tiger cubs, there are a ton of awesome things to do in Chiang Mai. With so much to choose from, knowing the top 10 things to do in Chiang Mai Thailand ahead of time will really help you better plan out your time.
Narrowing down the top ten things to do in Chiang Mai was pretty difficult as there are easily 20 sights and activities that could have been on this list. In the end, we decided to get right down to the meat and potatoes, showing only the very best of the best attractions. Unique to Chiang Mai, when compared to other cities, most of the best sights feel more authentic than touristy. To us, the whole reason for traveling to a magical city like Chiang Mai is to get out of the box and experience its wonder. Hope you enjoy our list of the top ten things to do in Chiang Mai!
Related: Suggested Itineraries For Chiang Mai.
Top 10 Things To Do In Chiang Mai:
1. Elephant Camps & Jungle Treks:
About Chiang Mai’s Elephant Camps: For one of the most magical experiences on the planet, you need to spend a day with elephants in the Thai jungle near Chiang Mai. A visit is as educational as exciting as you will spend ample time bonding, doing health checks, feeding, and bathing the elephants. At the top-notch places you will spend your time working one-on-one with an elephant aided by a mahout. A mahout is a guy who basically dedicates their life to just one elephant, spending in upwards of 18 hours a day with them. Expect to get plenty of river time swimming with and washing your elephant pal.
While many places also take you on a ride through the jungle, the best camps only do authentic bareback riding with a limit of one person per elephant. A couple places like the Elephant Nature Park even skip the riding portion altogether. This is done to reduce phyiscal and mental stress on the elephants, but it also allows you to focus 100% of your time dedicated to volunteering instead. Don’t worry about cameras or taking selfies as the high-end places will keep you in small groups and will have a dedicated photographer to capture every moment while you give your attention to the elephants. Our favorite two places are Patara Elephant Farm and Elephant Nature Park and you have to be very careful with the other as they aren’t always ethical.
Ethical Issues: Not all elephants camps are created equal as some are focused more on making money off of tourists than looking out for the well being of the animals. Our full article on the elephant camps will help weed out the shady circus-like places for one of the amazing ones.
Read More: Best Elephant Camps In Chiang Mai.
2. The Lantern Festival (Yi Peng & Loy Krathong):
About The Lantern Festival: Imagine being in Chiang Mai as 1000’s of people, including monks, all release floating lanterns at once in a magical nighttime display. The lantern festival is not only one of the top ten things to do in Chiang Mai, but also one of the best things to do in all of Asia. There are actually 2 separate lantern festivals in Chiang Mai at the same time which sometimes confuses visitors but they are both awesome.
The most photographed of the festivals is Yi Peng where over 3,000 paper lanterns (called Khom Loi or Kom Fai) are lit and released into the sky. This Paper or Sky Lantern Festival is largely a tradition of the Lanna people of Northern Thailand. The festival is centered in the Northern suburb of Mae Jo during the full moon of the 2nd month (Yi Peng) of the ancient Lanna calendar. Prayers and wishes are often written on the outside of the rice paper lanterns before lit and released to fly away.
The second major lantern festival in Chiang Mai is the Floating Lantern festival known as Loi Krathong which is celebrated all across Thailand. It is often incorrectly associated with flying paper lanterns since the two festivals are at the same time even though Loi Krathong is more water based. While there are some flying paper lantern releases for tourists during Loi Krathong, the traditional festival mainly focuses on lotus-shaped floating lanterns (called Loi Krathong) which are placed into the water. Most of the celebration takes place right in Old Town Chiang Mai with releases onto the Mae Ping River during the full moon of the on the 12th month (out of 13) of the Thai lunar calendar.
Both festivals are out of this world, but expect Loi Krathong to have more hanging decorations and events around Old Town of the two. Yi Peng has its main event north of town. While the festivals use two different ancient calendars, they actually overlap on the same full moon in November. Out of 13 annual cycles, this full moon marks the 2nd Lunar Month of the Lanna Calendar and the 12th Lunar Month of the Ancient Thai Calendar.
3. Old Town Temples Walking Tour:
About Old Town’s Temples: Packed with over 120 magnificent temples, it is easy to feel like you have stepped far back in time while visiting Chiang Mai. From moss covered structures, to grand brick-laid monuments surrounded by orange-robed monks, the temples are quite captivating. Most of our favorite temples rest inside the walls of the 1 square mile area of Old Town Chiang Mai. The biggest boom in temple building came after Chiang Mai founded when it began the new capital of the Lanna empire in 1296AD.
Our three favorite temples in Old Town are the Dragon Temple (Wat Ratchamontian), the Monastery of a Thousand Kilns (Wat Pan Tao), and the Temple of the Great Stupa (Wat Chedi Luang). If you plan it our right you can even visit the temples early in the morning to take part in giving alms to the monks. Click the link below for our complete rundown of the temples along with a handy self-guided walking tour map to see them all.
Read More: Old Town Chiang Mai Free Walking Tour.
4. Join A Monk Chat:
About Monks Chats: A special treat when visiting Thailand is the ability to join a Monk Chat cultural exchange. A Monk Chat is a unique opportunity to get a glimpse into the lives of young monks while also helping them to practice their English language skills. Chiang Mai offers many very easily accessible temple locations throughout Old Town with Monk Chats available daily. The young monks are very friendly and both men and women can join the chats. This is by far one of the top things to do in Chiang Mai and all of Thailand. Make sure to read our Monk Chat guide listed below and learn a couple local words in our Visitor Tips section to help break the ice. At the end of our visit we taught the monks what a high-5 is and it was amazing.
Read More: Monk Chats In Chiang Mai.
5. Wat Doi Suthep Temple:
About Wat Doi Suthep Temple: They say you haven’t truly arrived in Chiang Mai until you’ve visited the Wat Doi Suthep Temple establish in 1383. King Geu-Na (8th Lanna King In Chiang Mai) had a piece of Buddha’s shoulder bone and needed to find a place to build a shrine for his relic. He set one of his sacred white elephants off to find a spot from the city who stopped on this hilltop, trumpeted 3 times, and refused to move further. The temple grew quickly as King Geu-Na was also famous for introducing Buddhism to the Lanna Kingdom.
Visiting the hilltop today leads you past many worthwhile sight highlighted by the main temple. 306 steps up carved snake (naga) staircase brings you the final stretch up to the temple. From a replica of the famed Emerald Buddha statue, to a large golden pagoda and the International Buddhism Center, there are a bunch of things to keep you busy.
Read More: Visiting Wat Doi Suthep.
6. Thai Cooking Classes:
About Thai Cooking Classes: One of the best things about visiting Thailand is the food, so why get hands-on and learn how to cook some authentic dishes yourself? In Chiang Mai, you will find over a dozen options to help you become a pad thai master in no time. There are half-day, all-day, and evening cooking courses to fit your all schedules and skill levels. One of the unique things about Chiang Mai is that you will see the food all the way from the local markets, through prep and to your plate. It really helps you feel more connected, not only with your travel partners, but also with this wonderful country.
Read More: Thai Cooking Classes In Chiang Mai.
7. Tiger Kingdom:
About Tiger Kingdom: Ever want to spend a day babysitting little tiger cubs? At Tiger Kingdom you can actually do that! As one of the top ten things to do in Chiang Mai, expect to get hands-on with 4 ages of young tigers from newborn cubs up to 3-year-olds. The little ones are super cute, the middle ones are extremely playful and the older ones are surprisingly large for only being 2-3 years old. Because the tigers here are not drugged, you are not allow in with any adults, which is a good thing. In addition to professional handlers for safety, they even have a cameraman to follow you so you can focus on the tigers instead of wasting the whole time snapping selfies.
Ethical Issues: Drugs and sedation are both huge concerns when choosing a Tiger enclosure, but during our visits, it didn’t seem to be a problem. We have found other tiger places near Bangkok to heavily drug their tigers which is sad. One warning sign is the ability to be around the adult tigers which is dangerous even for the workers. At Tiger Kingdom, you can only visit ones under 3 years old and they were all really active. The experience does feel slightly zoo-like which may bother some people, but we felt the tigers were treated well.
Read More: Tiger Kingdom In Chiang Mai.
8. Long Neck Hill Tribes:
About The Long Neck Hill Tribes: Straight out of the page of National Geographic, you can spend part of a day with the women of the famed Karen hill tribes. Nicknamed the longnecks, for their decorative brass neck rings, we find the women to be extremely interesting.
Before visiting we were a little worried that it would feel like a human zoo, but that quickly melted away as we broke the ice with the Karen. Their heavy neck rings don’t actually make their necks longer, but instead push their collar bones and shoulders downward. It is interesting to learn that many of them established their traditional villages as wartime refugees from neighboring countries.
While less and less of the younger Karen women are opting to do the brass neck rings, they are still learning the arts of textile making and carving. Their crafts are great and buying something is the easiest way to get them to warm up to you with the language barrier. For more in-depth visits, you can even arrange an overnight visit to stay with a Karen family.
Read More: Long Neck Hill Tribe Village Tours.
9. Thai New Year Festival (Songkran):
About Thai New Year: Based off of the ancient Thai lunar calendar, the Thai New Year Festival called Songkran, is one of the most fun times to visit Chiang Mai. Traditionally it is a time where you bring alms to the temples for monks and pour water over small images Buddha to wash away all of your sins and bad luck from the previous year.
Songkran is also the full moon cycle where the annual animal sign for the year is changed making it the ancient New Year Festival. Like the Chinese Calendar year has a new animal set on a rotating schedule. Unlike the Chinese Calendar, the traditional New Year doesn’t actually start on the first month of the old Thai calendar which can be confusing. Ancient Thai New Year actually takes place in April (5th out of 13 moon cycles) instead of around January/February. This is because the astrologically, the April full moon is when the sun enters the Aries zodiac system. For whatever reason they had their months start over after the full moon following the Winter Soltise but the real new year wasn’t until the 5th cycle.
In modern times Songkran has grown into a full-on water and super soaker celebration in the streets. While there are some traditional parades and pageants, expect people of all ages to be in the streets tossing water on each other from buckets and water guns. Like the color festivals in India, the Songkran is a beautiful and joyous celebration of life.
10. Visit The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun):
About The White Temple: A visit to the White Temple is weird, playful, and memorable. Located between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, the appropriately named White Temple is a modern artistic twist on a classic Buddhist temple. It has become a large complex over the years and a must visit if you are going toward the Golden Triangle.
Read More: White Temple Tours From Chiang Mai.
11. Ride In A Tuk Tuk:
About Riding In A Tuk Tuk: While sometimes overlooked as an actual attraction, it doesn’t get more Thailand than riding in a motorized Tuk Tuk. The 3-wheeled motorcycle taxis are everywhere and a very inexpensive way to get around compact Chiang Mai. Because they are small it is also very convenient for getting places a regular taxi can’t. We like riding in them even move at night as make have neon party lights and music.
12. Golden Triangle Day Trip:
About The Golden Triangle: Famous as the meeting point of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar, the Golden Triangle feels straight out of a movie. Steeped in tails of the opium trade and fill with cool riverside attractions, it is a unique opportunity to visit 3 countries at once on a true adventure.
Read More: Tours To The Golden Triangle.
13. Night Market & Walking Streets:
About The Night Markets: Most towns in Thailand are well known for their markets, but in Chiang Mai you can easily walk between a few of them. The staple is the daily Night Market & Bazaar which sits just East of Old Town near the Mae Ping River. There is both an outdoor and indoor section where you can find everything from clothing, souvenirs, knock-off electronics, and street food. Because this market is a permanent fixture of town, there are also many nearby bars and restaurants.
Throughout the week many of Old Towns roads are turned into Walking Streets as they serve as pedestrian-only temporary markets. These Walking Streets tend to focus a little more on food and produce, but still have a little bit of everything. Make sure to visit the Walking Street Market especially the one near the Silver Pavilion on Saturdays and the city center one on Sundays.
Read More: Old Town Chiang Mai Walking Tour.
14. Bars & Nightlife:
About Bars & Nightlife: Don’t except the wild nightlife of New Orleans or Tokyo, but going out in Chiang Mai is still a great time. The bars tend to be a little more laid back with rasta undertones, which is absolutely perfect after a long day of temple hunting or elephant trekking.
Some of our favorite nighttime spots are very popular with the backpacker crowd. There are even roadside popup bars built right into the backs of trucks and vans. One of our all-time favorite places called the Freedom Bar closed in 2016, but there is still a great collection of pubs on the East side of Old Town Chiang Mai. Grab a drink, chill, and let the vibe of Chiang Mai put you at ease.
15. Doi Inthanon National Park:
About Doi Inthanon National Park: This great National Park on the edge of Chiang Mai has been a popular hiking destination as one of the highest points in Thailand. It became more of a tourist destination when beautiful Royal Chedis were built to honor the 60th birthday of both the King (1987) and Queen (1992) of Thailand. The views at sunset are great and there is plenty of stunning moss lined hiking trails nearby.
Read More: Other Sights Near Chiang Mai.