Here’s 10 awesome things to do in Chiang Mai. There’s plenty more things to do, but these will be a very good start for any visitor.
OMG, there are so many temples in Chiang Mai it would literally take you a year to see them all if you visited a different one every day. Seriously, you’ll be walking down the quietest backstreet and then all of a sudden, rising up in front of you is the most beautiful temple you’ve ever seen…until you turn the corner and boom, there’s another one. The most famous temple in Chiang Mai is called Wat Phra That, about two thirds the way up Doi Suthep (Mount Suthep). It’s magnificent (of course) and a major tourist attraction, and you’ll have to negotiate just over 300 steps to reach it. But it’s worth it as you get great views of the city on a clear day!
Other temples worth a visit are Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh in the Old Town, Wat Lok Mali on the northern edge of the Old Town, and Wat Mahawan to the east of the Old Town’s Tha Phae Gate. These are just the tip of the iceberg, and there are many other beautiful temples dotted around the city.
Zip-line through the jungle
If you’re after an adventure-style activity then this is a great option. I did this with Dragon Flight, but there are a few other companies who do the same thing. Basically, you’re driven to a location about an hour outside of Chiang Mai, and you go zip-lining through the roof of the jungle. It’s awesome fun and gives you a great view of the beautiful countryside. There were 26 zip-lines (one 300m long which was incredible), three abseils, and plenty of ladders, staircases and bridges to keep the experience really interesting. After we returned to base we were treated to an enormous Thai spread, complete with curry, noodles, soup, fruit and vegetables. Bazinga!
Become a Thai cooking master
Ever wondered how the authentic Thai restaurant in your home town make those delicious green chicken curries you always buy on the way home from work on a Friday night? Now you can find out for yourself. Most cooking schools in Chiang Mai charge around 1000THB ($AU33) which gets you a tour of the local market to learn what to buy, and a full day in the kitchen preparing 5-6 different dishes including starters, mains, salads and desserts. And the best part…at the end of the day you get to feast on your own creations. Not a bad day given the price, and now you’ll be able to do even better than the local Thai restaurant back home.
Visit an elephant sanctuary
Spend a day learning all about these majestic creatures by visiting a local sanctuary. Sarah visited the Elephant Nature Park where 37 elephants reside having been rescued from the slavery trade, abusive environments, the logging industry in Burma or from villages who can no longer look after the animals. They roam free in the 250-hectare park with each elephant assigned their own handler to look after them, not with fear and weapons, but trust and kindness. These elephants are not for riding (the ‘training’ process to break the spirit of elephants for riding is barbaric), but you’ll get to feed and bathe them which is a joy in itself. Just spending time in the company of these amazing animals is well worth the 2500THB ($AU83) cost.
Learn the language
If you’re going to spend an extended period of time in Chiang Mai, and I highly recommend you do for as long as you can, then you’d better learn at least the basics of the Thai language. In fact, if you want to spend 12 months in Thailand, you can enrol in a year long Thai language course which will qualify you for an Education Visa. That way you won’t have to do a ‘border run’ to get your visa extended every month or so! To help you get started, here’s a few words you really should know:
At the end of every sentence or statement, women say “kar” while men say “krar”.
- Hello = Sawa dee (plus krar or kar)
- Thank you = Kob Khun plus krar or kar)
- How are you? = Khun sabai di mai?
- I am fine thanks = Pom sabai di krar (man)
- I am fine thanks= Chan sabai di kar (woman)
- Water = nam (plus krar or kar)
- Toilet = hong nam (plus krar or kar)
- Good = di (plus krar or kar)
- Very Good = di mak (plus krar or kar)
- Bad = mai di (plus krar or kar)
- Not spicy – my pet (plus krar or kar)
- No chilli – my prick (plus krar or kar)
This is one of our favourite things to do in Chiang Mai. In fact when we arrived in Chiang Mai we bought a couple of pushbikes to get around. We figured we’d save heaps on Song Teaws (buses) and tuk tuk’s, and we could sell them and get our money back when we leave. It’s been a wise investment as we ride pretty much everywhere. But if you’re only here for a short while, you can hire really good town bikes for about 50THB ($AU0.65) per day. Chiang Mai is a great city for riding a bike because, even though it sits at the base of a mountain range, it’s very flat. There’s a few areas that you really should check out:
1. The Old Town
It goes without saying really, but this is the epicentre of Chiang Mai. The small streets are incredibly charming with plenty of little restaurants, cafes and bars to relax in, while there’s so many sites to visit such as amazing temples, museums and parks, as well as the famous Sunday Walking Market.
2. Nimman Area
The Old Town is the most popular place for tourists in Chiang Mai, but the Nimman Area is much better in my opinion. Located just south of the busy Huay Kaew Road heading north-west out of the Old Town, this place is almost too cool for school. It’s very close to Chiang Mai University (CMU), and as such the hip crowd spend most of their time here. There’s so many trendy cafes lining the streets between Sirimangkalajan and Nimmanhaemin Roads is hard to work out how they all say in business. It’s also the place to get your high end fashion fix, and at night, most of the best clubs in Chiang Mai are here as well. While you’re in the area, make sure you check out the grounds of CMU as well. You can spend a day here just lazing and swimming at Ang Kaew Reservoir and admiring the buildings.
3. The banks of Mae Ping (Ping River)
Head out of the Old Town from the north-east corner along Wichayanon Road, then turn left when you hit the river. Turn right across Rama 9 Bridge, then a right again as soon as you get to the other side. Head along the river’s edge down Charoen Rat Road where you’ll see plenty of great little cafes and boutique stores. Keep riding for a few kilometres then turn right and cross the Mengrai Bridge. Again, turn right as soon as you cross the bridge and head back up along the river on Charoen Prathet Road. Ride past Iron Bridge then turn left at Thae Pae Road which will take you back to the Old Town. However, on either side of this road are the Warorort and Night Bizarre Markets which are both worth an extended visit.
Shop at the markets
There are almost as many markets in Chiang Mai as there are temples…it’s insane! Most locals buy their meat, fruit and vegetables at their local markets, and for tourists there are plenty of bargains to be had if you want to buy clothes, shoes or a souvenir for yourself or family and friends back home. While there are literally hundreds of markets dotted around the city, there are three main markets you have to check out:
1. Saturday Walking Market
Located on Wua Lan Road which runs south-west from Chiang Mai Gate on the southern edge of the Old Town, it’s open from 5pm-11pm every Saturday. You can pick up anything from clothes and shoes, to souvenirs, to crossbows and hammocks at great prices. But don’t forget to haggle a little because you can usually knock a few extra baht off the price. It’s also a great place to grab some dinner from the street vendors and restaurants at very affordable prices. There’s also some great, not so great, and plain weird live performances going on that will keep you very entertained.
2. Sunday Walking Market
It’s pretty much the same as the Saturday Walking Market except bigger! You’ll find a lot of the same stuff for sale, only a lot more of it. It starts at Tha Phae Gate and heads into the Old Town Ratchadamnoen Road for what seems like an eternity, and is open from 4pm-11pm. Like the Saturday Walking Market, it gets very crowded, so be prepared to be walking slowly with the flow of the crowd at times.
3. Night Bizarre Market
Open every day of the year from just before dusk until around midnight, this really is shoppers heaven. You can pick up almost anything here and won’t pay the earth for it. It runs up and down Chang Klan Road, just east of the Old Town, with a couple of other cool markets running off it – Kalare Night Bazaar and Asunarm Markets – that have their own vibe and personalities. And don’t forget to barter for your goods, it’s virtually a national sport in Thailand so don’t be afraid.
Swim at Huay Tung Tao Lake
We rode out to Huay Tung Tao Lake, but be warned, it’s a long way! It took us about 45 minutes to get there, but it was well worth the ride. It’s a man-made lake at the base of Doi Suthep, and is a major attraction for both locals and tourists during the summer season. Sarah, Jack and I went towards the end of June and we were virtually the only people there! It’s ringed with tiny huts linked to restaurants that you can use as a base to swim, relax and eat during your stay. The water is beautiful, the scenery is stunning and the food and drink for sale is pretty good and reasonably priced. You can also hike in the area that will take you to Dtaat Mook waterfall and a helipad with breathtaking views over the lake and beyond.
Eat, eat and eat some more
I highly recommend you eat all of your meals, or at least lunch and dinner, at the thousands of street vendors around the city. The food is amazing and incredibly cheap (cheaper than shopping at the supermarket and cooking yourself), and you won’t have to worry about cleaning any dishes. You’ll rarely pay more than 50-60THB ($AU1.65-$AU2.00) for a meal, and most of the time it’s even cheaper than that. At Chiang Mai Gate on the southern edge of the Old Town there’s a big nightly food market where you can eat something different every night for a year! On the northern edge of the Old Town near Chang Puak Gate there’s a smaller food market, but the most amazing cooked pork is sold there. Just look out for the lady with the leather apron and cowboy hat and give it a go, you won’t be disappointed.
Take part in ‘monk chat’
Thailand is 95% Buddhist, so while you’re in town you might as well find out all about it. At several temples around town you can go and chat with a monk and ask them about anything – Thai life, what it’s like to be a Buddhist monk, why the orange robes – anything!!! These ‘monk chat’ opportunities are not only for tourists to chat to a monk, but it also helps the monks practice their English skills. Win-win! Here’s where you can take part:
1. Wat Chedi Luang
This is a popular choice given it’s in the middle of the Old Town and is open every day from 9.00am-6.00pm. This is where I chatted with a monk and got a greater appreciation of what Buddhism is all about.
2. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
If you’re visiting Chiang Mai you’re probably going to end up here at some stage. So why not have a chat with a monk while you’re there! Available daily from 1.00pm-3.00pm, these guys also run the International Buddhism Centre so if you’re keen to learn more, these guys can really help.
3. Wat Suan Dok
Head due west along Suthep Road from the Old Town and you’ll come across this temple less than a kilometre up the road. Available on Monday, Wednesday and Friday 5pm-7pm; you can also do a two day meditation retreat weekly on Tuesday & Wednesday if you’re really keen. You’ll live like a monk, staying overnight, and do a lot of chanting and meditating.
4. Wat Umong
Available Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 5:30pm-7:30pm. Wat Umong is located against the mountains of Doi Suthep and is south of Chiang Mai University, just outside the city center off Cherng Doi Road. The wat is famous for its ancient tunnels and large stupa. There are tunnels with Buddhist images below the chedi which can be easily explored.
So there you have it, 10 awesome things to do in Chiang Mai. Have I missed any? There’s heaps of things that aren’t on this list. Add any you think should be on the list in the comments section below…