Surrounded by lush countryside and mountains, the “Rose of the North” is smaller and more-laid back than Bangkok, with a cooler climate and beautiful natural scenery. The city has a cosmopolitan atmosphere, and with some of the most renowned temples in the country, there is a palpable mix of ancient and modern. There’s no shortage of sights and activities within Chiang Mai, and whether you’re looking for history, culture, adventure, or relaxation, you’re sure to find it in this diverse city.
If you have at least a few days in Chiang Mai, consider the following activities:
1) Take a Cooking Class
Choose from a full day or half day class which usually beings with a visit to a local market to pick up fresh ingredients for the dishes. I did a full day class with Thai Secret Cooking School, which lasted from 8:30am to 4:30pm and cost 1000 Baht ($30). I know 8 hours seems like a long time to be cooking, but the day flew by; we each made an appetizer, soup, two main dishes, and a dessert, and everything was incredibly delicious. Plus, we picked a bunch of veggies and herbs from their garden, so all the ingredients were fresh and organic.
2) Get a Massage
There seems to be a massage parlour on every corner in Chiang Mai and they are extremely affordable – starting around 120 Baht ($4) per hour.
3) Visit the Temples
There are over 200 temples in and around Chiang Mai and it’s nearly impossible not to spot one while walking through the city.
Some of the most famous temples are:
Wat Phra Singh– Known as the Temple of the Lion Buddha, it also houses a major monastery
Wat Chedi Luang– This was once the home of The Emerald Buddha, but was moved when part of the structure collapsed during an earthquake
Wat Chiang Man– Built in 1292, this is the oldest temple in the city
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep– Located on the Doi Suthep Mountain which overlooks the city
4) Eat at the Chiang Mai Gate Night Market
Open daily from around 5pm to midnight, this market has an abundance of vendors to choose from. You can find BBQ meat skewers, noodle dishes, soups, stir-fry dishes, smoothies, desserts, and fresh fruits, vegetables, and seafood.
5) Shop at the Night Bazaar & Weekend Markets
The Night Bazaar is open everyday from the late afternoon until midnight. This sprawling market is spread out over several streets and you can buy anything from clothing and jewelry, to purses and accessories, to artwork and tapestries – plus much more.
*Location: Chang Khlang Road
The Saturday Market is open from late afternoon until midnight and has a variety of vendors, including a great selection of food and beverage stalls.
*Location: Wua Lai Road
The Sunday Street Market is best known for traditional arts and handicrafts.
*Hours: Open from late afternoon until midnight
Location: Tha Phae Gate and down Ratchadamnoen Road
6) Take a day trip to visit the White Temple in Chiang Rai
Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple, is approximately 2.5 hours from Chiang Mai. This isn’t a traditional temple – from its white exterior to the religious symbolism represented in the architecture – but it’s strikingly beautiful nonetheless.
7) Volunteer at Elephant Nature Park
Elephant Nature Park is a prime example of ethical tourism: it’s a sanctuary for elephants that have been rescued from the logging and tourism industries, and serves as a permanent place for recuperation and freedom.
Visit for the day, or spend a week or two volunteering and interacting with these incredible creatures.
On the day trip, you will take a tour of the beautiful grounds, learn about each individual member of the herd, hand feed the elephants, and get in the river to help bathe them. You’ll also watch a heartbreaking video showing the domestication process of elephants (which involves isolating a young elephant in a cramped cage while it’s brutally beaten for days).
*The park is roughly 90 minutes from Chiang Mai city.
1 Thing NOT to do in Chiang Mai: Visit Tiger Kingdom
I’ll admit that I did visit Tiger Kingdom, but it has become one of my biggest travel regrets.
I honestly handn’t intended to visit, but the friend I met and decided to travel around Chiang Mai with really wanted to go. At the time, I knew very little about Tiger Kingdom, so I agreed to visit.
As soon as we entered the park, I felt uneasy. There were tigers of all ages and sizes in small cages with dozens of people posing beside them and even laying on top of them, but the tigers seemed to just lay there, oblivious to what was going on around them.
I’ve recently read that the tigers are drugged (even though there are signs around the park stating otherwise) and that they are not properly cared for. I felt guilty the entire time I was there and did not have an enjoyable experience at all. Had I known then what I know now, I never would have set foot in Tiger Kingdom.
I’m hoping other people will avoid making the same mistake I did and instead choose to support organizations which care for and rehabilitate animals – not ones who exploit them for profit.