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:
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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 think it goes without saying, but you should avoid Tiger Kingdom at all costs. This facility does not centre around the welfare or conservation of tigers — it’s focused on only one thing: exploiting animals for profit.
Tigers are kept in tiny cages for most of the day, and when they are let out, they’re forced to pose for photos with tourists who seem to be completely oblivious to the fact that they’re directly contributing to the abuse and exploitation of these magnificent creatures. Check out this article for more in-depth information about why you should never visit Tiger Kingdom (or any other tiger temple in Thailand for that matter).
Have you been to Chiang Mai? What were your favourite sites/activities?
Great post. Going to spend time Volunteering at Elephant Nature Park is so high up my list! I completely agree with you about Tiger Kingdom, I don’t understand how people can believe that it’s all ok there!
Thank you! It is so sad that so many people continue to visit Tiger Kingdom. Hopefully this will change one day!
Lovely pictures! I have never been to Thailand, yet, but as far as I have always heard, Chiang Mai is one of the better. I love the pictures of the animals, and the ones from the market!
Thank you, Caroline! Chiang Mai is a great city!
Great tips! I’m off to Chiang Mai in less than a week and will definitely reference your post as I explore the city and around. Glad you mentioned the ills of the Tiger Kingdom–all the unethical tourism in Thailand makes me quite sad.
I’m excited however about going to the night market and heading west to Mae Hong Son once I’ve spent some time in CM.
Thank you!! The unethical tourism is definitely heartbreaking.
Chiang Mai’s markets are great- I’m drooling just thinking of all the food! Have a fabulous time in Thailand!
I recently am just finding out all this information about tiger kingdom. Ive had so many friends go there when visiting thailand and i must admit it was on my list, however as an animal lover i cannot imagine enjoying myself with drugged animals. however someone was telling me about this place somewhere in the north where you meditate with baby cubs. Any idea where that is?
If you are an animal lover you probably wouldn’t enjoy Tiger Kingdom! I believe you can meditate with cubs at Tiger Temple, but that’s closer to Bangkok, and I’ve heard bad things about it as well! I’m not sure if there’s another place in the North – sorry!
Hi there, thanks for the info. I came across your post via Pinterest. Planning now what to visit. The cooking class looks great.
One small editorial remark, it seems nr. 2 is missing, but nr. 6 is mentioned twice.
You’re welcome, Ruben! Enjoy your time in Chiang Mai! And thanks for the heads up about the numbering 🙂
PLEASE DON’T RIDE ANY ELEPHANTS.
Elephant rescue is the best!!!
I agree – Elephant Nature Park is an incredible place, and I wish more people chose to visit instead of riding elephants!
I so agree on the Tiger Kingdom! Well done for mentioning it!
Thanks, Jo! It’s a horrible place, and I’m so glad to hear you agree!
I was in Chiang Mai for 10 glorious weeks! Stayed at the Dreamhouse guesthouse. Incredible time. Best time ever! Got massages, rented motorcycles, elephant jungle tour, ziplines, mountain hiking/camping, did the market, often. Rented a fully-equipped studio, with all instruments and microphones for $4/hr. Played along with the house band, Went to Myanmar for a visa stamp, bought some great clothing, ate great food, watched Avatar in 3-d from the comfort of an ambassadors’ seat in the airport mall theater. Aka a big lazy boy, tuk tuk rides, met lots of ex-pats. Highly recommend if the country isn’t in political turmoil. From Dec 6 to Valentines Day. Average temp 28 to 32C.
It sounds like you had an absolutely incredible time in Chiang Mai, Dennis! I’m really longing to revisit after reading your comment.
Great article. I love Chiang Mai, been there twice and it it such a nice city with much things to do.
Hi! Did you make the day trip to Chaing Rai on your own or on tour? I will be there this summer and I am 2wondering what’s the best way of getting there!
Hey Karla, I did a Golden Triangle day trip, so I’m not quite sure what the transportation is like if you head there on your own – sorry!