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Chiang Mai, the charming old city in northern Thailand is most famous for its beautiful ancient temples and mountainous landscape. But what are the unique things to do in Chiang Mai and surroundings? The striking misty mountains around the city  provide a lot of wonderful natural attractions. Apart from the more famous locations in the old town of Chiang Mai, there are also lesser known locations to visit. In this blog post you will find a collection of the best temples to visit in Chiang Mai, must do activities in Chiang Mai and some off the beaten path sightseeing activities. We hope to answer your questions here about what to do in Chiang Mai! 

Best time to go to Chiang Mai

November until mid-February is weather wise the best period to visit Chiang Mai. Avoid burning season because there will be a lot of smog. We were in Chiang Mai in November, of course to visit the lantern festival. The temperature was perfect during our 6 weeks stay, there was no rain and it was not too hot. For us it was the best time to go exploring and enjoy the city. Logically in high season the prices for hotels are a bit higher than in low season. 

How to get around in Chiang Mai

Rent a scooter and explore the city, old town and nature surroundings. This will give you the freedom to visit all the must do places in Chiang Mai at your own pace. Make sure to have an international drivers license and always wear your helmet! Of course for your own safety, but the police also checks very often to get some extra money if tourists are not wearing helmets. If you’re not comfortable driving a scooter, you can also easily rent a car at the Chiang Mai International Airport, grab a taxi or transport yourself by TukTuk in the city. 

Wat Suan Dok temple

The many beautiful white chedis of the Wat Suan Dok temple houses the ashes of the Chiang Mai Royal Family. Therefore, be respectful when entering the area. All women should dress properly and show respect by covering their shoulders and knees. This place is perfect for photography on a bright sunny day when the white chedis stand out against the blue sky.

Getting there: With a rental scooter, car or taxi. The temple is located on Suthep road, about 1 kilometer west of the old walled city center. It’s easy to find using Google maps.

Entrance fee: Free.

Best time for photos: Sunset or an hour before, so you’ll have soft light and no hard shadows of the chedis. Another option is to go during midday when the sky is bright blue and the sun is at its peak. The white chedis will stand out from the blue sky and you have short shadows.

Photo tip: Take a wide lens with you so all the chedis will fit in your shot. Don’t forget an ND filter on a bright sunny day!

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Doi Inthanon temple and National Park

Doi Inthanon is the highest peak in Thailand covered with lush green forest. Driving up the mountain rewards you with amazing views. Along the road up to the mountain you can stop to explore several waterfalls. But the main attractions of the Doi Inthanon national park are the two temples built on the peak. Surrounded by beautiful gardens and even more amazing panoramic views, this is some of the must visit places in Chiang Mai. Especially watching sunset or sunrise at this peak is amazing. But be aware that you have to drive in the dark or stay one night somewhere close to the park. Also important to mention is that it is much colder on the peak! So bring your warm clothes when visiting Doi Inthanon.

Getting there: It is a 2 hour drive from Chiang Mai, so the best way to get there is with a taxi, rental car or scooter. 

Entrance fee: 300 Baht per person for the entrance of the national park. 20 Baht for a scooter and an additional 40 Baht to see the pagodas.

Best time for photos: Sunrise or sunset for the best light in your pictures. Because it is the highest peak in Thailand you will get both a view of sunrise and sunset. The best time to go in months is November until January as you will have the best chance of clear skies. Also burning season, starting in February, will cause a lot of smoke and probably obstruct the view. 

Photo tip: Take a wide lens with you for the landscape photos and a zoom lens to focus more on details of the temple or details in the layers of the beautiful landscape.

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Sunrise viewpoint city

A sunrise is magical and has the best and softest light conditions to take beautiful photos. If you want the best view with sunrise of the city, drive up the Doi Suthep hill to the ‘Sirindhorn observation deck’. A few meters before the observation deck there is another spot to watch the sunrise, only with a metal fence in front. You can easily combine this viewpoint on your way to Wat Phra That, just a few kilometers further. 

Getting there: With a taxi, the red truck or on own account by renting a scooter or car. For the exact location, type in “Sirinhorn observation deck” on Google maps.

Entrance fee: Free.

Best time for photos: Sunrise, it’s magical to see the first light appearing behind the mountains and shine on the city.

Photo tip: Don’t forget your ND filters for when the light gets too bright, and if you have a drone you can make the view from here even more spectacular using the extra height. Play around with your framing and enjoy the view and sunrise!

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Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Located in the Doi Suthep Pui National Park, Wat Phra That, also known as Doi Suthep temple is just 3 km further from the Sirindhorn observation deck. A great combination in the early morning. The Doi Suthep temple is one of the most well-known temples in Chiang Mai and an important place for Buddhists. The story of the temple is that it has been built to hold a piece of bone from the Buddhas shoulder. From this temple you will have another beautiful view of downtown Chiang Mai.

Getting there: With your rental scooter, car or a red truck taxi. Type in Wat Phra That on Google maps and you will easily get there.

Entrance fee: 50 Baht per person.

Best time for photos: Sunrise or afternoon. It can be really busy at this temple, so go directly after your sunrise mission for the most relaxing experience.

Photo tip: There are a lot of beautiful ‘hidden’ spots on the temple complex which want to be photographed. So don’t only focus on the temple itself. Take a zoom lens with you if have one, because you might have a chance of capturing a passing monk or other beautiful details.

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Attend a Thai cooking class

If you love cooking, then taking a Thai cooking class is one of the things you have to do when in Chiang Mai Thailand! Discover the secrets of making a mouth-watering Thai curry or some of the many other delicious Thai dishes. If you didn’t know already, Thai food is so amazing and learning how to cook a real Thai dish is a skill you can take home with you forever! You can book a Thai Cooking class at the Thai Farm cooking school or some of the many other Thai cooking schools in Chiang Mai.

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Explore the Chiang Mai waterfalls

There are many beautiful waterfalls to explore near Chiang Mai. Some of the better known are Huay Kaew waterfall and Bua Thong waterfall, also known as sticky waterfall. If you’re looking for a day of escaping the city and dicing into the beautiful nature attractions that Chiang Mai has to offer, then exploring Doi Inthanon National Park and Doi Pui National Park are some of the must things to do in Chiang Mai. For other water activities you can also check out the Chiang Mai Grand Canyon.

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Lantern festival Yee Peng during full moon in November

Only once a year in November during full moon, the magical lantern festival, known as Yee Peng, takes place in and around Chiang Mai. There are several opportunities to be part of the festival. The paid events are outside the city where releasing the lanterns simultaneously will be organized multiple times. This creates a magical effect with hundreds of lanterns in the sky at the same time for minutes long. Perfect for the best photos and videos 🙂

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Our experience at Yi Peng and Loi Krathong festival

We were lucky that we could experience the bucket list event of Yi Peng on invitation of filmmaker Brandon Li. We we helped him creating his Chiang Mai travel film during this event and releasing a lantern was part of one of the scenes.

The next day we went to the old town to take part in the unpaid event. It had a completely different vibe and was much more fun to walk around in the beautifully decorated streets with lanterns. In the old town they release the lanterns unorganized. You could still take magical shots of the lanterns, but you have to be a bit lucky to get a perfect shot with a large concentration of lanterns in the sky. 

The Loi Krathong festival also takes place during Yee Peng festival but is a different type of festival. A Krathong is traditionally a small floating container made of leaves and a traditional Thai dish to thank the Goddess of Water. The Mae Ping river is during this event magically lit with all the small floating krathongs. A biodegradable krathong will disintegrate after a few days and can be eaten by fish.

Read our complete guide to the Chiang Mai Lantern Festival here!

Practical information about Yi Peng and Loi Krathing festival

Getting there: With a rental scooter, car or taxi. Keep in mind that the city will be very busy and that some streets will be closed, so taking the scooter or a taxi is recommended. 

Entrance fee: In the city it is free, the tickets for the organized festival starts at $100.

Best time for photos: At the paid festival, the best timing is when all the lanterns are being released. In the city you can take pictures of the lanterns being released unorganized all night long.

Photo tip: Make sure you have all the settings of your camera right before the lanterns are being released. Put your ISO up, open your aperture and set your shutter speed right, not too slow of course because that will blur the lanterns. Take some tests shots, and then go for it and enjoy the evening!

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Lantern-festival-Chiang-Mai

Elephant Nature Park

A controversial subject. To go or not to go to an Elephant Sanctuary? We have heard many different stories of ‘sanctuaries’, so that’s why we did good research beforehand. We choose to go to Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, which is an ethical and sustainable eco-tourism project located approximately 60km from Chiang Mai. The elephants are rescued from ‘Elephant riding or trekking’ tourism companies. If you visit this elephant nature park or sanctuary, you will have the opportunity to feed the elephants, bath with them in the river and do a jungle trek. Depending on your time and budget, you can choose which activity with the elephants suits you the best.

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Getting there: You will be picked up from your hotel. The drive to the sanctuary takes 1.5 hour with a short break.

Entrance fee: Depending on the package you choose, prices start from 1700 Baht.

Best time for photos: In the morning you will have softer light, but the best time for photos here is to have a good timing with the elephants activities. For example, when he is bathing you can get some good action shots. Or when the one you’re traveling with has an intimate moment with one of the elephants, capture that moment!

Photo tip: Set your shutter speed higher so you will be able to capture the movements of the elephants without getting blurry shots.  Try to get a nice background without other people in it, walk around and kneel down to get another perspective of the elephants. Don’t forget to make close-ups from their eyes or skin if you have the right lens with you.

Wat Chedi Luang

Wat Chedi Luang is the most important temple located in between the old city walls. The name “Luang” means large in Northern Thai dialect and perfectly reflects the site where the temple is built on. Wat Chedi Luang was built between the 14th and 15th century and remains one of the tallest temples in the city with 60 meters high. But originally the temple was 80 meters high before it was hit by an earthquake (or cannon fire, there are different stories…) A restoration project by UNESCO restored the temple to some of its former glory, but the top of the chedi was never reconstructed. There was simply no clear idea as to what it originally looked like before the destruction. Nevertheless, an impressive temple you must visit when you are in Chiang Mai! Other temples in Chiang Mai that are worth a visit are Wat Phra Singh and Silver temple. 

Getting there: Easy to find in the Old Town, any red truck taxi can bring you there for 20 Baht.

Entrance fee: 40 Baht per person.

Best time for photos: Morning or sunset light to give a nice warm glow to your pictures. Mornings will always be the best to get the chance of fewer people around

Photo tip: Make your picture even more interesting by using the reflection of the temple in the water as seen in the picture below. Try different angles and foregrounds to create depth.

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Book a traditional Thai massage

If you want to relax after exploring Chiang Mai, or for example on a rainy day in Chiang Mai, then booking a traditional Thai massage is a must do. Prices vary depending on the salon and massage you choose. Keep in mind that with a Thai massage there will be stretching and pressure point therapy involved. If you’re not used to strong massages it’s best to tell your therapist up front so she can adjust to your level.

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Go on a few days trip to Pai 

Pai is a small town 130 kilometers/80 miles north of Chiang Mai. It’s a fun mid week get away from Chiang Mai if you’re looking for a way to escape the city and explore the nature surroundings. The road from Chiang Mai to Pai takes you to some of the most verdant green mountain views you’ve seen. It’s so lush and the vibes change quickly into a relaxing laid back town where time stands still. But still, there are enough things to explore in the near surroundings!

Read more about the best things to do in Pai here!

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Night Bazaar and Street food market 

One of the best things to do in Chiang Mai in the evening is going to the Night Bazaar. You will eat one of the best, if not THE best Thai food you ever had on the street food market. There is live music, you can shop some amazing Thai souvenirs, connect with the friendly local people and just enjoy yourself walking around the street. The Night Bazaar is a must visit when you are in Chiang Mai! Another amazing and typical dish you have to try in Chiang Mai is Khao Soi. An amazing curry with chicken and egg noodles. Yum!! The Saturday Night Market and Sunday Night Market are often more lively with live music and vendors, so try to go in the weekends for the complete experience.

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Explore Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai is about 200 km north from Chiang Mai located. There are many beautiful temples to explore which is worth the trip. You can visit Chiang Rai in a day trip, but more recommendable is to go for 2-3 days to explore also more outside of town. There are some incredible waterfalls, scenic mountain viewpoints, and relaxing hot springs in the area to explore. And you can also combine it with Pai as well when you travel around North Thailand.

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Visit a Muay Thai competition or attend a retreat

Muay Thai is the National sport of Thailand. Muay Thai or literally Thai boxing is a combat sport that finds its origin in a noble art with antique traditions. If you’re into it, you can visit a training or Muay Thai fights competition to integrate yourself in the local life of Thai people. Or if you want to learn Muay Thai boxing yourself, you can book some of the many retreats at Muay Thai schools in Chiang Mai.

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More Thailand travel inspiration

We definitely recommend visiting Chiang Mai, the beautiful city in northern Thailand. If you were wondering but ‘what to do in Chiang Mai’?, then we hope we’ve answered that in this complete guide.

For more travel inspiration about other parts in Thailand, head over to our other Thailand blog posts:

15 best places to visit in Phuket

15 best things to do in Krabi

25 best things to do in Koh Phangan

Koh Samui best things to do

15 best things to do in Koh Tao