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 tours in Chiang Mai
Make sure to book your tours in advance to secure your spot. Because of Chiang Mai’s popularity it is highly recommended to book your tours in advance as it is likely that tours sell out. So don’t wait with booking until you get to Chiang Mai. Choose your favorite tours here and secure your booking! Below some of the best tours I recommend. All of these tours include air conditioned transport with hotel pick up and drop off, certified guides and sometimes also lunch and the entrance fees. You can reserve now and pay later, with cancellation up to 24 hours in advance to receive a full refund.
- Chiang Mai Top Temples & Handicraft Center Private Day Tour
- Learn Muay Thai fighting in Chiang Mai
- Doi Inthanon Private Tour & Soft Hike to Hill Tribe Village
- Full-Day Customizable Private Tour to Chiang Rai
- Doi Suthep Temple and Sticky Waterfall Private Tour
- Ethical Elephant Sanctuary Day Tour from Chiang Mai
- 2-Day Private White Temple & Golden Triangle to Chiang Rai
- Full-Day Chiang Dao Caving & Jungle Kayaking from Chiang Mai
- Doi Inthanon National Park Full Day Tour & hike
- Local Street Food Night Market Tour in Chiang Mai
- Private Trekking at Doi Inthanon and Pha Chor from Chiang Mai
- Chiang Mai Temples & Culture Tour
- White Temple & Golden Triangle Day Trip from Chiang Mai
- Authentic Thai Cooking Class and Farm Visit 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 to Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai has an international airport so the easiest way to get to Chiang Mai is by airplane. But, if you are traveling on a budget or you like to travel over land, then there are plenty of other options possible to travel to Chiang Mai from Bangkok. You can either go by train, bus, or rent a car and drive yourself so you can stop and explore at any place you want.
How to get around in Chiang Mai
Renting a scooter and explore the city, old town and nature surroundings on your own pace is the best way to get around in Chiang Mai. This will give you the freedom to visit all the must do places in Chiang Mai whenever you like. Make sure to have an international drivers license and always wear your helmet! If you’re not comfortable driving a scooter, then you can also easily rent a car at the Chiang Mai International Airport. Or grab a taxi to your hotel and transport yourself by TukTuk through the city.
20 BEST THINGS TO DO IN CHIANG MAI
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!
Mae Klang waterfall
The 30 meter tall Mae Klang waterfall is part of Doi Inthanon National Park and is the first you encounter before the entrance where you have to pay the 300 Baht for the NP fee. With a picnic area and scenic river stream, a short stop at Mae Klang waterfall is recommended if you have the time. Following a short wide and easy walking path along the river stream you will get to the bottom of Mae Klang waterfall in a few minutes from the parking lot. The waterfall is wide but not too tall. You can’t swim in the natural pool close to the waterfall but if you’d like to take a dip then the natural pools in the river a little further downstream are the perfect spot.
Visit the Great Holy Relics Pagodas & highest point of Thailand
Doi Inthanon is the highest mountain in Thailand and a beautiful National Park to explore. The drive up the mountain through the lush forest provides you with stunning panoramic views. There are plenty of points of interest to see in the National Park such as waterfalls, beautiful gardens, local mountain tribes, the Great Holy Relics Pagodas and highest point of Thailand.
Visiting Doi Inthanon National Park is a perfect day trip from Chiang Mai if you start early. It takes about 1,5 hour to drive to the entrance of the park from Chiang Mai and from there it depends how much time you take to explore the waterfalls, hikes and other points of interest.
Entrance fee for the National Park is 300 Baht per person and an additional fee for your car or motorbike. This ticket is valid for 5 days, so if you want to explore the National Park for a few days then it’s possible on the same ticket. Keep in mind that it can get cold in the mountains, especially at the Pagodas as you’re there on 2000 meters height. So bring an extra jacket or long pants if you don’t want to be cold at the summit.
Getting there: It is a 1,5 hour drive from Chiang Mai, so the best way to get there is with a rental car or scooter.
Entrance fee: 300 Baht per person for the entrance fee of the National Park and an additional small fee for the scooter or car from 20 or 30 Baht. The ticket of the National Park is valid for 5 days and to see the pagodas there is an additional fee of 40 Baht.
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.
The Wachirathan waterfall is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Thailand and can be seen within the Doi Inthanon National Park. Exploring Doi Inthanon National Park is a great day trip from Chiang Mai and can be combined with visiting the other waterfalls and sights in the National Park such as the The Great Holy Relics Pagodas.
The Wachirathan waterfall is a majestic multi-levelled waterfall with a drop of around 80 meters. In and after rainy season the waterfall will be much more powerful than during the dry season. But you will still be able to see a waterfall flowing during the dry season.
The area around the waterfall is perfectly organised for tourists. There is a huge parking lot, local food stalls and restrooms. You don’t have to hike from the parking lot as the waterfall is right there. If you’re lucky with the sunshine and the waterfall creates enough spray, you might even be able to see a magical rainbow.
Book here your Doi Inthanon Private Tour & Soft Hike to Hill Tribe Village including a visit to Wachirathan waterfall.
Visit Pha Chor canyon
The Pha Chor canyon is an interesting natural phenomenon of 30 meter tall eroded soil pillars about 50 km southwest from Chiang Mai city center. Located in the Mae Wang National Park, you can visit the Pha Chor Canyon after a short hike of 10 minutes through the beautiful forest. The path is well maintained and you don’t necessarily need hiking shoes, however shoes with a bit of grip would be nice.
The textures and structures of the eroded pillars are interesting to see up close and the story of how Pha Chor was created is even more surprising! Millions of years ago the Ping River ran through this area but then changed its course. Due to this change in direction, a hill of soil was created which eroded and changed into these cliffs and soil pillars over million years of time.
The entrance fee for Mae Wang National Park where Pha Chor is located is 100 Baht per person with an additional fee for the car or motorbike from 20 or 30 Baht. You can easily drive yourself from Chiang Mai by motorbike or rental car. Or you can book this tour: Private Trekking at Doi Inthanon and Pha Chor from Chiang Mai
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!
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: Drive up Doi Suthep mountain 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.
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.
Explore more Chiang Mai waterfalls
There are many beautiful waterfalls to explore near Chiang Mai which are great day trips from the city. Some of the better known waterfalls in Chiang Mai 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.
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
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.
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!
Ride the Mae Hong Son loop
Although this is not an activity IN Chiang Mai, driving the Mae Hong Son loop starting and ending in Chiang Mai is one of the best things to do in Northern Thailand. While driving the 600 km loop through the mountains you will see plenty of beautiful scenery along the way. And you can always customize your own roadtrip itinerary with adding Doi Inthanon National Park with which you will skip the slightly boring Mae Sariang corner.
If you are an experienced motorbike driver you can choose to do this loop by motorbike. However, to be more comfortable and flexible regarding the weather, renting a car is recommended. The Mae Hong Son Loop is known to be one of the best motorbike loops in Southeast Asia, so you will see plenty of roadtrippers along the way.
No matter which way you start from Chiang Mai, up north or to the west side first, you will see plenty of beautiful vantage points. There are plenty of cool detours to add to the itinerary that will take you to roaring waterfalls and picturesque hill tribes. You can pick whatever you like to explore to make your roadtrip bespoke to your own interests.
Along the north side of the loop you will pass some caves and breathtaking viewpoints. And at the north eastern part of the loop you will pass the laidback hippie like mountain village Pai. We choose to end our roadtrip in Pai as we’d heard that it’s that kind of place where you go for initially 1 or 2 days, and stay for the week. So we wanted to give ourselves the flexibility to stay longer if we wanted to.
Regarding renting a car, you definitely don’t need a 4×4. A Sedan will do just fine, but make sure to book your car in advance from Chiang Mai Airport. When we planned to do the loop many cars were not available anymore or raised in price quickly!
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 with this ethical elephant sanctuary tour, 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.
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.
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.
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
Night Bazaar and Street food market
One of the best things to do in Chiang Mai is going to the Night Bazaar on Chang Klan Road. 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 in Chiang Mai is a must visit and without a doubt some of the best things to do 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 Walking Street Market are often more lively with live music and vendors, so try to go in the weekends for the complete experience.
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.
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 fight competition in Chiang Mai to integrate yourself in the local life of Thai people. But the biggest Muay Thai fights are being held in Bangkok which is recommend to check out when you’re visiting Bangkok for a few days. Experiencing a Thai boxing match is a must for fight sport lovers.
If you come to Thailand to learn Muay Thai boxing yourself, then you can book some of the many retreats at Muay Thai schools in Chiang Mai.
Stroll along One Nimman
Nimman neighbourhood is one of the trendiest areas of Chiang Mai. With plenty of boutique shops, cafe’s and restaurants, Nimman is a great place to stay during your time in Chiang Mai city centre. One of the cute boutique shopping centres in Chiang Mai is One Nimman. Here you can find some great restaurants, but also local food stalls and boutique shops. At night the lights go on which creates a charming vibe. Once in a while there is market as well, with live music and much more entertainment. Check local event calendars for upcoming markets and other entertainment.
Visit the Long Neck Karen Tribe
Tucked away in the jungle of North Thailand’s mountains lives the Karen tribe. This group of refugee people lived historically in the hills of Myanmar near the Thai border. But because of persecution they fled and ever since they live in the mountain of North Thailand. During organised tours you can visit them and learn more about their way of living. You will see how they make arts and crafts, see their homes, and you can buy a Karen made product if you’d like to have a unique souvenir from North Thailand.
More Thailand travel inspiration
We definitely recommend visiting Chiang Mai! The city of temples and mountains in northern Thailand. If you were wondering ‘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: