In our opinion, Chiang Mai (and the north in general) is the best place to visit in Thailand. It offers an insight into traditional village life away from the big cities and is an amazing environment to look at. You’ll find a deep jungle set back into the mountains and a thriving town that is a square shape with four walls.
Chiang Mai has something to offer everyone and the area will keep you on an adventure for at as long as your visit. We’ve put together a list of the best things to do in Chiang Mai and the surrounding area, taking into account our personal preference and highly rated visitor favourites.
A Chiang Mai jungle trek is top of our list and for good reason – it was the best thing we did when visiting the region and highly recommend a 2 or 3-night trek. The trek takes you deep into the Chiang Mai mountains in rich jungle terrain, surrounded by rice fields and populated by local villagers and tribesmen that make a living from the surrounding agriculture.
Trekking can be challenging but rewarding. You’ll see the way the locals live and capture some great pictures of the jungle; including vast waterfalls, animal wildlife and fierce river rapids. Many tours also offer the option to stay in a local village overnight. During our overnight trek we sang songs and ate Thai food by the fire! Find out more about the jungle trek in our ‘Top things to do in Thailand’ article here.
Many different tour operators’ offer a jungle trek so we’d recommend looking at reviews before you arrive and booking in Chiang Mai city centre as it’s often cheaper. We recommend Chiang Mai trekking with Piroon.
Waterfalls – Mork Fa & Mae Sa
Being such a vast jungle, there are hundreds of waterfalls big and small and you’ll visit some of them if you opt for a jungle trek. However, the must-see waterfalls have to be Mork Fa & Mae Sa. They’re the largest and most impressive falls in the area and can be visited as part of a trekking tour or by themselves.
Don your bathing suit and stand under the falls as a refreshing break from the humidity or swim in the fresh water of the pools and streams. It’s a great way to enjoy the nature of Chiang Mai! Be careful though; the rocks can be very slippery so we’d recommend bringing some water/swimming shoes.
If you love ancient history and impressive temples, the north of Thailand cannot be rivalled. Chiang Mai square and the surrounding areas are filled with intricate Buddhist temples, some more of a spectacle than others but all of them with a unique design. With so many temples, you could spend weeks exploring the city and jungle taking pictures.
There are some temples which are definite ‘must-sees’ for any trip to Chiang Mai. In our opinion, these are:
If you have more time to look at temples, the Visit Chiang Mai website has a handy guide here.
Chiang Mai night market (Night Bazaar)
Chiang Mai night market is excellent and we actually liked it better than Bangkok’s night and floating markets. The market is a shopping paradise for gifts, clothes, souvenirs, snacks and much more. Being in the north of Thailand, Chiang Mai was the cheapest place we visited and the vibrant night market follows suit.
The night market is set up every evening from sunset, a short walk east from the Chiang Mai East Gate wall. It’s located to the north if you’re staying in the popular hotel area of Miang Kham Village. Our advice is; if you see something, buy it! Chances are you won’t find it cheaper elsewhere and you’ll regret not buying it. Always remember to barter/negotiate the price down. It’s expected and you can often cut 40% off the original price.
Take a Cooking class
Many people may be put off by cooking their own food on holiday and want to relax but it’s actually a great way to learn about the local culture whilst picking up an arsenal of new tips and recipes for the kitchen back home.
There’s no shortage of cooking schools and classes in Chiang Mai so we’d recommend choosing a class based on your location in the city and your budget. See a full list of Chiang Mai cooking classes here.
Most schools offer a similar itinerary and range of lessons to choose from, ranging from morning sessions to evening and longer full day experiences. The dishes may vary slightly but most teach you how to cook traditional dishes such as Pad Thai, coconut red/green curries and soups. Personally, we opted for Siam Rice Thai Cookery. They have a good range of dishes to cook and have classes throughout the day.
Karen Tribe visit
The Karen Tribe are famous in northern Thailand and many tourists travel to Chiang Mai to visit them as the main part of their trip. They’re immediately recognisable by their ‘long neck’ of bangles and unique tribal dress. The Karen Tribe visit experience is highly recommended, however we advise on visiting a more traditional village deep into the jungle rather than the Long Neck Karen Village outpost which many tour operators take visitors to. We believe it is simply a tourist trap and doesn’t offer the authentic tribe experience that has become sought after
We recommend visiting Ban Lorcha village, a traditional Karen Tribe Akha Village in which the tribes folk manage the tourism themselves and aren’t both tribesmen and tourists aren’t exploited. It’s also much cheaper! You can arrange a tour using a local tour operator or pre-book on Tripadvisor here.
Visit a traditional spa
As soon as you step foot in Chiang Mai, you’ll notice the tranquil vibes and relatively quiet streets compared to other large Thai cities. What better way to enjoy this relaxing environment than a traditional Thai spa?
They’re available to suit all budgets, from basic massage parlours on the street to luxurious full body treatments in garden sanctuaries; we’d highly recommend visiting a spa at least once during your stay. We highly recommend Fah Lanna Spa for their charming and central garden location. If you fancy something different whilst supporting a good cause, check out the Women’s Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners, a spa setup as a rehabilitation centre. They have great reviews!
Jungle ziplines – Flight of the Gibbon
If you want to see the jungle from above and capture breath-taking views whilst swinging through the trees, Flight of the Gibbon is highly recommended. Although there are a few adventures and zipline attractions in Chiang Mai, Flight of the Gibbon is the biggest and best. It has lots of ziplines with different levels of difficulty and heights and is a fun thing to do at any age, whether you’re travelling with kids or with other adults. The activity also includes abseiling, sky bridges, forest trails and one of the longest ziplines in Asia.
The village location of Mae Kampong is beautiful in itself. Think ‘Go Ape’ in the UK but with much taller trees, jungle wildlife and a stunning background of jungle.
Royal Park Rajapruek
You’ll notice one the thing we love about visiting new places is checking out the local parks, particularly if they’re as special as Royal Park Rajapruek. The park is a 20 minute drive from central Chiang Mai and is best visited in a combined trip to the nearby Wat Phra That Doi Kham or Chiang Mai Zoo.
Rajapruek Royal Park is an enchanting place to visit on a morning whilst it’s not too hot. You can spend a couple of hours walking around the beautiful gardens, taking pictures of the tropical flowers and trees and enjoying the peaceful grounds of the temple.
Kayaking/Water Rafting/Bamboo raft
As you can probably tell by now, Chiang Mai is quite the adventurers paradise. In addition to challenging hikes and local villages, the jungles in the surrounding area have a number of rivers, creeks, rapids and waterfalls, naturally attracting the adrenaline chasing travellers or those just looking for a cool experience in the jungle. Take your pick from rapid rafting, to the tamer kayaking or bamboo raft experiences, the latter being a unique activity in South East Asia.
The water activates can be booked by themselves or they’re included as part of a trekking/adventure tour. If there’s a few activities you want to try, we’d recommend joining a tour as it can be cheaper and easier to get between the attractions. Check out Siam River Adventures.
Chiang Mai is the most visited place in the north and is an excellent choice, but we’d also recommend visiting the nearby village of Pai for a more ‘off the beaten track’ experience or Chiang Rai for a selection of amazing white temples and other attractions, slightly different to Chiang Mai.