On my very first vacation living in Korea, I tagged along with some friends on a two-week trip to Thailand and Cambodia. One of our favorite places of the trip was by far Chiang Mai. We allotted about four days for the northern Thai city, and we all left wishing we could add a few more. Elissa is currently planning her own trip with our friend, Sarah, for the beginning of August, and this made me revisit my old Thailand posts. However, I realized quickly that I have written criminally little! So, without further ado, here are some of the top things to do in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
11 Things to Do in Chiang Mai
I’m going to split this into things we actually did and things I wish I’d done. Since we only had four days and none of us really knew what to expect, there were, of course, a few places or activities we totally missed out on. I’d love to go back in the future, especially since it’s one of the most popular spots for digital nomads, so I’m keeping this list handy for then!
1. Hike to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Well, we tried to hike to Doi Suthep. We even made a small pit stop to a pretty waterfall on the way. However, we were definitely going the wrong way, and it was hot, so we wound up flagging down a tuk-tuk and riding that the rest of the way up.
Doi Suthep is a gorgeous temple. After you reach the entrance, you still have over 300 steps to reach the main grounds. I just remember getting there and being in awe. Obviously, it’s the gold mount that’s going to be the most striking part, especially on a sunny day.
How to Visit:
- If you don’t want to make our mistake, join in a trekking tour like this one. They’ll guide you to the temple with a few fun stops along the way.
- There’s also this tour if you’re into mountain biking.
2. Indulge in all the vegan and vegetarian options.
Of all the places in Thailand to find good vegetarian food, Chiang Mai is the best. Even if you’re not vegetarian or vegan, you’ll enjoy the food because it’s delicious in its own right! We actually went back to the same place twice because we liked it so much.
3. Take an afternoon tour of the lost city of Wiang Kum Kam
One of my favorite discoveries from my research was Wiang Kum Kam. Amar and I went in the afternoon after our attempted hike to Doi Suthep. Check out the full post and guide.
4. Go temple hopping.
There are over 80 temples in Chiang Mai! I don’t think you can walk ten feet without stumbling across a new one. Our first day in town, we decided to just walk around and see as many as we could. Warning: they honestly start blending together after awhile, especially when we had no context for each one. I would highly recommend doing some sort of tour or reading up more than we did so you can appreciate them more!
- If you don’t mind looking a little goofy, take the Chiang Mai Segway Tour. It’ two hours and will take you through some of the city’s most important temples and landmarks.
5. Wander around Chiang Mai’s old city.
The nice thing about Chiang Mai was that it still felt quiet and peaceful. You can wander around the old city without feeling mobbed by crowds (*cough* lookin’ at you, Hoi An, Vietnam *cough*), and it’s pretty easy to navigate since it’s a perfect square.
6. Walk around Wat Umong to see the emaciated Buddha statue.
For some reason I had written “emaciated Buddha statue” down on my list of things I wanted to see in Chiang Mai, so we found ourselves spending an afternoon one day exploring Wat Umong. It’s over 700-years-old, and you can even see quite a few of the monks going about their day. In fact, Amar sat with one who wanted to be Facebook friends!
And, yes, we did find the emaciated Buddha statue!
How to Visit:
- If you want to go with a tour, Wat Umong is included in this Chiang Mai Mind and Soul tour.
Things to Do in Chiang Mai Next Time
7. Visit Chiang Rai’s Wat Rong Khun
How gorgeous is that photo above? Um, yeah, I wish I had seen Wat Rong Khun in all its glory. I remember months after we got back from Thailand, I was browsing Pinterest and stumbled across an image of it. Have you seen anything so instantly magical looking?
Apparently, in the late 90s, it was in total shambles, but Thailand had no budget to fix it. Chalermchai Kositpipat, a renowned Thai visual artist, decided to dedicate his own money to renovate it to its current state.
How to Visit:
- This tour will take you to both Wat Rong Khun and the Black House on a day trip from Chiang Mai.
- This tour has a few different options but will also take you to the Golden Triangle, or the meeting point between Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.
7. Take a Thai cooking class
You know, I really need to either do cooking classes or food tours more often. They’re such a great way to learn about the culture and I love food… Amar did a cooking class in Krabi and had a lovely time, so I think a fun, vegan-themed one would be interesting to do in Chiang Mai. Plus, I mean, I wish I knew how to make Thai food now!
Thai Classes to Try:
- The Asia Scenic Thai Cooking Class offers four different cooking classes and you get a recipe book to take home.
- The Mama Noi Thai Cooking Class has a few different options from full day to half day, and you’ll prepare the food in an open-air kitchen.
- You can visit a local market with the Baan Thai Cooking Class, and make everything from pad thai to mango sticky rice.
9. Spend a day at Elephant Nature Park
Of all the things I wish I could have done, I’m the most bummed about missing out on volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park. We missed out on booking because we waited too long!
I’d say ENP is the leading elephant sanctuary in Thailand. There are quite a number of more legitimate sanctuaries and rescue parks popping up, but ENP has been around since the 1990s. You can volunteer a number of different ways. I’d recommend the whole day or overnight option since the short term visit can feel too rushed.
10. Watch craftsmen making silver coverings at Wat Srisuphan
This is one I wrote down and never did further research into. Wat Srisuphan was built in 1502 as the main temple for the local silversmith village. When renovations started in 2008, they decided to cover the entire temple in silver inside and out. Nearby you can visit little silver studios and watch the craftsmen at work. If you’re there at the right time, you can even join in on a monk chat.
11. Learn more about the Northern Thai tribes
Have you ever heard of Donna over at Haute Culture Fashion? She’s one of my favorite fashion-travel bloggers out there, and I’m always in awe of what she studies and in return shares with her readers. The way she gets to know a new culture is by studying its fashion history, and when I say she studies, I mean she really digs her feet in.
She’s not going around snapping random locals on the street or just visiting a museum with a few pretty dresses hanging around. She’s traveling to some more distant places, at least to the cursory traveler, spending time with locals, and learning all about their practices.
Anyhow, she visited the Northern Thai tribes a little while ago, and now she’s running her own textile tour starting this January. She wrote all about the Karen tribe here, and, well, you can get lost on her site from there!
You can also go with this lovely 5 Hill Tribes tour.
What NOT to Do
I feel like I need to add this section just to make things crystal clear should you even remotely be considering these. I know for travel bloggers, we all feel like the point has been beaten to death, but there are still a ton of regular travelers who don’t know any better (or they do, and don’t care). In fact, when Elissa was getting tips on Chiang Mai from her general group of friends, one personal literally listed both of these!
DON’T RIDE ELEPHANTS
Don’t ride elephants around temples
Don’t ride elephants around jungles.
Don’t ride elephants at the Renaissance Fair.
Don’t ride elephants ever, at all, anywhere.
Helen of Not Without My Passport wrote a really extensive explanation if you’d like to research more. Also, no, bareback or one person on their neck isn’t much better.
DON’T VISIT TIGER KINGDOM
Ugh, guys, I hate that I did this, but we actually dedicated one whole day to the Tiger Kingdom when we couldn’t go to Elephant Nature Park. We even researched and read comments on Tripadvisor. You can argue that TK is the most humane and that their caretakers love them and they are not drugged (which I’m skeptical about). However, they’re still bred in captivity. You should NOT be able to lay down and cuddle with a tiger. Again, here’s a post from the Dodo that explains the problems.
More Tips on Visiting Chiang Mai
- Getting There: We took the overnight train, which you can book in person in Bangkok. I reviewed the experience in the logistical guide below, but, long story short, it was totally fine! We all stayed in the female only train and never felt unsafe.
- Need a full logistical guide before you go? Check it out here.
- You don’t need a visa. Not even our South African friends needed one, and they need one for almost everywhere.
- We stayed here during our visit. It was nice for its price, but if you have a little more money to spend, I’d look at better hotels. Compare the different hotels + booking sites for Chiang Mai here.
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