Planning a trip to Chiang Mai and looking for inspiration what to do while you’re there? Here’s my guide on the best things to do in this beautiful part of the world.
1. Flight of the Gibbon
Take a day trip out to the Flight of the Gibbon where you’ll be strapped into your safety gear then proceed to whiz around the jungle like a wild, untamed monkey… or Gibbon, more appropriately. The zip line course is a LOT of fun, so much so that you’ll be laughing, hollering and smiling all day! It’s definitely a must-do when visiting Chiang Mai and an experience you won’t soon forget.
2. Eat at Nice Kitchen
My favourite place to eat in Chiang Mai was a little spot called Nice Kitchen, run by an extremely lovely lady. The food here is fresh and healthy, prepared carefully in a big clean kitchen using only the best ingredients. Their focus is on organic food with no preservatives or additives and they make as much as they can on-site. Try the Khao Soi for lunch and the Banana Pancake for breakfast.
3. Get a Thai Massage
Be transformed into the human pretzel with a traditional Thai Massage. There’s no oil used, instead you put on some very comfy clothes they supply for you and are pushed, twisted, stretched and pulled into all manner of shapes. By the end of it, you’re a mixture of confused and very, very relaxed. Prices vary, but you shouldn’t really pay more than 150 to 200 Baht for it, around $8AU.
4. Talk to a Monk
With their beautiful bright orange robes it’s very easy to spot the many Monks wandering the city. Most are up very early in the morning and some are keen to practice their english language skills with visiting tourists. To talk to a Monk, get yourself up early and visit either Wat Chedi Luang, Doi Suthep Temple, Wat Suan Dok or Wat Umong.
5. Cooking class
The flavours of Thai food are incredibly delicious; a perfect harmony of sweet, sour, salty and spicy. If you love Thai food and want to be able to replicate these amazing flavours in your own home then Thai cooking classes in Chiang Mai is an absolute must-do. There are loads of classes to choose from, including those run through WithLocals, who connect locals with travellers to give them an authentic experience!
6. Ladyboy Cabaret
I have it on good authority that the lovely performers at the Chiang Mai Cabaret don’t find the term Ladyboy offensive. These beautiful people put on one of the best shows you may ever see! There’s a lot of sequins and feathers and lipstick, lots of dancing and singing and a lot of laughs to be had. It was the unexpected highlight of my trip to Chiang Mai and I recommend it to anybody visiting, it’s not raunchy or crazy, it’s just a whole lot of fun and an evening of watching people who love to perform strutting their stuff on a stage. It’s on at 9:30pm, get there at 9:10pm for good seats and be prepared to tip.
7. Buy cheap clothing
There are many bargains to be had on the streets of Chiang Mai, so pack light. The streets are lined with lots of little boutique stores selling skirts and sarongs with great Thai-style prints on them. There’s also really comfy tops, baggy pants and singlet-tops on offer too. It may not be the best quality, but it’s bright and beautiful stuff that’s comfy to wear and very cheap.
8. Sunday Market
The Sunday Market in Chiang Mai is insane and not to be missed. It pretty much shuts down most of the city, with vendors coming from far and wide to sell their wares. I recommend getting there early because it gets very, very busy in the evening as tourists stream in to check it out. It’s easily the biggest market I’ve ever been to, selling everything from food and drink to arts, crafts, clothes, hand-made items and everything in between.
9. Visit a Jazz Bar
Alright, so maybe Chiang Mai isn’t exactly synonymous with jazz, but it’s an experience you won’t soon forget. Settle in with a cold beer and a plate of food and listen to the sweet sounds of jazz at a local bar. There is even an annual jazz festival! Try the North Gate Jazz Club for a great night out.
10. Doi Pui
To get out of Chiang Mai’s city for the day, head out to the Hmong Village of Doi Pui. It’s mainly just for tourists, but still a cool way to see how these tribes used to live in the mountains. You can also purchase goods like hand-woven rugs and other textiles, jewellery and tea. Your best bet is to find a driver you trust at a rate you’re happy with and organise a whole day of activities in the mountains.
11. Elephant Rescue Volunteer
There are quite a number of Elephant rescue centres set up around Chiang Mai. I’m a firm believer that these animals should never be exploited for tourism purposes whatsoever, so if you do choose to visit one of these places please do your research and make sure they don’t offer any kind of elephant rides. A number of the rescue centres are solely for the rehabilitation of elephants who have previously been exploited and offer volunteers the chance, for a fee, to spend the day helping them care for the elephants.
12. Night Bazaar
Different to the Sunday Market, the Night Bazaar sets up every evening on the east side of the Old City. The good thing about it is that it means you get to shop during the cooler weather in the evening, especially if you’re visiting in the middle of summer. Market stalls set up and sell all kinds of things like carved soaps and lamps, strings of fairy lights and t-shirts, pillow cases, photo frames, artwork and more. It’s a great spot for night photographs if you’re into photography.
13. Eat mango and sticky rice
You can’t say you’ve been to Chiang Mai if you don’t eat mango and sticky rice. It is the dessert of choice and, really, totally acceptable to eat as a meal at any time of the day!
14. Catch a red truck around
You’ll see a large number of bright red trucks/ute’s driving around Chiang Mai, packed full of people. But why? Well, they’re the local version of taxis. You flag one down, tell them where you’re going or show you on a map and they drive you there. You may stop along the way and pick others up and drop them off, so don’t expect to go to your destination immediately. But that’s all just part of the fun! It shouldn’t cost you more than 40 Baht per person to get somewhere (that’s pretty steep, too).
15. Eat Street Roti
On the street’s of Chiang Mai is a little stall selling freshly made Roti or Rotee, called Paday Rotee (you can find it at the intersection of Tha Phae Rd and Thapae Road Soi 4). I don’t eat a lot of street food because my stomach is more delicate than a tissue in a tornado, but this is a no-brainer. We wolfed down roti after roti and enjoyed every mouthful. If you see this place, stop in for either a savoury or sweet roti. The Nutella is a must-try.
16. Take a Tuk Tuk ride
You haven’t lived unless you’ve been crammed into the back of a Tuk Tuk with all your luggage piled up around you, whizzing around in 38 degree heat, sweating up a storm. It’s the kind of thing travellers live for! Even if you only do it once, because it’s more expensive than a red truck ride, jump in a Tuk Tuk and whiz around town.
17. Doi Inthanon
Take a day trip out to the highest peak in Thailand and the surrounding national park by visiting Doi Inthanon. Activities here including trekking and hiking or you can just take a more relaxed stroll around the park. There are a number of waterfalls to visit and a hill tribe village too. It takes about two hours to drive here from the city, so it’s easy to spend a day exploring then come back in the afternoon.
18. Muay Thai Boxing
There are a few different stadiums and places to watch a live Muay Thai Boxing match including Kawila and Thapae stadiums. If you want to take things to the next level you can sign up for a Muay Thai boxing camp. Good luck to you, I’ll be by the hotel pool bar.
19. Stuff yourself with Pad Thai
Don’t even bother telling me you’ve been to Chiang Mai unless you can list at least 5 occasions where you ate Pad Thai. Alright, that’s a bit harsh, I take that back. But you should definitely eat as much of it as you can as each restaurant has their own way of preparing the dish. Some are sweeter, some are lighter and others have a drier consistency. But at a few dollars a plate, it’s easy to eat it at least once a day!
20. Bua Thong Sticky Waterfalls
Sticky what? Yep, there is such a thing as a sticky waterfall and it is in Chiang Mai. Or, nearby. Why is it called the sticky waterfall? Because it looks like it’s going to be very slippery and as though you could hurt yourself badly if you tried to climb on it. But the truth is, the rocks are sticky and help you grip on. It’s weird and it’s wonderful and a great way to spend some time in Chiang Mai. Just be sure to visit on a weekday as weekends are nuts.
21. Temple crawl
There are hundreds of temples in and around Chiang Mai. If you’re up for the challenge, strap on your walking shoes, charge up your camera battery and walk around town photography and finding as many as you possible can. Each one is slightly different, but most are bright white with gold detailing and bright coloured tiles.
22. Buy a coconut on the street
As you walk around and start to get all hot and sticky, stop at a roadside vendor and buy a fresh coconut. You can watch the vendor crack it open fresh for you with skills the average human just does not possess. There’s nothing quite like a fresh coconut on a hot day!
23. Tiger Kingdom
As per the elephant parks, I do not support tiger’s being exploited as a way for people to make money, this includes the tourist trade. There are a lot of signs around Chiang Mai urging tourists to visit the tiger kingdom in Chiang Mai and when you see the photos of people snuggled up to these magnificent animals and their beautiful cubs, it’s easy to get sucked into it. Before you make a decision about visiting the tiger kingdom please do some research on what goes on at these places and be informed.
24. Anusarn Market
The Anusarn Market is part of the Night Bazaar, but is an undercover section that’s really well lit and easier to navigate than the on-street areas. There are quite a few bars around the market so it’s a great place to pull up a seat and do a spot of people watching. There’s also a small pop-up food court area, I really recommend the Indian restaurant here, they do pretty good curries and breads.
25. Drink beer over ice
Do what? Ah, yep. It’s hot as a beast in Thailand and your beer tends to get really, really hot really, really fast. Not good. So don’t be surprised if your friendly bar tender or waiter serves you up a nice big cold glass of ice with your beer. Give it a go, it’s actually kind of wonderful once you get past the first few very weird sips. Like I said, I have a really weak stomach and drinking my beer like this didn’t expose me to any nasty tummy troubles from the ice.
26. Just walk
If you’re staying in the Old City or even if you’re just near the Old City and looking for something to do, get yourself inside the city walls and just start walking. It’s one big square so it’s pretty hard to get lost really and you tend to find all the roads seem to link up one way or another. It’s a great way to discover those hidden cafes and restaurants that sell the best food or local art shops selling all kinds of wonderful treasures.
27. Snake Farm
Yes, there is a snake farm and no, I didn’t go because I’m terrified of snakes. You can visit the Mae Sa Snake Farm if that kind of thing floats your boat. There are a few local guys who put on one hell of a show with some cobras and other poisonous snakes. It is, apparently, fantastic.
28. Try Khao Soi
This absolutely delicious dish is definitely something you have to try while you’re in Chiang Mai. It is served widely in northern Thailand and is bursting with flavour. Basically it’s a big bowl of home made rice noodles covered in a divine curry-like sauce made of coconut milk and packed with shallots, lime, ground chillies and other spices. It’s served as a vegetarian dish or with chicken and topped with deep-fried crispy egg noodles.
29. Trekking through the Jungle
If you love to get in, on and among the nature then a trekking adventure could be for you. There are a number of companies who offer trekking adventures through the mountains around Chiang Mai, these usually include your meals, guides and some additional activities too. Just be sure to do your research before booking as some of the treks include elephant rides.
30. Segway tour
The people who operate Flight of the Gibbon also operate a segway tour. Now, look, I used to think that segways were for losers like Justin Bieber, but the truth is they’re actually kind of freaking awesome. Matt and I did our first segway tour in Queensland and really loved it, so if you’re looking for a cool way to see Chiang Mai then a segway tour could be the option for you.
31. Wat Prathat Doi Suthep
Perched atop a mountain, this temple in particular is deemed a must-do in Chiang Mai. The biggest draw point is the pretty spectacular seated Buddha, which is one of the most popular attractions in Chiang Mai. Getting there requires the help of a red truck, Tuk Tuk or private driver. Once you arrive you’ll need to climb a staircase, it’s a steep haul so dress appropriate guys. No leather onesies.
32. Rock climbing
You may not know it, but Chiang Mai is actually a really great destination for those who love rock climbing! If you’re into adventure sports or just want to try something totally different, consider looking into a day spent rock climbing. Just be sure you find a reputable company and do your research before booking.
33. Bike Tour
A guided tour can be a really great way to see a new city; it helps you get your bearings and see things you may not have found on your own. One great way of seeing Chiang Mai is through a bike tour. Not only can you explore the Old City and surrounds but you can also take a guided tour through the jungle too.
34. Walking tour
There are a number of walking tours you can take part in while you’re staying in Chiang Mai. The one to really consider taking part in, though, is a food tour. It gives you a chance to learn about the local produce and also try things you may not know to order by yourself.
35. Have the best iced coffee ever
Chiang Mai’s best coffee, iced and otherwise, goes down at Graph Cafe. It’s a tiny little place and it’s more expensive than the stuff you can get from a local cafe, but it’ll knock your socks off and give you a taste of Chiang Mai’s hipster scene.
36. Laze by the pool and sleep in
Guys, it’s Chiang Mai for crying out loud… a city that is incredibly relaxed and peaceful. Don’t forget to schedule some down time for yourself. Sleep in late, get a massage and spend a day lazing around the pool with a cocktail or a cup of tea. You deserve it!
Watch my ‘One incredible week in Amazing Thailand’ video