Our base in Chiang Mai is the perfect starting point for exploring northern Thailand. Steeped in tradition, there is plenty to do from Thai massage, Buddhist temples and local arts and crafts.
The square formed by the moat-lined city walls makes navigation easy, using the corners and gates as reference points. Tha Phae Gate is the best known, as the area is home to a multitude of hotels, guesthouses, markets, restaurants and bars. The maze of narrow streets and alleys within the city walls are fun to explore.
North of the city, particularly towards Pai and Chiang Rai, numerous hill-tribe villages provide an insight into traditional rural culture. From Chiang Rai, you can immerse yourself in nature on a jungle trekking tour or take a slow boat down the Mekong River into neighbouring Laos.
Whatever your fitness level, there is plenty to keep you active. It is a paradise for trekking and we will be cycling too.
Best Cultural Experiences in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is the culture capital of Thailand. Around every corner there is beautiful temple and seeing monks in saffron robes on the streets is a common occurrence. If you want to learn about Thai culture and history, this is the place to be.
Chat with a Monk in Chiang Mai
There are 5 temples with “Monk Chat” programs in Chiang Mai, giving you a rare opportunity, to meet informally for a chat with a monk. You can get to know about monk’s life, Thai culture and Tradition, Buddhism, Meditation etc.
You will sign in with your name and nationality and be assigned to a monk. Be sure to wear appropriate clothing that covers your shoulders and everything above your knees.
Opens weekly on Monday – Friday at 4:00 pm – 7:00 pm
Address: 136/3 Suthep Rd, Tambon Su Thep, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200
Get massaged by a Prison Inmate
There are hundreds of massage places around Chiang Mai, the only thing that distinguished this establishment were the women wearing police uniforms that paced the room every once in a while with clipboards in hand.
The Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution has created a program to give its inmates the opportunity to learn marketable skills. The women are also allowed to save their wages and tips for their release date. Most of the women are serving short sentences for minor crimes.
There is also a souvenir shop and a reasonably priced restaurant serving Thai and Western dishes.
Hours: Monday - Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. & Saturday - Sunday 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
For more ideas where to find the best massages in Chiang Mai.
Most Popular Tourist Markets
- Chiang Mai Night Bazaar: Open every night of the week, vendors line the street on Chang Klan Road selling every souvenir you can imagine.
- Saturday Night Market: Starting from the Old Pagoda by the south gate and stretching down the Wua Lai Road, this is another souvenir market.
- Sunday Night Market: Tha Phae Gate is where this market starts and the vendors and crowds pack down Rachadamnoen Road into the old city.
- Warorot Market (Kad Luang): This is where many locals shop for clothes or home goods. It's cheaper than the tourist markets but is only open during the day.
Organic Produce Market
- Jing Jai Market: An organic produce market every Wednesday and Saturday morning.
- Bor Sang (Umbrella Village) Market: A little outside of Chiang Mai, this market is famous for its handicrafts and popular decorated umbrellas.
Our Favorite Market
- Malin Market: This is our favorite market to get dinner and do some shopping. If you are over by Chiang Mai University, pop over to Malin Night Market. There are artists selling jewelry and fashionable clothes stalls
Muay Thai Boxing Match
Chiang Mai is famous for Muay Thai fights, and and you can enjoy going to see a match. You can even take classes at many gyms in Chiang Mai. Whether you try it yourself or watch a match, experiencing Muay Thai fighting is a fun thing to do in Chiang Mai.
Adventurous Things to Do in Chiang Mai
Cliff Jumping at Chiang Mai Grand Canyon
Water park featuring an inflatable obstacle course, slides, a small zip line & wakeboarding. There is a 50 foot jump for the more daring. You can start with some of the smaller jumps and work your way up.
40 minutes from Chiang Mai, entrance is 450 baht
Chiang Mai has recently started to become more popular for climbers. The climate is good and the routes do not suffer from having too many climbers. There is a variety of both outdoor and indoor climbing.
Crazy Horse is the most famous and developed outdoor climb, then there is Chiang Dao and Lampang.
You can read The Totally Essential Guide For Chiang Mai Rock Climbing and this top company thailandclimbing
Hiking Around Chiang Mai
Around Chiang Mai is a walkers paradise, with cooler temperatures in the mountains and plenty of activities and culture to see along the way. The landscape is lush with dense green jungle and rolling hills. Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s highest mountain at 2,565 meters.
Chiang Mai is Thailands cycling capital with hundreds of cycling routes for all levels, both road cycling and mountain biking. For the most physically demanding there are routes across the mountain peaks and throught the jungles. On the other hand, there are some very calm and breezy rides on the flat plains near the lakes.
There are many places in Chiang Mai that you can go to rent a bike. They can cost anywhere from 100 baht a day up to 300 baht a day for the more professional lightweight aluminium framed bikes.
Northern Thailand is elephant country. In the past, the animals were trained and worked in the lumber industry and on public works. Now, these elephants and their descendants are retired and given a better life in the elephant sanctuaries of the Chiang Mai region. However, some tours still offer elephant riding. Some parks have been turned into real tourist factories, large operations that serve the many tourists that visit each day. We value the smaller sanctuaries that give the elephants all the room to move around, and that only exposes them to small groups of visitors.
We have compiled a list of our top sanctuaries, with a handy map.
Elephant Parade Land
Elephant Parade® is a social enterprise and runs the world’s largest art exhibition of decorated elephant statues. Created by artists and celebrities, the life-size, baby elephant statues can be seen in this museum. They also create smaller versions that you can take home as a meaningful souvenir. 20% of Elephant Parade net profits are donated to elephant welfare and conservation projects.
This project was started to help fund the creation of a prostethic leg for a baby elephant name Mosha who had lost her leg after stepping on a landmine. Elephant Parade helps fund the work of the Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital, where Mosha and other injured elephants are being treated.
If you don't have time to visit Elephant Parade Land, you can simply stop in their retail shops in Nimman or Old City to purchase your own souvenir elephant and support this cause.
Where: just off highway 11 between Lampang and Chiang Mai
When: Visiting hours are between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Learn about Thai Cuisine in a Cooking Class
There is no better place to learn how to make your favorite Thai dishes than Chiang Mai. There are so many schools to choose from.
They have a list of currently available veggie classes here
In our research, we found 3 cooking schools that are clear winners. They all have a 3 things in common:
- They bring you to a local market instead of the one ridden with tourists in the Old City
- Each person is able to make 5 dishes that they have selected
- All 3 of these cooking schools take place on an organic farm from which you can gather your own produce and herbs
Have lunch in a Floating Restaurant
Huay Tung Tao Lake is a place many tourists never visit. In fact, we didn't hear about it until our third time in Chiang Mai. This lake is a popular place for locals and expats to go for morning runs and hiking in the surrounding trails.
At lunchtime, people come to eat in one of the many floating restaurants around the lake. While the food isn't anything spectacular and it's a bit pricier than you'd pay in the city, it's a unique dining experience. The restaurants seem to be more or less the same, and they charge a per person fee to eat in the bungalows over the water. The restaurant we ate at charged 20 baht per person for the lakeside tables, while the ones a few meters back on land were free.
Tip: If you're feeling up to it, we'd recommend hiking while you're at the lake! The hike to Taab Mook Waterfall is quite easy and you'll be rewarded with a beautiful sight.
How to get to the Huay Tung Tao Reservoir
Traveling by motorbike would be your best option to get to the Huay Tung Tao Reservoir. From the old city travel west on Huay Kaew Road and turn right on Highway 127. Travel north for about 4 km and then turn left when you see signs for the lake. If you come to Highway 107, you have gone too far.
You could also order Grab car (Asia’s version of Uber) and it should cost about 100-150 baht. Another way to get there would be to talk to a songthaew (red truck) driver and negotiate a price. You would probably play about 100 baht per person and you would need at least 4-6 people.
Cost: There is a 50 baht entrance fee for foreigners. If you enter before 7 a.m., it is free.
Eat Khao Soi in Chiang Mai
Unlike Pad Thai and Green Curry, this Thai dish is not very well-known in the Western world, but it should be!
With a Burmese influence, this dish most commonly found in the north of Thailand; and Chiang Mai is a perfect place to try your first bite.
I’d like to think that Khao Soi would be the love child if chicken noodle soup and yellow curry ever got together. A combination of egg noodles, coconut curry broth, chicken, shallots, lime and chilies make each bite of this dish a party in your mouth! It is typically topped with crunchy fried egg noodles and served pickled vegetables on the side for a flavor and texture explosion.
- Free Bird has a vegan Khao Soi so you can give this famous dish a try.
Where to get the Best Khao Soi in Chiang Mai
The best place to eat Khao Soi is on the street. We sampled several bowls, and each has their own unique flavors. Traditionally, Khao Soi is eaten in the morning and afternoon, so many Khao Soi street stands will close before dinner time. You'll still be able to find it on the menus of many restaurants.
If you're looking for recommendations, here are some restaurants that serve up some of the best Khao Soi in Chiang Mai:
- Khao Soi Mae Sai this is a hot spot among locals and is not far from the Nimman neighborhood. This is one of our favorite bowls of Khao Soi!
- Khao Soi Nimman is a decent choice in the Nimman Road area with many different choices. Broth is on the sweet side and prices are a bit higher than most Khao Soi.
- Khao Soi Khun Yai is a tiny little stand on the edge of Old City that is always packed with tourists. It earns rave reviews on TripAdvisor and on other blogs, and while we thought it was good, it wasn't our favorite. Their Khao Soi has a broth that is a bit thicker and spicier than most, but I was a little disappointed that it comes with pieces of chicken instead of a whole leg, and the crunchy noodles on top were not that fresh.
- Khao Soi Arak is located in the Old City and known for serving a killer bowl of Kaho Soi. Plus the couple who owns this tiny restaurant is lovely. At just 30 baht, you can't go wrong!
- Free Bird has a vegan Khao Soi so you can give this famous dish a try even if you don't eat meat.
Eat for a Cause
While we're on the topic of food, the restaurant scene in Chiang Mai is UNBELIEVABLE. From street food to world-class dining, and from traditional Thai to any type of international cuisine you can think of, you really can find a restaurant for every mood in this city.
This is a paradise for vegan and plant based travellers. Check this list of vegan restaurants in Chiang Mai.
If you want to do good while eating well, there are some restaurants where your money will go to support a cause greater than just your hungry tummy!
Free Bird Cafe
If you love eating and giving back, we think you'll really like Free Bird Cafe. Located near the north gate of Old City, this non-profit, vegan cafe donates 100% of profits to their charity which supports a community learning center for Burmese refugees.
Check out their selection of goods for sale -- we love that they sell items that are good for the environment, like bamboo straws, menstrual cups and reusable bags. Plus, there's an section of second hand clothing near the back of the restaurant where you can pick up (old) new clothes or donate any items that are weighing down your backpack!
Also, Free Bird Cafe hosts a Women's Lunch every Wednesday from 12 - 2 p.m. where you can mingle with other female travelers passing through or meet women who call Chiang Mai home.
Pun Pun Restaurant
You’ll have no problem finding vegetarian food in Chiang Mai, but one great option to get your veg on is at Pun Pun Restaurant. The produce is organic and is sourced from their own farm, so you can feel good about what you’re eating. Even though eating here is healthy and supports the sustainability movement, you won’t be paying much more than any other local restaurant.
Pun Pun Farm is located amongst jungles and mountains in the countryside of northern Thailand and is renowned worldwide for the sustainability methods practiced there.
Pun Pun Restaurant is located behind the grounds of the Wat Suan Dok temple and is only open until 4 p.m. Have a leisurely late lunch/early dinner before participating in a Monk Chat.
Local and Off the Beaten Path Experiences in Chiang Mai
Local and Off the Beaten Path Experiences in Chiang Mai
As you walk through the streets of Chiang Mai, it may seem like the popluation is half Thai and half foreigner. This city is a major hub for people working online so this sections is common things expats do while living in Chiang Mai.
Have a Pool Day
If you're craving a day relaxing in the sun, head to one of the many pools in Chiang Mai. And don't forget your sunscreen!
- Center of the Universe: Located just north of the Nimman area, this salt water pool (less chemicals, yay!) is 200 baht for an all day pass.
- Green Hill Apartments: Lay out by these two massive pools all day for only 80 baht per person. If you get hungry, they also have a restaurant on-site.
- Le Meridien: This upscale hotel has a rooftop pool with a fantastic view. If you're lucky you can be there when Le Meridien hosts their pool parties which are very fun! Check their Facebook page to see if they have any upcoming events
Join in a Free Yoga Session
If you're stiff from a long plane ride, Chiang Mai is the perfect place to get your downward dog on! With plenty of yoga studios throughout the city, you'll have no trouble finding a class.
Free Yoga in Chiang Mai
If you're on a budget, you might want to try one of the free yoga classes offered daily in Chiang Mai.
- Nong Buak Hard Park: Free classes daily from 9 - 10:15 a.m. If you don't have your own mat, you can rent a straw mat for 15 baht. Join the Yoga in the Park - Chiang Mai Facebook group for more info.
- One Nimman: Every Tuesday (Hatha) and Thursday (Hatha Vinyasa), there are free yoga classes at One Nimman from 9:30 - 10:30 a.m. They also offer free Swing Dance and Salsa lessons throughout the week. This article has more information. (It is in Thai, but you can have Google translate it.)
Popular Yoga Studios in Chiang Mai
If you'd prefer to practice your inversions within the walls of a studio, there are plenty to choose from. Most classes are quite affordable, usually starting at 200 baht. If you purchase multiple sessions up front, the price per class will be cheaper.
- Ananda Yoga: There are two locations within Chiang Mai (Jing Jai Market and Nimman). We had a membership at the Nimman studio and really loved the classes. We always felt challenged and got a good workout.
- Yoga Tree: One of the most popular studios in Chiang Mai, this studio is located in the southwest corner of Old City.
- Yoga Kuukan: Located not far from the north gate of Old City, this studio is inside a traditional wooden Thai house, giving it a nice atmosphere. We went to one class here, and were joined by only 3 other students.
Enjoy a Coffee at one of Chiang Mai's Quirky Cafes
Chiang Mai is home to thousands of digital nomads, which means there are coffee shops on every corner. And we're not just talking your run-of-the-mill Starbucks. In Chiang Mai, you'll find super interesting and quirky cafes all around the city, like ones with ball pits and cotton candy lattes! Here are a few to put on your list if you love coffee shops:
- Catmosphere Cat Cafe: Cuddle friendly felines while sipping a specialty drink.
- About Pencil Coffee: Cotton candy lattes and a ball pit will bring out your inner child! (Update: Unfortunately, cafes in Chiang Mai come and go and About Pencil Coffee is out of business)
- Clay Studio Coffee: This garden oasis will make you forget you're in a city.
- Ristr8o: With 2 locations in the Nimman neighborhood and another in Central Festival Mall, this coffee shop serves up some seriously good coffee inspired from around the world. The baristas here are second to none and have won several coffee art awards! (We like the Ristr8o Lab location because it's in a more peaceful setting than the one right on Nimman Road.)
Want more? Here are 19 Unique Cafes in Chiang Mai. Be aware that many of these are actually located quite a ways from the city limits. But if you have a motorbike and are looking for adventure, visiting a few of these could be a fun day trip!
Explore Chiang Mai's Luxurious Malls
Whether you're visiting during rainy season or you want to escape the midday heat, popping into one of Chiang Mai's malls can be a surprisingly fun way to spend part of the day. While we aren't exactly "mall people", we were pretty impressed by the shopping centers in Thailand.
While there are several malls in Chiang Mai (Central Festival, Central Plaza, Promenada Resort Mall, to name a few), we are most familiar with Maya Mall.
Even if you don't feel like trying on clothes, there's plenty to do in Maya Mall:
- Eat a pancake with your face on it: There' s a small shop on the 3rd floor where you can get your face printed on a variety of things, from a keychain to a pancake to a cookie.
- Have a drink at the rooftop bars: Take the elevator to the 6th floor, where you'll step out onto the rooftop. Whether you just want to see the view or you want to enjoy a beer with the sunset, it's worth a stop before you leave the mall.
- Watch a movie in style: The movie theater on the 5th floor of Maya shows the latest movies, and has a handful in English. On Wednesdays, movies are just 100 baht. If you want an extra special experience, go for the VIP theater where you can enjoy super comfy chairs, complimentary popcorn and a soda for just a bit more money.
- Explore the cutesy shops: Moshi Moshi and Daiso are Japanese shops that sell inexpensive items that you don't really need, but you'll definitely want.
- Visit the food court: The floor below ground level has a food court filled with local options that are tasty and affordable.
- Get your WiFi on: If you need to use the Internet for a bit, pop into CAMP, which is a co-working space on the 5th floor of Maya Mall. Purchase a beverage or snack and get 2 hours of complimentary WiFi, or buy an Internet card at the AIS store on the 3rd floor. It is 150 baht and can be used to access the Internet in CAMP and other places around the city for one month.
- Entertain your inner child: On the 5th floor you'll find an arcade with air hockey, arcade dance games and more. And nearby, you'll find virtual reality pods that cost 100 baht for a simulation of your choice.
25. Ride in a Songthaew (Red Truck)
When you visit Chiang Mai you can't miss the numerous songthaews, or red trucks, on the roads. Songthaews, literally translated means "two rows". They are converted red trucks with two padded bench seats in the bed and act as shared "taxis" throughout the city.
Red trucks are our favorite way to get around Chiang Mai. Not only are red trucks plentiful and help reduce the number of cars on the road, they are fairly inexpensive costing only 30 THB ($0.93 USD) per person anywhere within the old city.
Here is our rule of thumb for songthaew costs:
- Anywhere within or around the Chiang Mai Old City: 30 baht per person
- Chiang Mai Old City to Nimman Road area: 40 baht per person (sometimes only 30 if they already have a load of people)
- Chiang Mai Old City or Nimman Road to Airport: 50 baht person
- Old City to Doi Suthep Temple: 60 baht per person one-way
How to get in a Songthaew Red Truck:
Hail down a red truck just like you would a cab or a tuk tuk, and they will pull over on the side of the road. Say hello (sah-wah-dee) to the driver and tell them the general area you are going. It may confuse them if you request a specific hotel or restaurant. We typically request one of the old city gates, or a popular market, and then just walk the rest of the way.
If they know where you are going, they will either say "Okay" or state a price per person. If they don't say a price, it is understood that the price is 30 baht per person.
The drivers are pretty good about getting to where you want to go, but if they go past your stop, you can ring the bell on the ceiling and they will pull over. Hop out and pay the driver.
Enjoy a Cocktail with a View at a Rooftop Bar
Whenever we're in search of a good view, we head to a rooftop bar!
Unlike some of the popular rooftop bars in Bangkok, which are seriously overpriced (in our opinion), you can make a toast above Chiang Mai at a reasonable price. (That said, don't expect to be 40 stories up like you would in Bangkok.)
Rooftop Bars in Chiang Mai
- Akyra Manor: Lounge beside their rooftop pool with a fancy cocktail in hand. They have 2 for 1 drinks for their happy hour special from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Enjoy the views as the sun sets behind Doi Suthep.
- Xanadu Rooftop and Restaurant: This classy rooftop is on the 17th floor in the Furama Hotel. You can get great views of Nimman and Doi Suthep as you order a meal and drinks.
- Oasis Rooftop Garden Bar: Tucked away in the northeast corner of the old city, Oasis presents a relax vibe and a nice place to meet up with friend.
If you're looking for a fun night out on the town, consider seeing a Cabaret Show! RAM Bar will show you a good time with live performances every night starting at 10 p.m. The dancers are super talented and you'll see several acts during this 1.5-hour show.
Our advice would be to arrive early, as these shows fill up quickly and it is a very tiny venue. The drinks are on the expensive side, but the show is free, so we found it worthwhile!
If you love live music and are craving a jam session, you'll be pleasantly surprised to hear Chiang Mai actually has a pretty decent live music scene. Here are some venues that regularly host live music:
- Northgate Jazz Club: This ultra-popular venue can get super crowded, especially on Tuesdays when they host an open mic night. Expect to be standing on the street, mingling with other music-lovers.
- Thapae East: This venue is super cool and hosts many events.
- 7 Pounds: This bar is a hidden oasis, and we’re obsessed! With a garden lit by fairy lights, decently priced drinks and a big stage for performers, this low key bar is tucked away in a quiet street not far from Maya Mall and will make you feel as if you’ve discovered a local secret!
- Manung Bar: This 50’s diner themed bar is popular with a young Thai crowd and is a great place to catch some live music. We arrived around 8 p.m. and it was empty, so we had a cute vintage booth to ourselves. But beware, this place fills up fast once the music begins! There were hardly any foreigners in this bar, which gives it a totally different vibe than many places in Nimman.
- Mellowship Jazz Club: Live music every night of the week. A little bit more upscale, but a pretty nice place if you want seating, food and nice drinks while enjoying live music.
Things NOT to Do in Chiang Mai
We know all too well that it is often times hard to know if a company is socially responsible, so we try to share what we’ve learned along the way. We hope this information helps you formulate your own opinion about visiting some controversial sites on your travels.
As with any controversial issue, research the subject, and formulate your own opinion so you can make a socially-responsible decision.
You will undoubtedly be pestered by tuk tuk drivers shouting “Tiger Kingdom! I take you to Tiger Kingdom!” After doing lots of research on the subject and talking to others who have visited this attraction, we have very strong feelings about this type of tourism.
And we made a firm decision not to support it even though, yes, having a picture with a large cat would be quite cool.
At the “sanctuary”, tigers are treated in a way that is undoubtedly inhumane. Hordes of people line up daily to have their photo taken with these animals that are living a harmful and unnatural lifestyle.
Many of the treks advertised in Chiang Mai include an elephant ride. Riding on an elephant’s back is actually very harmful to these gentle creatures. There are a few elephant sanctuaries in Thailand that treat them well, but the overwhelming majority are terribly cruel.
Visiting the "Long Neck" Hill Tribes
Several tour shops advertise tours that take you to a hill tribe village where you can see the famous “Longneck” people (this actually refers to a subgroup of the Karen people). Although we can’t speak from experience, some people we spoke to who had done these tours said it felt like group of people on display in the name of tourism. Others claim that many of these villages main source of livelihood comes from tourism.
We, too, are intrigued by the indigenous tribes, but are still unsure of how we feel about this. It is no doubt a complicated issue that brings up many feelings in different people.
Our advice would be to do a little research and decide where you stand on this topic. If you do decide to visit a hill tribe village, be sure to choose a company that is paying the villagers fairly and operating in an ethical way. Also, do some research on the history of these indigenous group - many of whom are refugees - and you will have a much more meaningful experience.