Best Things To Do In Chiang Mai

The capital of the Kingdom of Lanna in the 13th century, this was a cultural and religious center of northern Thailand. Also known as the “Rose of the North”, Chiang Mai is full of glorious Buddhist temples, lively walking markets, a flourishing nightlife scene, outstanding food, cultural opportunities with local hill tribes, and more, providing lots of things to see and do.

Plus, as it’s relatively small, you can also experience some genuine Thai culture here.

Buddhist temple detail lit at night.

Top Sites In Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai Old City

The heart of Chiang Mai is it’s Old City. Still surrounded by a moat and city walls from 700 years ago, and with several ancient temples, you really feel a connection to the past here. This laid-back city is popular with backpackers, and full of budget accommodation, art galleries, shops, restaurants, and bars. It’s also compact, at about 1/2 square mile (1.5 km square), so very walkable.

Walking Street Markets and Bazaars

Wualai Walking Street

This lively Saturday night market is considered Chiang Mai’s best walking market. Located on Wualai Street, it’s full of local crafts, souvenirs, street food, restaurants, and bars.

You can even get a street-side massage here. It starts in the late afternoon around 5 PM.

How To Get To Wualai Walking Street: Wualai Walking Street is located just south of the Old City.

Sunday Walking Street

This popular market runs a little over a half mile (1 km) on Rachadamnoen Road, from Tha Pae Gate to Wat Phra Singh. Operating on Sunday evenings, it features arts, crafts, music, and food, as well as events like dance recitals and beauty pageants. You will also get to see Wat Chedi Luang lit at night.

How To Get To Sunday Walking Street Market: to find the Sunday Walking Street Market, start at Tha Pae Gate and walk down Rachadamnoen Road.

Night Bazaar

Located between the Old City and Riverside road, the Night Bazaar is Chiang Mai’s biggest shopping and nightlife hub. Quiet during the day, this area comes to life after sunset, full of shops selling anything and everything, and plenty of restaurants, bars, and live music. Although it’s family friendly, some places can get a little risqué.

How To Navigate The Night Bazaar: For the Night Bazaar, head east from Tha Pae Gate on Tha Pae Road towards Changklan Road. The epicenter of this bazaar is at the crossroads of Changklan and Khroh Roads.

Elephant Sanctuaries

There are several elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai, but not all are true sanctuaries with the elephant’s best interests at heart. Therefore, it’s important to fully research an organization before you book. For example, the elephants should never be ridden by, or perform for, tourists, nor should they ever be chained.

Responsible Travel researches and provides a list of elephant sanctuaries around the world that it recommends and supports. As of this post (December 2020) they support the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Considered a pioneer in the care of distressed or retired, captive elephants, they offer a variety of packages, from a day to a week, where you learn to care for the elephants.

Note that ethical and credentialed parks like Elephant Nature Park book up well in advance, so book early. I didn’t and ended up very disappointed.

Hill Tribe Visits and Trekking

You can find a variety of tours that offer visits and/or homestays with various hill tribes in Chiang Mai, including the Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, and Yao tribes. Most arrived as refuges from Tibet, China, Myanmar, and Laos, setting up simple homes in the hills. Each has their own set of customs and way of life, making visits unique.

An organized trek is a great way to visit one or several tribes as many are not accessible via road. Trekking also provides the added benefit of seeing the lush forests and possibly some waterfalls in the hills. If you don’t want to trek, there are a few tribes living in areas accessible by road that you can book homestays with. Similar to the elephant sanctuaries, always research the organization providing the tour. It’s important to understand how the arrangement benefits the locals. Make sure they are not just being used to attract tourists.

Top Temples (Wats) In Chiang Mai

Chiang Mia is a treasure trove of temples, or wats, with over 300 in the area. Smaller and older than the temples in Bangkok, it’s definitely worth exploring a few of these ornate gems.

Wat Pra That Doi Suthep

The largest and most famous temple in Chiang Mai, Wat Pra That Doi Suthep sits on a mountain northwest of the city. One of the holiest Buddhist sites in Thailand, it’s a major pilgrimage destination. Especially during the Buddhist holidays of Makha Bucha and Visakha Bucha. The temple grounds are up over 300 steps from the base, although a tram is available.

Visiting Wat Pra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai is one of the top things to do
Pra That Doi Suthep
Seeing the golden Chedi at Wat Pra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai is one of the top things to do
Doi Suthep Chedi

The view of Chiang Mai from the top is the best in the city.

The view from the top of Wat Pra That Doi Suthep is one of the top things to do in Chiang Mai.
Doi Suthep View

How To Get to Wat Pra That Doi Suthep: Doi Suthep is 11 miles (18 km) from the Old City. In Chiang Mai, songthaew, or red trucks, collect multiple riders (10-12), acting similar to ride share taxis. For Wat Pra That Doi Suthep, there is a meeting point for singthaew, by Chang Phuak Gate. They will leave when full. From there it is a 45-minute drive.

Wat Chiang Man

Built over the site of the former palace of the city’s founder, King Mengrai, this is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai. It’s visually interesting with a base of elephant statues and a gold top. Wat Chiang Man is located in the northeastern part of the Old City.

Wat Chedi Luang

Chedi Luang | JJ Harrison

This was once the tallest structure in Chiang Mai, at 269’ (82 m). Centrally located in Old City, this was the original home of the Emerald Buddha, one of the most revered Buddha’s in Thailand, that now sits in the Grand Palace in Bangkok. A replica is in its place.

Wat Sri Suphan

Wat Sri Suphan is covered in silver. Adding to its allure, it’s lit in neon lights at night. This temple is located south of the Old City, near Wualai Road.

Wat Phra Singh

Wat Phra Singh, given Royal status by King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s brother, is located in western Old City.

Sri Suphan | Moonbeep

Wat Phan Tao

This wooden temple of Wat Phan Tao, which sits next to Wat Chedi Luang in the central part of the Old City, is known for its exquisite teakwood ordination hall.

Top Festivals in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is a fun, festive place, but comes even more alive during its top festivals. Just keep in mind that the city gets very busy during these events.

Loy Krathong Festival, Yi Peng, Or Festival of Lights

Loy Krathong and Yi Peng, or Festival of Lights, is celebrated on the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar, usually falling in November. This visually stunning celebration is a must-see in Chiang Mai, which hosts the largest event in Thailand.

Yi Peng Festival | Wilfredor

A parade is held in the Old City, heading towards the river. From there, thousands of water lanterns, or loy krathongs, are launched on the river, and rice paper lanterns, or khom loi, are released into the sky. The floating water lanterns symbolize letting go of anger and negative attachments, while the sky lanterns are offerings to buddha to cleanse a person’s spirit and heal misfortune. One things to keep in mind is that many tourists will be trying to do this for the first time, crashing a lot of lanterns, so make sure to watch the sky for falling ones!

You can also purchase tickets for the mass launch events (like the photo above), where thousands of lanterns are set off. There are currently 5 mass launch events in Chiang Mai, ranging in price from $100-300 USD. Each offering slightly different benefits.

Songkran I

Held in mid-April, this festival celebrates the traditional Thai New Year. There are parades, a city-wide water fight, and a beauty competition for Miss Songkran.

Want To See More Of a Thailand?

Thailand is a beautiful country and fabulous place to visit, full of dazzling temples, friendly people, and lots to explore.

Each city offers something unique. Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, is a must-visit location, with its opulent Grand Palace, important temples, flourishing food scene, hip nightlife, and floating markets.

If you want to explore more temples and ruins, there is an overnight train from Chiang Mai to Ayutthaya. This was once the capital of Siam, a cosmopolitan city, visited from around the world to see its beauty.

And last but not least, if you want to explore the beaches of Thailand, there are many stunning options. You can learn more about them and all the tops sites in my Thailand Travel Guide. It also provides information on how to get around, safety, scams, and much more, to help plan your trip.

Hello! I resigned from a corporate career in product development to explore the world. Although my goal was to travel for a year, 8 years later, I’ve been honored to have explored more than 60 gorgeous countries and met some unbelievably amazing people. Our world truly is a beautiful place! Follow me into the gorgeous unknown by subscribing below. You’ll receive details on fabulous destinations, comprehensive travel guides, travel tips and tidbits, and information on travel trends, like experiential, sustainable, and transformational travel. Where is your next gorgeous unknown? Julie

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