Located in the mountains of northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is for me a must-see destination in the “land of smiles”. Far from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, the city is still the second-largest in Thailand, with breathtaking scenery and a traditional center. If traveling to Chiang Mai means fighting pollution, it also means visiting superb temples, marvelling at the wonders of nature and tasting delicious food.

If you’re still wondering what to see and do, here goes:

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1. See as many temples as possible

Temple in Chiang Mai

This won’t be difficult, since Chiang Mai is the city of 300 temples and even more if you go around and outside the city. The only challenge now is choosing which ones to visit. The most famous and the one all travellers usually visit is Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (Wat means “temple” in Thai). Taking its name from the mountain where it stands, the temple is also part of a national park, which means you’ll have to walk and climb around 300 steps to get there. No pain, no gain, right?

Chiang Mai
Photo by Kamil Molendys on Unsplash

One of my favorites, accessible after another hike, is Wat Phra That Doi Kham (see my temple guide here). Its giant Buddha statue, the calm surrounding it and the view over the city took my breath away.

And just wandering the streets of Chiang Mai, you’ll see many temples. Here are just a few: Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Chiang Man, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Rajamontean, Wat Khuan Khama, Wat Inthakhin Sadue Muang….

And if you’d like to discover more temples and hidden gems, here are 5 of the Best Places in Thailand You Never Heard of Until Now!

2. Stroll through the Old Town

Flowerpots in Chiang Mai

Between the cafés, markets, museum and cultural center, soak up the local atmosphere. Once you’ve passed through the gates of the city wall, you’ll find yourself in a place steeped in hundreds of years of history: the Old Town. This is where you’ll find the best attractions and the best food.

The mix of modernity and tradition is both impressive and sometimes confusing. On the one hand, you’ll see magnificent temples, and on the other, you’ll be strolling through a trendy café. It’s a far cry from the traditional old town I was initially expecting, but Chiang Mai is nonetheless charming and more peaceful than other cities in Thailand.

What’s also attracting more and more tourists is the city’s drive to become a creative hub. Let’s hope Chiang Mai retains its authenticity and traditions!

3. Attend a Muay Thai boxing match

Muay Thai boxing match in Thailand
Photo by Lkszy Dgtl on Unsplash

Thailand’s national sport, this martial art is known as the “Art of 8 Limbs”. Simply because it uses 8 points of contact: punches, elbows, knees and feet. You can attend a match in one of the city’s stadiums. One of the oldest in the country, the Thaphae Boxing Stadium organizes fights every day except Sunday. Standard tickets start at 600 baht ($17). Come and discover this traditional and different kind of boxing in an electric atmosphere.

Local vibe

4. Experience the markets

Chiang Mai's market

The first day, or rather the first night, that I arrived in Chiang Mai was a Saturday. As soon as I arrived at the hostel, the host told me “You’ve arrived on a perfect day, you should go to the market”. As I’m the kind of person who listens to local recommendations, I went out in the direction indicated, hungry and excited. I didn’t have to walk very far, as I soon heard the rustle of people’s footsteps and smelled the food.

Wua Lai Walking Street is probably Chiang Mai’s best market, open only on Saturdays and often less crowded than the Sunday market. Whether you want to shop or indulge your cravings, this is the place to be.

And if you’re not here on a Saturday, don’t worry, there are plenty of other markets in town: Warorot Market, Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, Chang Puak Gate Market… all filled with colorful stalls emitting fragrant scents waiting for you to discover them.

5. Indulge in local cuisine

Mango sticky rice in Chiang Mai

My favorite dish so far in Thailand is the typical and well-known Chiang Mai dish: Khao Soi. Served with chicken or beef and two types of yellow noodle, this dish has become a real comfort food. The rich, fragrant broth and the perfect combination of flavors make it a comforting dish. The only downside I can find is that sometimes the portion is too small.

But Thailand is much more than that: it’s a culinary paradise for those who love delicious, spicy dishes. You should also try Tom Yum Goong (spicy shrimp soup), the famous Pad Thai (fried noodles), Khao Pad (fried rice), Gaeng Keow Wan (green curry)…, not forgetting my favorite Thai dessert, Kao Niew Ma Muang or better known as mango sticky rice.

And that’s just a small sample of the mouth-watering dishes on offer!

6. Get a Thai massage

Tired after all that exploring? Treat yourself to a Thai massage and you’ll feel rejuvenated!

Traditional Thai massage is based on dynamic stretching and pressure on specific points. It can be a little painful because they use their arms, elbows, forearms and sometimes their feet, so don’t hesitate to ask for a gentler massage.

It’s a great experience that will help you get rid of the tension and stiffness built up in your muscles.

7. Visit an elephant sanctuary

As an opponent of animal cruelty, I never go to zoos, aquariums or any other place where you might think animals are being mistreated. So getting on an elephant’s back or giving it a bath is a big NO for me.

Fortunately, Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park, although very famous, is also the most ethical. Founder Saengduean Lek Chailert has won international acclaim for her conservation work and numerous awards, so the choice is easy. Plus, it’s girl power!

You can choose to spend half a day, a full day or a night, but you can also volunteer for a week. Prices start at 2,500 Bahts (about $70).

8. Visit the village of Khlong Mae Kha

Khlong Mae Kha village in Chiang Mai

Once plagued by water pollution, this hitherto little-known village is fast becoming Chiang Mai’s newest attraction. The revitalization of the canal and the “Japanese” themed stores in some places have completely transformed Khlong Mae Kha village.

Bridge in Khlong Mae Kha village in Chiang Mai
Lanterns on the bridge in Chiang Mai

The quality of life has also improved thanks to this project. Attractive Thai souvenir stores, street food stalls and friendly locals make a stroll along the canal a pleasant experience. It’s also the ideal place to escape the city crowds and find some peace and quiet.

How to get to Chiang Mai

There are many options available from Bangkok:

  • By plane: flights are fairly cheap > $23 for 1.5hr. You’ll still need to reach the city (10mn by taxi), which is an additional cost.
  • By bus: count 9-11hr at $16 > many stops, somewhat comfortable reclining seats.
  • By train: 11-15hr, prices start at $8 for the 3rd class. Always book your ticket in advance at the station as trains are the preferred means of transport for locals and tourists alike.
    You can choose between 3rd class, 2nd class with fan or air conditioning, and there are also carriages reserved for women… Modern, comfortable, safe and efficient, the train is, I think, the best choice as you can enjoy the scenery or save a night’s accommodation by choosing a night train.

Where to stay in Chiang Mai?

The old town is usually the place to stay, as you have everything within easy reach and can explore easily, even if you don’t have a motorcycle, for example. It’s also the place to find culture, food and shopping.

Wat Ket is another great Chiang May neighborhood to stay in. Firstly, you’ll be away from the tourists, but you’ll also have a beautiful view of the river. There’s plenty of accommodation to suit all budgets, and the old town is only a 20-minute walk away.

In a nutshell

Chiang Mai, rich in culture, is a must-see on your trip to Thailand. Not only will you discover a blend of modernity and culture, but you’ll also see some superb temples and have the opportunity to sample some delicious food. What’s more, the city is a pleasant substitute for Bangkok, which can quickly become overwhelming.

🎯 Would you like to go straight to my recommendations?

🛌 Hostel: Nama Hostel Chiangmai

🥾 Recommended Tours:
Chiang Mai Old City & Temples Guided Walking Tour
Doi Suthep Trekking Half and Full Day Tour

👩‍🍳 Cooking Class:
Mama Noi Thai Cookery School Chiang Mai

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8 Comments

  1. Oh wow! It looks amazing, thank you for sharing you experience. I normally just hear about Bangkok but it’s nice reading about other regions that look as amazing as the capital.

  2. It’s hard not to like everywhere in Thailand and Chiang Mai is one of the special spots – although if pressed, I’d have to say I prefer Chiang Rai as although there is maybe not so much to see in the actual city. it has a greater variety of things to do and see on its doorstep. With you on everything else, especially the shopping, always a delight in Thailand.

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment!
      And you’re right, it’s really hard not to like Thailand especially since it has so much to offer. Thanks for the tip about Chiang Rai too, I’ll definitely check it out next time!

  3. Such a great post! I was supposed to go to Chang Mai when in Asia years ago but wound up going to Bangkok, Krabi, and Hanoi instead. I loved all the places I visited but definitely am itching to get back to Chang Mai.

    1. I’m sure you’ll love Chiang Mai and hope you’ll have the opportunity to visit the city and Thailand again someday. Thanks for your visit and comment, Tracy!

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