I spent almost six weeks living in Chiang Mai. It’s such a magical city, and finding time to see everything I wanted to in those two weeks was a challenge—you could live there for years and feel like you never got a chance to experience it all. Of course, hanging by the pool is worth some of your time too, and checking out the many restaurants was a highlight for me.
Here are some of the best things to do in Chiang Mai, in my opinion. Whether it’s walking around or simply spending the day sipping a smoothie, you’ve found the perfect paradise to enjoy your vacation.
See a Muay Thai boxing match
Muay Thai is an art, and if you plan on making the time to see a match, you will want to choose one where you get an opportunity to see the authentic thing. While there are events going every night at large venues, the smaller ones located a little outside the city center tend to be the real thing.
You might also want to consider looking into taking a class yourself—especially if you are in the mood for a good workout. I recommend the Santai Muay Thai Gym for the best instruction. Just make sure you have a day to relax afterwards, because you will be sore.
Visit an elephant sanctuary
Almost everyone wants to have the chance to see an elephant when in Thailand, but you want to make sure that you do it responsibly. Elephant rides are still advertised on Chiang Mai’s streets, but it is highly recommended that you choose to visit them in a sanctuary instead. You still get the chance to interact with them, but you don’t have to worry that they are receiving proper care.
The Elephant Nature Park allows you to give baths to elephants and to pet them, but the animals are watched very carefully and have been given a loving home after lives often spent logging or being ridden.
Chiang Mai might have some of the best of Thailand’s temples. While you could spend your entire trip hopping from one temple to another, there are a few that you might want to make a special trip to. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is worth making a quick trip out of town to see for its golden chedi. Make sure to wear some sneakers and bring some water since it’s a walk up.
Another spot worth visiting is Wat Chedi Luang, one of the oldest temples in the area. It’s known as the temple of the “Big Stupa,” and it is located right in the very center of the city. It was damaged by an earthquake in 1545, which adds to its mystique along with the monks walking around the grounds.
If you don’t have a specific temple in mind that you want to see, that’s perfectly fine. You can experience a number of options simply by wandering around the city and stopping in at the temples in the area—there are plenty to choose from.
Rent a scooter
You can get around how the locals do by renting a scooter. While it can be a little intimidating at first, it’s also the best way to navigate the city streets and to get the full experience of visiting Chiang Mai. It’s also a cheaper alternative than choosing to use a car at around 350 baht a day. Make sure you also rent a helmet and elect to get insurance if you decide to be brave—it can come in handy later if you find yourself in an accident.
See a cabaret show
Thailand has embraced its LGBTQ culture, and it’s not uncommon to see men dressed as women on the streets. You can experience this to the fullest by heading over to a “ladyboy” show. Along with some classic songs, you get a free drink. There are two shows a day—one at 9:30 pm and one at 11:00 pm. Expect to be a part of the show and don’t be surprised if you get dragged on stage.
Try some street food
Thailand’s night markets are some of the best ways to try the local favorites. For $1 or $2, you can sample a bunch of different items, from pad thai to crocodile on a stick. I loved grabbing a tea from one of the stalls and perusing the stands set up by local craftsmen. Every weekend, you can find the Chang Pheuak Gate (North Gate) packed with new foods to try. Get there early to get the best picks and to avoid the crowds.
Visit Thailand’s “Grand Canyon”
About 20 minutes outside the city, you can find Chiang Mai’s version of the Grand Canyon. Completely man-made, it’s located next to a water park where you can jump into the warm water below. While it wasn’t always the safest activity in the past, efforts have been made to make it less harrowing. Worst case scenario, you can always sit at the included restaurant and enjoy a beer while checking out the view or take a float in some of the inner tubes.
Enjoy a traditional massage from the blind
Getting a massage is a typical activity in Thailand, but you can also manage to relax while helping some of the local people. It’s very difficult for the disabled to make a living in Thailand, but massage is one way that they can support their families. There are several located around the city, and if you find yourself feeling good at the end of the session, you might also want to give a small tip.
Do you have any recommendations for things to do in Chiang Mai? Thailand?