Wondering what to do in Chiang Mai? Read on! Located in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai has become increasingly popular among tourists traveling to the Land of Smiles. It was even voted as the top city in Asia 3 years in a row by Travel + Leisure readers! As a religious epicentre, it has more than 300 temples scattered around town as well as incredible natural landmarks and sites such as Doi Inthanon National Park. With so many options, it may be hard to figure out how to best spend your time and decide what to do in Chiang Mai.
Because of its proximity to rainforests and the practice of logging, Chiang Mai is also home to many elephant and animal attractions. Even with the news of the horrors that took place at Tiger Temple as well as the cruelty that elephants are subjected to, I was surprised to see that many tourist centers, brochures and pamphlets still openly promote dubious animal attractions, and that many tourists still pay money to visit these horrific places to get that “Instagram-worthy” shot of themselves sitting on an elephant’s back or stroking a tiger. According to World Animal Protection, more than 3,000 elephants used for entertaining tourists are now in captivity in Asia, and Thailand has by far the highest number of elephants used in tourism.
“There has been a 30% rise in the number of elephants at tourism venues in Thailand since 2010. In the most recent study, 357 more elephants in Thailand were found living in poor welfare conditions than five years ago.” – read the full report by World Animal Protection here.
If you are thinking of visiting Chiang Mai (and you definitely should) and want to make sure that you engage in responsible and ethical tourism in Thailand, there are a plethora of amazing sights and landmarks that you can visit without contributing to animal cruelty and abuse. Here are just a few things to add to your Chiang Mai bucket list!
Getting in and getting around Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai International Airport is a busy airport with many international connections. Thailand offers visa-on-arrival services, but nationals of many countries are also granted visa-exempt entry. Check this website to see if you need a visa to enter Thailand.
Once you have arrived at the airport, head to Exit 1 to find the taxi counters. Taxi fares are standardized, just tell the person manning the counter where you want to go, pay, and then take your receipt outside to be paired with your uniformed driver. As of March 2017 it costs approximately 150 Baht (approx $5 USD) to get to Chiang Mai’s Old Town, which is a 15-minute drive away with no traffic.
Getting around Chiang Mai is a breeze. You can easily get around on foot within Old Town, or hop on a songthaew (share taxi) or tuk tuk. To get to further locations like Doi Inthanon I would recommend hiring a private driver. I ended up using the same driver who picked me up at the airport and he was fantastic: spoke English, was punctual and his cab was extremely clean (and air conditioned!). There are also plenty of Grab (similar to Uber – download it before your trip!) drivers in the area and prices tend to be reasonable.
Wondering where to stay in Chiang Mai to make the most of your time there? If you only have a few days, then the best place to stay in Chiang Mai is within “Old Town”. I can highly recommend See You Soon Chiang Mai, a boutique hotel located above a fantastic cafe and right next to Wat Chedi Luang temple, or Nawa Sheeva, a few steps away from Tha Pae Gate with a private pool. Click here to check current room rates at See You Soon Chiang Mai or click here to check availability at Nawa Sheeva.
Alternatively, I can also recommend BED Chiang Mai Gate Hotel just outside the Old Town. This boutique property is an adults only hotel in Chiang Mai and offers clean and spacious rooms. If you’re looking for a hotel with a pool in Chiang Mai, head to BED Chiang Mai Gate Hotel. Click here to check current room rates at BED Chiang Mai Gate Hotel!
The weather in Chiang Mai
Most areas in Thailand tend to be hot throughout the year and Chiang Mai is no different, except in the mountains where it is much cooler due to high altitudes. The most popular time to visit Chiang Mai is during the “cool” season from December to early March, when the temperature is “only” 25-30 degrees Celsius during the day and slightly cooler at night. April, May and June tend to be warmer months and the rainy season begins around May all the way through to October/November.
A popular time to visit Chiang Mai is in April for Songkran, the Thai new year, or early November for the Yi Peng (AKA Yee Peng) lantern and Loy Krathong festivals. If you are planning a visit to see the lantern festival in Chiang Mai, read this first!
Many people cautioned against visiting in March due to “burning season” and the layer of smog that envelops the city, but in recent years the government has stepped up efforts to stop farmers from burning their land. My trip was not affected in the slightest and I did not notice any haze/smog when I was there.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
If you only have a few days, then the best place to stay in Chiang Mai is within Old Town. If you are a longtime reader of Yoga, Wine & Travel then you’ll know that I am a sucker for beautiful, boutique hotels. See You Soon Hotel and Cafe in the heart of Old Town is an amazing hotel with a handful of spacious and newly renovated rooms and stunning & tasteful decor. The rooms sit atop a wonderful cafe (try the mango and sticky rice) with tasty food and drinks, and the wifi connection is very stable and fast throughout the property.
It is also located right next to the Sunday market so you can roll back to your room after stuffing your face full of street food. Click here to check current rates at See You Soon Chiang Mai.
I would also highly recommend Nawa Sheeva, about 2 blocks away from Wat Chedi Luang and the Tha Pae Gate. This small boutique hotel has incredibly friendly staff, clean and spacious rooms as well as a small private pool, though the wi-fi can be a little unstable at times. Click here to check current rates at Nawa Sheeva.
If you are looking for a slightly more modern hotel with a pool in Chiang Mai, then you’ll want to check out BED Hotel Chiang Mai Gate. This boutique property is an adults only hotel in Chiang Mai and offers clean and spacious rooms. Click here to check current room rates at BED Chiang Mai Gate Hotel or click here to find some other highly rated accommodation options in Chiang Mai’s Old Town!
Top things to do in Chiang Mai
For a relatively small city there are plenty of things to see and do in Chiang Mai, but most attractions are relatively close to each other and transportation is a breeze. If you are planning your trip, I would recommend staying for 3-5 nights – read on for what to do in Chiang Mai in 3 days!
1. Wander around the many temples around town
The gilded temples offer incredible detailed architecture, a light scent of burning incense and if you’re open to it, a sense of peace and quiet. The temples are still active places of worship and so you’ll need to dress appropriately.
Bring a shawl to cover your shoulders and wear a long skirt or pants. Here are some temples you should explore: Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Pra Singh, Wat Chiang Man and Wat Phan Tao. You can easily spend a day temple hopping.
Looking for an off-the-beaten-path temple experience? Read more about Wat Pha Lat and hiking the hidden monk’s trail here.
If you want to see some extremely unique Thai Buddhist temples then head north to Chiang Rai. It is an easy day trip destination or you can stay overnight to explore more. The small city also offers a night market, quirky art gallery and the most delicious khao soi – a curry noodle dish local to northern Thailand. Read on for 5 things to do in Chiang Rai!
2. Learn about a Buddhist monk’s life
Some temples will have “monk chat” corners where you can speak to one of the monks who live on-site. It’s a fantastic opportunity for travelers to learn more about the culture and religion, and also offers monks the chance to practice their English. If you are a female traveler you should refrain from making any bodily contact with the monks.
3. Stuff your face at a night market
Chiang Mai has 2 major night markets: 1 held on Saturday nights, and 1 on Sunday. There are hundreds of stalls selling everything from artisan products to elephant harem pants. If you love street food then skip dinner and pick up bits and pieces to snack on here instead. During the week there are other markets including the Night Bazaar where you can get your fill of souvenir shopping and street food.
If you are looking for a good local market to visit during the day, check out the local market at Chiang Mai Gate. Make sure you bring along your camera as it is extremely photogenic with colourful flowers, lanterns and fresh produce.
Doi Inthanon is approximately an hour, an hour and a half away from Old Town by car. It is a fantastic day trip destination for those who are looking for an active vacation and offers beautiful waterfalls, gardens, hiking trails as well as the highest point in Thailand.
Make sure you don’t skip the Mae Pan Nature Trail through the stunning cloud forest. I would recommend hiring a car to get there rather than riding a scooter as the road is winding and steep in sections. Charter a private car and driver for the day in Chiang Mai by clicking here (there is a 500 Baht surcharge for Doi Inthanon), or join a group tour to Doi Inthanon by booking online here. However, most group tour itineraries skip quite a few landmarks and waterfalls – if you want to visit ALL of the attractions you should charter a vehicle.
5. Climb up a waterfall
Quite possibly the ugliest waterfall I’ve ever laid my eyes on, Bua Thong waterfall is also known as the “Sticky Waterfall” because the surface is, as the name suggests, sticky! The water is heavy in calcium carbonate which means that you can climb up the waterfall and do your best Spider-Man impression, just be careful as some sections are still slippery. Try to avoid visiting during the weekend as it can get crowded, head there early in the morning during a weekday to have the place all to yourself. When I visited there was no entry fee.
When you visit Bua Thong waterfall don’t skip Nam Phu Chet Si, a small shrine and pool of sacred water located a few hundred steps away from the waterfall. Its name means “7 colour pool” and its water is thought to have healing properties.
6. Practice Yoga
There are several yoga studios within Old Town that offer drop-in classes. If you’re keen to join a led class and find a studio during your travels then look into attending a class at Wild Rose Yoga (250 Baht per class) or Freedom Yoga. Tip: spray some mosquito repellent on before class so you don’t get eaten alive!
Responsible and ethical travel in Thailand is not difficult if you do your due diligence. Animal lovers should not miss the chance to walk alongside an elephant and observe them in their herds. There are several ethical elephant sanctuaries and orphanages that you can visit for a day trip, just be sure to do your research ahead of time to ensure that they don’t offer elephant rides, “elephant soccer games” or elephant trunk painting.
“If you can climb, ride, hug, hold or touch an elephant, chances are the elephant has been subjected to cruelty and is living in poor conditions.”
“A true elephant-friendly venue is purely observational for visitors, where the safety of visitors and wellbeing of elephants is not affected by the need to constantly control the animals. The elephants would be managed in humane ways through the mahout who allows a maximum of freedom or through advanced ‘protected contact’ techniques.”
Perhaps one of the most well-known is Elephant Nature Park. You can book your visit ahead of time online and will be picked up by a comfortable air conditioned van to take you an hour out of town to the park. The park accommodates several dozen visitors each day and you will be grouped along with 6-8 other people and 1 guide who will lead you around the park. It is home to 70+ retired and injured elephants, many of which have been rescued from elephant shows, riding camps, the logging industry and street begging. Spending a day at the park is truly heart warming and is a must-do for anyone who loves elephants. You can click here to read more about Elephant Nature Park and the state of elephant tourism in Thailand.
8. Check out a ginger farm
A relative newcomer to Chiang Mai, the Ginger Farm sits on a beautiful, lush piece of farmland 20 minutes from the Old Town. There is also an on-site restaurant serving fresh and delicious Thai food, and is a fantastic place to spend an afternoon to “get out of the city”. The Ginger Farm also regularly hosts events and workshops, you can sign up via their Facebook page here.
9. Take a cooking class
Perhaps one of the most popular activities in Chiang Mai, Thai cooking classes are often booked out well in advance so be sure to secure your spot ahead of time. Learn how to make your own pad thai, papaya salad and Thai curry – some places will even take you to a market to purchase the ingredients ahead of the class.
10. Get a massage
Massages in Thailand are cheap and available all over town. Thai massages are unique in the sense that they are often very strong and the masseuse may use his/her body to twist and stretch your body into shapes you weren’t sure were possible. I visited Dalah Massage just across the street from Wat Chedi Luang, but another popular option is the Women’s Massage Center (several branches) which hires ex-prisoners to give them an opportunity to rejoin society.
Ready to book your fabulous responsible vacation in Chiang Mai? Click here to check current rates at See You Soon Chiang Mai and make sure you check out their fabulous coffee shop and restaurant, or book a room at Nawa Sheeva, a small Thai boutique hotel with a private pool within Old Town, or check out BED Chiang Mai Gate for an adults-only hotel in Chiang Mai with a pool. Click here to find some other highly rated accommodation options in Chiang Mai’s Old Town!
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