10 Best Things to Do in Chiang Mai (That Don’t Involve Riding Elephants or Petting Tigers)
Check out these amazing sights and attractions in Chiang Mai without contributing to animal cruelty and abuse.
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 – you won’t regret adding it to your Thailand itinerary! It was even voted as the top city in Asia several 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.
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 in Chiang Mai 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. Exploring the markets is one of the most popular things to do in Chiang Mai at night.
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.
4. Visit Doi Inthanon National Park
Doi Inthanon National Park is approximately an hour, an hour and a half away from Old Town by car. It is a fantastic Chiang mai 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 – it truly is one of the most amazing places to see in Chiang Mai. I would recommend hiring a car to get there rather than riding a scooter as the road is winding and steep in sections. Read my guide for what to see in Doi Inthanon National Park.
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 (or visit popular Doi Inthanon attractions when all of the other tour groups go) – 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, and Chiang Mai is one of the best destinations for Yoga lovers. 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!
7. Visit an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center
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.”World Animal Protection Research Report on the conditions for elephants used in tourism in Asia
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.
Love elephants? Check out these elephant sanctuaries, orphanages and parks around the world that you should visit or click here to read more about Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai!
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”.
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 (som tam) 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.
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! Click here to find some other highly rated accommodation options in Chiang Mai’s Old Town!
Looking for more Thailand travel tips and recommendations?
- Check out all of my Thailand travel guides here
- Don’t miss out on a day trip to Doi Inthanon National Park
- Planning on visiting Chiang Mai during the Yi Peng lantern festival? Here’s what you need to know
- Read this 10 day Thailand itinerary to help you plan your perfect trip
- Head out of Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai to see the unique blue and white temples
- Interested in reading more about ethical and responsible tourism in Southeast Asia? Click here for 10 things you should know before you visit Southeast Asia
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I love this! Love when I have unique ways to experience a popular destination — the sticky waterfall sounds so cool!
It was something I have never seen elsewhere! Very cool
I would spend most of my time at the national park! so beautiful ! & as much as I’ve always wanted to ride an elephant, I would much rather see them at an ethical sanctuary.
Unfortunately many people don’t understand that elephants cannot bear weight as horses do, and in order to train elephants to allow humans to ride on their backs they have to undergo a very cruel torture regime called “the crush”. Hopefully we can all steer people away from riding camps!
I love that you advocated NOT to do the typical tourist animal thing! It makes me so sad , and I love when others don’t agree with the exploitation. Thanks for sharing. Greatly written!
Thank you for taking the time to read this, Courtney! Hopefully this steers people away from the elephant riding camps and tiger petting zoos.
I hear amazing things about Chiang Mai! Thank you for putting this together, and there is so much more to do that are more ethical than those elephant riding places or the Tiger Temple. Definitely saving this for when I go!
Thanks so much for taking the time to read this, Caroline!
Sucha beautiful post. Like you said, it still baffles me that people so openly partake in these horrible tourist attractions just so they can get that cool picture. A day in that elephant sanctuary would warm my heart. What an incredbile experience that seems! Thank you for this list! Everyone should read this post!
I think (or at least hope) it all boils down to a lack of awareness, instead of flagrantly dismissing the abuse!
Man I miss Chiang Mai so much and really wish we had more time there. Feel like it was so limited and really want to go back after reading all these things to do!
I couldn’t agree more! I can’t wait to go back – hopefully for the lantern festival next year.
It’s good to see the ethical practices being promoted. I’ve not been to Thailand yet, but this is really good information to have. It sounds like you had a wonderful time. I particularly like the sticky waterfall!
I hope you get to visit Thailand soon, Theresa! The food and sights are unbelievable.
I would like to introduce the mobile application for using SongTeaw (share taxi). Name of the app is CM Taxi. You can load the app for both iOS and Android. Its support 3 languages (Thai – English – Chinese). Android version is full function now; however, iOS version is waiting App Store to release. You can load directly from this link below. The app is developed by Faculty of Engineering Chiang Mai University and supported by Ministry of Energy.
Sounds like an interesting app – thanks for sharing.
I am so glad that the blogging trend has turned to the realization that elephants and other animals get abused all over the world for the pleasure of tourists trying to feel “exotic”. Thanks for providing some awesome solutions and ways of not supporting that kind of practice! I would love to take a cooking class and visit a ginger farm – local food and cooking (and drink!) are probably my favorite things about travel. I didn’t know that was an option for tourists, but apparently, it’s quite popular! Thanks for the heads up, I’ll have to book ahead then!
I truly think it’s all about raising awareness, Tom! I’m hoping to play some small part in spreading the word (to friends and family as well) about the cruel training that these animals go through.
This is a great article with valuable information about Chiang Mai. We went to Thailand for Christmas but we skipped this city and now I realise it wasn’t the right thing to do. I would love to have a chat with a monk, visit a ginger farm or hike around the park. I will pin this for future reference, hope to get to Thailand next year as well.
It just means you have to go back 🙂 If you have a few extra days you should head up to Chiang Rai and Pai as well!
thank you so much for putting this together! We will be including Chaing Mai to our world trip and I pinned it for when we are there! We plan to spend a week or 2 there and with your list we have plenty of stuff to do 🙂
I can’t wait to hear how your trip goes!
I cant wait to get to Thailand and check out the Chaing Mai area. My partner Claire has been there and had a fantastic time. I wouldnt ride elephants, I dont like people who do that, not considerate.
Before I knew about the phajaan I had visited elephant camps and rode on elephants (ugh the shame) – I think it’s all about raising awareness!
This is amazing! We’ve only come across digital nomad stories or petting tigers stories from Chiang Mai so its great to see another perspective to what seems like a beautiful city!
I absolutely LOVED my time in Chiang Mai – I can’t wait to get back!
Yay!! This post is awesome! I’m thinking real hard about when I can get to visit Chiangmai even though I live in Singapore, it’s like so near yet so far, that kind of feeling. Was already checking out yoga studios cos I heard there’s places to practise there!
Lolll at your description of the ugliest waterfall you’d seen. At least it’s cool that people can simply get their feet sticking to it, ha!
Booking your post for my next visit, hopefully it will happen soon!
It is truly the strangest feeling, Kristine! The only way I can describe the feeling of climbing up the waterfall is like stepping on pumice stones.
I love that you put this post together. It breaks my heart to still see travelers visiting places like the Tiger Temple. There are so many great reasons to visit Chiang Mai other than riding elephants or petting tigers and you’ve done such a good job of putting it all together here. Totally made me want to go back again. 🙂
I think it’s all about raising awareness, Sarah! I don’t think people truly understand what the animals go through to make them so subservient.
Doi Inthanon National Park and the Elephant Nature Park sounds like a gem. 🙂 Glad there are plenty of options that one can do in Chiang Mai aside from elephant and animal attractions.
Oh my goodness, so many amazing waterfalls!
Visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary is a MUCH better idea than patting tigers! Cooking classes and massages are both great things to do in Thailand, and the thought of getting eaten alive by mosquitos while practicing yoga is an amusing one!
Haha, it’s hard to stay calm and focused when there’s mosquitoes buzzing about! They do spray citronella oil, but if you go for a class at sunset there’s just not much you can do about the mozzies!
I wish I had visited the Doi Inthanon National Park and the limestone waterfall too! Great guide as always Flo x
Thank you so much, Nam! <3
So glad you wrote this. I too was disgusted at how many pamphlets I saw promoting unethical animal interactions. There is so much to do there as shown in this awesome post!
Supply and demand, right?! I suppose the good news is that ENP is helping other elephant camps transition into no-riding sanctuaries!
So sad to see all of those mistreated elephants 🙁 But glad they are taken care of now! I’ll be back in Chiang Mai soon, so will definitely check out some of your tips. Thanks a lot! 🙂
Hope you have an amazing trip, Denise! I love Chiang Mai and can’t wait to go back.