Travel guide for Southeast Asia

What to do in Chiang Mai? The Ultimate Bucket List

Unlike its bigger sister Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a more relaxed city with picturesque architecture, beautiful scenery and amazing food. Located in the Northern mountains of Thailand, this Asian City is divided into two distinct areas:

  • the old city, which is an extraordinarily preserved area with traditional night markets, local street vendors and stunning temples.
  • the countryside, where you’ll find your perfect trek in lush nature or even bathe with elephants in a sanctuary. 

Easily accessible from Bangkok by bus, the city is filled with activities to please everyone. So much in fact, that it can be hard to choose. We’ve put together a list of our top 10 favourite activities so you’ll know what to do in Chiang Mai.

How to get to Chiang Mai?

Getting to Chiang Mai is fairly easy, no matter where you’re arriving from. The city is very well connected, with multiple daily bus connections as well as an international airport. 

For long-distance bus routes, the city’s main bus station is the Arcade Bus Station located at Wat Ket, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50000. The station is located about 5 km from the Old City and you can easily get there by taxi. 

Bus Bangkok to Chiang Mai

With over 10 daily departures, the bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is one of the best ways to reach Northern Thailand. All buses are equipped with AC and some of them have restrooms on board. If not, don’t worry! Buses make frequent bathroom stops along the way. In whole, the journey takes about 10 hours via an overnight sleeper bus or during the day, as you prefer.

Where to stay in Chiang Mai?

If you’re looking for a place to stay in Chiang Mai, we recommend looking inside the Old City or Nimmanhaemin Area. Both of these areas offer easy access to major attractions and a wide range of accommodations, restaurants, bars, and shops. The Old City—where most backpackers tend to stay—features more culture and history, while the Nimman area is renowned for its trendy, modern vibe and upscale accommodation. You can also check hostels on Hostelling International, a federation of more multiple National Youth Hostel Associations! You’ll be sure to find great hostels in Chiang Mai at the best price.

1. Check out the Chiang Mai Old City and its temples

This might seem quite obvious, but the best way to visit Chiang Mai’s Old City is by walking. The Chiang Mai Old City used to be enclosed, hidden behind walls and gates for protection. This part of the city is square-shaped and features a grid layout, with roads and alleys connecting together, so it’s rather easy to navigate. If you’re lucky enough to visit during the weekend, visit Wualai Walking Street market (Saturday) where plenty of handcrafted items and locally-made products are showcased. While you’re there, visit the famous Sunday walking street where you can find most of your souvenirs, perfectly crafted by Northern Thai people. Also interested in seeing temples? By walking around the city gates, you’ll be able to see two of the most important temples for Northern Buddhists; Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chiang Man. Wear your most comfortable shoes and drink lots of water to fully enjoy your day!

Wat Phra Singh Temple

Located in the western part of the old city center, Wat Phra Singh is probably the most famous temple in Chiang Mai. This large complex houses an exquisite chapel decorated with gold, as well as an important Buddha statue and many holy buildings.

  • Where is it? Wat Phra Singh is situated inside the Old City walls, at the western end of Ratchadamnoen Road.
  • How to get there? If you are strolling through Chiang Mai Old City, you’ll see that the Wat Phra Singh Temple is walking distance from anywhere within the walls.
  • When to go? The temple is open daily from 6 AM to 5 PM.
  • How much time to visit? 2–3 hours
  • How much does it cost? Admission is 20 Thai Baht

Insider tip: If you plan on visiting any temples, make sure you dress appropriately! Shoulders and knees should be entirely covered.

Wat Chiang Man Temple

Founded in 1296, Wat Chiang Man is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai. Also located in the Chiang Mai Old City, this one is renowned for its many Buddha statues of great historical value. The temple also features two beautiful viharns, where religious ceremonies are held. Be sure to look for the one with a three tiered roof and a façade decorated with wood and gold.

  • Where is it? Wat Chiang Man is located in the Chiang Mai Old City.
  • How to get there? Simply head towards the north-east corner of the old walled part of Chiang Mai, between Phra Pok Klao 13 road and Ratchaphakhinai 1 road.
  • When to go? The temple is open daily from 6 AM to 5 PM.
  • How much time to visit? 1–3 hours
  • How much does it cost? Admission is free!

Insider tip: Because of the extreme heat in Chiang Mai, it’s always better to plan your visit in the early morning and to bring along enough water to stay hydrated! 

Wat Phra Singh temple, ocated in the western part of the old city center of Chiang Mai

2. Get a massage in Chiang Mai

Simply put, you cannot visit Thailand without indulging in a Thai Massage! Massage parlors are located everywhere within the old city. Indulge yourself in a simple face and foot massage or a traditional Thai massage or reflexology, which is the local speciality. If you’re looking for an unforgettable experience, why not try getting a massage from a female prison inmate or a blind massage? 

Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution

Yes, you’ve guessed it! The plan is to get a massage by a prison inmate. The Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution is a training center that is dedicated to teaching incarcerated women craftsmanship. There, you’ll find skilled masseuses, trained to perform traditional Thai massage. Don’t be fooled by the name of the place—most people claim it to be the best that massage in Chiang Mai.

  • Where is it? The Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution Training Centre is located at 100 Rajchavithi Road, in the heart of the Old City.
  • How to get there? It’s a short 10-minute walk from Wat Chiang Man temple.
  • When to go? Opening hours are:
    • Monday through Friday from 8 AM to 4:30 PM
    • Weekends from 9 AM to 4:30 PM
  • How much time to visit? 1–3 hours
  • How much does it cost? A massage costs 200 Thai baht per hour.

Insider tip: There are no appointments available, it’s a first come, first served basis. Arrive early, as most of the stops are taken by 10:30 AM! Oh—and don’t worry, traditional Thai massages are usually performed fully clothed.

3. Sample the street food

Located in Northern Thailand, the city of Chiang Mai is internationally known to be a food paradise and culinary hub. The best thing about street food is that, not only it is cheap (1–3$USD), but the sizes are smaller than your standard meal so you can try many different dishes. Be sure to taste some of the local specialty dishes, such as:

  • Khao Soi, which is a local northern dish consisting of egg noodle curry 
  • Sai Oua, which is a Northern Thai pork and herb sausage dish
  • Tam Khanun—a Young Jackfruit Salad

The most popular spots to get the best street food are at the weekend night markets, Chang Puak and Chiang Mai Gate and Nimmanhaemin Road. Another way to sample these delightful dishes AND get local insight on them is to take a street food tour with a local guide. Yes, in Chiang Mai—you can eat and be touristy all at once.

Chiang Mai Street Food Tours

Chiang Mai Street Food Tours is the leading food tour company in the city! Led by local guides, the various tours take you around the historic city and teach you about national and regional dishes. The group stops in various markets, food stalls and small local restaurants on the way. You can take a morning or evening tour and choose amongst two or three itineraries.

  • Where is it? Chiang Mai Street Food Tours offers a free pick up wherever you’re staying, and the tour takes place in the vicinity of the Old City.
  • When to go? 
    • The morning tour starts at 9 AM and ends at noon 
    • The evening tour starts at 7 PM and ends at 9:30 PM
  • How much time to visit? 2–3 hours
  • How much does it cost? Both tours cost 905 Thai baht per person.

Insider tip: If you’re a vegetarian, you’ll enjoy the evening tour better, as most dishes served won’t include any meat. 

Bowl of Khao Soi, a typical nothern Thai dish
Khao Soi, typical northern Thai dish – Photo Credit: Felicia Cote-Floyd

4. Hike up the Chiang Mai Monk Trail

Chiang Mai’s Monk Trail—also known as the Pilgrim Path—is a beautiful jungle trail that leads up to Wat Pha Lat, a small and delightful temple nestled in the forest. It’s the perfect place to escape the crowds, shops and food stalls and unwind in a picturesque setting, and one of the most beautiful places to visit in Chiang Mai. The jungle hike takes about 45 minutes, but you’re rewarded with a gorgeous view of the temple, a peaceful waterfall and unusual fauna and flora that will stimulate all your senses. Waiting for you at the top, you’ll find clean bathrooms and a coffee stand.

  • Where is it? The Chiang Mai Monk Trail begins right behind the Chiang Mai University.
  • How to get there? Simply head to the end of Suthep Road, just by Chiang Mai University. You can take a songthaew (the red shared “taxis”) to this point. Google Maps has a marker at the beginning of Wat Pha Lat’s Trail. If you type “Wat Pha Lat Hike” it will come up on your map!
  • When to go? The Monk Trail is open daily from 6 AM to 5 PM.
  • How much time to visit? The hike itself takes between 45 minutes and 1 hour, and the temple visit takes about 30 minutes. In total, you can easily spend 2–3 hours at the Chiang Mai Monk Trail.
  • How much does it cost? It’s free—even the entrance to the temple!

Insider tip: The hike is uphill, so it’s best to wear comfortable closed shoes and bring water to drink as well as insect repellent. 

5. Sleepover at an elephant sanctuary 

Spending the day with elephants is a once in a lifetime experience! Unfortunately, not all centers care and protect their elephants so make sure you get informed before choosing your destination. The sanctuary shouldn’t offer elephant riding, painting or elephant shows… And a reputable sanctuary should be a rehabilitation and rescue center as well! After doing some research, we’ve found that the Elephant Nature Park respects all these criteria and is truly worth visiting.

Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park is both a sanctuary and rescue center for elephants. Located some 60 km from the city, the center is dedicated to educating locals and tourists about elephants and their care. Short and long visits are made available and it’s even possible to stay overnight if you volunteer. Consider adding the Elephant Park to your list, it’s definitely one of the coolest things to do in Chiang Mai! Plus, all tours offered on site include transport to a city office, bus station or hotel, so it’s quite easy to include in your travel plans.

  • Where is it? The Elephant Nature Park office is located at 1 Ratmakka Road in the Old City of Chiang Mai.
  • How to get there? No need to figure it out—all tours are included with a pick up and drop off!
  • When to go? Look at their extensive list of tours and visits and figure out what’s best for you.
  • How much time to visit? Tours last between a half day to a couple of days.
  • How much does it cost? Tours range from 2,000 THB for a half-day tour to 12,000 THB for 7 days.

Insider tip: If you choose an overnight tour, take a good look at the Elephant Park website and read up on your specific tour, since they each feature a suggested packing list to make your stay is as comfortable as possible!

Elephant farm in Chiang Mai
Patara Elephant Farm – Photo Credit: Felicia Cote-Floyd

6. Ride a taxi across Doi Inthanon National Park

Doi Inthanon is a huge national park located in Northern Thailand and one of the most popular Chiang Mai points of interest. It should be on your list while in Chiang Mai as it boasts a rich wildlife and breathtaking waterfalls—a welcome break from the hectic city vibe. The main attraction is the summit of Doi Inthanon, which offers picturesque views and access to several waterfalls. To get the most out of your visit to Doi Inthanon National Park, we recommend heading to the summit viewpoint facing east at sunrise or the one facing west at sunset. You can definitely spend a full day in nature at the National Park, but note that there aren’t many trails within the park and that some of the waterfalls are pretty hard to get to on foot. The best way to visit Doi Inthanon is to take a taxi service for the day who will guide you around the park.

  • Where is it? Nestled in the mountains, Doi Inthanon National Park is located about 1h30 min away by car from the city. It’s a little off-center, but for sure one of the best things to do around Chiang Mai.
  • How to get there? The park offers a taxi service that will pick you up where you are staying.
  • When to go? The park is open daily.
  • How much time to visit? We recommend planning a whole day to visit the park.
  • How much does it cost? The taxi service is 3000 TBH for a car that fits up to three people. You will be picked up at 7 AM and dropped back off at 4 PM.

Insider tip: The entrance to the park itself is free, but some attractions within the park cost money, so plan to have some cash on you!

7. Explore the Chiang Dao Cave

With more than 12 kilometers of underground passages and caverns, the Chiang Dao Cave is definitely an item to add to your Chiang Mai to do list! The unique topography of the region creates fascinating limestone caverns and the Chiang Dao Cave is made up of five separate caves grouped together. These range from large and accessible to more challenging, so you can enjoy a leisurely stroll or a thrilling adventure, depending on your mood. 

  • Where is it? The Chiang Dao Cave is located 75 km north of Chiang Mai, in the Chiang Dao national park.
  • How to get there? There are multiple ways to reach the cave. You can rent a scooter (the journey takes about 1h30min), take a VIP bus with AC or a city bus without AC. See all the transportation options here.
  • When to go? The Chiang Dao Cave is open daily from 8 AM to 5 PM.
  • How much time to visit? Visiting the caves takes five or six hours, so you’ll most likely want to plan a full day. 
  • How much does it cost? The entrance fee to the cave is 40 TBH.

Insider tip: You can walk through the caves on your own, or get a guided tour with a lantern for 150 TBH. We highly recommend opting for a tour, as the cave network is sprawling and it’s quite easy to get lost!

8. Discover the Chiang Mai markets 

In Chiang Mai, there are numerous markets spread out over the city! Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find it at an outdoor market. In fact, these include food and souvenirs—and even specialty markets. Our favorite Chiang Mai Markets are the night markets and the one on Nimman Road.

Chiang Mai Night Markets

Night markets are quite popular across Thailand! To get in on some Chiang Mai fun, here are two you won’t want to miss:

  • The Saturday Night Market starts at the Old Pagoda by the south gate and stretches out all the way down to Wua Lai Road. It’s the best outdoor market to shop for a souvenir. The market opens late afternoon and lasts until about 10:30 PM. 
  • The Sunday Night Market starts at Tha Phae Gate and stretches out all the way down to Rachadamnoen Road. It’s the perfect place to sample all the street food! Head there starting 4 PM, up until midnight.

Chiang Mai Night Market at Nimman Road 

Located in the trendiest part of Chiang Mai, the Nimman Road Night Market is located on Nimman Road—also referred to as Nimmanhemin for locals. The market features many shopping areas, including upscale, trendy markets and local markets with souvenirs and food. Leading to Nimman Road is Nimman Promenade, which is also worth the detour. Both sides of the streets are filled with small, independent shops selling fashion items and accessories. 

  • Where is it? The Nimman Road Night Market is located North West of the Old City.  
  • How to get there? This Chiang Mai Night Market is a 25-minute walk from the West Gate of the Old City. You can also take a cab if you’re tired after a long day exploring Chiang Mai!
  • When to go? Go at night, when the markets and restaurants are all open and bustling with activity.
  • How much time to visit? 1–2 hours
  • How much does it cost? $

Insider tip: Indulge in a delicious mango sticky rice or Thai ice cream at one of the dessert stalls!

9. Watch a Muay Thai fight

One of the things you must do in Chiang Mai is to check out a Muay Thai Boxing match. Very popular in Thailand, Muay Thai is a combat sport based on ancient fighting techniques used by Siamese soldiers after their weapons were lost or destroyed in battle. Head to one of Chiang Mai’s stadiums and combine this entertaining activity with some local drinks for a fun night.

Loi Kroh Boxing Stadium

Featuring nightly events every week from Tuesday through Saturday, this Chiang Mai Stadium is a huge complex with a pool hall and several bars. Refreshments are served all night, so you can indulge in a drink or two as you watch a fight or play pool.

  • Where is it? The Loi Kroh Complex is located at 96–98, Loi Kroh Rd., Soi 3, A. in Chiang Mai.
  • How to get there? The boxing stadium is a 10-minute walk away from the Eastern gate of the Old City.
  • When to go? Events are usually held from Tuesday to Saturday. Check out their Facebook page for event details.
  • How much time to visit? Count three hours to get the full experience.
  • How much does it cost? Tickets are between 400 and 600 TBH.

Insider tip: If you challenge the locals at pool, you’d better be a pro! Legend says that the pool players are very good in Chiang Mai.

10. Enjoy the Chiang Mai live music scene

Chiang Mai has a bustling live music scene. From upscale venues to dive bars, you’re sure to find one that suits you! And if you like everything, you won’t get bored with the many bars and venues offering various types of live music. Our two favorites? The Mellowship and the 7 Pounds. Here’s why.

The Mellowship

The Mellowship in Chiang Mai is one of the best places to enjoy live music. Featuring mostly mellow jazz bands, the venue hosts a live music show every night, starting 9 PM. They’re also known for their eclectic menu serving dishes from all over the world. It’s a rather classy venue and is the most upscale option between our two recommendations.

  • Where is it? This Chiang Mai bar is located at 7/9 Kanklong-Cholprathan Rd.
  • How to get there? You can get to the Mellowship by walking 15 minutes from Nimman Road.
  • When to go? Every night is a good night! The Mellowship is open daily from 6 PM to 11:45 PM.
  • How much time to visit? 2–4 hours
  • How much does it cost? $$

Insider tip: Save your appetite and make sure to sample their vast menu… Everything is delicious!

The 7 Pounds

For a cheaper evening, consider going to the 7 Pounds. The venue offers decently priced food and drinks in a laid-back atmosphere. This typical Chiang Mai bar also features a lovely garden, lit up with fairy lights and a big stage that can be easily seen from any seat in the house. On weekend nights, the 7 Pounds hosts live rock bands, for everyone’s enjoyment. 

  • Where is it? The 7 Pounds is located on Chang Phueak in the Mueang Chiang Mai District.
  • How to get there? Simply head to the back of the MAYA Lifestyle Shopping Center, a 10-minute taxi ride from Chiang Mai Old City.
  • When to go? On weekend nights!
  • How much time to visit? 2–4 hours
  • How much does it cost? $

Insider tip: You have to try sitting in their back garden, it is like a hidden oasis in the middle of the city.

That sums up our list of what to do in Chiang Mai! What are your top things to do in the city? Share your favorite finds with us by commenting below!

Craving more?

If you love the north of Thailand and are looking for a place to travel next, make sure to visit the small city of Pai just a short bus ride away. Busbud has expanded to Southeast Asia and offers many routes in the region! Looking for more travel tips in the region? Take a look at The Extensive Guide to Bus Travel in Southeast Asia.

This post was written by Felicia Cote-Floyd, full-timer traveler and freelancer currently in Bali! Check out Felicia’s adventures and follow her on Instagram.