Almost every traveller has Chiang Mai on their itinerary while backpacking through Thailand. And with good reason. Chiang Mai is filled with an abundance of weird and wonderful things to do. I was only supposed to spend four days there, but ended up staying for an entire week!
15 coolest things to do in Chiang Mai
You can’t go to Thailand without visiting a Buddhist temple. That’s like travelling around Europe and not visiting a Cathedral. OK, you could do that. In fact, I try to do that because I don’t like how much they usually rip you off in churches. But at least the Buddhist temples give you the option to donate.
Anyway, you can easily spend an entire day cycling around temples in Chiang Mai. There’s over 300 of them! My favourites were Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Srisupan and Wat Phra Singh.
Tip: Make sure you take off your shoes when entering a temple, and cover your shoulders and knees.
Chat with a monk
Ever wanted to ask a monk about his life? Many Buddhist temples (including Wat Chedi Luang) run a program called “Monk Chat” where visitors can ask a monk questions.
Take a Thai cooking class
The local food in Thailand is incredible. I got completely hooked on pad thai and red thai curries. It was even better learning how to cook Thai food so I could make it again when I got back home. Our group all had a laugh together and it was so interesting to see which ingredients were used in each dish.
Get a massage by a prisoner
The Womens Correctional Institution have set up massage parlours in Chiang Mai as part of a training scheme to help integrate prisoners back into society. The masseuses I met were genuinely lovely people. I got an amazing 1 hour oil massage for 380 baht (£9) and came out feeling 100x lighter.
Go to a UAV reggae bar
I basically lived in THC rooftop bar when I stayed in Chiang Mai. The cocktails were cheap, the DJ played great songs and the atmosphere was really chilled. I knew it was my kind of place when I saw the ground level tables and luminous wall art.
Watch a Muay Thai boxing match
Muay Thai boxing is an art. It’s part of Thai culture. I underestimated how crazy it is though. The ceremonial dancing, customary music and locals chanting creates the wildest atmosphere. I was completely mesmerised as I watched two small Thai boxers dangerously repeatedly kick each other in the face. Still, it’s exhilarating and you should totally go to a match.
Bathe an elephant
This is the best out of the 15 coolest things to do in Chiang Mai for me! Recently, light has been shed on the horrendous abuse that elephants receive in the tourism industry. Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is well-known for paving the way for ethical elephant sanctuaries. Instead of riding elephants, Elephant Nature Park rescues disabled elephants and allows visitors to feed, bathe and stroke the gentle giants.
I stayed overnight at the park and had the best time. In the morning, I sat out on my private bungalow’s patio beside the river, and watched elephants freely play in the water. I knew that my money was going towards a good cause which was far better than ignorantly funding a cruel industry of animal abuse. I guarantee that the experience is far more satisfying than riding elephants.
Tip: Book weeks in advance if possible.
Take a day trip to Bua Thong waterfalls
The multi-tiered “sticky” waterfalls are a one hour north of Chiang Mai. Either rent a motorbike, hire a local guide or hire a red Songtaew to take you there and wait to drive you back (around 1000 baht/£23 return). At least entrance to the park is free!
Zipline through the rainforest
I paid 4000 baht (£90) for 2 hours of ziplining through the canopy of the rainforest in Chiang Mai. Was it worth it? Yes. I even got to see wild gibbons swinging in the trees.
Tip: Most hostels will arrange the trip for you. Book a few days in advance.
Listen to live jazz music
North Gate Jazz Co-Op plays live jazz music seven days a week at the north end of the old city. If you want to chill out and listen to musicians jam, this is the place! It opens 7pm to 11pm everyday.
Get a songthaew to the Temple of the Golden Mountain
Wat Phra That Doi Kham (the Temple of the Golden Mountain) is only 30 minutes outside of Chiang Mai old city. Then there is another couple hundred steps to reach the temple. The views are worth it though. There’s also a cable car to the top.
Either rent a motorcycle, hire a red Songtaew (60 baht/£1.50 with 12 people) or order an Uber to get there. The temple opens from 8am to 5pm and entrance costs 30 baht (70p).
Tip: Arrive early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid the crowds.
Eat in a hidden garden
Although it’s more expensive than the dirt cheap street food in Chiang Mai, it’s good to get away from the city bustle. The Faces is a secluded outdoor restaurant inside ruin-like walls with jungle-like vegetation. I came here a few times just to relax, have a cold beer and eat some delicious food.
Cliff jump at Chiang Mai grand canyon
Although it’s more of a quarry, jumping off a 10-15 meter cliff into emerald water is still exciting. To get there, either rent a motorbike or red Songtaew (300 baht/£7 max). There’s also a water park. Entrance for observers is 150 baht (£3) or 320 (£7) baht for swimmers.
Tip: Be careful. Safety isn’t really on the priority list for unofficial parks like this, and there have been injuries.
Go to the weekend markets
There are two different markets at the weekend. One is on Saturday at Wua Lai Road, and another one is on Sunday at Tha Pae Gate. The stalls stay open from 4pm to midnight on both days and stretch for 1km.
The markets really come alive at night with street performers and musicians. Although all I bought was more pad thai (typical), it’s the perfect place to buy souvenirs for family and friends.
Dance all night
When I say dance all night, I mean dance in the bars until they close at 12am and then find anywhere else that’s open. Usually everyone goes to Spicy afterwards which closes at 3am, but I didn’t find it to be good…
There’s a small area filled with bars in the old city of Chiang Mai which I went to a few times. The first time, a group in our hostel headed to Zoe in Yellow which was crazy. Think blasting dubstep and everyone chugging buckets
because you would need to block out the psychological damage being done to your brain.
On my last night there, I went to Roots Rock Reggae which was way more chilled. A big group of us had the best night ever dancing to live reggae music.
Go to a 3D art museum
The 3D interactive murals are probably more aimed at families, but it’s a fun place to take creative photos. The art gallery opens from 9am to 7pm and entrance costs 400 baht (£9).
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