Chiang Mai the adventure capital of Thailand – there is so much to do outdoors! The Elephant Sanctuaries are all in this area, you can zipline through the jungle here, and you can also take day trips to explore Northern Thailand a bit more. There’s also the beautiful Wat Phra That Doi Suthep complex atop the hills overlooking Chiang Mai.
But Chiang Mai is about more than just adventure – it’s also a great opportunity to experience Northern Thai cuisine, which is quite different from the food we typically thing of when we think “Thai food” (that’s more what you’d get around Bangkok in the center of the country). For starters, there isn’t much coconut in the north, so you wont see that infused into the cuisine very much. The foods also tend to be brothy, steamed, and/or boiled. Lots of sticky rice (my favorite!) and heavy on the herbs (it is the jungle, after all). It’s absolutely delicious, so do yourself a favor and try local dishes when you’re in Chiang Mai.
Here are some of my favorite activities, restaurants, and hotels in Chiang Mai.
- Wat Phra That Doi Suthep: this is one of the most sacred temples in Thailand, accessible by Taxi/Tuk Tuk or by hiking the mountain it lies atop. The hike will take you a couple of hours, while the car trip will set you back just a half hour or so. If you want to hire a taxi, it will cost around 500 baht for the entire trip (they’ll wait outside of the temple for an agreed upon amount of time – if you plan to spend more than an hour or two, they’ll charge more most likely). The entry fee is 30 baht, and it’s open from 6:00-18:00. The complex is quite large, with beautiful sweeping views of Chiang Mai below (note that to get those sweeping views, you have to climb a little over 300 stairs to get to the temple), so plan to spend a few hours here!
- Hang with Elephants: there are several elephant parks just a short drive from Chiang Mai. There are a lot of opinions out there about how humane these parks are, but for those looking to spend time with elephants on your trip, here are the three that are most popular:
- Elephant Nature Park allows feeding and bathing of the elephants, but note that they have strict ani-riding policies, so if you are going to Thailand with the goal of riding an elephant, this probably isn’t the place for you. ENP is very much an elephant sanctuary, and the way this park is run is very much based upon what’s best for the elephants first (versus what would be best for a tourist attraction). If you want the most humane experience, this is the place to go
- Patara Elephant Farm is one of the top-ranked locations for those looking to ride an elephant (note: they do NOT use the baskets as those are especially harsh for the elephants, so riding is done bare-back). Because of its popularity, Patara books months in advance, so make sure you book early
- Baan Chang Elephant Park was where we ended up spending our day with elephants (ENP was sold out as we waited quite late to book). Similar to Patara, you do ride the elephants at Baan Chang, but it is done completely bare back. We spent the morning learning about the elephants’ rehabilitation and getting to feed them loads and loads of bananas (this was one of the highlights of my day here). We then learned a handful of Thai comments (go, stop, slow, left, right), and then were taken for a short walk around the Park before ending at the pond to bathe the elephants (my other favorite part of the day!). The elephants are very playful, so note that you WILL get drenched while you bathe them, but hey – that’s why you’re there, right?! The total cost was roughly $135USD per person, including early morning pick-up at our hotel in Chiang Mai, transfer to the park, and return transfer to our hotel mid-afternoon. It also included lunch. As soon as you arrive, they’ll give you clothes to wear throughout the day, including while you’re bathing the animals, and you’ll be able to rinse off after, so no need to worry about bringing extra clothes (beyond undergarments!)
- Ziplining: Based upon the recommendation of a friend, we chose to book a last minute ziplining excursion with Flight of the Gibbon, and it did not disappoint! The cost was around $100USD when we went, which included hotel pick-up in Chiang Mai (the ziplining range is about an hour outside of the city in the rainforest), 2.5-3 hours of ziplining and a waterfall hike nearby, lunch, and return transfer to the hotel in CM. It has one of the longest ziplines in Asia, and you get to do a pair zipline plus the superman (head-first) zipline into a cargo net. They’re also SUPER serious about safety, with each group being pretty small and having two guides with them, plus you’re always connected in at least two places – we never felt unsafe. If you’re a thrill-seeker, this is the activity for you!
- Nimmanheiman Road was the perfect place to spend an afternoon/evening after we returned from ziplining. It’s outside of town town and considered the trendy/artsy/fashionable area of Chiang Mai. There were tons of cool shops, restaurants/cafes, and bars. I’d highly recommend grabbing an afternoon drink or dinner in this area one night while you’re in Chiang Mai
- The Chiang Mai Night Market runs daily from 18:00-22:30 and is an absolute must if you’re looking for authentic souvenirs. It’s huge, so be prepared to go soon after it opens and spend some time perusing the stalls. Grab dinner from a vendor at the market for the full experience
- Day trip to Pai: about 90 miles northwest of Chiang Mai in the Mae Hong Son province lies the town of Pai, not far from the Myanmar border. This beautiful town is the perfect place for exploring. The town itself is very walkable, so I’d recommend renting a motorbike and exploring the waterfalls and hot springs in the morning and then grabbing lunch in town before wandering along the river bank. To get to Pai, take a bus (it’s really more of a minivan) from the Chiang Mai bus station. This is a pretty popular excursion, so I’d recommend stopping by the station to get tickets the day before. The last bus back is at 4:30pm, and the ride itself takes about 3 hours, so if you really want to make a day of it, I’d recommend taking the 7am bus (and you can sleep during the drive!) so you maximize your time for exploring
- 137 Pillars House: this hotel is absolutely beautiful – it’s upscale and modern feeling while retaining the cultural elements of Northern Thai style. If you’re looking to splurge, make sure to check out this hotel!
- Sira Boutique Hotel: if you’re looking for a hotel that’s a bit more rustic, check out Sira Boutique Hotel. It’s situated just inside the walls of old town, so easy walking distance to all the Old Town sites and restaurants. Rooms start at $20/night here, so this is a great option for more budget-conscious travelers
- Banana Leaves: keep an eye out for street vendors cooking up banana leaves. They usually change out what they mix with the rice, but they quickly became my favorite breakfast bite during our time in Chiang Mai. It’s basically sticky rice and something else – mung bean, taro, mango – all wrapped tightly into a banana leaf and then grilled. Trust me, they are delicious!
- Huen Phen is the only specific restaurant I’m going to recommend in Chiang Mai, and it’s an absolute must for delicious Lanna-style cuisine. I mentioned before that the style of food is drastically different between Northern Thailand, Bangkok, and the islands – make sure you try some of the local favorites while you’re in Chiang Mai. Huen Phen is pretty popular so there’s usually a little wait, but it’s totally worth it. We grabbed a beer from a nearby market and sat outside while we waited
- Otherwise, you can’t go wrong if you grab food from a street vendor, especially if you go to the night bazaar!
What are your favorite things to do or see in Chiang Mai? Let me know in the comments below!