Visiting Chiang Mai: Northern Thailand’s Cultural Gem

Chiang Mai is a province and a city in northern Thailand with a vibrant history. For a period, the city served as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom (what used to be Thailand), which is reflected in the city today by the canals and walls surrounding the Old City. If you have been to Dubrovnik in Croatia, it has a different but simultaneously similar feel.

It’s pretty far from Bangkok, and most people get there by overnight train (usually those backpacking Thailand) or by taking an internal flight. Taking a flight is a good option if you’re short on time and don’t mind spending extra cash.

The north of Thailand has incredible places to explore, and Chiang Mai offers the perfect base camp. From the city, you can easily fill your itinerary with a week of activities.

[This article contains affiliate links to trusted partners]

Best Time To Visit Chiang Mai, Thailand

The Dhara Dhevi Hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Photo Credit: [@sepavone/DepositPhotos]

Thailand has a tropical climate, which means strong contrasts between the seasons. Tour guides usually describe it as “We have a warm season, and we have a warmer season,” which is pretty true.

If you’re from the US, Europe, or any country with a moderate climate, you’ll probably find Thailand warm all year round, even in the supposed wet season (June-October). If you want to save money and you don’t mind an hour or two of rain each day, this is the best time of year to visit.

From October until February is the cool season, which is widely considered the best time to visit. The only downside with visiting in this period is that it’s the peak season, meaning bigger crowds and higher prices – though Thailand is not expensive even during peak season.

Between February and June is the hot season, also known as the burning season. It’s best to avoid visiting Chiang Mai during these months, as there is a lot of smoke in the air. During this period, Chiang Mai has some of Asia’s worst air quality ratings.

So, depending on your weather preferences and budget, the best times to visit Chiang Mai are either the wet season (June-October) or the cool season (October-February).

Things To Do In Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand
Photo Credit: [@AlexGukBO/DepositPhotos]

Many people only spend a few days in Chiang Mai because they don’t think there are many things to do. There are so many things to do that you could easily spend a month exploring the city thoroughly and taking day trips. To help you add a few things to your list, here are some of the best and most popular things to do in Chiang Mai.

Elephant Nature Park

Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Photo Credit: [@scottiebumich/DepositPhotos]

When planning a trip to Thailand, you should add an elephant sanctuary to your itinerary. The sad reality is that most elephant “sanctuaries” in Thailand are exploiting the animals and committing animal abuse in blatant daylight. You should never ride elephants; that is the biggest “no-go”. You should also not bathe them or take them to a mud spa. The gentle giants are forced into these situations and have no free roaming.

Thankfully, just outside of Chiang Mai is the Elephant Nature Park, which is considered one of, if not the, most ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. The elephants are all rescued from abuse, and in their new homes, they are allowed to roam freely and are well looked after. It’s the best and most ethical way to experience elephants in Thailand.

Overnight Jungle Trekking

Mae Kampong Jungle in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Photo Credit: [@fototrips74/DepositPhotos]

Chiang Mai is surrounded by natural beauty, and there are many opportunities to experience that beauty. A jungle trekking trip is a good way to explore Thailand’s jungles and get a break from city life. Day trips are available, but for the best experience, take an overnight stay. Most tours usually include a stay in a local village, a unique experience offering an insight into life in Thailand in the rural areas.

You’ll have many opportunities to swim in waterfalls and see wildlife throughout your trek. However, there are many tarantula nests, so it may not be the best idea if you’re arachnophobic.

Visit Buddhist Temples

Wat Chiang Man in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Photo Credit: [@wirojsid/DepositPhotos]

Chiang Mai has the highest number of Buddhist temples out of any city in Thailand. There are more than 300 “Wats” in and around Chiang Mai. You’ll never have to look far, as there is one quite literally around every corner.

Some are more beautiful and impressive than others, and naturally, some are more popular than others. A few temples in Chiang Mai are must-visits: Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Chiang Man, and Wat Suan Dok.

Sunday Night Market

Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market in Thailand
Photo Credit: [@topntp/DepositPhotos]

The main street in Chiang Mai, Rachadamnoen Road, runs horizontally through the center of the Old City. It transforms into a pedestrian street and a night market every Sunday evening. Selling everything from souvenirs to clothes, you can spend a good few hours walking up and down the street and seeing what you can find.

There are also many food vendors selling street food. They even have Western street food stalls selling hot dogs, burgers, and fries—though the best food is local Thai dishes.

Food to Try in Chiang Mai

Khao Soi
Photo Credit: [@mathisa/DepositPhotos]

Continuing with the food theme, Chiang Mai is known for its incredible cuisine. Of course, Thailand has good food, but Chiang Mai, in particular, has some delicious dishes. The most popular dish native to the north of Thailand is Khao Soi, a curry noodle soup that can be served with beef, chicken, or vegetables. It would be impossible to visit Chiang Mai without trying this dish at least once—but you’ll likely want to have it again and again after trying it for the first time.

One of the best places to buy food in Chiang Mai is the Chiang Mai Gate Market, which is on the southern walls of the Old City. There, you can find some tasty street food dishes for a super small price. And contrary to rumors, you aren’t guaranteed to get food poisoning.

Thai Cooking Class

Preparing Thai Food
Photo Credit: [@annabieniek/DepositPhotos]
For one last food-themed activity, why not take it further and learn how to produce the mouth-wateringly good dishes you can try in Chiang Mai? Chiang Mai is one of the best places in Thailand to take a cooking class. It offers dishes unavailable in other regions (such as Khao Soi), and the prices are very reasonable. You can learn to make the most popular Thai dishes, such as Pad Thai, Green Curry, and Tom Yum. Most classes also email you the recipes so you know how to make them once you get home.

Doi Suthep

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Photo Credit: [@cozyta/DepositPhotos]

Just outside the Old City of Chiang Mai is a mountain with a temple on it. Doi Suthep, not to be confused with Doi Inthanon, offers spectacular city views, and the temple is worth visiting. You can also visit a waterfall and a local Hmong village, and a shared taxi songthaew between the three destinations is really cheap.

Muay Thai Class

Muay Thai Match in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Photo Credit: [@toa55/DepositPhotos]

Just like with the cooking class, Chiang Mai is one of the best places to take a Muay Thai class because the prices are much more reasonable than in Bangkok, especially on the islands in the south.

Muay Thai is a big part of Thai culture, and taking a class is a unique but fun way to experience that culture. It’s also an excellent chance to get active and burn off some of the calories from all of the food-based things to do. Some Muay Thai classes start at 300 baht, less than $9. It’s incredible value for your money.

Day Trips From Chiang Mai, Thailand

The Karen - Padaung Long Neck Hill Tribe in Chiang Rai, Thailand
Photo Credit: [@SergeBertasiusPhotography/DepositPhotos]

While Chiang Mai is amazing and has much to offer, it also serves as a good base camp for day trips. Pai is not included on this list as it is a 3-hour drive around windy and bendy roads, so it’s best to stay there for a few nights before returning to Chiang Mai.

Chiang Rai

Wat Rong Khun Temple Chiang Rai, Thailand
Photo Credit: [@mazzzur/DepositPhotos]

The most popular day trip from Chiang Mai is to the similarly named Chiang Rai. Like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai is filled with temples, and the three best things to do there include two temples.

The infamous White Temple in Chiang Rai (Wat Rong Khun) is one of the most unique temples you will ever visit. From the outside, it looks like an eloquently decorated temple. On the inside, the walls are filled with cartoon paintings such as Shrek and world tragedies such as 9-11. The finer details are fascinating.

Chiang Rai also has the Blue Temple (Rong Suea Ten Temple), which is very blue inside and out. It’s just as impressive in real life as in pictures, and another perk of visiting is the coconut and sticky rice ice cream—the sticky rice is even blue!

Doi Inthanon

Doi Inthanon National Park in Chiang Mai
Photo Credit: [@Deerphoto/DepositPhotos]

Within the province of Chiang Mai, but outside the city’s boundaries, is Doi Inthanon, one of Thailand’s many National Parks. There’s something special about this NP: Doi Inthanon is the tallest mountain in Thailand, another thing Chiang Mai is topping the scoreboards for.

The National Park is beautiful, and the views from the top of Doi Inthanon are some of the best you will find. At the top is a temple with stunning gardens, which look breathtaking against the landscapes in the background. It’s a photo worthy of a postcard, and if you buy souvenirs in Chiang Mai, you’ll find it on most of them.

Visiting Chiang Mai, Thailand

Royal Flower Garden Pavilion in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Photo Credit [@rawintanpin/DepositPhotos]

Chiang Mai is an unmissable destination in Thailand. Many people visit the south for island-hopping, but if you have the time, you should also visit the north. Chiang Mai is a must-visit for nature and animal lovers and those who love food and culture. It sounds cliche, but there truly is something for everyone in Chiang Mai, Thailand.


Visiting Chiang Mai: Northern Thailand's Cultural Gem
Josh Band

Josh Band is a full-time traveller currently on a mission to visit every country in the world. As a full-time traveller, Josh knows exactly how to make the most of any trip and shares these tips with his readers. Josh mostly travels as a backpacker on a budget, so he is also an expert when it comes to getting the most of your money while travelling.