Chiang Mai is a city in mountainous northern Thailand. It’s the more famous of the two Chiangs- Rai and Mai. Kind of like the bigger sister. Chiang Mai is often a place to stop during a tour of Northern Thailand. It’s a “hub” for getting to other places of Thailand such as Bangkok, Pattaya or even the South. Below I discuss the top things to do in Chiang Mai and how to do them!
How to get to Chiang Mai?
Most people either fly direct into Chiang Mai or bus it up from Bangkok. Flights to Chiang Mai from Bangkok are reasonable with Air Asia and if you book cheap you could get the flight and your luggage for around 28 pounds. However, the alternative is a comfortable bus journey which will cost you around 10-12 pounds (depending on your comfort level).
An alternative option is to get the train. This takes approximately 10 to 14 hours and can cost anything from £14 to £20 depending on whether you choose aircon/fan or 1st or 2nd class seats.
This website is great for giving you online prices and you can book your tickets online for all across Asia.
From Chiang Rai or Pai
If you already find yourself in the north of Thailand then you can easily get a cheap bus from either of these locations. Most people head to Pai from Chiang Mai and it’s one street in and out of Pai, so you will end up in Chiang Mai afterward, or you can get a bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai for £3-4.
We went from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai via bus. You head to the bus station in town in Chiang Mai and there will be a lady at a desk. On her window, there will be prices and times for buses to Chiang Mai. There are three “levels” of buses, the cheapest being 3rd class (a dump of a bus- which you will see surrounding you- they will have no aircon and probably broken seats etc), 2nd class, typically a lot more luxurious and have aircon, then 1st class which is usually some form of sleeper bus. This is only a short journey (three hours).
We chose the second level and this is with a company called “Green Bus” and I will just tell you now- go with them. It’s comfortable, aircon and you get free water. It’s a GOOD bus and it costs around 5-6 pounds for the journey.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is a big city, so naturally, there are LOTS of choices when it comes to choosing where to stay. You could choose to stay outside the city, closer to the mountains, or in the cities old town, or close to the markets. It’s up to you.
We stayed in a place called “9 resident” which was located in the “heart of Chiang Mai”. This was a lovely place. The staff was wonderful. It was a short Uber ride to the local markets and food areas and the beds were clean and comfortable. It cost us £5.75 a night each for a double room with aircon. We stayed two nights in Chiang Mai. You can save £15 off your first booking with booking.com if you click on this link.
The top things to do in Chiang Mai
So here it is, the top things to do in Chiang Mai, based on what we did! Chiang Mai is a massive city and you could easily spend a week here doing everything. But, we are backpackers and had a time limit in Asia.
#1 The Grand Canyon
Probably our favourite thing in Chiang Mai. (Don’t judge us, this was the last place on our trip and we had seen enough temples to last a lifetime). It’s basically a canyon filled with water in which you can dive off, swim, or zip line if you choose.
There are actually two parts to this. One side is filled with bouncy castles, and courses for you can tackle. (We had already done this in Pai and Vietnam). It costs 450 baht and actually looks like a lot of fun if you haven’t done it before. The other side (which we did) costs 100 baht (£2.50).
It’s a lot of fun, clean and exhilarating. It’s actually quite strange being in the water because you can’t see below you and it’s DEEP, so if you’re not a fan of not knowing what’s underneath you then it will make you nervous. But, it’s just rainwater, so it’s fine. They give you a life jacket to wear, which I’d take advantage of so you can bop along the water.
There are tyres to float in and paddle boards if you so wish.
There are two main diving areas. A smaller one (which I took advantage of), or the big daddy, which is approx 7 meters in height which Bradley jumped from. (He used to be a diver!)
You could easily spend a couple of hours here having fun and if you want to do something that isn’t seeing temples (ie if you’ve been in Asia for over three months :P) then go for it!
#2 Chiang Mai Zoo
I know everyone hates zoo, and I don’t enjoy a zoo that is horrible to animals, so I don’t attend every zoo I find. This was kind of stumbled across because we were tired, couldn't make it to the temple in the mountains we wanted to see (due to fog and bad weather), so we drove past the zoo and decided to have a nosy. In hindsight, monsoon weather hit and we spent most of the time hiding from the rain! This is a BIG zoo, and it takes a good couple of hours to walk around it. (Now I know why they had a shuttle service).
The animals all seemed happy when I have seen them, actually, the lions are not kept behind cages or bars or anything...they are on their own little island and the one thing that is preventing them from getting you is a “jump or leap” they would have to make over a wall...which actually on a good day, I don’t see why they wouldn’t try haha.
It’s 150 baht entrance, and whilst it’s not the BEST zoo for animal welfare. (I prefer visiting animals rescue sanctuaries), it’s certainly not the worst. It’s up to you- I included it since we did visit. Don’t visit the penguins.
Ps, the zoo is right next to the Chiang Mai University. Check it out, it’s a really nice campus to drive around on a scooter and there are lots of different departments to discover.
#3 Chiang Mai Night Bazaar
This is located east of the city moat between the Ping River, on Chang Khlan Road. It’s the perfect place to pick up some souvenirs (there are hundreds of stalls) and pick up great food! There is one cafeteria type of area that is a food market indoors and it’s packed with great high-quality food.
There are a couple of different night markets around Chiang Mai and I suggest you go to them all (not every night :P ), but there is so much amazing food on offer I believe you need the chance to sample them all! Not only that, there is great smoothies and drinks to try.
We enjoyed a glass of strawberry wine in the middle of one market for 1 pound and ended up chatting with another couple.
#4 Visiting elephants
I know this is literally one of the reasons that people go to Chiang Mai. There are so many companies that offer the chance to see elephants. The problem is you HAVE to be ethical. Do your research and visit a rescue centre rather than somewhere that claims you can ride elephants.
Under no circumstances should you ride an elephant- don’t let your kids either. Let them know that it’s not okay to ride elephants they surely they will understand.
I never visited elephants in Chiang Mai, I visited them in Hua Hin at a rescue centre. I had the chance to take them a little walk, feed them bananas and wash them. It was magical as there was also a baby elephant there and she was the sweetest! You can do these activities too. Our friends visited the elephants in Chiang Mai and they paid around £30 for that and a cooking class. They didn’t ride the elephants.
Don’t ride the elephants!!
#5 Temples in Chiang Mai
Chiang is bursting with wonderful temples. One of which I saw, which was actually stumbled across by accident, and it’s not worth nothing, 1. because I can’t remember the name and didn’t take a picture, and 2, it’s deserted. However, there was one temple I was really excited to see, but unfortunately, we just ran out of time and energy and the weather was terrible and unsafe to drive in.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is arguably the most famous temple in Chiang Mai and according to the pictures, it’s very beautiful. This is a sacred site to many Thai people and it’s located on a mountain. It’s a 306 step climb to the temple, and you’ll be greeted with beautiful views of Chiang Mai (providing there is no fog.)
It costs 30 baht and is open from 6 am to 6 pm. Do let me know if you got the chance to visit this beautiful temple!
Another monument I will mention is the “Three King Monument”. This stands roughly in the middle of the walled city. I’ve been told it’s a great piece to see and to catch a photo of, so you may as well take a detour and check it out whilst you’re wandering the streets of the walled city.
#6 Doi Suthep–Pui National Park
This national park was also on my list of things to do in Chiang Mai, but again time was not our friend (or weather- it rained A LOT!), The main attractions of the park is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep which is built near the peak of Doi Suthep, few waterfalls, viewpoints, caves and the nature. The park is ideal for hiking through many trail options as well as for cycling and camping.
Tips For Staying Longer In Thailand
When you visit Thailand on a UK or Irish passport you get 30 days in the country “free”. However, we did more than this. But, the risk around extending your stay for free is that if you leave the country, then re-enter at a land border you get an extra 30 days. This worked well for us anyway because we did the South of Thailand, then went to Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos then back to the North of Thailand.
READ ALSO: The Cost Of Living In Chiang Mai
So if you want to spend longer in Thailand, then split your stay between the North and South (or cross over into another country to reset the visa).
So there you have it, a list of my suggested top things to do in Chiang Mai! If you've got any other suggestions, then pop them below for others to see :)