Bucket list of 10 things to do while visiting Chiang Mai in Thailand
Out of all the things to do in Chiang Mai, I really wanted to create a “top 10”, because for first-timers especially, Chiang Mai may not be what you expect it to be. The first time I flew to Chiang Mai was to inspect a classic car I wanted to buy, and when I came to the lobby for breakfast, I was freezing in my T-shirt. Chiang Mai tends to get a lot colder than the tropical southern end of the country. After that experience, I’ve been packing hoodies ever since.
In the article below I will list some of the activities I thoroughly enjoyed during my trips to Chiang Mai. Some may be a little on the pricy side, but I would not include them unless I felt they are 300% worth the experience. Besides, I usually forget about what I paid within weeks but the memory of the trip itself remains.
1. KHAO SOI KHUN YAI
So you’ve made it to Chiang Mai, and you and your buddies are already scouting the streets for your next hit of “banana pancakes” or “Ham & cheese” at the next Minimart. Or perhaps you’ve already dabbed into pad thai and prefer sticking to that. Well, you are missing out, as Chiang Mai has a famous dish called Khao Soi, which is a combination of egg noodles, crispy noodles and curry/coconut broth that is considered THE dish in Northern Thailand and you need to try it at least once.
Khao Soi Khun Yai, or “Grandma’s Khao Soi” is a little restaurant opposite the city wall that specializes in this dish and for Chiang Mai travelers, going there is considered a rite of passage. I can attest that her recipe is the real deal, and she serves the chicken and the beef variant. I recommend vegans to sit this one out, because the ingredients required to make a vegetarian Khao Soi are too much of a compromise. Another great tip is to avoid white t-shirts when eating your first Khao Soi – You’ll thank me later!
2. CRUISE DOWN TO PAI
I know a lot of people like to travel to Chiang Mai for the relaxed atmosphere. There’s less stress than you would find in Bangkok, and the day-to-day issues mostly center on “what should we do next?” and “have you seen that cute little coffeeshop two blocks away?” I know some people like to take a massage class or do a workshop to kill time, but my second recommendation would be to check out Pai.
Pai is part of the Mae Hong Son province in Northern Thailand. This sleepy riverside town has quietly evolved into an interesting tourist stop in Thailand, especially for people traveling to Chiang Mai. The easiest way to get there is by minibus, but I recommend setting up the trip yourself by motorbike. Not only is it MUCH more fun, you also have the freedom to drive and explore wherever you go. The road from Chiang Mai to Pai was overhauled recently, so it’s not like you are riding down a highway of death or anything like that. Plus, people who get carsick easily, are assured to have a bad time on this road unless they drive themselves. There’s simply too many curves.
So. Ask around for motorbike rentals, plan your route, have a blast riding down there and spend at least one night in Pai before you head on back. You and your friends will feel so much more accomplished than the tourists hopping on a minibus and getting carsick along the way. Plus, you can get to Ban Rak Thai, the Chinese village on your own terms, instead of a tour operator.
3. HELICOPTER RIDE
Originally, Chiang Mai was the capital of Lan Na, the “kingdom of a million rice fields”, and historically under constant threat from Burma. As such the city centre is surrounded by walls and a wide moat, which you can clearly see on the map, and in certain designated places inside the city walls.
The best place to see the fortifications of the city though, is by helicopter. Maybe you like to to propose to your girlfriend, maybe you want to take out some business partners and show the ma good time. Or maybe you just never thought of hiring a helicopter and I managed to scratch your itch. Either way, getting a private helicopter is as affordable as it gets in Northern Thailand, and if you get in touch with the operator, they will usually find you a deal makes sense for you and your friends. One of the coolest things to do in Chiang Mai by far.
Advance Aviation offers several packages for their 6-seat EC-130 Eurocopter, and with their charter prices and some other adventurers you can easily buy into half an hour flying over the old city. Mind you, there are several helicopter pads all over Northern Thailand, and a backpack is easily stowed away so if you always wanted to know what it feels like to travel by helicopter, here’s your chance!
4. FLIGHT OF THE GIBBON
If hiring a helicopter is a little too excessive or you are looking for an activity around Chiang Mai that has a more sustainable character, this is the one! Flight of the Gibbon combines adrenaline, jungle sightseeing and trekking into an amazing experience.
This activity falls right into the “sustainability” bracket, as a percentage of revenue is channeled towards forest conservation, and these guys do great work for the community. If you make it out to Flight of the Gibbon you will notice how their staff is confidently dealing with foreigners, well-trained and the company servers as a springboard for bigger things in the tourist industry. Two thumbs up!
So what is Flight of the Gibbon? A little less than an hour outside of Chiang Mai, deep inside the rainforest, you get to shoot from one tree platform to another, securely attached to a Zipline of course. The feeling is unlike anything you’ve experienced, and for Facebook fans out there; this activity looks REALLY cool on your GoPro. Selfie sticks work really well too, but you between tree platforms y usually move on to greener pastures after a period of time with the company.
5. ELEPHANT SANCTUARIES
In the same sustainability vein as The Flight of the Gibbon, Elephant sanctuaries are an awesome way to spend some time in Northern Thailand. You can read more about the plight of Elephants of Thai Elephants and what makes a good sanctuary.
If you are already in Chiang Mai, you must know all about Elephant Sanctuaries by now, and perhaps the only thing that’s keeping you at this point is the price? Let me assure you that the experience is very much worth it, as you get to spend several hours with these animals, and depending on what camp you decided on you can even spend the night there. For me, being able to swim next to an Elephant was something I had never imagine I would actually be able to do and I am so glad I did.
I always thought it was a total cliché when people muttered on about Elephants having personalities, but they just do. It’s one of those things you need to see for yourself, and you won’t learn anything from these animals if you ride them while a mahout keeps them in check with a bullhook. Taking care of them, feeding them and playing in the water with an Elephant is a different story entirely.
6. BICYCLE TOUR
Granted, the drivers in Chiang Mai are a lot less pushy than elsewhere in Thailand (“My friend, Tuk-tuk?! Where you go? My friend? I make you good price!”), but I can’t emphasize enough how liberating it is to ride around Thailand on your on time. An ancient town like Chiang Mai is no different, and while the Tuk-tuks in Chiang Mai are great and I do like their service, renting a bicycle is one of the coolest things to do in chiang mai at night.
The town has a certain coziness to it that really shines at night, so you might as well do this at night. And if you think the temperature during the day is too much for you to do any kind of pedaling, again, consider doing this at night. Find your way to the nearest night market, make some pictures, grab some barbecue food and enjoy the bristling local life going about its ways all around you.
Pro tip: Make sure the brakes on your bicycle work and there isn’t anything on the bike that could pose a problem later on. I’d like to say you should insist on proper lights as well, but bicycle lights are a novelty in Thailand, so you just have to pay a little more attention to what your fellow road users are doing.
7. COOKING CLASS OUTSIDE OF THE CITY
As I already mentioned the Khao Soi earlier on in this article, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a Thai cooking class made it into this list as well. Note that this was never my first choice of activity but when I made it out to Chiang Mai with several friends a few months back, the girls came up with this idea.
So there we were, 16 km (10 miles) outside of the city by Songthaew pick-up, exploring a local market for ingredients, and picking additional ingredients from a farm’s orchard. Being a difficult eater myself I had brought some nuts and other snacks in a backpack, which proved to be completely unnecessary. Throughout the day, we continuously tasted, cooked and fed ourselves with some delicious (organic) Thai food.
What’s more, your appreciation of these local dishes really grows once you understand the different techniques that go into making a simple green curry. At the same time, you get to choose just how spicy your meals are going to be, and whether your spring rolls are going to be vegetarian or if you are going to put something else in there.
The other guys and myself thoroughly enjoyed this activity, and look back at a day eating our own curry, sipping on a cold beer and feeling accomplished. If you want to learn how to cook Thai food, I encourage you to google “Thai Farm Cooking School”.
8. DOI SUTHEP
Another great activity outside of the city is a one-day visit to Doi Suthep, and the winter palace (these two attractions are very close together). Doi Suthep, or “Wat Phra That Doi Suthep” is a temple known to locals as “Doi Suthep“, and to make things even more confusing, this is actually the name of the mountain the temple was built on. Like many temples in Thailand, the Thai consider this a sacred monument, 15 km (9.3 miles) outside of the city.
As an added benefit, the views from the mountain offer incredible views of Chiang Mai province.
Fun fact: Contrary to Christian doctrine, Buddhist tent to get more karma if they make merit at a wide range of temples, instead of just committing to a single church. As a result, it is not uncommon to plan a trip with Thai friends, and overhearing them which one of the 20+ temples they should visit first the next couple of days. I usually call it quits after three temples and make sure I find a coffee shop with solid wi-fi and interesting people to talk to. If you are anything like me, I advise you to visit no more than two temples, while making sure you do NOT skip the next one in this list:
9. DOI ITHANON
While there is tons of interesting things to say about Doi Ithanon from a geographical perspective (highest mountain in Thailand, 2.565 meters above sea level / 8.415 feet), the real showstopper at Doi Ithanon National Park are the two great holy relics Pagoda Nabhamethanidol and Nabhapolbhumisiri. They are usually simple referred to as “the two chedis”, and they are magnificent. If the Teletubbies were practicing Buddhists, I bet this is what their set would look like:
I know Shangri La doesn’t exist. And apart from it being fictional, the author James Hilton intended Shangri La to be somewhere in the Kunlun Mountain range (Nepal/China). But in my mind, if it ever existed, it is right here in Chiang Mai.
Pro tip: The clouds are incredible when they are just below you and seeing the two Chedis sticking out of the clouds only adds to the atmosphere. During the rainy season however your chance of clear skies are slim, so check the weather forecast. Getting ambushed on the mountain by torrential rain storms is less than ideal.
10. NIMMAN ROAD
Having listed several options outside the city, it is only fair to focus on the city itself as well. And for visitors looking for activities that do not involve extensive travel or leaving the city, Nimmanhaemin or simply, Nimman road is perfect. It’s been quietly growing into the new “alternative” tourism- and leisure spot in Chiang Mai. Hipster restaurants, cafes, bars and cute little boutique hotels popped up all over the area.
Unlike Tha Phae Gate or the Night Bazaar, Nimman road is less convenient to find in Chiang Mai, as there is a limited amount of hostels or guesthouses. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check it out, or maybe even pay the additional 100- to 200 baht extra to stay here. When I have to be in Chiang Mai, I usually end up having dinner and meeting friends in this part of town – well worth a visit and one of the top things to do in Chiang Mai at night.
Chiang Mai is different from the rest of Thailand and if you made it out here – great! To really get the most out of your stay, I recommend preparing a little. Especially the ziplining and elephant sanctuaries tend to get booked out in advance. Another tip I can’t stress enough is taking care of your own transportation. I know chartering a helicopter is a little rich, but the memory will stay with you for a lifetime. And if you prefer something with a smaller carbon footprint, I highly recommend looking out for a rental car. Or maybe a motorcycle, or just a bicycle for inside the city walls. Being able to move around freely really gives you that holiday feeling of freedom and mobility.
More Thailand: Check out other amazing things you can do in Thailand
Sacha Albarda is an copywriter/online media expert living in South-east Asia for the better part of a decade. Asked what he likes best about living there, he usually answers that it’s “the tightly organized anarchy”.