Chiang Mai is a land of misty mountains and colourful hill tribes, a playground for seasoned travellers, a paradise for shoppers and a delight for adventurers. On a trip to Chiang Mai, the curious traveller can expand their horizons with Thai massage and cooking courses.
Others will be bowled over by the variety of handicrafts and antiques. The wild child will find plenty of lively nightlife, and the epicure can indulge in wonderful cuisine. Despite its relatively small size, Chiang Mai truly has it all.
Chiang Mai province is in Northern Thailand. The Chiang Mai weather is always cooler than the rest of the country, with an average temperature of 25°C throughout the year. The city has plethora of things to see and things to do. The beauty of the mountains, hill tribe villages, and botanical gardens attracts millions of tourists to Chiang Mai every year. You can also enjoy a Zoo and Aquarium, a nocturnal zoo, and classic Northern Thai temples and architecture which are a Fusion of Lanna, Mon, and Burmese styles.
The north of Chiang Mai borders the Shan state of Myanmar. Cross-border trade is allowed at Kew Pha Wok checkpoint in Amphoe Chiang Dao and Ban Lak Taeng checkpoint in Amphoe Wiang Haeng, so both are tourist sites and places for cultural exchanges between two nations.
The south is next to Amphoe Sam Ngao, Amphoe Mae Ramad, and Amphoe Tha Song Yang of Tak Province, with tourist attractions like Bhumibol Dam, Sam Ngao Cliff, Mae Kasa Waterfall, and Thee Mo Bo Waterfall.
The east is next to Amphoe Mae Fah Luang, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Rai, Amphoe Mae Suai, and Amphoe Wiang Pa Pao of Chiang Rai Province, Amphoe Mueang Pan and Amphoe Mueang Lampang of Lampang Province, and Amphoe Ban Thi, Amphoe Mueang Lamphun, Amphoe Pa Sang, Amphoe Wiang Nong Long, Amphoe Ban Hong, and Amphoe Li of Lamphun Province.
The west is next to Amphoe Pai, Amphoe Mueang Mae Hong Son, Amphoe Khun Yuam, Amphoe Mae La Noi, Amphoe Mae Sariang, and Amphoe Sob Moei of Mae Hong Son Province. Most popular places are Amphoe Pai, Pang Oung, and Doi Mae U-kho.
Chiang Mai has a long History. It was once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom. Nowadays it is a very modern city, similar to Bangkok.
Chiang Mai literally means “new city” and has retained the name despite celebrating its 700th anniversary in 1996. King Meng Rai the Great founded the city as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom on Thursday, April 12, 1296 around the same time as the establishment of the Sukhothai Kingdom. King Meng Rai even conferred with his friends, King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai and King Ngam Muang of Phayao before choosing the site where the capital of the Lanna Kingdom was to be founded. Henceforth, Chiang Mai not only became the capital and cultural core of the Lanna Kingdom, it was also to be the center of Buddhism in northern Thailand. King Meng Rai himself was a very religious leader who even founded many of the city’s temples that remain important to this day. Chiang Mai is one of the few places in Thailand where it is possible to experience both Historical and modern Thai Culture coexisting side by side: the city features centuries-old pagodas and temples next to modern convenience stores and boutique hotels. This dichotomy is best appreciated within the moat-encircled old city, which retains much of the fortified wall that once protected the city center as well as the four main gates that provided access to the former Lanna capital city. Strangely, for many years, tourists had mistaken Chiang Mai simply as the base from which they could plan Trekking and Rafting trips to hill tribe villages and explore other provinces. Once in Chiang Mai, however, tourists are surprised by the fact that there are so many things to discover other than its beautiful and historic temples. Intriguing diversity among ethnic tribes, a number of elephant camps, many cooking and massage schools, numerous outdoor activities, a variety of handicrafts workshops, various cultural performances, and breathtaking scenery make Chiang Mai one of Asia’s most attractive tourist destinations. The phrase "a day in Chiang Mai is enough to see things around town" was once a common expression. Today, two weeks in Chiang Mai may not be long enough for travelers to experience all that Chiang Mai has to offer.
The old city of Chiang Mai is a showcase of the north’s fascinating indigenous cultural identity that includes diverse dialects, a delectable cuisine, distinctive architecture, traditional values, lively festivals, numerous handicrafts workshops, northern style massage, and classical dances. Chiang Mai is also blessed with pristine natural resources including mountains, waterfalls, and Rivers. The presence of numerous hill tribes that feature a wealth of unique cultures enhances Chiang Mai’s distinctive diversity. Hill tribe trekking often combined with river rafting and elephant riding has always been one of Chiang Mai’s greatest tourist attractions. Nowadays there are innumerable activities and attractions both in the city and the surrounding province, including massage instruction and golf. Moreover, visitors can visit workshops where they can learn about the production of silk or silver, and purchase memorable, hand-crafted souvenirs. With such a diverse range of attractions and an equally grand selection of dining and accommodation options, Chiang Mai is a place where both backpackers and luxury tourists can enjoy the ultimate Thailand holiday.
The best things to do in Chiang Mai include visiting some of the city’s beautiful temples and unique sites. The historical capital of the old Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Mai is rich in culture. The Old City – an attraction in itself – hosts most of the best temples, museums and other interesting sites, with many more just outside the ancient city walls and moat.
If you’re willing to travel a little further afield, you’ll find that Chiang Mai is ringed with outstanding, unique places to see and things to do. There’s Thailand’s tallest mountain nearby, as well as two different tribal villages and various national parks. Check out our pick of the best attractions in Chiang Mai to make sure that you don’t miss the most important sites and experiences in this outstanding part of Thailand.
Gleaming like a northern star from the heights of Doi Suthep (the regal mountain overlooking the city from the northwest) is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It is one of the most historically and spiritually significant places in Thailand and is an impressive embodiment of the Lanna culture, with its origins dating back almost 700 years. As such, large numbers of Thais and foreigners come to experience the special magic of this holy place.
Opening Hours: 06:00 - 18:00
Old City Temples Chiang Mai Old City
Chiang Mai Old City is practically a living museum. Its narrow streets are lined with beautiful temples, old shophouses and historical buildings, all surrounded by the crumbling ancient walls and the moat. It’s quite a small, compact place, so you can easily get around on foot without tiring yourself out, allowing you to enjoy the city’s relaxed atmosphere and interesting scenery. Naturally, the temples are the star attractions of the Old City. You should definitely check out Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh and Wat Phan Tao, but there are several more within easy reach.
Chiang Mai Night Safari Hang Dong
Modeled after a similar attraction in Singapore, Chiang Mai Night Safari features three animal zones – Savanna Safari, Predator Prowl, Jaguar Trail – which you can tour via an open-sided tram or on foot. Enjoy a range of activities designed to keep you entertained throughout your visit, from hand-feeding wild animals and petting tiger cubs to a laser light show and ‘dancing’ fountain.
Opening Hours: 11:00 – 23:00
Location: Hangdong, southwest of Chiang Mai International Airport (about 12 km from the city)
How to get there: It’s best to hire a red songtaeow from the city centre. Negotiate the price before getting on one.
Wiang Kum Kam, the Underground Ancient City
Southern Part of Chiang Mai City
Located in attractive countryside about 5 km south of Chiang Mai along the Ping River, Wiang Kum Kam is an ancient city dating back to the eighth-century Haripunchai Kingdom. Expect to see many interesting items and structures such as stone tablets with Mon inscriptions, Buddhist sculptures and architecture, earthenware and pottery. Taking a horse-led carriage is a popular way to enjoy the ruins.
Opening Hours: 08:00 – 17:00
Location: About 5 km southeast of the Old City
Tel: +66 (0)53 277 322
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Chiang Mai
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Chiang Mai was among the first of the new breed of elephant attractions in Thailand which prioritise the welfare of the animals. Often acting as retirement and care homes for elephants previously employed in the logging or tourism industries, they provide as natural an environment for them as possible. While you can still interact with the elephants (bathing them being an especially popular activity), riding on them is strictly out of the question.
Location: Office on Tha Phae Road
Tel: +66 (0)83 562 4263, +66 (0)53 273 415
Doi Inthanon National Park Mae Jaem
Doi Inthanon, the highest peak in Thailand, rises 2,565 metres above sea level. Known as a sanctuary for a wide range of animal species and perhaps the best place in Thailand for bird-watching, the park has approximately 362 different species, many of which are not found anywhere else in Thailand. Doi Inthanon is a popular destination, not only for its natural beauty, but also for its historical significance.
Karen Long Neck Tribe & Chiang Dao Cave Chiang Dao
At Chiang Dao cave, the caverns stretch many kilometres into the mountain yet only a small part of the complex is possible to explore. Two of the caves, Tham Phra Nawn and Tham Seua Dao, are illuminated by electric lights, but the upper caves are pitch-black and requires a local lantern-carrying guides to lead the way. There are some spectacular limestone formations and Buddhist shrines in these caves.
Doi Pui Tribal Village and National Park Suthep-Pui
Doi Pui, at 1,685 metres above sea level, is the highest peak in the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. It is famous for its beautiful waterfalls which are easily reached from the main road. But one of the hottest attractions for Doi Pui must be Hmong Tribal Village situated less than five kilometres from the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. A visit to this village is an eye-opener into the tribal villagers’ private life.
Opening Hours: 08:30 – 16:15
Bo Sang Handicraft Village Sankampaeng
The handcrafting of umbrellas and parasols in Bo Sang Village is known throughout the country and even abroad – so much so that the umbrella has become one of the symbols of Chiang Mai. Here, you'll find plenty of hand-painted umbrellas, tiny cocktail umbrellas, large parasols for gardens or patios and other handmade products – all made from sa paper in various designs and at reasonable prices.
Location: Chiang Mai-San Kampaeng Highway (Route 1006), 9 km from Chiang Mai Old City
Tel: +66 (0)53 248 604
Lanna Folklife Museum Chiang Mai Old City
The Lanna Folklife Museum is an interesting museum full of exhibitions about the lives, history and culture of the Lanna people of northern Thailand. The museum (also called the Lanna Heritage Centre) is located opposite the three Kings Monument in the middle of the old city, and sits inside the old municipal court of Chiang Mai. The building has been renovated and now looks like a white colonial style building, and despite the exterior the museum offers a lot of information about the city’s history in English, Thai and Chinese.
Opening Hours: Tue – Sun 08:30 – 17:00
Location: Prapokklao Road, Chiang Mai Old City
Tel: +66 (0)53 217 793
Meal times in Chiang Mai are often among the highlights of a trip. Like its art, language and cultural heritage, Chiang Mai food is distinct from its cousins to the south and east. A much more pronounced influence from Burma and China is evident in northern cuisine, resulting in milder curries and the heavier use of ginger and turmeric. Khao Niao (sticky rice), instead of steamed rice, is the main staple at every meal and goes very well with a range of nam prik (chilli dips) unique to northern cuisine.
Khao Soi (Egg Noodle Curry)
Rich and savoury yellow curry noodle soup, served with spring onions, pickled cabbage and slices of lime. The egg noodles are of the flat variety, with a small handful of deep-fried portion added on top and also crushed into the broth for a toothsome texture. Choose from chicken, pork, or beef Khao Soi. Usually the portion is quite small, so you might end up ordering another bowl to fill up your stomach.
Not a single dish but a signature Lanna dining experience. Served in a low teak tray that doubles as a table, the khan toke comprises a range of northern-style side dishes and a basket of sticky rice. Diners sit on the floor, and dig in with one hand. The modern version of khan toke is accompanied by a series of cultural performances such as folk music, finger-nail dance and tribal dances.
Sai Oua (Grilled Herb Sausage)
A fiery starter dish, sai oua is northern-style sausage made from ground pork, dried chilies, garlic, shallots and a range of pungent herbs and spices. It looks very similar to northeastern-style sausage when seen on a charcoal grill but tastes drastically different – sai oua is more meaty and rich with herbal aromas as well as chilies.
Nam Prik Ong/Nam Prik Nume (Red/Green Chilli Dip)
This green and red chilli dip duo is the most well-known among all the northern-style chilli dips. Made with roasted chilli spur peppers, the green chilli dip, or nam prik nume, is fiery and will leave your tongue burning after only the first bite. The red chilli dip, or nam prik ong, tastes slightly milder, with a tomato-based paste mixed with ground pork, chopped coriander, spring onion and dried bird’s eye chilies. Both are usually eaten with crispy pork skin, steamed vegetables, or sticky rice.
Gaeng Hang Lay (Burmese-style Sweet Curry)
A yellow curry with a tamarind-based soup, pork chunks, shallots and shrimp paste. Its origins are in Burma, but the adapted northern Thai version uses less oil. With no coconut cream as the ingredient, the texture is less thick than green curry and rich with spices. Some might find gaeng hang lay an acquired taste, but, for us, it's a real winner.
Kanom Jeen Nam Ngeow (Rice Vermicelli with Soybean Curry)
Perhaps the most exotic looking among all the kanom jeen (spaghetti-like noodles), this popular northern dish consists of the kanom jeen in a pork-soybean curry (nam ngeow), served with fresh vegetables, kaeb moo (crispy pork skin), dried bird’s eye chilies and a range of local condiments. The soup tastes rather light and refreshing, unlike other rich, coconut cream versions found in other regional kanom jeen dishes.
Miang Kham (Bite-sized Wrapped Snacks)
A traditional finger food, miang kham is a fun, do-it-yourself starter dish. One serving consists of fresh betal leaves (for wrapping), sweet syrup and a variety of fillings, usually sliced shallots, fresh red or green chilies, diced ginger, diced garlic, diced lime, dried small shrimp and roasted grated coconut. One bite can have all or some of the fillings – it’s totally up to you.
Tam Khanun (Young Jackfruit Salad)
Refreshingly spicy, nutty and flavoursome, this healthy northern dish will wake you up from any slumber. The young, green jackfruit is boiled until tender, then shredded and stir-fried with a garlic-dried chilli-shrimp paste base and a handful of herbs. Take one bite and the rich sweet, sour, salty and nutty tastes will explode in your mouth.
Larb Kua (Pan-fried Spicy Meat Salad)
Larb in northern Thai cuisine has more spices in it than the northeastern version. Beef, fish, pork or chicken meat is chopped up together with blood chunks and innards, then a quick stir in heated cooking oil (oil roasting), along with dried chilies, larb curry, blood chunks and a handful of herbs and spices. The dish goes best with warm sticky rice.
Gaeng Hoh (Mixed Curry)
The name means ‘all mixed up’, and that’s what this dry curry dish is all about. Traditionally fashioned from kitchen leftovers, Gaeng Ho today is usually made from fresh ingredients. Fermented bamboo shoot, red curry paste, hang lay curry paste and kae curry paste combine to make the base ingredients. These then are mixed with a good variety of herbs and vegetables, pork belly meat, glass noodle, shrimp paste and chilies.
Live acts are big in the Chiang Mai nightlife scene and not all are loud and raucous. Chilling out at a riverside bar while the live band entertain with classic blues, jazz and rock tunes is popular. A hip, brash clubbing zone is found among the alleys of Nimmanhaemin Road, while a host of strip clubs, go-go bars and massage parlours are concentrated along Loy Kroh Road, just southeast of Tha Pae Gate. In this peaceful city it's paradoxically not that difficult to party hard, soft - whichever way you want it.
Intersection of Chang Klan and Loy Kroh roads
The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is the place to shop, eat, drink and just people watch after sunset. Countless stalls pack along the sidewalks and spilling out into the street, selling almost everything you can think of. Like the goods on sale, the nightlife here is varied. A handful of side-walk bars and western-style pubs are perfect for stopping and having a mid-shopping drink or resting while someone else wants to shop.
Ratchadamneon Rd, Tha Pae Gate (Sunday), Wualai Road (Saturday)
First it was the Sunday Walking Street, then the Saturday Wualai Walking Street. Closed to car traffic after midday, the Walking Streets are the best places to see and experience Chiang Mai in its own skin. All kinds of vendors and crafts fill the entire stretch. Street food, drinks and cultural entertainment are all part of the experience – it's one of the best ways to spend an evening in Chiang Mai.
The best rooftop bars in Chiang Mai may not offer the dizzying heights of Bangkok’s, but the views are no less spectacular. Although Doi Suthep Mountain might boast the most famous vantage point of the city, there’s an ever-growing number of alfresco spots offering almost-as-nice views. Unlike the mountaintop, they also offer refreshing cocktails and delightful dining, too. The following is a rundown of our five favourites, from golden oldies 24 floors up, to swish new terraces where the molecular cocktails will have you thinking you’ve swapped cities for the night. The styles and atmospheres available are extremely varied, going from high-end cocktail bars to rough-and-ready backpacker haunts.
While the club scene in Chiang Mai is nowhere near the level of Bangkok, there are still a few places to shake it like a dry martini. The music is loud and thumping and the dance floors are usually packed with a mixture of Thais and foreigners. If you want to party like the Thais, pick up a bottle at a local shop and bring it to the club with you. Most places don't charge corkage fees, as long as you buy your ice and mixers from them (at suitably increased prices).
Live Jazz by the Riverside
Charoenrat Rd (between Charoen Muang and Kaew Nawarat)
Across the River Ping from the Night Bazaar, Charoenrat Road runs parallel to the riverside and is home to a line-up of atmospheric resto-bars with the city’s best live music, with jazz, soul, reggae, and classic rock and roll tunes. Team this great atmosphere with the magnificent views and tasty food, and you can see why the Riverside is home to Chiang Mai’s most sought-after nightlife spots.
Bars and Pubs
Nightlife inside the Old City wall has a more subdued vibe to it than the Riverside or the Night Bazaar, but still has potential for meeting people and the promise of live music. The U.N. Irish Pub on Ratvithi Rd (open 9:00-1:00) is laid-back, has good pub food and occasional open-mic nights. THC Rooftop Bar opposite Tha Pae Gate (open 18:00-late) is where you can lie down on some comfy cushions, get caned and listen to electronic music.
Like Phuket, Bangkok and the rest of Thailand, in fact, Chiang Mai has its fair share of pretty ladyboys, and cabaret shows are the best places to spot the prettiest and most talented of them all. Themes range from the glamorous to the hilarious, but the shows are always entertaining. Check out Blue Moon Cabaret at 5/3 Moon Muang Road.
Location: Blue Moon Cabaret at 5/3 Moon Muang Road, Simon Cabaret at 177 G Building, 1st Floor, Chang Peuak Rd.
C.M. Entertainment Complex
Loi Kroh Road, near Chiang Mai Night Bazaar
An entire warehouse dedicated to adult nightlife, definitely not a place to bring your family. Easily spotted by the glowing red neon sign that says “Free Show”, the complex houses some 30 girlie bars with pool tables and loud, throbbing music. There’s also a cabaret show and a Muay Thai (Thai kick boxing) stadium in the middle where free shows are staged on most nights.
Opening Hours: 19:00 – 24:00
Location: Loi Kroh Road, on the way to Night Bazaar
Loi Kroh’s Go Go Strip
Just south of Tha Pae Gate, the short strip leading towards Night Bazaar is a jungle of girlie bars, massage parlours and go-go pubs with their prettiest staff members outside beckoning patrons like sirens. While some have labelled the strip brash, loud, with an in-your-face attitude, it’s the place to go if you’d like some easy ‘company’. For something with a little more style, head to Foxy Lady A Go Go behind Dusit D2 Hotel.
Dinner Cruise on the Ping River
Enjoy scenic views of the Ping River and experience a few hours of romance on a dinner cruise. If you booked the tour, you will be picked up from your hotel around dusk and taken to a pier to board you transport for the evening. The menu available has plenty of options, but you can expect Thai classics like spring rolls, chicken in coconut milk soup, fried chicken, pork, or beef in red curry paste and stir-fried morning glory with oyster sauce. You order your food before you board.
You can enjoy your authentic Thai cuisine while drifting past old temples and houses illuminated by twinkling lights. Before your boat departs from the dock, choose from a wide variety of delicious Thai foods and drinks. After your idyllic ride, return to the pier, where a transfer to your hotel awaits.