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Best things to see and do in Chiang Mai

You could spend a lomg time exploring everything Thailand's northern capital has to offer so these are just a few of our personal favourite see and dos

Justifiably one of Thailand’s most popular destinations, Thailand’s northern capital is another of those Southeast Asian destinations you could spend a long time exploring or just chilling out in and, if we’re not careful, our best things to see and do in Chiang Mai post could become very lengthy. Consequently, we’re limiting our suggestions to just a few of our personal favourites along with those that, in our experience, have proved to be the most popular sites and activities with visitors.

We also need to point out that Chiang Mai is the name of one of Thailand’s largest provinces – stretching all the way to the Myanmar border – in addition to being the name of the provincial capital so, in this post, we’re limiting ourselves to things to see and do in Chiang Mai City and its immediate vicinity. Doi Inthanon National Park, Chiang Dao, and the elephant sanctuaries of Mae Taeng will have to wait for another post.

best things to see and do in Chiang Mai
Quiet and picturesque old temples abound in Chang Mai
Walking Street Markets

This listing refers to the Saturday Walking Street Market at Wualai and the Sunday version on Ratchadamnoen Road in the Old Town. In each case, the main streets and adjacent areas are closed to traffic giving them a major advantage over the long-standing Chiang Mai Night Bazaar which is split in two by a busy road with visitors confined to a cramped pavement on either side.

Both of these huge pedestrian-only markets set up late afternoon going on throughout the evening and consist of a mix of handicrafts, souvenirs, clothes and a wide range of snack and food stalls. Both are great fun although we have a slight preference for the Saturday market which, while slightly smaller, is also less well-known, quieter and in our opinion has a better range of food stalls, with more places to sit and eat. Both are very popular with local and foreign visitors and in high season in particular can get very busy so for either – go early.

See and do in Chiang Mai
Tired street vendor takes a break on her rounds of the Old City
The Old Town

Chiang Mai’s Old Town, or Old City, enclosed by a square moat and city wall was originally constructed in the 14th century and today houses a maze of narrow alleyways and lanes, myriad ancient temples, local markets and cafes, bars and restaurants. It isn’t really a single destination in its own right and several of the see and do in Chiang Mai suggestions below – wats, museums and so on – are found within this central area.

It is however just a great place to wander, (aimlessly is fine or you can follow a suggested walking tour), and see what sights you come across. You can’t get lost as you’ll hit the moat in any direction and if you get hot or there’s a shower there are, as we said, a multitude of coffee shops and local cafes to cool down or shelter in. You can extend a stroll east into the bustling Worarot Market area and Chinatown – much busier but also great to explore.

Thailand, Wat Phra Sing, Chiang Mai
Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai
Ancient temples

As you’re wandering along the lanes of the Old Town you will come across many of the town’s myriad ancient Buddhist temples – again, the oldest of which date to the 14th and 15th centuries. The ‘must sees’, (best-known and most spectacular), are Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang – both situated close to the centre of the Old City. After that, it’s up to you and while venerable and picturesque old temples not only dot the Old Town but spread out in every direction from the centre, there are only so many you can visit.

Wat Doi Suthep and the forest temple Wat Umong are listed separately but we’d also include mentions for Wat Chiang Man, the Silver Temple – Wat Sri Suphan, (conveniently located next to the Saturday Walking Street Market) and historic Wat Jet Yot, located slightly northwest of the town centre.

The 'Silver Temple' - Wat Sri Suphan
The ‘Silver Temple’ – Wat Sri Suphan

Also located in the centre of the Old City is Chiang Mai’s museum district boasting the Chiang Mai Arts and Cultural Centre, the Chiang Mai Historical Museum and the Lanna Folklife Museum. All are located in close proximity, (in the 3 Kings Monument Area), all are visit-worthy and you can obtain a single entry ticket allowing entry to all three. (Valid, we believe, over several days.) They’re well laid out and have bilingual explanations.

Spa and Massage

Spas and massages are ubiquitous in Chiang Mai and cover the full range from luxury spas to a little old lady sat in the back of a shophouse but our favourite, conveniently located just down the road from the History Museum, is, to give it the full name – the Chiang Mai Women Correctional Institution Vocational Training Center. It’s a scheme set up by Chiang Mai Women’s Penitentiary to provide the inmates with skills and income. Their earnings are set aside so on release, the women have job opportunities as well as some dosh. (These are mainly short-sentence prisoners on drug offences and the like so you won’t be massaged by an axe murderer!) A very worthy scheme that deserves support and there’s also a good cafe next door where catering and service skills are taught. Yes, you can visit a spa and or massage just about anywhere but Chiang Mai’s quality and prices are very hard to beat.

Thailand, cooking ingredients
Great place to try your hand at Thai cooking
Cookery Classes

Nowadays any popular Southeast Asian destination offers local cookery classes; Khmer cooking in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh or Kampot, Lao culinary lessons in Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng or Vietnamese in Hoi An or Hanoi, (there’s an excellent one in Penang), as well as any other popular Thai town you can think of. Chiang Mai was one of the first to jump on the cookery class bandwagon and is still probably one of the best. Cookery schools proliferate in Chiang Mai and we certainly haven’t tried them all so, while we’re sure many are excellent, our current favourite is Grandma’s Home Cooking School.

Doi Suthep

While slightly out of the town centre – a short distance west – we’re including the mountain-top temple out of respect to the local saying; ‘if you haven’t visited Doi Suthep, you haven’t visited Chiang Mai’. Doi Suthep is the name of the mountain and national park while Wat Doi Suthep is the temple on the eastern slope overlooking the city. We could fill an entire blog post with Doi Suthep but suffice to say – views are great and the venerable old temple fascinating – but it can get busy so go early. Combine it with a stop at Wat Umong or Wat Jet Yot, both on the west side of the town.

Thailand, coffee shop near Doi Suthep NP
Well-placed coffee shop overlooking Doi Suthep
Wat Umong

While Chiang Mai – the Old City in particular – is relatively quiet and laid back it is still a city so the forest temple Wat Umong provides peaceful and picturesque grounds to escape the admittedly limited, hustle and bustle. The site is a short tuk-tuk or taxi ride from downtown and can be combined with a trip to nearby Doi Duthep.

Mae Kha Canal

Formerly part of the old city fortifications, this narrow canal that winds through south Chiang Mai has recently been cleaned and lined with pedestrian walkways. Handicraft shops and snack stalls now line the canal banks and it’s a great spot for a stroll – particularly at sunset.

Mae Kha Canal, Chiang Mai
The Mae Kha Canal, is particularly pictiuresque at sunset

Most of our other potential see and do in Chiang Mai listings fall more readily into a food and drink post so that’ll be for later but, before we finish, there are a few mentions for sites that didn’t make it.

Chiang Mai Night Bazaar; has some very good eating options but the busy market has been largely superseded by the much more pedestrian-friendly Walking Streets.

Chiang Mai Zoo; they try hard and there are some efforts at breeding and conservation schemes so it isn’t bad as zoos go – but it is still a zoo. The aquarium is our favourite bit.

The popular Monk Chat thingy is an odd one and it can be a toss-up as to whether some young monk genuinely wants to meet foreigners and improve his English or whether it is just a money-making scheme. (Albeit by ‘donations’.) Language skills are also unpredictable as much as any given monk’s knowledge of local history and geography.

Last but not least to see and do in Chiang Mai – located at the eastern foot of Doi Suthep, close to Wat Umong – is the Choeng Doi Suthep Wildlife Conservation Centre. Wild cattle and rare deer roam the forest and moss-covered temple ruins and it’s also a renowned bird-watching spot. Delightful!