Chiang Mai is one of those places that is famous on the Southeast Asia backpacker trail. It’s been named one of the best cities for expats and one of the number one destinations in Thailand/all of Southeast Asia. A place like that can’t possibly live up to the hype, right? Chiang Mai just might.
There’s a lot of to love about Chiang Mai — the city is super walkable, Northern Thai food is delicious and it offers access to fabulous outdoor adventures — but there’s also an intangible sort of je ne sais quoi. When Alex and I play the game, “If you had to live in one place we’ve visited, where would it be?” Chaing Mai is always toward the top of both of our lists. Here are our favorite things to do in this city.
1. Play with elephants!
Chiang Mai probably has more tourist offices offering elephant excursions than any other city in the world. There are a ton of options, and it helps to educate yourself about what type of activities are in the elephants' best interest before committing to a tour. We loved our excursion with Chai Lai Orchid (which also included trekking and a hill tribe homestay — two very worthwhile activities that didn't quite make this list), but it's worth noting that the same elephants that you ride bareback and play with one-on-one are also forced to give chair rides for another tourism company. Chai Lai is doing their best to rent out the elephants as much as possible and prove to their owner that they can be treated humanely, but the experience is still a bit bittersweet. We'll provide a full write-up of our Chai Lai Orchid elephant adventure shortly!
Something I didn't realize about Thailand before visiting is how deeply religious this Buddhist nation is. Temples dot every city, and orange-clad monks walk the streets at dawn each morning collecting alms. This is no different in Chiang Mai, where you can even participate in a program called Monk Chat, a 2-day/1-night meditation retreat where you'll learn about Buddhism, the role of monks in the community, the daily life of Buddhist monks, and — obviously — you'll practice a lot of meditation. You don't need any meditation experience or training to participate, and the silent retreat is a deeply enlightening cultural experience.
3. See a Muay Thai fight
On the opposite end of the spectrum from meditation… bloody fist fighting! As someone who finds the Rocky movies a little too violent to handle, I'm surprised that I actually enjoyed going to a Muay Thai match. While Muay Thai is a raucous, crowded gambling event for locals in Bangkok, the Kalare Night Bazaar Boxing Stadium in Chiang Mai is much more tourist-friendly. The audience is entirely foreigners and announcements are made in English. It's an interesting taste of this ancient sport, and after a match, you can decide for yourself whether you're up for the real thing in the big city.
4. Practice yoga
Unsurprisingly, there are a ton of options for yoga in this city full of spiritually inclined expats. In general, I found the studios to be beautiful, and they all had pretty good websites with their schedules online. You could easily spend a week just bopping between the different studios.
5. Shop at the Sunday Night Market
While most Asian cities have a night market, the Chiang Mai market on Sunday nights takes it to new heights. Almost the entire old city is closed to traffic and the streets are filled with vendors selling local crafts, traditional foods, and hipper, edgier clothing and accessories. I particularly loved this last category of cool, stylish items like earrings made of butterfly wings and novelty tees in more interesting colors and cuts.
6. Trek the temples
With over 300 temples — dating as far back as 700 years ago — temples are an obvious must-see in Chiang Mai. We followed a Lonely Planet walking tour (whenever we encounter a guidebook, I take photos of the most informative pages) to see a handful of the best-known temples in half a day, which was just enough for us. However, you could easily spend several days just visiting temples.
7. Massage away your worries
The best remedy for a sweaty, tiring day of temple-hopping? A Thai massage. Unlike the Swedish massages we're used to in the U.S., Thai massages are far more interactive, with the masseuse stretching and kneading you like putty (you're also fully clothed). We recommend the spa chain, Lila, where the employees are graduates of a prisoner-rehabilitation program at the local women's prison. An hour-long massage will run you about .
8. Learn to cook like a local
It is an undeniable fact that Thai food is freaking delicious. Who wouldn't want to learn to make amazing curries and satisfying soups at home?? Admittedly, you're going to struggle to recreate these flavors with the herb options we have in the U.S., but just the experience of grinding your own curry paste will give you a new appreciation for the rest of your meals in Thailand.
9. Soak it in
One of the best things about Chiang Mai is the enormous number of restaurants and cafes where you can sit on a covered patio and watch the world go by. And trust me, with this many tourists and Westerners running amok, there will be a lot to see (and laugh at).