What To Do in Chiang Mai
What To Do In Chiang Mai Contents
Bet I’ve got some people triggered already about what I’m going to suggest to do in Chiang Mai based on that picture above, hey! I’m aware of the cruelty to elephants that goes on in Thailand, and a lot of South East Asia. I’ll get to that later.
First up let’s talk about what there is to do in the center of Chiang Mai. It’s a foodie’s dream and a great place from which to go explore the surrounding mountains. If you are visiting during the colder months you should definitelly go check out Thailands own cherry tree blossoms in the mountains. The cherry blossoms with the mountain back drop makes for spectacular views.
It’s also surrounded by fort walls and a moat which is pretty cool although there are plenty of neighbourhoods to stay in outside of it too.
The City of Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is easy to walk around and there are a number of temples in Chiang Mai which provide a good half a day’s exploring. I had seen a few too many temples in a row by this part of my trip so I didn’t appreciate the temples like I should have done. I wasn’t really interested.
Looking back on the photos now I can see that they’re a spectacular collection of temples and they were all just there in the middle of the town so I’ll just let the photos speak for themselves.
If you haven’t been a complete temple whore already, like I had, I would image you’ll very much enjoy walking around and exploring them.
There are some rather spectacular ones, like this one:
And this one
And this one
These are all just temples you can see walking around the town. Which is pretty cool really. Obviously you could put together a more detailed Chiang Mai itinerary for exploring the town to if you want more variety to mix up with your temple exploration. Apart from the food and accommodation, the other items below take you out of the center of town.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Heading out of the city you can go to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep which is a temple is located up a mountain on the way to Doi Suthep – Pui National Park. You can get tuk-tuks there and back or you can hire a scooter to go there. The friend I went with from my hostel, by which I mean random man I met that morning and explored the temples in town with, was used to riding bikes so we just hired one between the two of us and I went on the back. If you’ve never driven a scooter before this might not be the best time for your first trip out as the hill is steep and winding with a lot of blind corners.
The temple is situated up 300 steps from where you’ll get out of the tuk-tuk or leave your bike. The temple is beautiful and a lot more impressive than the ones in town. I even managed to thoroughly enjoy it whilst feeling “templed out”.
See I even look happy again now in this one:
And this one:
And this one:
After we went to the temple we decided to carry on up the hill to go explore the area of Doi Suthep – Pui National Park.
We didn’t manage to find any official park of any sort but did have fun exploring the surrounding area and there would have been a great view for sunset if it wasn’t for the fact that we were there in dry season when parts of the forest are systematically burned causing there to be smog all over the city.
The view from up by the national park would be spectacular for sunset but we were there near burning season so the view was somewhat obscured as you can see below.
Burning season takes place in Thailand and the surrounding parts of South East Asia in February, March and April. Burning season happens because crops are intentionally burnt to clear that area for the new crops to grow when rainy season starts.
This causes a huge amount of pollution and really isn’t pleasant to be in the middle of. Try to avoid going at that time of year if you can. There are still other awesome things to do near Chiang Mai if you happen to be there that time of year that would get you out of the smog like going to the botanical gardens or nearby villages.
Trekking in Chiang Mai
The most popular activity in Chiang Mai is trekking to the hill tribes. There are lots of variations of trekking tours you can take but the most popular are between two and three days long and involve trekking to a hill tribe village, white water rafting, seeing waterfalls and elephants.
I opted for the two day, one night version of this tour.
Since you’re going to be walking, A LOT, it’s advisable to leave your big backpack in a hostel in town and just take a small day bag with you for the trek.
The order the activities take place in will vary by tour and ours even varied on the day.
I was in Chiang Mai in dry season so the first waterfall they took us to was pretty underwhelming. So much so we all turned around and said, “Wait, is this is?” There just wasn’t really any water, which was a shame as we’d been trekking up hill for a couple of hours by then in the mid-day heat so could really have used a cool down swim.
It being dry season also effected the white water rafting as there wasn’t a lot of water in the river meaning at some points we were literally having to bounce the raft over rocks to keep it going down the river. I went white water rafting in Rishikesh before and that was much better.
Almost all Chiang Mai Trekking tours involve going to see elephants and riding them if you’d like to.
Our trek in fact involved stopping at an elephant sanctuary first, not for us to see the elephants but to pick up supplies and then on the second day before we went white water rafting stopping at an area in the forest with elephants for people to ride.
There is a lot of controversy nowadays about people ridding elephants because of the rumoured bad treatment of them, even in a lot of the sanctuaries. Some of which hinges on how they are broken in to become ok with people riding them to how they are kept in small enclosures when not being ridden.
I hadn’t looked into any of this when I went on the trekking tour in Chaing Mai but I still wasn’t sure if I was ok with riding elephants. I decided at the time that I would do it as after all I had for years been ok with riding horses and there really isn’t much difference so if I was ok with one I should be ok with the other.
I actually probably wouldn’t do it again now having found out more about it but I also probably wouldn’t ride a horse now either for the same reasons.
I think you have to make up your own mind on if you think it’s ok or not.
The only thing I will say though is don’t just jump to being horrified about it because that’s what is in now with thinking it through fully.
For example if you’re going to be outraged by people riding elephants are you then going to extend that to horses too or just stick with elephants because that’s the in thing now? How does that fit in with all the animals you eat that are locked up in cages until they’re slaughtered for your food?
I’m not saying don’t be outraged or against it just think about how it fits with everything else you do. Make sure you’re making the decision for what you believe, not what others have told you that you should or what is in “fashion”.
So that time I did ride the elephants and I found it kind of horrible because of how the trainers dig their heels into the elephants to get them to move (again no different to horse riding there except with horses people wear spikes!).
Even just getting to be up close with the elephants was amazing though so if you can find a way to be up close with them in a way that fits with your moral belief systems I highly recommend you to do so. There are ethical elephant experiences in the area.
Moving on from the elephants, the trek to the top of the mountain to see the hill tribe is long and although the trek in and of itself wouldn’t be particularly arduous it does get very hot and tiring since you’re doing it in the middle of the day. The guides are good at stopping frequently to make sure everyone is ok though so don’t worry if you’re not particularly fit, you’ll still make it up.
As you get nearer to the top of the mountain it seems crazy to think that people actually live there you’ve climbed so high and it looks like there’ s nothing around but some how a village magically appears right at the top.
Since it’s a little village at the top of a hill there is no electricity and the amenities are basic. Your group from the trek will all sleep on mattresses on the floor in one room so don’t expect anything fancy. As far as I’m concerned for a couple of nights the accommodation was great. So you can check it out for yourselves, this is where we stayed below.
The guides organised a delicious home cooked dinner for us on arrival and then a group of local children came by and performed a dance and sang. It wasn’t the most well organised of performances by any standard but it was really cute and the donations they ask for at the end aren’t a lot for you but provide an important additional income stream for the families there.
For anyone who’s so “woke” they’re going to start worrying about how this is exploiting the children, the children are fine. Children like dancing and singing, it’s hardly slave labour.
As a kid my brothers and I used to go out and busk playing Christmas Carols on our violins. It was cold AF outside for hours in England in winter but when kids are doing that sort of thing it’s just the same as playing. Personally I think this is a great money for the families in the hill tribes to make a bit of extra income from the foreigners who invade their space every day.
As the sunset we all sat out on the porch playing guitar and singing.
Since there’s no electricity, talking and playing guitar are the only activities and it’s nice. I’d suggest taking a torch though so you can make it to the outside toilet and back without tripping up!
The second waterfall we went to on the trek was much more impressive and fun for a swim.
I loved the trek, especially this really cute kid I met in the hill village who just wanted to do my hair and get me to do hers time and time again. She even managed to show me how to do something new on my camera that I had no idea about. Fucking kids and technology, even those living in villages with no electricity ?
But there was another girl on the trek who was staying for two nights who didn’t enjoy it . She said on the first night she regretted booking the second night and thought maybe the whole trekking and being up in a quiet sleepy village thing wasn’t for her.
I mention this just in case you think that might be the case for you too so you consider it before embarking on the trip. There’s nothing wrong with that. We all enjoy doing different things and if there are certain things you don’t enjoy just don’t do them.
The only thing I would stay though is that it can be good to push yourself out of your comfort zone slightly especially if it’s just for day or two. You may discover unexpected things that you do enjoy!
Food in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is know for having loads of great options of food to eat from local food to a huge array of organic vegan and vegetarian western food.
Blue Diamond Breakfast Club
Blue Diamond Breakfast Club is not the easiest of places to find but well worth the hunt. The setting of the restaurant is a beautiful garden. It’s more expensive than a lot of other places in the area but it’s a great breakfast.
Local Food Stands
There’s a collection of local food stands just outside the Chang Phuak Gate. Here you can get a good Pad Thai really cheaply. We only went there in the evening but if might be open during the day as well. There is also a really good night market everyday which has a lot of street food as well as trinkets and clothes to buy. And every Sunday there is the Sunday Walking Street Market which goes from Tha Pae Gate going towards Ratchadamnoen Road. The road is closed off for traffic when the market is on, hence the walking street name, and it’s packed with handcrafts and souvenirs as well as loads of street food options to get some good cheap eats.
When to Go To Chiang Mai
There are 3 main reasons people usually go to Chiang Mai:
- To see the hill tribes covered above
- To experience Songkran
- Because they’re a digital nomad
I’ve already gone through the hill tribe treks above so I’ll skip to Songkran.
Songkran is Thai New Year and quite frankly it’s more fun that Western New Year. Not even close.
Songkran is celebrated by having a massive water fight. Really.
On every street corner in the lead up to Songkran shops will be selling super soakers. On the day of Songkran from morning till night everyone then runs around shooting each other with water.
I’m sure there are most ceremonial elements of it that take place which I will research and write you a full post on but the bit you’ll see and get involved in is the massive water fight. Why would you not want to be involved in that?
The best places to celebrate Songkran are Chiang Mai and then Koh Phi Phi
Chiang Mai for Digital Nomads
Chiang Mai is the digital nomad capital of South East Asia, with Bali a close second. If you don’t know what a digital nomad is it’s basically just the wanky term for anyone who works online and can do so from anywhere in the world. They’re usually characterized by completely unrealistic pictures of working on laptops at the beach or by the pool, umm yea that doesn’t work screen glare anyone and come with captions that end with #digitalnomading.
Now I know I’m taking the piss but I actually thoroughly approve of the digital nomad lifestyle in a lots of ways, I just hate the pretentiousness around it and unrealistic expectations people set for others.
Most people who are digital nomads still work full office hours, if not more, every day and so don’t actually really get to properly enjoy those beautiful surroundings they’re in. So whilst it’s cool to have the flexibility to work anywhere in the world most aren’t living the life of sipping coconuts all day on secluded beaches as is usually portrayed.
Anyway if you would like to become a digital nomad or are already one and want to hang out with other digital nomads Chiang Mai is the place to go. And since there are so many there you will probably learn a lot by going to talks at the co-working spaces there and make a lot of good connections so it is a great place to go if you’re just starting out.
So many digital nomads go there as the cost of rent for a nice serviced apartment in town is cheap, from about $200 a month as are other living costs such as food so it gives a bit more buffer time to get your business off the ground.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
Most of the popular backpacker accommodation is in Moon Maung soi 6. I stayed at Just Chill Inn hostel which was lovely. It’s run by a local woman who’s really friendly and helpful with booking tours. There are comfy areas to relax in the downstairs in the hostel and the rooms are basic, just mattresses on the floor in a room, but clean. I heard some rumors of people having had their big backpacks stolen when leaving them at hostels to go on the hilltop treks so make sure you trust the people in the hostel you are leaving your possessions with.
How Long to Spend in Chiang Mai
You’ll need at least two to three days there if you’re planning to do a hill tribe trek, even if it’s just the two day/one night version, as you’ll need to factor in a night in Chiang Mai before the trek and and one when you get back since you won’t return till late. If you can, leave longer than this (one week in Chiang Mai would be a good amount of time) to explore the town too so you don’t miss out on the temples I mentioned above and the great food.
Moving On: How to Get from Chiang Mai to Pai
Frequent busses go to Pai from Chiang Mai and take about 4 hours. Be warned the road to Pai is dangerous as there are a lot of steep inclines and busses haven been know to crash or come off the hill on this route.
If you can drive a bike another option would be to hire one and drive up to Pai on scooters. Just check with your scooter rental place you’re allowed to do that as some specifically forbid it.
Moving On: How to Get from Chiang Mai to Laos by Slow Boat
I didn’t go to Pai and instead took slow boat into Laos. It’s a three day trip with one day by road and two days by boat. Check out my post on the slow boat for more details on this journey. I only didn’t go to Pai as a couple of months before I’d been in Rishikesh in India for a month and so I felt I’d already done my chill out hippy time for a bit which is what Pai’s know for but everyone I’ve met who went there fell in love with the place.