This post contains affiliate links to booking.com.
Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand, and is very firmly on the tourist trail. It’s long been a hit with budget travellers and even has a reputation as a hippy hideout, but in fact the city has plenty to offer to travellers seeking history, culture, nature and more.
A big reason for Chiang Mai’s popularity is that the city’s Old Town has retained much of its historical charm, the result of being relatively inaccessible; until about 100 years ago, it could only be reached by a long river journey or trek. Today, it’s well connected by air and road.
Chiang Mai’s Fascinating History
Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 CE on the site of an older city, and has at various times been in the control of local kingdom states, Burmese dynasties and the Thonburi Kingdom, succeeded by the Rattanakosin Kingdom that is modern-day Thailand.
At its centre is the Old Town, built in the square style common to Chinese capital cities of the era, and exactly a mile long on each side. Only the entrance gates, and short stretches of crumbling walls remain, but the entire square mile is still surrounded by a moat and a modern-day road.
Chiang Mai Temples
We loved visiting some of the many temples in Chiang Mai, both inside and outside the old city, especially those dating from the city’s founding era in the 13th and 14th centuries.
There are plenty of temples to choose from in a variety of different styles; some are bright, shiny and modern, having been refurbished or completely rebuilt in recent years where others are historical, time-worn structures that, to my eyes, are even more beautiful. One of the pleasures of walking around the city is stumbling across many temples and remnants, and pausing to explore.
- Wat Chiang Man, where you will find an aged but well-preserved “elephant chedi” featuring a square base on which 15 life size elephants appear to support the upper level of the stupa on their backs. The grounds are expansive and peaceful, and the prayer hall buildings are beautifully ornate.
- Wat Lok Molee, one of the older temples of Chiang Mai, located just outside the old city boundary. It’s visited and therefore more peaceful than some of the others, and has a beautiful old brick chedi decorated with prayer flags, two life size elephants infront of the ornate prayer hall and trees of golden prayer leaves rustling in the breeze.
- Wat Phan Tao, a stunning wooden temple in the old city just next door to Wat Chedi Luang, the teak wood exterior is just beautiful.
- Wat Sri Suphan, known as the “Silver Temple” for it’s ornate hand-crafted silver decorations, it is located just south of the old city in the Wualai neighbourhood, famous for its silver-making industry. As well as the ornate temple, there are golden and silver Buddha statues, and smaller prayer halls. Note that women are not permitted to enter inside the temple buildings here.
Chiang Mai Markets
Chiang Mai offers several well-known markets, some that run during the daytime and a number of “night markets” (which open during the evenings). Here are the ones we recommend checking out:
- The Chiang Mai Saturday Walking Street Market (Wualai) and Sunday Walking Street Market (Tha Pae) are both hugely popular, and in high season, an absolute crush of visitors! They open late afternoon / early evening and finish between 10 and 11 pm. Browse and buy hand-crafted (and some mass-produced) souvenirs, clothes and food to eat on the move. If you go to Wualai Market, make time to stop in and admire Wat Sri Suphan as it looks quite spectacular lit up with colourful lights after dark.
- Visitors can also head to the Night Bazaar on Chang Klan Road, which has a great choice of food stalls as well as the usual souvenirs also on sale. The newer open-air food court is more spacious, but also more expensive. Indoors are the more crowded, less expensive, and more exciting options.
- If you stay at or near our recommended hotel (see below), then you may also want to check out a small street food night market nearby called the Chang Phueak Market, just by Chang Phueak Gate. It’s not huge but has a good selection of stalls selling hot food, snacks, desserts, drinks and fresh fruit, and is busy enough that turnover is brisk and food is cooked to order, but not so crowded that you can’t move in the crush or find a spot at a table to eat.
- Of the day time markets, we found Warorot Market (Kad Luang) fascinating; it’s very much a local shopping venue so you’ll find all kinds of fresh and preserved food, plus hot foot to eat on site or takeaway; there are many clothes vendors – though most of these sell regular fashion (to the local taste) rather than the Thai-fabric clothing that tourists tend to look for – plus all the usual things someone might be looking for their home: cookware, cleaning products, herbal medicines, toys, items of worship for a home shrine. There are jewellery stores too and a large array of fabric shops. We didn’t buy much here but loved exploring.
- On the opposite side of Wichayanon Rd to Wararot is Tom Lam Yai Market, offering more of the same, and behind that, on the river bank, a bustling flower market.
- For fresh produce within the Old Town, try Sompet Market, a short distance north of Tha Pae Gate.
Chiang Mai National Parks, Mountains and Forests
Geographically part of the foothills of the Himalayas, Chiang Mai is the perfect hop-off area for visits to nearby national parks including Doi Suthep-Pui and Doi Inthanon, amongst several others. Thailand’s national parks do a great job of preserving the beautiful natural landscapes of the region, and give a wonderful glimpse of native wildlife and flora. You can tour the parks yourself in a rental car, or book an organised excursion with a driver and guide.
For those looking for adventure sports, there are plenty of opportunities for biking, caving, climbing, hiking, rafting, swimming, and more.
Hot Springs in Chiang Mai Province
The area around Chiang Mai also features natural hot springs, with several locations where you can see the spectacle of natural geysers, bathe in the hot waters or cook eggs in them! San Kamphaeng is one of the most popular with visitors, and less than an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai. We stopped briefly at Mae Khachan, as it’s on the main road between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai.
The Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand
Northern Thailand is home to a number of different hill tribes, ethnic minority communities that have their own cultures, cuisines, traditions and lifestyles, quite distinct from the more prevalent Buddhist population of the country.
The term comes from the mountainous regions in which such communities have made their homes, most making their living as farmers, and in more recent years, through tourism. The seven largest hill tribe groups in Thailand are Akha, Lahu, Karen, Hmong, Mien/Yao, Lisu and Palaung.
There are many, many tour operators offering excursions to visit hill tribes. Some take large groups to villages created solely for tourism where visitors can photograph tribe members in traditional costume and buy traditional craft souvenirs. Some feature heavy-duty trekking to reach the most remote villages, not well-connected by road. And there are those in between that take small groups to villages that, while they are open to visitors, continue to focus on a traditional agricultural lifestyle, with tourism a small part of their income stream.
When researching tour operators for a hill tribe visit, we recommend that you seek out ethical operators that work with hill tribes to create a sustainable tourism industry that benefits local communities and supports them in keeping their traditions and lifestyle alive, without restricting or criticising the modernisation and progress that any individual and community has the right to strive for.
Read about our visit to the Akha hill tribe of Doi Pha Mee.
Taking a Chiang Mai Cooking Class
One of the most popular activities here is to attend a Thai cooking class, and indeed many schools have sprung up in Chiang Mai to cater to the demand.
Things to consider when you are assessing the many schools and classes:
- Location of the class
- Is pick up is included or you need to make your own way there?
- Group size
- How long does the class run? (many schools offer half day, full day and evening options but the actual durations of their full days vary quite a bit)
- What dishes are on the menu to learn? (some schools offer different menus on different days)
- Is the class hands on, with everyone cooking each dish, or is some of the learning demo based, or cooking a dish between the whole group? (Schools where each student cooks dishes individually is the best for learning)
- Is a market visit or farm tour included?
We attended a class by Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School which was held in a domestic garden farm setting about half an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai city centre (transfers included). They also offer half day classes and classes based in Chiang Mai centre.
We visited a local fresh produce market on the way, giving us an introduction to key ingredients of Thai cooking and the class also included a tour of the garden farm before we started cooking.
There were several categories on the menu and before we started cooking, we each chose which soup, salad, curry, stir fry and dessert we wanted to cook. Pete and I made sure to make different choices in each category, so that we could maximise the dishes we learned between us! As well as being lots of fun, the class gave us the confidence to recreate several dishes ourselves when we returned back home.
Chiang Mai Elephant Park
For those looking for an ethical way to visit and interact with Asian elephants, Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park is an excellent choice, one of the longest established sanctuaries of its kind and with a very strong reputation for welfare and conservation.
As well as Asian elephants, the sanctuary also cares for cats, dogs, buffalo and other rescued animals and offers them a place to live out their lives in comfort. They also focus on preservation of local habitat and on educating visitors about elephants, other wildlife and the environment.
Elephant Nature Park do not allow riding or performance entertainment; unlike horses elephant backs are not suitable for carrying much weight, let alone the heavy riding platforms and multiple passengers at a time. The training process that enables elephants to be ridden, perform tricks, or do heavy labour, is pretty horrific.
Many “sanctuaries” have sprung up to take advantage of tourist interest, and will claim they are ethical but if they allow riding, performance, or breeding, this is definitely not the case. Elephant Nature Park encourage and help other local elephant tourism organisations to switch to an ethical model, where elephants are no longer ridden and tourists can interact with them in a positive way.
Chiang Mai Hotels
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
- Many tourists choose to stay within the Old Town, inside the boundaries of the square – within reach of many of the old temples and ruins of Chiang Mai plus lots of cafes, casual restaurants and street food options. The area was once only known as a great spot for Chiang Mai hostels and backpackers but many boutique hotels have sprung up recently offering accommodation of a higher level too.
- Just to the east is the Old City, clustered around Tha Phae Gate, good for both shopping and eating.
- Further to the east is the Night Bazaar area which is busy and buzzy and best for night life. There is a good mix of hotels to suit different budgets.
- Farther out along the Riverside you’ll find many more spacious and luxurious resorts, though there are some less expensive options too. It’s great for a quieter, more peaceful stay.
- Also worth considering is the large area collectively referred to as “mountainside” – to the west of the Old City, in the direction of Doi Inthanon National Park, one of the neighbourhoods here is Nimman Road, where Chiang Mai university is located and popular for student digs.
Suggested Chiang Mai Hotels
We stayed in and recommend Rich Lanna House which has a great location on the Northern edge of the old city, close to Chang Puak Gate. The spacious and beautifully decorated rooms are good value, and the hotel has a small but lovely pool in which to cool off on a hot day.
We also considered:
- Rachamankha (Secret Retreats) is in the old town, not far from the Western boundary and offers luxurious rooms, beautiful public spaces, a pool and pool spa, and an onsite restaurant serving both Asian and western cuisine.
- Pingviman Hotel is also in the old town, just by Saen Pung Gate along the Southern boundary, a short walk to the Saturday Walking Market. Rooms are decorated in an attractive Northern-Thai style with polished wooden floors and ornately carved wooden furniture, and all have jacuzzi spa bathtubs. There’s a pool and onsite restaurant.
- Nidhra Lanna is on the Western boundary of old town, not far from Tha Pae Gate. It’s a well-priced boutique hotel with huge rooms featuring roll-top baths.
- Rachamankha Thai Villa gives you the freedom of a spacious villa at a great value price. It’s well-located within the western boundary of the old town, and offers complimentary airport pick up.
A Three Week Itinerary For Touring Thailand
We visited Chiang Mai as part of an independent holiday, which we organised and booked ourselves. Check out our comprehensive three week Thailand itinerary, including tips on sightseeing, hotels, food and transport.
Save for later:
Please leave a comment - I love hearing from you!63 Comments to "Eight Great Reasons To Visit Chiang Mai, Thailand"
I’m glad I found this at the time I did. I just booked a trip to Vietnam and was starting to think of where we will go next… Thailand it is!
For us it’s the other way around, after Thailand, I’m thinking about Vietnam in the next year or two!
Those are all my favorite reasons to go back to Chiang Mai, so much to see and do. I love gardens and palaces and the summer palace of the royal palace is also a spectacular place to visit when it is open to public for visits in the hills of the city.
Thanks Noel, I’d love to see the summer palace next time I visit and I want to see more temples and visit the nearby national parks too!
Very colourful photos. I really wish to take a cooking class when I visit Thailand again as I love their cuisine. Thanks for sharing these tips 🙂
It’s a great way to enjoy the cuisine and Chiang Mai has become very much known for it!
Get me there NOW. Hoping to be in Thailand and this region early next year. But my marathon running always gets in the way. Dont want to wait until I retire, I want to be there asap and see these beautiful places. Love the post and the photos are awesome.,
Can you take a little time after the marathon running to relax and sightsee and eat? 😀
Never been to Thailand but really wanting to go! Chiang Mai sounds wonderful. The fact that it’s older means it has a lot of history to explore, like those temples you shared. Would love to go to the elephant park too…how incredible!
The historical facet really appealed to me, I loved walking around and stumbling across all the old sites.
Everything is so ornate and colorful! I’m dying to take a cooking class in another country and the one you took looks like a blast! The whole trip looks like such an educational and cultural experience!
The beauty of temple buildings in particular is just amazing!
Chiang Mai looks lovely. I personally didn’t enjoy much Phuket during my first trip to Thailand, but if I go back some day, will definitely consider going to Chiang Mai. And the hill tribes seem really interesting to visit. On your photos people look happy 🙂
Your photos are gorgeous by the way
Most of Phuket is not typical of the rest of Thailand, definitely worth exploring further!
Ahh this brings back great memories. Thailand was my boyfriend and my’s first trip together. I loved Chiang Mai. I wish I’d known more about Elephant Nature Park at the time. We went with another well reviewed place, but they let you ride elephants. It’s taken a few years to actually learn more about why this is not acceptable. I’m happy to hear Elephant Nature Park is taking the initiative to educate the other parks. I am so glad the last few years so many bloggers have spoke out against riding and have educated so many. Would love to go back to Chiang Mai someday. I missed out on so many activities it seems!
We went to Elephant Hills in Khao Sok National Park, though we looked into Elephant Nature Park as well. I was very keen not to go anywhere that allowed riding.
I’ve been wanting to visit here for so long! There’s so much beautiful scenery around here. It takes such a long time to get to this part of the world from where I live though, so I have to save up my vacation time to get to really experience it.
I hope you get to explore this area soon!
Very good reasons 🙂 I visited Chiang Mai some time ago and also loved it. Too bad I missed the Elephant Camp.
We didn’t visit the Elephant Camp on this trip either, we chose an alternative camp in Khao Sok.
I’m so excited to be heading over to Thailand in a few months’ time! Thanks for sharing these incredible photos!
Totally love Chiang Mai – this is such a handy guide to exploring the city
I’d definitely love to take a visit to the night markets and try some food! The day markets look good too, as I love buying local clothes when I travel.
The night markets look amazing — so many things to try! I love history and traveling to places where there is a lot to learn about, so Chiang Mai sounds perfect 🙂
Chiang Mai looks so awesome! I did south Thailand and was bummed I didn’t have enough time to explore north. I heard its even better than south! 🙂
I had no idea Chiang Mai was so inaccessible until so recently — that’s fascinating! This is a great list. The cooking class I did when I was there is still one of the most useful ones I’ve ever done; I probably make at least one dish a week that I learned from it. I was also lucky to be with friends and we did the same thing of choosing different dishes so we could learn how to make the most variety — so much better than cooking classes where the whole group works together on the same 3-4 dishes.
Chiang Mai is such a popular place for many tourists interested in the history and beauty of Thailand. Taking a Thai cooking class is a great way to immerse yourself in local culture! There’s so much to know about their amazing cuisine. I’m also very glad to hear that Elephant Nature Park does not allow riding or performance entertainment – such a good thing.
Temples, markets, nearby national parks, cultural immersion and cuisine … just checked all of our boxes for places that must be visited. The cooking classes sound very fun!
I’ve been quite interested in all that Chiang Mai has to offer. I’d love to tour the temples, especially the wooden one. And taking a cooking class would be a highlight.
Chiang Mai is indeed a heady cocktail of culture, spirituality, food, and much more. It was unfortunate that we missed going to Chiang Mai when we were in Thailand. We realize what we missed even more after reading your post. Hope to get back to Thailand for Chiang Mai and some other islands soon. My fascination for temples in Thailand never fades and am enamoured by the Wat Sri Suphan, it looks so radiant and serene.
A place I really want to visit!
The photos are amazing.. I want to start planning my trip right now!
Reading this was a trip down memory lane for me. It is interesting that the Chiang Mai Saturday Walking Street Market is packed with people. I was there 8 years ago and there was hardly anyone around. I also did a cooking class, which I thoroughly enjoyed as well.
It may also depend on season, we were there early January which is Thailand’s peak high season, I believe.
We’re in Thailand later this year but alas Chiang Mai continues to elude us. I would love to go and do a cooking class. I’ve done a few around the world and I love them – and you’re right, it makes all the difference to have it be a student-participating class and not just a demonstration. And adding in a market tour is so well worth it.
That food tour sounds great, I would love to learn more about traditional Thai cooking. Glad you also highlighted the existence of non ethical elephant parks. So many tourists still don’t know the difference.
The activities in this post just kept getting better and better. The markets look amazing, hot springs are always a yes, and elephants as well! It might be time for me to make a visit to Thailand:)
Hot springs, national parks, temples, indigenous tribes, great food – Chiang Mai sounds like the perfect province for a holiday in Thailand. What I remember well from our visit to Bangkok and Krabi are the food stalls at the markets. I don’t like markets that are too crowded, so Chang Phueak Market sounds ideal for us.
I have read so much about the popular Chiang Mai I found so much of new information in your blog. I would love to try some of those al fresco food stalls, though I hope they have something for vegans and vegetarians like me. So little is known about the hill tribes of Thailand to the outside world! As mentioned by you, I would love to trek o remote villages of Thailand and acquaint myself with the alternative lifestyle of people there.
Great Post! I love the disclosure about the elephant parks. My first time in Thailand was long before I had a travel blog. I didn’t have ANY idea this was dangerous and harmful to animals. Thanks for sharing!
I really love your photo collages, they look great. Northern Thailand is such an incredible place!
I always read about visiting temples in Thailand and had no idea about the hot springs. I would definitely love to check out the markets 🙂
This would a really comprehensive itinerary for me when I make my way to Chiang Mai. The elephant park and hot springs look especially enticing.
I have been considering going back to Thailand because I did not visit Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai the first time. This guide is very helpful and I would love to visit the temples, the elephant park, the mountains and the street markets. And the food in Thailand, without a doubt, is the highlight!
The next time we go to Chiang Mai, we plan to stay for a month, so we’ll have plenty of time. I want to visit more of the temples and go see the elephants. Great write up.
Rich Lanna House looks lovely. I am still not totally convinced by Chiang Mai – it’s that hippy hangout bit. But there again, elephants, cooking classes, hot springs and hill tribes…all mixed in with some stunning temples… who knows
With Thailand in our top must go places, I found your article full of great tips on narrowing down what could be a bit of a daunting trip. Temples and elephants by day, experiencing local indigenous culture and night markets – we love street food and markets. Will keep this handy.
We’ve never been to Thailand and would definitely want to explore it one day. But Chiang Mai looks a lot like Luang Prabrang in Laos, which we visited a couple of years ago. Also many temples to visit, amazing night markets, awesome peoples from hill tribes to meet, and interesting cooking classes to take! 🙂
I still need to visit Thailand at some point, those temples look amazing!
Chiang Mai is such a nice place to visit, for it has many things to offer. So much things to do to Chiang Mai and their food sounds really delicious! Thanks for sgaring this post! I really love looking at the photos!
Everyone says to take a cooking class so I guess that is the thing to do. I really want to see Chiang Mai. Especially those temples.
Its such a long time since i visited Chang Mai. That was back in the early 80’s. I loved reading your post and see how much it has changed but seems to have kept its character in tact. I really must get back and stay a while.
Chiang Mai looks amazing! The night markets look like they have lots of food and accessories to offer 🙂
I really love the architectural styles of the Thai temples which have influenced Lao temples tremendously. They almost look identical to the ones I visited in Laos, not surprising considering their geographical distance and historical conquests.
I love you in-depth you get on the various attractions in Chiang Mai. So many people stop at the temples and don’t go into what the city itself has to offer.
Chiang Mai is such a beautiful place to visit, for it has so much to offer. To the amazing religious shrines, hotsprings, and the delicious foods, everything is amazing and you will enjoy every bit in this place. Thanks for sharing this post.
I was blessed that my first experience with Chiang Mai was Loy Krathong & Yi Peng. I loved that city far more than Bangkok!
The Wats (and there are tons of them) all have their own personality and I love the detail and beauty of each one.
There is no doubt the street food in all the markets is off the hook! I think I gained like 20lbs but so worth it.
Each reason to visit Chiang Mai is worth. Looks like a better experience than Bangkok. I have been to Phuket and Bangkok, maybe I’ll visit Chiang Mai when I’m planning to visit Thailand again.
Wow! you’ve mentioned huge details about Chiang Mai, especially its great to know about options of market there. Love the wall art, it makes me feel so homely. Whenever I visit Thailand, would definitely plan for Chiang Mai.
I had no idea there were hot springs in Chiang Mai! There’s just too many things to do in Chiang Mai to see it all. I loved visiting markets and all the temples when I went but now it looks like I’ll have to book another trip to Thailand. I’ve been meaning to check out Doi Inthanon National Park too!
I still haven’t been to Chiang Mai, partially because the stories I have heard have been quite mixed. But you make it sound great and I love your pictures! The markets I would definitely enjoy and the Elephant Park would be a must visit for me.
I love the sound of the silver temple and the elephant temple. Must be full. Of intricate carvings. The hot springs also appeal to Me. I am quite keen on seeing Chiang Mai. Hope soon.
Great info! I would love to visit one day. Beautiful sights and looks like so much fun. I am adding Thailand to my list for sure. Thank you.
I’m just like a nomade girl, wanna visit every place of world, Thanks for awesome explaining…