There’s something for everyone in the lively city of Chiang Mai. There are numerous nature trails for the outdoor lovers, hundreds of cafes for the coffee addicts, and museums and temples for the ones seeking a more cultural experience. For me, the true beauty lies just outside of Chiang Mai and in the surrounding area that is northern Thailand.
I spent the past month living in the Nimman area of Chiang Mai, an area that is buzzing with nightlife, cafes, and young Thai students. I set out to explore this area, the city center, and the local secrets kept hidden from tourists that are a quick trip away from Chiang Mai.
Here is a list of the top 21 things to do in Chiang Mai.
1) Cliff Jumping at the Grand Canyon (Tuang Thong)
This is one of the most thrilling things to do in Chiang Mai. It’s a 30 minute motorbike ride from the city center and a bit challenging to find. If you search for this restaurant, you’ll find directions for the canyon since the restaurant overlooks it. The canyon is an old quarry thats been filled with rain water and is now a place that attracts adrenaline junkies. The water is green and blue and surrounded by clay cliffs.
There’s a 50 baht entrance fee which includes one free herbal drink. The restaurant serves delicious Thai food and is the perfect type of food to indulge in after spending the day jumping and swimming. You can rent life jackets and tubes as well!
The water is a great temperature on a warm, sunny day, and you’ll find this spot filled with tourists and locals alike. There are two main spots to jump from. The highest one looks like it would hurt (I did not jump off of it but floated peacefully in the quarry as I watched the dare devils jump).
Make sure you bring sun screen and water, since it gets quite hot!
2) Hike to the Doi Suthep Summit and Viewpoint
This was my favorite thing to do in Chiang Mai. Take the road past Wat Phra That towards Doi Suthep and straight into the mountains. It’s hilly and windy, so drive slowly and carefully if you’re on a motorbike.
Park your motorbike at a place that says “Doi Suthep Checkpoint” and hike about 2 kilometers to the summit and the viewpoint. There are a ton of benches just before it.
The hike is hilly and a bit strenuous, but in the shade and actually quite enjoyable. My friend and I were the only ones there when we went!
The summit is about 300 meters from the end of the hike, and the viewpoint is around 400 meters from the end of the hike. The summit is located at 1,685 meters.
The viewpoint is incredible. After hiking along a narrow path very close to the cliff’s edge, we got to an opening. There’s almost a 180 degree view of the surrounding mountains, some of it’s covered by trees and bushes. What you can see, however, is beautiful.
Massive mountains surrounded us as clouds drifted slowly in the sky. The city of Chiang Mai was covered by clouds and mountains, so we saw rural farm land and dense forest from thousands of feet above.
3) Watch the sunrise at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and visit the temple
I woke up at 5:45 in the morning and drove to Wat Phra That on Doi Suthep mountain. Once you get to the temple, there are around 300 steps you have to climb. It was quite the workout at 6 in the morning!
We were the only ones awake except for the athletes biking up the mountain. Monks were walking around the temple barefoot and wrapped in their orange robes. It was quiet and peaceful.
We walked inside of the temple and towards the east side to the perfect sunrise spot. The sun peaked up from the horizon at 6:51 a.m. as the sky became an array of pastel colors. Oranges, blues, and pinks were painted across the sky like a ribbon as the city of Chiang Mai woke up from its deep sleep.
There is a 30 baht entrance fee for foreigners to get into the actual temple, where you’ll find golden pillars and Buddha statues.
4) Visit Huay Kaew Waterfall
This waterfall is at the bottom of Doi Suthep mountain, about 100 meters away from the main road. There were Thai children swimming in the bottom of the waterfall and dogs running around chasing each other.
It’s a nice place to relax and absorb the natural beauty in the mountains of Thailand. There are a few other waterfalls along the road up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep that you can also visit.
5) Café Hop
There are hundreds and hundreds of cafes in Chiang Mai. Whether you’re a book worm looking to sneak away behind shelves of books, a cat lover in need of a purr fix (yes, there’s a cat cafe), or a secret garden lover, there’s something for everyone. Coffee’s and smoothies at cafes typically range from 35 to 100 baht, some are more expensive than others. Most of these cafes offer free wifi, which is ideal for us digital nomads.
6) Visit the Night Bazaar and Sunday Walking Street
Looking for tiny trinkets or bizarre articles of clothing? The Night Bazaar and Sunday Walking Street has everything you need!
The Sunday Market is like the human version of an ant assembly line. There are hundreds of people all walking in a straight line, gawking at the oddities set up along the way. It’s a bit overwhelming because of the amount of people walking around, but is definitely worth the visit especially if you’re looking for souvenirs.
The Night Bazaar has a ton of food options, though I found it to be way more expensive than buying regular street food just outside of the bazaar.
7) Bua Thong Waterfall (Sticky Waterfall)
An hour or so out of Chiang Mai is the sticky waterfall, a waterfall you can climb up and swim in. The water rushes over porous limestone, which, when it comes into contact with skin, creates a surface in which you can actually climb up.
8) Go to the Beer Buffet at Rush Bar
A 189 baht all you can drink Heineken beer from 6-9 p.m., daily. I know, I know, I almost fainted too. I was actually surprised at how good this beer buffet was. The waitress kept refilling my drink before I was even finished with it. If it came close to being 3/4 empty, she was right by my side, pouring beer into my glass. This is well worth the $5 and a great way to pregame before a night out (if you even make it out).
Rush bar is located in the Nimman area, at Nimman Soi 9.
9) Walk Around the Old City
An old, crumbling wall is the landmark of Chiang Mai city. Chiang Mai is one of the only cities in which the old city’s walls are still in tact. Start at the Tapae Gate and make your way through the narrow city streets. There are a lot of temples inside the city walls, such as Wat Chiang Man, Wat Pan Tao, and Wat Chedi Luang you can also visit.
One can easily spend a day getting lost inside the cities many narrow side streets and discovering small Thai shops selling mouthwatering, cheap Thai food.
10) Visit Maya Mall and the Roof
The view of Chiang Mai from the top of the Maya Mall is beautiful. There are also bars on the roof for those of you looking for something fun to do at night.
This mall has everything, from a movie theater, arcade, sushi buffets, and tons of clothing stores.
11) Motorbike the Samoeng Loop
This loop is 100 kilometers round trip and one of the best ways to see the nature surrounding Chiang Mai. Speed past rice paddies and strawberry fields on a well paved, two laned road that takes you through the cool mountain air and shows you the beauty of northern Thailand.
12) Party with the locals at Warm Up Cafe
I was tired of seeing so many backpackers at Zoe in Yellow and was looking for something more local. When I walked into Warm Up Cafe, I knew I had found what I was looking for. My friend and I were the only non Thai people there. It was wonderful. We spent the night listening to music in another language as Thai students drank SangSom and coke. I loved the smiles that formed on the faces of a small group of young Thai students as I, the crazy foreigner, danced with them.
13) Go to a Muay Thai Event at Thaphae Stadium
This stadium hosts 6 to 8 Muay Thai events every night from Monday to Saturday. Tickets are 400 baht while VIP Ringside is 600 baht. Watch the real Muay Thai fights in the heart of the city on a night out in the town. Check out the events here.
14) Visit Pha Chor
If you’re looking for a non-touristy, local experience, then put Pha Chor on the top of your list of things to do. This canyon is located in Mae Wen Nature Reserve, about 53 kilometers south of Chiang Mai. Take route 108 until you hit route 1013 on your right, which you will follow until you see signs for Mae Wang Nature Reserve. Follow the signs until you’re at the park entrance. It’s 100 baht for foreigners and 20 baht for motorbike parking. The last 3 kilometers before you’re at Pha Chor is a bumpy, unpaved, hilly dirt road that’s a bit challenging to drive but worth the trip.
Pha Chor was smaller than I had imagined it to be, so I was a bit underwhelmed when I arrived. Because it is such a hidden secret and unknown to tourists made it that much more beautiful. The views on the drive there were also spectacular.
Large rocks with crevices teem over skinny trees and lush flora. The viewpoint at the top of the canyon is unbelievable and was probably my favorite part. On a clear day, you can see the horizon stretch for miles.
15) Visit Huay Tung Tao
Another locally known hang-out place is Huay Tung Tao, a lake situated on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. It’s about a twenty minute motorbike ride and an ideal place to escape from the city and sip a cool beer in the shade. Make a day out of it and bring a blanket, food, and good company!
16) Watch the sunrise at Phu Chi Fa
Phu Chi Fa is about 6 hours from Chiang Mai. In order to get here, you first have to get to Chiang Rai and then to Phu Chi Fa.
Make sure you take this trip when you know it’s going to be a clear, sunny day. The Phu Chi Fa sunrise will (apparently) be one of the most spectacular sunrises you will ever see in your entire life. My friend and I made this trek when the mountain was surrounded by dense fog. Though it was surreal to be surrounded only by locals who barely spoke English, we didn’t see much of the sunrise that we were promised.
However, after the sun was high in the sky, I was able to watch the clouds softly roll in from the mountain and surround the peaks like a blanket. Read my guide on how to get to Phu Chi Fa!
17) Lose sense of time in Pai
The enchanting town of Pai is both captivating and enthralling. It’s a small hippy town about four hours from Chiang Mai and is a backpacker’s haven.
I quickly became enamored of Pai, of the azure colored mountains that surround the town at sunset, of the secret hot springs only reachable by a meandering road, and of the hiking trails that lead to gushing waterfalls. I couldn’t help but lose sense of time the longer I spent in Pai, as if minutes and hours ceased to exist and this world I had entered was separate from reality. Everything felt familiar from the second I arrived, as if I had already known Pai my entire life and its mysterious ways of making its way straight into my heart. Read my guide to Pai!
18) Visit Wat Chalo Phra Kiat Phrachomklao Rachanusorn in Lampang
This temple is about 3 1/2- 4 hours from Chiang Mai and is a good full day trip.
This was the most off the beaten path adventure I have ever taken. It was challenging to get to and also made me realize why I love solo traveling so much (story coming soon!).
This temple was created in 2004 and is an ongoing project. It’s in the mountains of Chae Hom District near Lampang, and is a bit difficult to get to if you don’t speak Thai.
Once you arrive in Lampang (which is a 2 hour train ride from Chiang Mai for around 50 baht), take a taxi to the Chae Hom bus station (my cab driver took me to the wrong one first). Then, it’s an hour and a half ride to Chae Hom. Once you’re in Chae Hom, ask a cab driver to take you to the temple. At the bottom of the temple, buy a 100 baht round trip bus ticket that takes you up the mountain. It’s a rough, steep ride where you will be holding on for dear life inside of the cab as you slide towards the open door.
Hike hundreds of stairs up the mountain for about a half an hour. Once you’re at the top and breathless, you’ll forget all about your Pad Thai and lack of exercise regrets in life and see the most astonishing views you will ever see. I was the only non- Thai person at this temple and felt as if I had found a hidden world inside of a fairytale.
19) Eat Kao Soi
Kao Soi is, by far, my favorite meal in Thailand (yes, it beats green curry). Yellow noodles with chicken, garlic, coconut milk, herbs, all topped with fried yellow noodles make this spicy delicacy the most delicious thing I have ever eaten. It’s a tradition in northern Thailand and a must have if you’re in Chiang Mai. My favorite place to eat Kao Soi was Kao Soi Nimman on Soi 7, and Kao Soi on Soi 13 in the Nimman area.
20) Watch a movie at Maya Mall
For less than $5, watch a movie in comfortable seats and on a large screen. It sure beats those tiny hostel TV’s we’re all used to.
21) Visit Chiang Rai
One of the most famous, well known landmarks in Chiang Rai is the White Temple. It’s one of the most fascinating temples I have ever seen in my life. Its intricate design and details take you through birth, life, and death as the statues and layout tell a story.
These mini day and weekend trips from Chiang Mai open up the doors to new areas of exploration and opportunities to see Thailand like a local.
Looking for a little bit of luxury in Chiang Mai? Check out these top hotels!
- Sireeampan Boutique Resort & Spa
- Viangluang Resort
- U Nimman Chiang Mai
- Amata Lanna Village Boutique Hotel
- Poonpetch Hotel Chiang Mai
Do you have any other suggestions on things to do in Chiang Mai? Comment below!
Be sure to follow me on Snapchat to see more of my travels! ‘globetrottica’.