The northern Thai metropolis of Chiang Mai was once the revered capital of the independent Lanna Kingdom and is now a cultural hub of Northern Thailand. It's a city of dualities with centuries-old stupas standing alongside brand-new office buildings; urban congestion with untamed jungle only an hours’ drive away; and is a traditional city that also happens to be the hottest “digital nomad” hub in Southeast Asia.
Explore Chiang Mai Old City on Foot
When Chiang Mai Old City was founded in 1296, the heavily-armed neighboring regions made massive walls and surrounding moat a necessity. Part of the original walls and moat remain today, with four gates welcoming visitors into the 914-acre historic area.
The best place to start is at the Three Kings Monument and the three museums surrounding it: the Lanna Folklife Museum, Chiang Mai Historical Centre and Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre (cmocity.com), each dedicated to individual aspects of the former Lanna Kingdom’s history and cultural fabric.
South of the museums stands Wat Chedi Luang, an ancient crumbled stupa that dates all the way back to the 15th century. You can spend a day or so exploring the Old City’s other attractions, including more than 40 temples, bustling nightlife, and weekend night markets: Sunday at Tha Pae, and Saturday at Wualai.
Climb 300 Steps to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Red songthaew (buses) can take you from the city to the temple’s parking lot. A 300-step staircase leads up from the parking lot up to the stupa levels, flanked by sculptures of naga (serpents). Visitors can take a tram to the upper level, but devout Buddhists prefer to make merit by ascending on foot.
Visitors will find two terrace levels at the summit: a lower level with small shrines and a memorial to the white elephant that died on this spot to determine the temple’s location; and an upper terrace with a golden stupa at its center. Buddhist visitors leave offerings at the many shrines surrounding the stupa.
Buy Traditional Umbrellas at Bor Sang
This “Umbrella Village,” located 6 miles from Chiang Mai’s city center, specializes in the age-old trade of creating handmade paper umbrellas. These painstakingly-constructed umbrellas come in all sizes—from cocktail umbrellas to giant stationary parasols, mostly created using paper made from mulberry-tree pulp.
The local artisans have made some concessions to modernity; some umbrellas are now made using cotton, they’ve switched to using acrylic paints, and the designs have evolved from the traditional floral patterns to landscapes and abstracts.
Time your visit for the Bor Sang Umbrella Festival on the third Friday of January, where the entire San Kampaeng District around the village throws a party celebrating their trade.
Learn to Cook Thai Cuisine
Chiang Mai’s cooking schools can’t be beat for hands-on experience with the region’s age-old culinary techniques. The teachers have the routine down to a science: they’ll take you to an authentic local market with a list of ingredients to buy; help you cook your choice of Thai dishes, taking you through each recipe step by step; and send you off with a cookbook so you can keep practicing when you get back home.
The best Chiang Mai cooking schools have a small student-to-teacher ratio, and have their own organic gardens where you can pick your ingredients fresh off the stem.
Meet the Animals at Chiang Mai Night Safari
Despite the name, Chiang Mai’s Night Safari opens at 11 a.m. The zoo’s real action begins around sunset, when all three animal zones are open to the public. Once you’ve finished at the Jaguar Trail (opens at 11 a.m.) surrounding the zoo’s lake, proceed to either the Savanna Safari or Predator Prowl (both open at 6 p.m.); both night zones can be seen on a tram that winds past individual animal exhibits, each taking 30 minutes to complete the trip.
You’ll find all sorts of nocturnal animals awake in the dark like wild deer, Bengal tigers, wallabies, flamingoes, and giraffes. Some of the animals can be hand-fed at certain times; make sure to stay for the nightly laser light show by the lake.
Shop at a Night Market
Chiang Mai’s night markets are a staple of Thai retail. The biggest one, the Night Bazaar, takes place nightly along Chang Klan Road between Thapae and Sridonchai Roads, spilling out onto alleyways (soi) radiating out from the main stretch.
After sunset, these streets are closed to motorized traffic, and stalls set up shop on either side of the road. You’ll find all sorts of touristy tchotchkes and activities in either night market: street food, northern Thai artwork and handicrafts, cheap T-shirts, massages, and street performers.
Within the old city, two other separate night markets unfold over the weekend: the Wualai Road Night Market on its namesake street every Saturday, and the Sunday Night Market down Ratchadamnoen Road from the Old City’s Tha Pae Gate.
Talk to a Thai Buddhist Monk
Chiang Mai’s temples have regular monk chat programs, where tourists can talk to a Buddhist monk about any topic of their choice. The benefits flow both ways: the monks get some practice in the English language, and the tourists can get an inside look at Buddhism and its practice.
Most of Chiang Mai’s prominent Buddhist temples have monk chat schedules. Wat Chedi Luang in the Old City hosts daily monk chats on the north side of the stupa from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Up at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, monk chats take place daily from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
When talking to the monks, remember to avoid sensitive topics like politics, and observe the etiquette for visiting Buddhist temples.
Enjoy an Ethical Elephant Encounter
The best Chiang Mai elephant sanctuaries pride themselves on ethical encounters where there's no riding the elephants, only care activities like feeding or bathing the animals in their own natural habitat.
For instance, the 30 resident elephants at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Chiang Mai are former workers in the Thai logging industry, where the poor pachyderms are worked to the bone with little time to rest. Visitors to the Jungle Sanctuary help pamper the retired elephants, participating in the animals’ care alongside local tribespeople who also make a living on the site.
Visitors can choose a half-day tour or an overnight tour at the Jungle Sanctuary; kids under three years old can enter for free.
Rediscover Nature at Doi Inthanon Park
Set on the slopes of Thailand’s highest mountain, Doi Inthanon Park can be reached in less than two hours’ drive from Chiang Mai: a playground for nature lovers that’s practically on the city’s doorstep.
Given the lofty elevation, temperatures around the park feel refreshingly cool all year round, dipping to freezing from October to February. Once you’ve set up camp in the middle of the park, you can hit one of the park’s four nature trails to see its major draws: scenic waterfalls, the “King” and “Queen” pagodas constructed in honor of the late Rama IX and his consort Queen Sirikit; and, for a few weeks between January and February, the pink blossoms of wild cherry flowers in full bloom.
Enjoy a Traditional Thai Massage
Chiang Mai’s traditional Thai massages cover both the conventional and the wackily offbeat. For the latter, look for a practitioner of tok sen massage that uses a hammer and a blunt peg in place of oil-covered hands; or yam khang massage that uses fire, oil, and feet to give you a soothingly warm back rubdown.
Your dollar goes a long way in Chiang Mai, but don’t settle for the first cheap massage joint that comes into view. Look at online reviews to winnow out the Thai massage that suits your budget and your needs.
Get a Cold Shower at Bua Thong Falls
Among the many waterfalls in the countryside surrounding Chiang Mai, Bua Thong offers the best combination of beauty and fun. Locals call Bua Thong the sticky waterfall: its limestone walls are rough enough that visitors can climb them without fear of slipping.
Even if you don’t want to climb the falls, you can just picnic at the bottom (no need to bring your own food, just buy from the local eateries); hike to a nearby shrine; or take a dip at the pool, the cool shower of the falls providing some much-needed relief on a hot day.
Eat Khao Soi Noodles
While khao soi can be eaten throughout northern Thailand, Chiang Mai has put its own spin on the dish. Bowls of coconut curry-bathed noodles with chicken, shallots, fresh herbs, and chili can be eaten all throughout the city, sold in both streetside stalls and five-star restaurants.
Beyond khao soi, you can explore other Northern Thai foods typical of Chiang Mai’s vibrant street cuisine scene like sai oua, a grilled pork sausage; laab, a spicy salad; and khanom jeen, a rice noodle dish. You’ll find these, and more at street food stalls and markets throughout the city.