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Chiang Mai: Things to Do in Thailand's Magical Province

Add a bit of sparkle to your travels with an enchanting trip to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand! The city and surrounding province are overflowing with one-of-a-kind activities. Fill your days with ethical elephant sanctuaries, ornate Buddhist temples, and nature hikes with nearby hill tribe villages. Captivate your senses at night with exciting Muay Thai boxing matches, tantalizing street food, and impressive souvenir markets.

Enhance your visit with either the annual Songkran Festival (mid-April) or Yi Peng/Loi Krathong Festivals (November). Participants of the Songkran Festival celebrate new beginnings by playfully splashing each other with buckets of water and squirt guns. See thousands of glowing paper lanterns light up the sky and homemade colorful rafts during the coinciding Yi Peng/Loi Krathong Festivals.

The best time to visit Chiang Mai is between November-February when the weather is pleasant and flowers are in bloom. Avoid the heat and smog of burning season, which typically starts mid-February and ends mid-April, when farmers prepare their fields. The monsoon season is between June-October.

Brad and I based ourselves on the outskirts of the Old City, a historical square surrounded by restored brick gateways and a moat covered in lotus flowers. The walkable neighborhoods are full of restaurants, tour agencies, boutiques, temples, and spas. Flag down an affordable tuk tuk or songthaew (red pick-up truck) if you need a lift.

Below I've included plenty of noteworthy things to do and tasty restaurants to add to your Chiang Mai itinerary. Have fun discovering the unique flavors, cultures, and sights of this magical Thai atmosphere!

Muay Thai

Kick off your stay with a jolting Muay Thai fight! The martial art, originally practiced hundreds of years ago by soldiers on the battlefield, is the national sport of Thailand. Most fighters wear a mongkol (headband blessed by a Buddhist monk) before the start of a fight for good luck and protection.

Join other spectators with a cold beer as you watch men and women use various techniques including kicks, punches, sweeps, and clinches. The hypnotic music, known as Sarama, sets the rhythm of the energetic rounds. Don't blink or you could miss a swift knock out!

Karen Elephant Serenity

A must-do activity in Chiang Mai is spending the day at an ethical elephant sanctuary. Through responsible tourism, caretakers are able to provide stress-free environments for rescued Asian elephants to roam, bathe, and forage. Unfortunately, elephant riding and performing are still common in Thailand. Be sure to do diligent research and ask questions before booking a tour.

Brad and I decided to hang out with two female elephants, Mae Khum Naoi and baby Hank Hank, at Karen Elephant Serenity. To interact with these gentle giants on their own terms in a peaceful area was a special experience. We fed them bananas, rice protein balls, and sugarcane sticks in between treks on the vast property. After a vegetarian lunch, we observed the elephants cool off in a stream and play in a mud pit.

Karen Elephant Serenity operates tours with a maximum of eight participants, which guarantees an intimate encounter. Reserve your spot in advance online for 2,500 THB ($69.00 USD). Round-trip transportation is included. I highly recommend this sanctuary for its friendly caretakers and happy elephants!

Night Markets

Fresh seafood sizzling on charcoal grills, tender roast chicken with chili sauce, and platters of sushi are just some of the dishes awaiting your chopsticks at the night markets! Bring plenty of local currency (Thai baht) to purchase cheap eats and refreshing drinks. Brad and I frequented Lannatique Market, Kalare Night Bazaar, and Anusarn Market to try a variety of cuisines.

The Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market is an event you simply can't miss! Every Sunday, a 1 km (0.6 mi) stretch along Rachadamnoen Road in the Old City becomes a lively pedestrian-only avenue full of vendor stalls, musicians, and street performers. Sip a creamy Thai iced tea and munch on snacks while shopping for quality souvenirs. You'll find hand-carved soaps, t-shirts, creative artwork, magnets, and oodles of knickknacks.


Similar to Bangkok, Chiang Mai has a plethora of fantastic temples (wats) with dramatic motifs, golden accents, and diverse architectural designs. Tiered roofs, elaborate carvings, and bright colors are characteristic of the dominant Lanna Style. The Burmese Style features chedis (bell-shaped towers containing relics) and multilayered roofs. Simple brick structures and modest altars reflect the Sukhothai Style.

Keep in mind most Buddhist temples require visitors to dress conservatively. Opt for items that cover your shoulders, knees, and chest. Loose and breathable fabrics are crucial to keep you comfortable in the humidity. Remove your hat and shoes before entering the main shrines.

Share the spiritual space with fellow worshippers in silent contemplation. Show respect by never pointing your toes towards any statues of Buddha. Most temples are free of charge, but some require a small donation. There are hundreds of temples to choose from in Chiang Mai, which is overwhelmingly awesome!

Wat Phra Singh Woramahawihan

Step inside an explosion of lavish opulence at the complex of Wat Phra Singh Woramahawihan! Fearsome golden nagas (serpents) with bold mosaic details guard the main shrines which contain statues of Buddha in different mudra (ritual gesture) positions. The ubosot (main prayer room) has carved teak panels with whimsical floral patterns. Don't miss the beautiful murals portraying scenes from the Jataka (stories of Buddha in various human/non-human forms before enlightenment).

Wat Chedi Luang

Built in the late 14th Century, Wat Chedi Luang is the largest temple in Chiang Mai. Pairs of menacing nagas and stoic elephants adorn the eye-catching chedi. The surrounding grounds have towering bodhi trees, intimate temples with vibrant art, and jade statues.

Wat Lok Moli

Unlike most Buddhist temples, Wat Lok Moli faces south instead of east. The contrasting black/white panels of the front façade have pops of yellow, green, and blue mosaics. The interior wood panels are just as mesmerizing and depict religious tales. Wat Lok Moli was my favorite temple in Chiang Mai due to its meticulous craftsmanship!

Wat Saen Mueang Ma Luang

The temple complex of Wat Saen Mueang Ma Luang is bursting with exquisite decoration. Dark maroon and bright white hues perfectly compliment the golden finials, columns, and spires. Even though the buildings were closed during our visit, Brad and I enjoyed wandering the tranquil grounds. Admire the embellished pediments, old brick chedi, animal statues, and grand doors.

Wat Phantao

Plan to experience the enigmatic ambience of Wat Phantao at night! The rustic viharn (assembly hall) is made of teak and held up by 28 massive pillars. Support the monks by placing coins in the metal alms bowls. Notice the offerings of fruits and flowers nearby the main statue of Buddha. The numerous Thai flags surrounding the golden chedi add a touch of patriotism to the religious site.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Take a Grab (similar to Uber/Lyft), ride a songthaew, or rent a moped to reach the entrance of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. The journey lasts approximately 30 minutes. It's also possible to hike from Chiang Mai to the temple via Monk's Trail. Arrive early to beat the crowds!

A glorious panoramic view with boundless splendor awaits your pilgrimage. According to legend, a white elephant carrying a shoulder bone relic of Buddha climbed to the top of Doi Suthep Mountain before dying after three boisterous trumpets. The iconic temple was built by King Nu Naone to honor the remarkable omen.

If you're like me and can't get enough temples, consider also visiting Wat Upakhut (altar of red candles), Wat Pan Ping (white seven-headed naga statue), Wat Chiang Man (chedi with concrete elephants), and Wat Rajamontean (brown staircase with resting dvarapalas aka gate guardians). Venture to nearby Chiang Rai to see even more impressive Buddhist temples with artistic flair!

Doi Inthanon National Park

Escape the hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai by exploring the natural beauty of Doi Inthanon National Park. Hike along lush cloud forest trails to find emerald pit vipers, funky caterpillars, and exotic birds. You can also access the highest point in Thailand and spectacular Wachirathan Waterfalls!

After our morning adventure in the wilderness, we sampled robust coffee and butterfly pea tea at a hill tribe plantation. The Twin Pagodas of King Rama IX and Queen Sirikit of Thailand were our final stop. Nestled within enchanting gardens, these sacred structures have pretty mosaic friezes and relief panels depicting important events from the life of Buddha.

Brad and I booked a wonderful group tour with GetYourGuide which included lunch and round-trip transportation for $40 USD per person. I highly recommend the tour for its organized itinerary, comfortable shuttle, and friendly guide!

Hmong Doi Pui Village

The northern region of Thailand is home to five main groups of ethnic minorities also known as hill tribes. These include the Karen, Akha, Lahu, Hmong, and Lisu. Each group has its own distinct culture, religious practices, beliefs, and traditional clothing.

Brad and I passed through the Hmong Doi Pui Village to access the Buddha's Footprint Trail. We noticed several kids dressed up for staged photos and dance performances to make money from tourists. The parents seemed to be using their children as bait, which felt unethical. Instead of participating in the uncomfortable exploitation, we supported the community by purchasing woven fabrics and colorful handicrafts.


In addition to its renowned street food scene, Chiang Mai has a bunch of restaurants serving international cuisine. Whether you're craving delectable Thai dishes or familiar Western fare, your belly and wallet will be pleased with the sizable portions and affordability. Below are my top picks for a mouthwatering meal!

• Lunch - Be sure to eat obscene amounts of khao soi, a coconut curry soup with pickled mustard greens, shallots, chicken, lime, and fried noodles. The signature dish is only found in northern Thailand and my favorite spot was at Khao Soi Loong Prakid Gard Gorm. Head to The Duke's for American classics such as hefty Rueben sandwiches, salty French fries, and healthy salads. Save room for the decadent peanut butter Oreo cheesecake!

• Café - Prepare to be awestruck by the adorable latte art and sinful pastries at Into the Woods. The fairytale decor, delightful air conditioning, and spacious tables create an inspiring space. Relax your mind with a cup of tea as you watch squirrels and birds in the Japanese garden at Magokoro Teahouse. The impeccable service and charming desserts add to the serene ambience.

• Dinner - Your tastebuds won't soon forget the spicy green chili and tangy mango chutneys served with garlic naan at Rajdarbar Indian Restaurant. The fragrant basmati rice and tender chicken tikka masala were cooked to perfection. One of the best meals of my life was the huge bowl of creamy tom yum kung with prawns at Pakorn's Kitchen! The casual restaurant is famous for its massaman curry. Don't be intimated by the long line of customers; the food is worth the wait!

Yi Peng Festival

Every year in November, during the second full moon of the Lanna calendar month, the extraordinary Yi Peng Festival occurs in Chiang Mai. The main highlight is the synchronized release of thousands of khom loi (biodegradable lanterns made with rice paper, bamboo, and wax fuel cells) into the night sky. The glowing orbs carry away bad luck to pave the way for a successful future.

Brad and I purchased premium tickets ($175 USD per person) to the event hosted by Chiang Mai Culture Art and Design (CAD). The bucket list experience was worth every penny despite the mediocre buffet, lackluster entertainment, and disorganized shuttle. Even though there were hiccups, the positive energy of the festival was contagious.

Nothing could wipe the smiles off our faces as we made our wishes next to people from all over the world. Jaw-dropping fireworks exploded overhead as we watched our lanterns soar until they looked like tiny stars. The magnificent man-made galaxy was a sight for sore eyes!

TIP: Arrive as early as possible to get your bearings of the grounds and avoid traffic delays. Keep your head on a swivel for rogue lanterns that are released prematurely!

Loi Krathong Festival

The banks of rivers, lakes, and canals in Thailand twinkle with miniature floats (krathongs) decorated with candles, incense, coins, and flowers during the Loi Krathong Festival. People honor the Hindu water goddess Ganga by releasing rafts at night under the full moon with prayers of gratitude.

The picturesque holiday spans three days and coincides with the Yi Peng Festival in Chiang Mai. Brad and I observed the action next to the Iron Bridge and Nawarat Bridge on the Ping River. Street vendors with tables full of delicious food set up along Lamphun Road in between the two bridges. There are also parades, fireworks, and cultural performances to enjoy!

Final Thoughts

After hopping around the western islands of Thailand, we were excited to see a different side of the country. Locals in Chiang Mai welcomed us with open arms, happy-go-lucky attitudes, and warm smiles. To begin our month-long stay with the Yi Peng/Loi Krathong Festivals was truly epic. Partaking in these traditions was heartwarming and fostered a deeper connection with Thai culture.

Chiang Mai is an exhilarating city full of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. The bountiful night markets, electrifying Muay Thai fights, addicting cuisine, gorgeous scenery, diverse hill tribe villages, and authentic elephant encounters create a memorable trip!