Top Things to Do in Chiang Mai | Unmissable Northern Thailand

Okay! I know that a quick search on ‘Top Things to do in Chiang Mai’ comes up with a lot of listicles. Not surprising, since Chiang Mai is one of the culturally rich regions as well as a top tourist destination in Thailand. 

However, during my research just before our very first trip to Chiang Mai, I couldn’t find sight-seeing suggestions or cultural things to do in Chiang Mai for family travellers and vegetarians in particular.

Hence, I have put together these ‘Top Things to do in and around Chiang Mai’ as a recommendation for readers looking forward to exploring the ‘Rose of the North’ with family and friends.

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A guided tour of Chiang Mai

Let me confess, that although we stayed in this laid back city for over a week, we couldn’t cover much. This because, we were exploring both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces on our own, all the while indulging in some slow travel.

Hence, I’ve clubbed the best of experiences that could be covered in a particular area together, keeping in mind the time and distance factors. Apart from this, I have included a few unmissable things that could be done around Chiang Mai.

Come with me as I take you on a virtual trip to Chiang Mai in Thailand, showcasing the top things to do in Chiang Mai, the activities to indulge while here, apart from suggestions and tips on what to do and what to avoid while in Chiang Mai.

[ During our stay, we opted for a service-apartment at Kantary Hills on the Nimman road. Thus, I’ve marked all directions from this place as a starting point ]

Doi Suthep

Update yourself with the history of Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai’s history goes back to the 13th century when King Mengrai founded the city in 1296. The region was then known as the Lanna kingdom( Kingdom of a million rice fields) owing to its vast fertile paddy fields, lush mountain ranges with a favourable cool climate.

The culture was also quite different from that of the Siam kingdom (Thailand) owing to its proximity with old Burma (Myanmar) and Laos.

Top Things to do in Chiang Mai

In this post on the ‘Top Things to Do in Chiang Mai’, the sight-seeing recommendations have been slotted under various sub-headings as below, just to facilitate ease of reading and to help in planning your trip to Chiang Mai based on varied interests.

  • Cultural experiences of Chiang Mai
  • Visiting the various temples in Chiang Mai
  • Exploring the Doi Inthanon National Park
  • Visiting the Bo Sang village on the outskirts of Chiang Mai
  • Going on a day trip to Chiang Rai
  • Indulging in budget shopping in the night markets of Chiang Mai

An introduction to Northern Thai Lanna Culture and Cuisine

Experiencing Lanna culture and cuisine should be the unmissable thing to do and a worthwhile experience when in Chiang Mai. One need not go in search of this, as it is offered as a delectable bouquet of culture and cuisine, at the KhumKham International Convention Center that I have marked in the map below.

There are many others who offer these shows, however, this center is the oldest and comes highly recommended.

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The entrance to the cultural center

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The beautiful set-up at the Khum Kham International Convention Center

While here…

(1)Watch a ‘Ramakien’ performance in Chiang Mai

The Ramakien is often performed as a masked dance-drama across Chiang Mai and other places in Thailand. The usage of the vibrant Khon masks of various colours and designs for each of the characters makes it a captivating performance.

Watching a Ramakien performance remains one of the must-do things when in Chiang Mai.

What is Ramakien?

India and its culture have had a deep impact and influence on Thailand – from its adoption of Buddhism to its rulers making Indian priests their religious guide, and the naming of Ayutthaya (the old capital of Siam kingdom ) after the Hindu god Rama’s birth-place of Ayodhya to celebrating some festivals influenced by the Tamil Sangam trail across Thailand.

So, it comes as no surprise that the Thai have their own adaptation of the sacred Ramayana and call it the Ramakien, which is the national epic of Thailand.

The khon characters wear an elaborate costume with a piece of ornament and head-gear specifically named and assigned to each of the characters.

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A Khon Mask
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A Ramakien dance drama in action

(2)Relish the Khantoke dinner with LIVE  folk dances

The cultural shows at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre are performed, while guests relish the Khantoke dinner in a traditional Lanna way. Yes, a Khantoke meal is an unmissable experience in itself and should be a priority in our ‘Top Things to do in Chiang Mai’ listicle.

What is Khantoke dinner?

Khantoke has been the traditional way of family meals in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai regions. The delectable organic food preparations are usually put in small bowls arranged on a raised circular(pedestal) tray made of teak wood. This set-up is referred to as ‘khan toke’.

Generally, the Thai people in this region have their food sitting on the floor. Very similar to a majority of Indians who feast their meals in a similar way.

Sticky rice forms a major portion of the Khantoke dinner, as it is widely grown in this part of Thailand. While here, we opted for a vegetarian meal.

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Khantoke dinner on a circular pedestal tray
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Fruits and dessert as part of the Khantoke dinner

(3)Attend a workshop on the meticulous Thai art of fruit carving

Fruit carving is an art form taught as an optional subject in many schools across Thailand. It is known as Kae sa luk in the Thai language.

The craft requires oodles of dedication and precision. And, watermelon is the most favourite among these skilled fruit carvers showcasing their work. There are often fruit and vegetable carving workshops conducted in the city of Chiang Mai. You can even try your hand carving one while at the Khum Kham as well.

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Thai fruit carving

Visiting the temples in Chiang Mai

The city of Chiang Mai has got over 24 Buddha temples apart from the many temples dedicated to Hindu gods. There are many hundreds of temples in this Northern part of Thailand, that act as serene places for worship and introspection, apart, from offering a wonderful opportunity for the shutterbugs to go crazy!

Also, the list of ‘Things to do in Chiang Mai’ would remain incomplete if a visit to temples in Chiang Mai isn’t included.

(4)Pay obeisance at the revered Doi Suthep temple

Doi in Thai means a mountain. Doi Suthep is unarguably the most famous landmark of Chiang Mai as the revered Wat Phra That Doi Suthep adorns its pinnacle. Enroute, a stunning Huay Kaew Waterfall, bountifully cascades along the lofty Doi Suthep.

You can either opt to take the stairs consisting of over 300 steps or choose to slide up in a funicular upon reaching the mountain from the city.

The legend of Doi Suthep

A 14th-century stupa resulted in the expansion of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which supposedly holds Lord Buddha’s shoulder bone.

The legend goes that a monk dreamt of the exact place of this bone and at some point in history, the bone broke into two pieces. The larger broken piece was brought to the top of Doi Suthep on the back of a White Elephant while the whereabouts of the smaller piece remains unknown.

The golden stupa holds the larger bone and looks stunning.

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One of the shrines inside the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
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The famed wood carvings at one of the shrines
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Wood carvings at Doi Suthep
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(5) Go on a Chiang Mai temple tour inside the old city walls

There are many temples inside the old Chiang Mai city walls, which are equally exquisite and beautiful. Here is a list of a few that are worth a visit.

The popular Wat Phra Singh

Wat Phra Singh is a 14th-century temple, that houses the famous Lion Buddha, and is quite popular with the tourists.

Wat Chedi Luang

Once the tallest structure in the erstwhile Lanna Chiang Mai, Wat Chedi Luang was damaged by an earthquake in the 16th century and subsequently vandalized by the Burmese forces in the 18th century. However, it still retains an old-world charm.

Wat Chedi Luang was also once the home for the Emerald Buddha, which is now secured at the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

The oldest Wat Chiang Man

Wat Chiang Man is one of the oldest of the Chiang Mai temple, built by the founder of the city, King Mengrai in the 13th century. This is also known as the elephant temple as its Chedi holds 15 elephant sculptures at its base.

Wat Inthakin

The Wat Inthakin dates back to the foundation of the Chiang Mai city and is quite a captivating sight in itself, with its golden and black combination. It is also known as the black temple.

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Wat-Inthakan

Explore the Doi Inthanon National Park near Chiang Mai

Established in the year 1972 with an area of around 482 square kilometers, at the foothills of Thailand’s highest mountain, Doi Inthanon National Park is endowed with cool climes, lush greenery, rich flora and fauna, bountiful water cascades, hamlets of the Karen and Meo Hmong hill tribes, and the two royal chedis.

There is an entry fee for visitors to the Doi Inthanon national park.

(6)Revel in the many water cascades

Doi Inthanon National Park has many streams that gurgle along its slope and crevices, as well as four major waterfalls – Wachiratan Falls, Mae Klang Falls, Siriphum, and Mae Ya Falls. At some of these waterfalls, swimming is allowed, while at others it is banned.

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At the Wachiratan Falls

(7)Interact with the friendly hill tribes of Chiang Mai

The Doi Inthanon mountains in Chiang Mai, are home to two of the important hill tribes- the Karen people and the Meo Hmong.

There are many community initiative tours that are conducted that give an opportunity to interact with these tribes and experience their living conditions.

You could also prefer to interact with them for free at the markets run by them, as I did. Also, if interested in knowing more about the hill tribes, do read my other blog-post on friendship with the Karen people over candied fruit peels

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Forest Products

(8)Buy fresh forest products

The markets run by the Karen hill tribes offer a variety of forest products that are economical as well as tasty. These range from fresh produce of fruits to wines.

Apart from these, the handmade dresses, handicrafts, and jewelry of the hill tribes of Chiang Mai are worth buying.

(9)Visit the two royal chedis: Naphamethinidon and Naphaphonphumisiri

Two chedis for the royals were constructed and gifted by the Royal Thai Air Force.

The earth-toned chedi was constructed in 1987 in honor of King Bhumibol’s 60th birthday, while the slightly purple one was built in 1992, in honor of Queen Sirikit’s 60th birthday.

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The King’s Chedi
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In front of the Royal Chedi at Doi Inthanon
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The Queen’s Chedi

(10)Admire Buddhist Mural Art

As one reaches the chedi, there are huge buddha statues inside the enclaves. While one of them is from China, the other is supposedly from Indonesia. At least this is what we were told by our guide.

Around the chedi, there are beautiful Buddhist murals around on the walls of the corridor and expansive flower orchids in an elegantly manicured lawn.

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Mural art behind the Royal Chedi

(11)Hike the summit of Doi Inthanon mountain and go on treks

One can embark on treks across the Doi Inthanon mountain range. There are tours that often take off from the entrance of the national park. This could also be clubbed with tours to the hamlets of the hill tribes.

(12)Enjoy the view from the  highest point of Thailand’s tallest mountain – Doi Inthanon

Doi Inthanon is considered as the tapering end of the mighty Himalayas by many Thai people. So, not surprising that it is Thailand’s tallest mountain. The views from the highest point of this mountain are definitely breathtaking and worth the effort.

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View from the mountain top

Video on Top Things to do in Chiang Mai

Watch these Chiang Mai experiences of ours with additional photographs and video footage on our YouTube channel Flavours and Tones.

A visit to the Bo Sang Village

San Kamphaeng Road on the outskirts of Chiang Mai is more of a handicraft village with workshops of Umbrella makers and Thai silk weavers.

Bo Sang is around 10 km away from the city of Chiang Mai and a visit to the Umbrella village here, definitely tops the ‘Things to do in Chiang Mai’ list. While here, you may want to

(13)Appreciate  the  hard work  that  goes  into the making  of  the  Thai  Parasols

(14)Try your hand at painting the handmade umbrellas

Read more about the Bo Sang Umbrella Village in my blog-post dedicated to it.

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Meeeeee

(15)Learn the art of making Thai silk

(16)Buy souvenirs from the Thai silk and Thai Umbrella making workshops

While in San Kamphaeong Road, do take out time to visit the workshop of the silk weavers too.

From showing how the silk-worms are cultivated for Thai silk-making to weaving the silk threads into priced possessions, every step of the Thai Silk weaving process is demonstrated here. The workshop also has an extended showroom that stocks pretty Thai silk souvenirs.

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Scarfs and stoles made of Thai silk

Take a day trip to Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai is further north of Chiang Mai and the region borders Myanmar and Laos.

I personally suggest opting for a day trip to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai, instead of staying there, as it’s not as tourist-friendly infrastructure-wise as Chiang Mai. Also, we had a hard time searching for vegan/vegetarian food and snacks.

Although the journey takes close to 4.5 hours, if one starts early from Chiang Mai, you can easily come back by late evening.

I have clubbed this day trip to Chiang Rai option in this ‘Things to do in Chiang Mai’ list, as there is no point in visiting Chiang Rai as a standalone destination from Bangkok.

(17)Sink your feet at the hot springs of Mae Kachan

Enroute on a day trip to Chiang Rai, the Mae Kachan hot springs could easily be covered.

More of a touristy thing, the Mae Kachan hot springs have captivated the imagination of many a tourist operator.

It’s a small place, but perfect for a quick stop to sink your feet into the soothing hot springs. And, yes, there are sellers who boil eggs in these hot-springs and offer them for a price to the visitors.

(18)Spend time at Wat Rong Khun – The White Temple

One of the fascinating temples of the Chiang Rai region, and, a relatively new one is the Wat Rong Khun.

Popularly known as the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai is more of a privately owned museum of sorts than a Buddhist temple.

This temple has been designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, a famous Thai visual artist and is a work in progress. Made largely of White PoP and glass, it looks stunning and is definitely worth a visit on a day trip to Chiang Rai.

You may want to follow the works of the artist on his Wat Rong Khun FB page

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At Wat Rong Khun
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The spectacular White Temple
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@ The White temple in Chiang Rai

(19)Visit the Golden Triangle 

(20)Hop on a boat and explore the market of Laos

Golden Triangle is essentially the area that Thailand shares with Myanmar and Laos. One can opt to take a boat ride to Laos or put your foot onto the land of Myanmar. Either way, you aren’t going to be stamped in your passport!

We opted for a boat ride along the Mekong river, that eventually got us to a touristy market in Laos. The boat ride and starts and ends at a stipulated time. So, one needs to be aware of how much time you are going to spend exploring the market.

You may read about the trip and my excitement on holding a snake wine bottle in Laos, being a teetotaller!

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Entry into the Thailand side of the Golden Triangle

Golden-triangle-day-tripReady to embark on a boat-ride to Laos

Indulge in budget shopping, street food, and entertainment

Chiang Mai offers an eclectic shopping scene, though, not as diverse as Bangkok. The malls here are quite well-stocked and could be used to buy cosmetics and quality Thai beauty products.

We bought huge amounts of Thai soaps back home as souvenirs, and, people just loved them. Shopping out to be on your ‘things to do in Chiang Mai’ list for sure:)

(21)Visit NIMMAN ROAD for boutiques and upscale coffee-shops with LIVE music bands

We stayed in a service-apartment on Nimman Road, and, it had everything one needs. From Seven Elevens to coffee-shops and vegan restaurants to salad bars, this area has it all.

We could also find an Indian restaurant that dished out delectable Indian fare. A visit to the Warm-Up cafe is a must. Their virgin mojito is excellent (Children are not allowed)

It’s also in close proximity to the Maya Lifestyle Shopping Mall. Another highly recommended shopping arena is the Central Festival (Chiang Mai).

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The interiors of Central Festival Mall

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Inside the Warm-Up Cafe

(22)Visit the Chiang Mai Night Market and Sunday market for budget shopping and street-food

(23)Pick colourful souvenirs for near and dear ones back home 

While in Chiang Mai, do not miss visiting the Chiang Mai Night Bazar to indulge in some budget shopping and satiating your street food cravings. A must thing to do in Chiang Mai!

You can also try the Indian restaurant called ‘RajDarbaar’ which is at a walkable distance from the night market, in case you are craving for some spicy Indian food.

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Budget shopping

(24)Get an affordable Thai massage done

(25)Enjoy a bowl full of Mango Icecream with sticky rice

While in Thailand, Mango with sticky rice is a must, and, so are affordable and relaxing Thai massage and spa. There are plenty of shops that dole out sticky rice with mango or mango ice cream late into the night.

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Inside a Thai massage parlour
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My bowl of Sticky-rice with mango icecream. A perfect way to end our trip to Chiang Mai!

Is this list of ‘Things to do in Chiang Mai’ complete?

There are many more experiences like meeting the monks, visiting an elephant sanctuary that works in ethical animal welfare, and adventure-sports like zip-lining that we avoided on our family trip since these experiences are not exclusive to just Chiang Mai. I have thus, excluded them from this list on things to do in Chiang Mai.

Also, the city of Chiang Mai has so many experiences to offer that we may soon plan our second trip to this ‘Rose of the North’, once the pandemic subsides. So, yeah… this list thus remains incomplete until then!

I hope you found these experiences and the list of ‘Things to do in Chiang Mai’ informative, interesting, and useful to plan your trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Do leave your queries, thoughts, and feedback in the comment section below on these ‘Top Things to do in Chiang Mai’. Stay healthy and for now, travel virtually.

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