Heart of northern Thailand, university town, nature hub, and artistic centre, it’s difficult to argue with the claim that Chiang Mai is Thailand’s coolest city. More laid-back than Bangkok and less touristed than the islands, this gem in the northern hills is a long-time favourite with travellers – and for good reason. The combination of ancient Lanna Thai culture, contemporary art scenes, youthful university influence, and stunning nature make this an alluring destination for all interests, so no worries about finding something for everyone in your travel group. Curious about the absolute best activities? Read on for our collection of the 7 top things to do in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s uber-hip heart!
As travellers, it’s crucial to give back to the communities we visit, so why not consider volunteering? Chiang Mai is rife with volunteer opportunities, whether with the environment, animals, or people. The most lauded option is the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, which runs a well-respected rehabilitation centre for elephants. They accept volunteers for anywhere from one day to two weeks. Here, a volunteer stint might see you bathing elephants, assisting in conservation programmes, or working with local Karen tribes to retire elephants from trekking camps. If you prefer smaller wards, ENP also runs a dog rescue facility, with volunteering opportunities up to 4 weeks.
For those curious about volunteering with local communities, the Thai Freedom House in Chiang Mai runs a not-for-profit educational centre focusing on job and language training for refugees. Volunteers typically help by teaching English or working in the office, with stays from one to two months. There’s also Art Relief International, a volunteer organisation that offers therapeutic art classes to disadvantaged social groups, with opportunities as diverse as running the classes to helping with the programme logistics.
2. Be a culture hound
Art exhibits, live music shows, traditional dance performances, movie screenings, long nights out partying with local hipsters – nope, you certainly couldn’t call Chiang Mai boring! There’s a well-established art and culture scene here, which is greatly helped by the presence of several universities. To start your cultural exploration, first head to the Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre for an understanding of the traditional art forms of the Chiang Mai region. Next, stop by any one of the Old Town’s cool cafes and peruse the community boards for flyers on the latest shows and events – copies of Citylife Magazine, an English-language publication for life in Chiang Mai, have the most listings. The Chiang Mai University Art Centre often features rotating exhibitions, and Documentary Arts Asia is an excellent stop for stunning photography shows and thought-provoking movie nights. Once you’re ready to head out at night, hit up the bars and clubs along Nimmanhaemin Road, where you’ll be partying shoulder-to-shoulder with Chiang Mai’s cool kids. For a quintessential Chiang Mai experience, also stop by a cabaret show at Anasarn night market, where you can see a bevy of showgirl entertainment from the city’s most talented trans performers.
3. Go shopping
Forget keychains and fridge magnets – the souvenirs in Chiang Mai are much more vibrant and unique than what you’ll find in other cities! Stroll through Old Town and you’ll pass a wealth of boutiques and ateliers featuring crafts from local artists. From clothing to home wares, jewellery to pottery, perfume to journals, Chiang Mai is filled with both traditional arts and modern creations. Though you can easily spend a day shopping in town, plan a special trip to the Saturday and Sunday markets each week. Here, you can meet Thai and foreign artists directly at their stalls, and pick up something special to remember Chiang Mai. As well, these markets are a great place to pick up some sizzling hot street food and chow down while people watching.
4. Get outside
Ah, but you didn’t think Chiang Mai was just art, did you? For those who prefer their beauty outdoors, Chiang Mai is also a major jumping-off point for adventure sports. Take your pick between mountain biking, river rafting, ziplining, and even rock climbing. Northern Thailand is also home to a number of different hilltribes, which you can visit through one of Chiang Mai’s various treks. Many have a homestay option for deeper immersion. Note that the treks to ‘Long Neck Villages’ are best avoided – many participants leave these treks feeling like they’ve visited a human zoo, instead of supporting a local culture in a respectful way. Going with a tour company that supports a mutually beneficial experience for trekkers and villagers creates a great way to learn about the diverse cultures in Thailand, and share your own culture with the people you meet.
5. Indulge your inner chef
Does your mouth water at the thought of fresh coconut curries, spicy stir-fried noodles, tangy papaya salads and decadently sweet mango sticky rice? Then sign yourself up for the ultimate foodie immersion with a cooking class in Chiang Mai. Many classes start with a visit to a local market, to sample the produce and spices you’ll be using later, and provide a cookbook so that you can repeat the magic at home. Vegetarian? No worries – most class providers are well equipped to create meat-free dishes. If you’d like to get up-close and personal with the ingredients, consider a cooking class that includes a farm visit, such as with Asia Scenic or Thai Farm Cooking School. Many of the ingredients they cook with come directly from the garden, for a true ‘farm to table’ experience.
6. Chat with a monk
Chiang Mai is known as a spiritual city, largely in part to the vibrant temples that appear on every street. With over 300 temples in the city and surrounding areas, you’re spoiled for choice on which to see – but beyond simply visiting them, consider delving deeper into Thai Buddhism by learning about it directly from a practitioner. Through the Monk Chat programme, visitors can volunteer an hour or two of their time to help monks practice English, in an informal, friendly setting. Multiple locations host Monk Chats, and there’s no teaching experience necessary – just a willingness to share your culture and learn about theirs. You might find you have more in common with a monk than you think!
7. Treat yourself
You’ve trekked for days through the hills around Chiang Mai, spent all night partying on Nimmanhaemin Road, and eaten more than is reasonable at your Thai cooking class – ready for some down time? Relax those aching muscles and whirring mind at one of Chiang Mai’s numerous spas and massage venues, where you can choose from treatments as simple as a foot massage to as luxurious as a full-day spa experience. Best of all, Chiang Mai’s wellness treatments can be significantly cheaper than those in the West. Peak Spa and Fah Lanna Spa provide a range of Thai and Western massage in indulgent settings, though those looking to combine their treatments with a good cause can book a massage at the Thai Blind Massage Centre, which provides job training for the blind. After a relaxing day in, you’ll be ready for the next adventure!