20 Things to Do in Chiang Mai, Thailand: The Bucket List


Ask anyone who has been to Chiang Mai and it’s close to impossible to hear him say that he didn’t love it. Situated in Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai has a certain charm that hooks in travelers with its mountainous landscapes, laid-back lifestyle, artistic vibes, and friendly, down-to-earth locals—and once it ensnares you with its allure, it would be quite hard to let go.

Whether you’re an adventure junkie seeking breathtaking vistas, a food lover eager to get immersed into a fascinating cuisine, or simply someone looking for a venue where you can ignite your creativity, the “Rose of the North” has something for you. No, it’s not just a city of ancient temples and elephant parks—Chiang Mai is a whole lot more.

This list is a guide written for first-timers as well as repeat visitors in Chiang Mai. Expect the list to grow as I keep coming back to this lovely region of Thailand. Enjoy!

1 | Learn to cook Thai dishes at Mama Noi Thai Cookery School

Attending a Thai cooking class has been in my bucket list ever since, and I finally ticked it off this 2018 with the Mama Noi Thai Cookery School. We tried the half-day class where we learned three dishes (soup, stir-fry, and curry) along with Thai iced tea. You can also book full-day classes, where you get to do two more dishes (appetizer and dessert). I don’t really know how to cook, so it was amazing how delicious my creations actually turned out. The experience was super fun and definitely one for the books!

Book your cooking class here: Mama Noi Thai Cookery 

2 | Get awed by the beauty of the Wat Doi Suthep

In a country home to over 40,000 temples, travelers would inevitably feel that every one of them looks the same. Still, some of them simply stand out—such as the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. About an hour away from central Chiang Mai, this temple is built upon Doi Suthep mountain. It’s a majestic gold structure that glistens against a perfect blue sky, and all around the golden spire are intricate murals and shrines, including a replica of the Emerald Buddha. People visit not only to see this majestic site but also to offer prayers.

3 | View Chiang Mai from above

After marveling at the splendor of Wat Phra That, continue exploring the premises of Doi Suthep to see other beautiful temples and shrines, including a gigantic gong that makes an impressive sound when struck. Spend some time on the White Elephant terrace offering a breathtaking view of Chiang Mai before you leave the monastery.

4 | Swim and soak up some sun at the Chiang Mai Grand Canyon

If your idea of fun involves cliff jumping, you need to get your ass up to the Hang Dong Canyon—more popularly known as the Chiang Mai Grand Canyon. With its striking resemblance to one of America’s most famous attractions, this destination attracts adventurous travelers and, more recently, families, with the installation of the water park. Aside from cliff jumping, you can go kayaking, swimming, and playing on the inflatables.


5 | Try all the delicious street food

A visit to any country is not complete without trying its street food—and when in Chiang Mai, you must, at all costs, go out and explore its vibrant and delicious offerings. You have a lot of options as to where you can sample tasty noodle dishes, desserts, and snacks; all night markets have huge selections, but notable areas include Tha Phae Gate, Chang Puak Gate (near the Old City moat), and Nimman Road.

For a list of must-try Chiang Mai food, check out this video.

6 | Go shopping in one of the many markets

Photo credit: Geocaching.com

Whether you’re looking for those loose comfy pants, traditional Thai shirts, food, or souvenirs to take back home, a visit to one of Chiang Mai’s numerous markets will not disappoint. If you’re staying in the Chang Klan area (near Shangri-La Chiang Mai), the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, Anusarn Market, and Warorot Market (open on daytime only) are a short walk away. Prepare to be overwhelmed with the number of goods being sold. Make sure you catch the big weekend markets too (Tha Phae Gate)!

7 | Explore the temples in Old City

The Old City holds a number of Chiang Mai’s oldest and most prominent temples, and if you have enough time, a visit is definitely warranted. The Wat Phra Singh—the Temple of the Lion Buddha—is the biggest, while the Wat Chedi Luang is perhaps the most intricate. Just walk around the Old City with your Google Maps on and these temples will be very easy to locate—or use this custom map I made. Take advantage of chatting with a monk too to gain an insight or two when you get the chance.

8 | Search for the best khao soi

Confession: I wouldn’t say that I was successful with this one because I planned this hunt during Songkran (where almost everything is closed), but if you’re visiting Chiang Mai, you have to try the khao soi—a curry and noodle dish which is actually of Burmese influence. The only khao soi I had in Chiang Mai was the one I cooked myself (see #1), and I’m looking forward to going back to try the places everyone is raving out: Khao Soi Khun Yai, Khao Soi Mae Sai, and Khao Soi Arak, to name a few.

9 | Chill in one its many beautiful cafes

It’s been said that there are more cafés than 7 Eleven stores in Chiang Mai—and if you’ve been to this side of Thailand, you definitely can relate. I was surprised that the coffee culture here is so progressive, one that could probably rival that of Vietnam’s. If you follow @seandalt on Instagram—a coffee addict and photographer—you would know the best ones to visit. Try the Barisotel in the Nimmanhaemin area to get your official welcome to Chiang Mai’s coffee scene.

10 | Visit the trendy Nimman neighborhood

Nimman Road (full name: Nimmanhaemin) is home to a smorgasbord of trendy and upscale shops, cafés, bars, restaurants, and hotels—a stark contrast to the traditional vibe and architectures in typical Chiang Mai. From shopping and food tripping to drinking and coffee crawling, the fashionable area has something for the youthful and the energetic: Maya Mall is packed with classy stores and boutiques, along with cool rooftop bar; cafés, dessert shops, bars, and clubs line up every side street (soi), all you have to do is choose.

11 | Experience the Chiang Mai nightlife

While not as wild as Bangkok’s, the party scene in Chiang Mai is fun in its own right. Clubs and bar strips, such as Zoe’s, are a thing, but there are rooftop bars, cocktail bars, and beer pubs for those who prefer a quieter time. Reggae, techno, hiphop, EDM, and remixed dance music which seem to be popular all over Thailand (have you ever heard of Thai music mixed with a cha cha cha beat? LOL) are widely played. The most popular districts for drinking are Tha Phae Gate, Chang Klan, and Nimman. Almost everything closes at twelve so you better start early!

12 | Watch a cabaret show

This one, we stumbled upon by accident. We were looking for a bar near the Night Bazaar and we found ourselves in Ram Bar, a gay bar that does nightly cabaret shows. The place was packed—gay and straight, including honeymooning couples—and everyone was enjoying the show. I must say the acts were really good: the costumes were astounding, and the performers were skilled, energetic and giving their best! If you’re looking for a night out in Chiang Mai that’s far from your typical gimmick, this is worth trying once.

13 | Get wet at the Songkran Festival

Every year in April, the entire Thailand turns into a big water war zone in celebration of Songkran, the Thai New Year. The festival lasts for 3 days, but in certain areas of the country like Chiang Mai, a whole week is filled with parades, programs, music, dancing, drinking, and of course, water fights! It is believed that splashing water washes away the sins and bad luck. Whether your weapon of choice is a baby pistol or a 10-liter backpack tank (like mine), one thing is for sure: YOU WILL GET WET.

14 | Witness the annual Flower Festival

Another festival worth experiencing in Chiang Mai is the annual Flower Festival every February, where vast displays of flowers—including Damask Rose, a variety found only in Chiang Mai—abound. Flower vendors line up the moat in the Old City and major roads are closed. There’s a parade where you can witness colorful floats, marching bands, and traditional Thai dances. The streets also get dotted with food stalls where you can buy delicious snacks and refreshments.

15 | Go on a day trip to Chiang Rai

Only 3.5 hours away from Chiang Mai is another mountainous province, Chiang Rai, located near the borders of Laos and Myanmar. It is even more relaxed compared to Chiang Mai, and has its own share of historical and cultural attractions—the most popular of which is the Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple. It is a stunning piece of architecture characterized by ornate details of pure white. For this temple alone, Chiang Rai is worth a day trip.

Book a day trip here: Chiang Rai Day Tour

16 | Spend a week day or two in Pai


About 2.5 hours away is another lovely town called Pai, one of the most relaxing places I’ve ever been to in Thailand. Its lazy atmosphere, artsy vibes, gracious locals, and vibrant food, coffee, and drinking scenes make it one of the more hardcore travelers’ sought-after destinations. Spend a day or two and you will surely find yourself aching to stay longer. Pai is perfect for just immersing yourself in nature and doing nothing, but for the adventurous ones, it has its share of exciting spots too—a canyon, several waterfalls, and some hot springs.

17 | In the Bucket List: Marvel at the Lantern Festival

Photo credit: Jacob Riglin

Yet another Chiang Mai festival, the Lantern Festival (or Yee Peng Festival) is celebrated on the full moon of the twelfth lunar month of every year—which usually falls in mid-November. If you know someone who has attended it, chances are you got envious with his striking photos of the night sky filled with hundreds, thousands of glowing lanterns. It is believed that releasing a lantern into the sky and making a wish along with it will give you good fortune. This one, I have yet to tick off my bucket list.

18 | In the Bucket List: Visit Doi Inthanon National Park

A post shared by Joey Starks (@joey.starks) on

Photo credit: Joey Starks

Known as the “Roof of Thailand”, Doi Inthanon is the highest peak in the country, offering marvelous views, chilly weathers, and opportunities for trekking. Inside the park, there are pagodas, several waterfalls, forests, and flower gardens. Bird lovers will also find a massive variety of species here. Only 2 hours away from the Old City, this tourist site is worthy of a visit.

Book a day trip here: Doi Inthanon National Park

19 | In the Bucket List: Bathe an elephant from an ethical elephant sanctuary

Photo credit: Will Fly for Food

Elephant sanctuaries are popular in Thailand, but if you read all the stuff online, you will learn that only a few of them truly take care of the animals without subjecting them to cruel treatment for the sake of entertainment. One such place—and seemingly what is most recommended—is the Elephant Nature Park. Here you can feed and bathe the rescued animals, who are all freely roaming the park. Riding is totally not allowed. Visiting can be a bit pricey, but I guess that for a responsible organization like this, your money goes a long way.

Book your tickets here: Elephant Nature Park Experience
Read more from Will Fly for Food's blog: Elephant Nature Park: A True Animal Sanctuary

20 | In the Bucket List: Visit one of the Karen Long Neck Villages

Photo credit: Jurgen Chopard

The Karen people have always fascinated me. More commonly known as the long neck tribes, they are actually of Burmese origin—refugees who fled a politically distressed Myanmar and settled in North Thailand. Today the tribes continue to lead simple lives and the women keep their tradition of wearing brass rings around their necks, believed to be a symbol of beauty. Travelers can help these tribes by purchasing their handmade products, but are encouraged to talk to them to learn more about their life and culture.

Now What?

Book your flights here.
Check affordable Chiang Mai hotels here.
Plan your whole Thailand itinerary by reading my Indochina travel guide.

Further reading:

Researching your destinations, booking your transfers, choosing accommodations, and shopping for the essentials.
Our 10-Day itinerary across Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam; useful tips; plus our budget breakdown!

Have you been to Chiang Mai? How many of these items have you experienced? Can you add anything to the list?

If you like my posts and would love regular updates on travel photos, food finds, restaurant reviews, dance articles, and drunken tales, follow Pepe Samson on Facebook!

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