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Top 10 Things to Do in Chiang Mai on a First Visit, Thailand

After visiting the fast-paced metropolis of Bangkok and the busy beaches of Phuket, you might like to bliss out in tranquil northern Thailand. Tick off these top things to see and do on your first trip to charming regional capital Chiang Mai.
Ten of the best things to do in Chiang Mai
Ten of the best things to do in Chiang Mai

Top Oz Tours offers a great range of Chiang Mai tours and experiences. You can browse the options here.

Chiang Mai is affectionately known in Thailand as the ‘Rose of the North’, and offers visitors a fascinating blend of culture, customs, and cuisine.

Located in the foothills of the Thai Highlands — just under seven hundred kilometres north of Bangkok — the city is famous for its serene temples, cooking classes, adventure activities, and market shopping.

This is the second biggest city in Thailand, but you wouldn’t know it! Somehow Chiang Mai manages to maintains a village vibe. There are hundreds of cafes (which Aussie travellers will love), alongside small galleries and artisan stores. And if you’re in the market for handmade arts and crafts, you’ve come to the right place!

Here’s a checklist of our top ten things to do in Chiang Mai on a first visit.

Thailand tours

Thailand Tours, Activities & Attractions

1. Explore the Old City

The Old City is a gated, square-shaped neighbourhood that’s home to several of Chiang Mai’s must-sees. There are temples, markets, and cafes and restaurants here, and it’s a lovely atmospheric place to while away a day. Get off the beaten track just a little and you’ll uncover myriad hidden treasures.

Ten of the best things to do in Chiang Mai
Ten of the best things to do in Chiang Mai: Explore the Old City.

2. Do a DIY temple tour

Beautiful Buddhist temples (wats) abound across Chiang Mai, and you’ll feel an immediate sense of calm when entering any of these ornate spiritual buildings. Start with a visit to popular Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (just Suthep for short), which is set high up in the hills of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. In the Old City you’ll find Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh, and the small and rustic Wat Phan Tao. Remember to dress appropriately: cover knees and shoulders, and remove footwear before entering.

Ten of the best things to do in Chiang Mai
Ten of the best things to do in Chiang Mai: Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

3. Shop up a storm in the markets

Chiang Mai’s street markets offer colourful souvenir shopping and will put your haggling skills to the test. The Night Bazaar is a favourite with many visitors, and offers everything from watches and passport covers, to funny t-shirts and fish foot spas. Bring cash and be ready to bargain!

Ten of the best things to do in Chiang Mai
Ten of the best things to do in Chiang Mai: Night Bazaar

4. Get a traditional Thai massage

You can’t visit Thailand without getting a traditional massage (well, you can, but you’ll be missing out on a quintessential experience!). A one-hour foot or body massage from any of the street-side salons dotted across Chiang Mai will set you back around 250 THB ($10 AUD). There’s a lot of pushing, pulling, and prodding, but you’ll feel amazing afterwards!

Ten of the best things to do in Chiang Mai
Ten of the best things to do in Chiang Mai: Get a Thai foot massage.

5. Chat with a monk

It’s not every day that you get to pick the brain of an ordained Buddhist monk. ‘Monk Chat’ has become popular in recent years as a way for tourists to learn about a monk’s life and for monks to practise their English. Come prepared with questions and be sure to leave a donation on your way out. Wat Chedi Luang, which shares a location with Mahamakut Buddhist University, is a popular spot for a monk chin-wag.

Ten of the best things to do in Chiang Mai
Ten of the best things to do in Chiang Mai: Enjoy some one-on-one monk time.

6. Take a cooking class

A cooking class is one of those tourist activities that will give back to you, your family and friends for years to come. Sammy’s Organic Thai Cooking School offers a full day option that includes making and eating six courses, a take home cookbook and two hours of nap time in a hammock if you choose. Classes are taught in English by Thai staff.

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7. Try Chiang Mai’s signature dish

There’s a Thai saying that goes something like: ‘If you haven’t been to Wat Phrah That Doi Suthep or tasted khao soi, then you haven’t really been to Chiang Mai’. We’ve ticked one off, now here’s the other. Khao soi is the city’s signature dish. This noodle-based meal is mix of sweet, sour and spicy, soft and crunchy noodles, and a sprinkling of spring onion. Add chilli, onion, pickle and lime to enhance the already yummy Thai flavours. Ask for khao soi gai if you would like chicken added.

Ten of the best things to do in Chiang Mai
Ten of the best things to do in Chiang Mai: Khao Soi Gai

8. Ride in a tuk tuk

Getting around in Chiang Mai is relatively easy. You can rent a car or moped (check that you’re covered by your travel insurance in the event of an accident), or save some stress by using tuk tuks and the hop-on-hop-off red truck taxis. Wave a truck down and ask the driver if he’s going near your destination. Confirm the price before you get in the back, and pay him on arrival through the passenger-side-window. Tip: Take a business card from your hotel so you can show the driver the address and get ‘home’ more easily.

9. Go trekking

The mountainous terrain around Chiang Mai is alive with adventure. Trekking is hugely popular here, and the easily accessible national parks of Doi Suthep, Mae Wang, Doi Inthanon, and Huai Nam Dang offer some of the best hiking in Thailand. You won’t have any difficulty finding trails to suit your level of fitness, so lace up and get out there!

Ten of the best things to do in Chiang Mai
Ten of the best things to do in Chiang Mai: Doi Inthanon National Park. Image: Envato

10. Bathe with an elephant

Love them or loathe them, elephant attractions are common in northern Thailand. However, they can be vastly different experiences, so do your research carefully if you decide to visit one. Some are simply about riding the elephants (in which case, chains may be used to hobble them), but others focus on the health and wellness of the animals. Elephant Family Care’s half day tour gives you the opportunity to feed the resident gentle giants, before joining them in the pond for a cooling bath. Don’t worry — you’re given suitable clothing to wear, so that yours stays clean and dry! Lunch and a ride back to town are included in the tour price.

Ten of the best things to do in Chiang Mai
Ten of the best things to do in Chiang Mai: Elephant Family Care. Image: Jennifer Morton

Where to stay in Chiang Mai

Rarinjinda Wellness Spa Resort

The Rarinjinda Resort offers luxury accommodation and is perfect for those who like to indulge in a little pampering. Situated near the Ping River, this spa hotel is a 10 to 20-minute walk to the Night Bazaar and Old City. The resort caters for all types of travellers, including families. Relax by the pool, work out in the fitness room, zen out during a complimentary yoga class, or hit the spa for a massage.

Ten of the best things to do in Chiang Mai
Image: Rarinjinda Wellness Spa Resort

A daily buffet breakfast of Thai and Western-style dishes is served at Deck One — located on the riverfront, just across the street from the resort. The peaceful view of the river may entice you back here for dinner.

The writer travelled as a guest of Rarinjinda Wellness Spa Resort.

Browse our range of Chiang Mai tours and experiences here.

Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Chiang Mai on a first visit? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Additional images: Bigstock

Jennifer Morton

About the writer

Jennifer Morton is a freelance writer and photographer. The Canadian expat has lived all over Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. She also spent six months working on a cruise ship in Europe. When Jennifer is not writing about travel, you may find her lounging on the beach, fishing with her son, sipping coffee at a cafe, reading a book, or zooming in on a beautiful scene.

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