I have found the mere mention of Chiang Mai in most instances sparks stories of the city’s illusive pull. Often referred to as Thailand spiritual and wellness hub, there is something about Chiang Mai; despite its ever-growing popularity, a peaceful vibe still pervades and the capital of the north feels worlds away from its busy southern counterpart, Bangkok. There is so much to see in this laid back city. However, we have chosen a few of our favourite things; from those typically on a Chiang Mai tourist check list to unique things to do in Chiang Mai and surrounds.
Top Things to do in Chiang Mai
Visit the Old Quarter
We took a tuk tuk to visit the old quarter. For many, this is the first place on their list of Chiang Mai tourist sights, and rightly so. It’s a beautiful part of Chiang Mai and oozes history and charm. There are over 300 temples in Chiang Mai (with quite a few within the old city walls) but the top of our list is Wat Chedi Luang in the old town. The main, slightly crumbled chedi, dates back to the 15th century and reaches to 80 metres, marking the highest point in the old city. Start your old town walk at Wat Chedi and continue on foot through its surrounding narrow streets stopping in at little boutiques, temples, coffee shops, museums and massage places from there. Dress modestly when visiting the temples; you will need to cover shoulders and knees and in some cases feet or you won’t be allowed entry. You will likely see monks at Wat Chedi, ask permission before taking their photo. Most will allow it.
Feast on Farm to Table Organic Food
There are plenty of great little cafes to choose from in Chiang Mai with a growing emphasis on farm to fork fare, sourced from local organic growers. The conscious food scene is also no doubt fed by a growing expat presence in the city.
Suan Paak Restaurant | Pa Daet, Mueang Chiang Mai
Located just 5 minutes from Chiang Mai airport, the Suan Paak Restaurant is a peaceful place to enjoy Thai dishes crafted from ingredients grown on site, locally or brought in from the Doi Inthanon Royal Project; a farm growing fresh produce while educating the local hill tribe people in effective farming practices. Suan Paak has gardens of its own and a hydroponic set up where they grow fresh fruit and vegetables. The food was fresh and delicious.
Ohkajhu Organic Restaurant | Ban Nong Khrai Luang, Chiang Mai
Ohkajhu Farm is my pick of healthy restaurants in Chiang Mai. A little more expensive than many other local restaurants you’ll find in the city, the food is all organic and super fresh. A true farm to table experience, Ohkajhu also grows some of its produce on site. The restaurant itself is huge and air-conditioned with really cute, earthy interiors. From the juices and smoothies to the incredible salads and generous main dishes, the lunch I had here was a highlight of my trip to Chiang Mai.
Take a Thai Cooking Class
If you prefer to try your hand and making your own gourmet Thai meals, book in for a cooking class with the Thai Farm Cooking School. We started our day walking the local markets learning about traditional Thai ingredients and watching the growers at work selling their morning haul. We then made our way to the farm where the school is located; a family business where many ingredients are harvested from the surrounding gardens. We learned how to make a number of simple dishes in our half day course including Tom Yam, Thai Curry, Pad Thai that could easily be taken home and recreated for family and friends and it was a wonderful way to spend the morning.
Hunt for Bargains in the Thai Phae Walking Street
I challenge you not to buy something at the markets in Chiang Mai. It was a challenge I set myself on my last visit and one I failed dismally within about 5 minutes of walking the well-known, Thai Phae Walking Street, or Sunday Walking Market; the most popular in Chiang Mai. There is an abundance of bargains on offer from home wares to clothing, bags and one-off artisanal creations. Even if you aren’t in the mood to shop there is a wonderful energy at these markets and it’s worth walking through just for a little people watching and street food snacking as you go just to see the spectacle of it all.
Go Zip Lining in the Thai Jungle
Zip lining in the jungle just outside of Chiang Mai was so much fun and something we would definitely do again. Read the full story here.
Have an Ethical Elephant Encounter
Elephant tourism is a controversial topic in Thailand with tides seemingly beginning to turn away from exploitation in the form of elephant rides to conservation. We asked an expert how we can have an ethical encounter with a beautiful elephant while travelling through Asia and where to do so near Chiang Mai. Read that story here.
Retreat to a Spa for the Afternoon
You are spoilt for choice when it comes to spa options in Chiang Mai. Experiences range from the no-frills budget spas with a simple curtain separating you and the bed (and stranger) next to you, to five-star wellness packages at high-end hotel spas you’ll want to move in to. While you can easily find a massage while walking the narrow streets of the old town or book in to one of the well-known chains around town, the best experience I had in Chiang Mai was at the Rarinjinda Wellness Spa, booking in for a massage while staying at the resort.
The 5-star Rarinjinda Wellness Spa at the Rarinjinda resort offers a special experience and is an ideal choice for those looking to splurge. From traditional massages to full holistic detoxification packages, the spa offers the perfect afternoon retreat from the Chiang Mai humidity after a morning spent exploring the city.
The Dheva Spa and Wellness Centre is another highly regarded 5-star spa in Chiang Mai. The spa is part of the Dhara Dhevi resort, just ten minutes from the centre of town. It offers a menu of treatments across a number of modalities from traditional European to healing Ayurveda in its impressive 3,100 sqm holistic wellness complex.
Take a Day Trip to the Lamphun Province
Hire a car or taxi or jump in the red truck with the locals (for about 50 Baht) and head to Lamphun (pronounced Lamp-oon), about 20 kilometres from Chiang Mai. Lamphun is a peaceful area, rich in cultural heritage. Rubber trees lined each side of the road as we made our way in to Lamphun, each was wrapped in gold at the waist. We passed simple concrete buildings, some splashed in a single bold tone of paint from green to pink. As green patches became paddocks and jungle then began to creep in, we saw meat sizzling on barbecues with eager dogs waiting nearby, in search of scraps and locals milling around chatting to each other. While in Lamphun, we visited the breathtaking temple, Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai as well as a fabrics village and Lamphun town. We loved every moment.
Visit the Baan Mae Klang Luang Community
Our visit to the Baan Mae Klang Luang community was a wonderful experience and one I highly recommend if you have enough time while staying in Chiang Mai. Set among the rice terraces of the third basin of Doi Inthanon, known as the roof of Thailand, the community is a settlement of the Pga-gan Yaw Karenic tribe of Burma and welcomes groups of visitors to learn about their history, culture, and farming practices, while sipping on their delicious home-brewed coffee. For those wanting to have a more immersive experience, basic accommodation is available in village houses for a fee. Book thorough the Mae Klang Luang Ecotourism Information Centre at 089-952-0983.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
My favourite luxury resort that I have stayed at in Chiang Mai, Rarinjinda beautifully combines traditional Thai design elements with five-star finishes, housed in a 140 year old teak wood home. The suites are generous in size, with most overlooking the internal courtyard pool below. It’s easy to see why this is such a popular resort with couples, not only for the romantic design and decor of the rooms, but for the feel of the hotel itself. It feels peaceful, private and protected. There is plenty on offer for those looking to indulge with healthy meal options and wellness activities too, to help you balance out your stay.
Marketed as a business hotel, Le Meridien is also be a great choice for families. Located at the night bazaar, you will find market stalls, restaurants, bars, boutiques and cafes at your doorstep. However, when you step in from the sticky air, the beauty of the quintessential Le Meridien design features will transport you back to the 5-star luxury of the hotel, so you really get the best of both worlds. Our favourite feature of the resort was the rooftop pool and sunset views from our suite to the famous Suthep Mountain at the fringe of the city.
As you would expect from a Shangri La Hotel, the Chiang Mai hotel is large, grand and oozing ornate features. Our suite was incredible with northern Thai dark timber furniture, warm colourful silk fabrics and every luxury touch you would expect. We had access to the Horizon Club which meant we could enjoy the panoramic views with canapes and sundowners, each evening. We spent our afternoons playing tennis on the hotel’s court or relaxing in a day bed by the large central pool. It really was a 5-star retreat style stay.
If you are looking for a hotel in the heart of the city, footsteps from the action, Dusit D2 is the perfect pick. The hotel has a very young feel, similar to a Sheraton Four Points or a QT Hotel. The Chiang Mai night bazaar is just around the corner, as are a number of bars and restaurants. Dusit D2 is really suited to those travelling on a fun trip with a big group of friends or solo travellers.
The Fit Traveller was a guest of Tourism Thailand for our most recent visit to Chiang Mai. As always, the images, opinions and experiences are authentically our own.
Skye is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Fit Traveller.
She is a journalist, writer, photographer, intrepid traveller and a former personal trainer with a passion for helping others reach optimal health.
As a TV journalist and producer, Skye has worked for household names such as 60 Minutes, Sunrise, TODAY and Nine News. She has also written for Women’s Health, Fodor’s Travel and Yahoo7 Travel, among many others.
Equally comfortable in a 5-star resort or hiking a far-off mountain, Skye loves the unexpected and enriching life experiences that each trip brings and can often be found in a backstreet chatting to locals with her camera in hand.
Skye is based in Sydney, working to master the balance between motherhood and her appetite for adventure.
Read more about Skye’s story here.