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Thailand’s second largest city, Chiang Mai is a clean-aired, carefree contrast to Bangkok. Locked between the country’s northern hills, the city is surrounded by jungle on all sides. Visitors to Chiang Mai tend to linger here, learning about the region’s aromatic food, relaxing in the laid-back hotels and walking through temple ruins.

Once the capital of the 13th-century northern Thai Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Mai was originally a walled city, known for its markets and monasteries. The modern city has long since burst beyond the old walls, but you’ll still find the streets graced with barefoot monks, street vendors and flourishing markets.

Chiang Mai is one of the destinations in Thailand that I most anticipate returning to because of its temples, walkable old city, developing arts scene, and distinct, tasty local cuisine (especially khao soi, a curried noodle soup).

Thailand specialist Taylor

Things to see and do in Chiang Mai

Visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

The stupah of the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, ThailandKnown locally as Doi Suthep, this temple and its legends are considered among the most important in Thailand. According to the story, a precious relic, believed to be a piece of Buddha’s shoulder bone, was tied to the back of a sacred white elephant. After roaming Chiang Mai’s hills, the elephant lay down and died atop Mount Suthep. The golden shrine of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was built on the same spot to house the heirloom.

Pilgrims earn Buddhist virtue by climbing a 306-step staircase up to the temple, which is flanked by two mirror-encrusted serpents (there’s also a lift). The terrace at the top is covered with small shrines, gardens and breadfruit trees. The views right across Chiang Mai are best appreciated in the fading light of late afternoon, when accompanied by the sound of pilgrims ringing bells set around the base of the temple. You’re also encouraged to hit one of the world’s largest gongs.

Cycle the ruins of Wiang Kum Kam

Far more peaceful than the well-preserved ancient capitals of Ayutthaya or Sukhothai, the ruins of Wiang Kum Kam remained hidden underground until recent excavations. The 13th-century capital of Lanna was abandoned due to flooding. Located 5 km (3 miles) south of Chiang Mai, the ruins lie in a sleepy rural setting along the banks of the Mae Ping River.

The lanes that meander through the ruins are ideal for cycling along — and you’re unlikely to see anyone else. The full history of the site is still uncertain, but the huge plinths and stupas that remain give an idea of its importance. More than 1,300 artefacts were found during its unearthing, some of which are on show in a small visitor centre nearby.

Haggle for a bargain in Chiang Mai’s night bazaar

Chiang Mai began as a market town, a convenient stopping point on the original trade route from China to Burma. Markets are still an important part of the community, with bazaars scattered across the city. The Chiang Mai night bazaar is the focal point — open seven nights a week until the small hours.

Located to the east of the city walls, it’s difficult to miss the bazaar’s bright lights, music and wafts of tod mun (fried fish cakes). Stalls around the outskirts of the market sell plastic sunglasses and questionable designer goods, but stroll further in and you’ll find antiques and swathes of screen-printed fabrics. Hill tribe traders bring traditional goods to sell, including organic coffee and hand-woven baskets. When shopping, bargaining for a good price is expected (and best achieved with a dose of good humour and some patience).

Learn Thai cookery with a local family

Chillis and kaffir lime leaves are essential ingredients in Thai cuisineMr Prapat and his family live in a residential area of Chiang Mai, surrounded by their well-tended garden. Spending a day cooking with them, you’ll start to appreciate the subtle nuances of Thai food. Helped by one of the family, you’ll begin your lesson by picking fresh chillies and basil leaves, and foraging for cilantro root. Meanwhile, the rest of the family — all four generations — begin to prepare the rest of the ingredients.

You’ll then be patiently coached through preparing a number of dishes, pounding the fragrant curry pastes and balancing the delicate salty and sweet tastes. Dishes are eaten around the family dining table, accompanied by fresh watermelon juice or coconut water.

Visit the Elephant Nature Park

Thailand’s Asian elephant population is in steep decline, threatened by hunting, habitat loss and poor working conditions. The Elephant Nature Park was started in 1990 to improve the lives of working elephants and provide them with emergency medical treatment. The foundation has since taken in a number of neglected working elephants, giving them space to roam while caring for their ongoing medical needs.

On arrival, you’ll be shown around the site before settling down to watch the elephants grazing, playing and interacting — just as they would in the wild. You have the opportunity to observe the elephants. During lunch you can join the park’s specialists to learn about the elephants’ biology and psychology. The day finishes with the chance to help bathe the elephants in the local river.

Best time to visit Chiang Mai

From November to February, Chiang Mai enjoys comfortable temperatures and clear skies. The days reach 25°C (77°F) with cooler evenings. March is best avoided as rural villages tend to burn their crops before the higher temperatures arrive in April. The monsoon rains continue until September. If you’re happy to see the occasional rain shower, October is an excellent-value month to travel, when Chiang Mai is surrounded by lush greenery.

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Festivals, events and seasonal reasons to visit

  • The Chiang Mai Flower Festival is celebrated over the first weekend of February. Intricate chrysanthemum-covered floats are paraded down the streets, accompanied by traditional dancing and music.
  • In November, Chiang Mai celebrates Yi Peng, the festival of light, as the city’s own version of the nationwide Loy Krathong Festival. Thousands of khom loy (floating lanterns) are released into the night sky, said to carry misfortune away.

Speak to someone
who's been there

Audley Travel specialist Hannah

Start planning your tailor-made trip to Chiang Mai by contacting one of our Thailand specialists

Suggested itineraries featuring Chiang Mai

Our itineraries will give you suggestions for what is possible when you travel in Chiang Mai, and they showcase routes we know work particularly well. Treat them as inspiration, because your trip will be created uniquely by one of our specialists.

Map of Chiang Mai

Places & hotels on the map

    Places near Chiang Mai

    Accommodation choices for Chiang Mai

    We’ve selected a range of accommodation options for when you visit Chiang Mai. Our choices usually come recommended for their character, facilities and service or location. Our specialists always aim to suggest properties that match your preferences.

    • Rachamankha, Chiang Mai

      Rachamankha

      First Class

      Set in a quiet part of Chiang Mai yet close to the main sights, Rachamankha is a stylishly designed hotel inspired by local culture and heritage. Traditional design and decor combine with modern amenities to create an ideal base for exploring the historic city.

    • Colonial Pool, Dhara Dhevi

      Dhara Dhevi

      Deluxe

      Palatial surroundings, traditional craftwork and a range of cultural activities make this delightful resort with top-notch facilities as much as lesson in local history and culture as a glorious place to stay.

    • Amata Lanna, Chiang Mai

      Amata Lanna

      Medium

      Located near the Ping, on the eastern edge of Chiang Mai, the Amata Lanna is a lovely boutique option if you're looking for a charming place to stay in a great location for walking into the heart of the city.

    • The Four Seasons, Chiang Mai

      Four Seasons Resort, Chiang Mai

      Opulent

      Located in 20 acres of gardens in the beautiful Mae Rim valley just outside Chiang Mai, the Four Seasons is one of the most luxurious hotels in the area.

    • Lisu Lodge, Chiang Mai

      Lisu Lodge

      Simple

      A super place to experience local hospitality in the hills of northern Thailand. Friendly staff and a range of activities make it a great base from which to explore the area.

    • Yaang Come Village, Chiang Mai

      Yaang Come Village

      Medium

      This charming little property has an envious location and a good pool to cool off in after a hard day's sight seeing.

    • Rajah Brooke Suite, 137 Pillars House, Chiang Mai

      137 Pillars House

      Deluxe

      Built in 1889 to accommodate the manager of the British East Borneo Company, 137 Pillars House has been restored into a 30-suite boutique hotel. The hotel's white-washed buildings are laid out in a traditional 'lanna' style and of which the former house is the centre piece, are set around a beautiful lawn on which High Tea is served every day.

    Ideas for experiencing Chiang Mai

    Our specialists seek out authentic ways to get to know the places that could feature in your trip. These activities reflect some of the experiences they've most enjoyed while visiting Chiang Mai, and which use the best local guides.

    • Young Monks travelling by Songtheaw, Chiang Mai

      Chiang Mai city safari

      Chiang Mai

      This one day tour will take you to Chiang Mai's most popular sites but will also give you a true flavour of daily life in the city. See the old trader community of Wat Gatekaram, markets, temples and a vast array of unique 'street life'. Explore ancient ruined temples by bicycle, before boarding a long-tail boat on the Mae Ping River. End the day with a tuk tuk ride to Waroros Market to join the bustle of locals as they buy their fresh food and spices.

    • Day trip to the Elephant Nature Foundation, Chiang Mai

      Feed elephants at the Elephant Nature Foundation in Chiang Mai

      Chiang Mai

      The Elephant Nature Foundation is a non-profit organisation that advocates and acts on behalf of rights for elephants in Thailand. The park offers visitors a rare experience to get involved with the elephants from an educational perspective.

    • Mr Prapat explaining the herbs in his garden

      Thai for a day

      Chiang Mai

      Experience a typical day in the life of a Thai family and experience home cooking in a real Thai neighbourhood. Among other things your Thai family will also demonstrate their basket weaving skills, a tradition that has been in Thailand for centuries.