While the south has acquired international fame for its incredible white sand beaches, the north is a magnet for visitors interested in culture, food, and hiking in Thailand. In this article, we’re going to introduce some great Chiang Mai tours that will give you efficient access to the best that this city has to offer, including some of the best day trips from Chiang Mai.
And when we say visitors, we mean a lot of them! Some 10 million people come to Chiang Mai every year, including many domestic tourists who flock to Chiang Mai’s gorgeous temples, some of which are the most important places of Buddhist worship in all of Northern Thailand.
But even with all those visitors, Chiang Mai’s relaxed feel, lack of skyscrapers, and quaint Old City lanes are some of its main draws. That’s why so many foreigners and digital nomads end up sticking around here, and Chiang Mai is the gateway to an ideal home base for visiting the north of Thailand.
This guest post was contributed by Nick Kembel. Nick fell in love with Asia when he first visited Chiang Mai in 2001 and has been living in that part of the world for over 10 years.
Chiang Mai Tourist Information
As such a popular city, deciding when to visit Chiang Mai is a decision that will have a major effect on your trip. November to February has the best weather, especially for outdoor activities such as trekking, hiking, and cycling. However, it is the busiest season, especially in January, so you will need to book your accommodation early and you can expect tourist crowds.
From March until the end of June, the weather gets hotter and clammier by the day but are less busy. In March and April, the air also gets smoky from farmers burning their crops, while May and June can be unbearably hot. If you like tropical heat, though, this could be a great time for you! June to October, the rainy season, sees the fewest tourists and the best room prices. It’s not a bad time to travel, as mornings are often rain-free, and watching life go as the city gets drenched can be fun. Just bring lots of rain gear!
Chiang Mai is a far more manageable size than Bangkok. Most tourists stay in or near Chiang Mai’s lovely walled Old City, where some of the city’s most important temples are found. The Old City’s main street, Ratchadamnoen Road, turns into a popular market street on Sunday evening. This road also leads east out of the old city to enormous Warorot market, Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, and a riverside area that features a flower market and some popular restaurants overlooking the river.
West of the Old City, Chiang Mai University sits at the base of Doi Suthep, a 1676-meter mountain. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai’s most important temple, overlooks the city from the slope of the mountain. Further afield, Chiang Mai’s national parks provide opportunities for trekking and visiting hill tribes. We don’t recommend riding elephants in Thailand, but we’ll introduce the best elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai!
The Chiang Mai International Airport is conveniently located just southwest of the Old City. If you get tired of haggling with tuk-tuk drivers, download Grab, similar to Uber, with fares that are often half what tuk-tuk drivers ask for. The cheapest way to get around is to hop on a local Songthaew (those red pickup trucks), which run along routes like buses but can also be hired privately like tuk-tuks.
Now that we’ve got you oriented, let’s look at the best tours in Chiang Mai!
Chiang Mai Tours
1. Temple Hopping Tours
Chiang Mai’s array of stunning, ancient temples is one of the city’s key characteristics. Most of the Chiang Mai’s temples date back to the Lanna Kingdom (1292-1775) when Chiang Mai was the capital of a large Indian-influenced state. Buddhist Lanna temples feature strikingly ornate details, towering golden chedis, and multi-tiered roofs.
It is possible to visit Chiang Mai’s temples on your own, especially in the Old City, but some of the temples outside of the Old City walls can be a little harder to reach, including Chiang Mai’s most important temple, Doi Suthep. Furthermore, visiting Thai temples with a knowledgeable guide can help you to know what’s going on inside the temple when to do what, and also learn more about the temple’s history and unique architecture.
This eight-hour tour takes in the three most important temples in the Old City, while this full-day tour combines a visit to Doi Suthep with a visit to a “sticky waterfall,” which flows down a limestone wall that you can actually climb up.
2. The Best Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai
As we mentioned above, riding elephants in Thailand is unethical and we don’t recommend it. Operators in Chiang Mai are aware that many tourists don’t want to anymore, so a lot of them now advertise “no riding” and “cruelty-free,” but the sad truth is that many of them are still like prisons for elephants.
Fortunately, there’s one that everybody agrees is ethical and the best of Chiang Mai’s Elephant camps: Elephant Nature Park. 60km north of the city, the sizeable park is a legitimate rescue centre, not only for dozens of abused elephants but also cats, dogs, buffalos, and more.
Elephant Nature Park has volunteer positions, houses guests overnight, and offers popular half day and full day Chiang Mai elephant tours (book early in the high season!), both which include vegetarian buffet lunch and pick-up and drop-off anywhere in or near the Chiang Mai Old City. The tours involve a fair amount of walking and time outside, so dress appropriately. There are some graphic photos, videos, and stories, so it can be an emotional experience. We brought our kids along and found the half-day tour ideal.
3. Chiang Mai Jungle Trekking
Chiang Mai’s hiking trails are lush and overflowing with life. You can expect to walk well-maintained trails through dense bush and bamboo forests, with the sounds of trickling streams and waterfalls, some which you can swim in, and the chance to spot tropical birds and oversized bugs.
You don’t have to venture far from the city to enjoy some of the best Chiang Mai hiking tours; this seven-hour small group trekking tour takes in bamboo forests, awesome city views, multiple waterfall swims, and empty trails on Doi Suthep (mountain), finishing at Doi Suthep temple. You’ll hardly believe you are right beside a major city. This route can be a little tough, so you should be in decent shape to join.
Hill tribe trekking is another activity that is practically synonymous with travelling in northern Thailand. A highly recommended tour with excellent guides is this full-day trekking tour to five hill tribes in Chiang Dao, north of Chiang Mai. The tour provides you with the opportunity to immerse yourself in hill tribe culture without having to stay overnight like on many other trekking tours.
4. White Water Rafting in Chiang Mai
It’s adventure time! If you’ve never tried white water rafting, why not give it a shot in Chiang Mai? This professionally run, full-day tour combines three awesome activities: 2-3 hours of trekking through the jungle, swimming under a waterfall, and of course white water rafting. Before racing through some of the best whitewater in Thailand, the leaders do proper training and a warm-up run.
5. Food Tours in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai’s food is legendary. Lanna cuisine is influenced by Lao, Burmese, and Yunnanese cuisines, and true to stereotype, the real stuff is often so spicy that you’ll be left in a sweat. Amazing sticky rice, which is often grabbed in clumps with the hand from little baskets, is a staple, while fiery green and red chilli sauces come on the side. Som tum (raw papaya salad) is a common favourite, while the city’s classic dish, khao soi, is a mild coconut curry with crunchy egg noodles on top that you’ll probably never find in a Thai restaurant abroad. Unlike southern Thailand, the seafood isn’t great in Chiang Mai, so it’s better not to bother.
Really, though, these dishes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to food in Chiang Mai. So how can you know where to start, with so many local specialities, restaurants, and night markets in the city? By joining a food tour, of course! On this 2.5-hour local street food tour, you can try several snacks and dishes that you may never have heard of or thought to try, and you can also learn some basic Thai phrases for ordering food.
6. Take a Cooking Class
Give a person a Thai curry and you feed her/her for a day. Teach him/her to cook and you feed her/him for life! In a city and country that is world renowned for both its markets and cuisine, taking a cooking class can be an awesome way to immerse yourself in local food culture and learn how to replicate some of those awesome local dishes long after you’ve left!
Thai cuisine is one that is often loved and enjoyed, but few people outside of Thailand known how to do it right. On this half-day tour, you do exactly that. After visiting a local market, you are taken to a farm outside the city where you learn to prepare five dishes of your choice.
7. Chiang Mai Walking Tours
While Chiang Mai’s Old City temples and markets get all the fame, one of the most pleasant experiences when visiting can be simply walking around and taking it all in. Veering off of and getting lost in the city’s laid-back lanes is a must. For a quick sample, try Phra Pok Klao alley 12, a calm leafy alley behind chill Wat U Mong Mahathera Chan, which connects to Inthawarorot Rd. and Wat Inthakin. To really get lost though, head towards any of the four corners of the Old City and see where you end up.
8. Chiang Mai Biking Tours
Chiang Mai’s traffic is far easier to handle than in the country’s capital, Bangkok, making it a great city to explore by bike. Outside of the city, you can also peddle past agricultural land, forested foothills, and countryside temples.
There are many options for cycling tours in Chiang Mai. Some tours get you well out of the city, where you pedal through the countryside and visit forest temples. Other take you to some of the city centre’s most famous attractions, lit up at night. Foodies can try the evening culinary cycling tour!
9. Doi Inthanon National Park
Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s tallest peak, at 2565 meters. The mountain is a cool respite from the city, and the park around it features protected forests, waterfalls, wildlife, and is home to Karen tribes. It is an hour-long drive from the Chiang Mai Old City.
This full-day Doi Inthanon tour takes you right to the top of the mountain, as well as visiting rice terraces, waterfalls, and twin stupas that commemorate King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit (see the cover photo of this article).
10. Chiang Rai’s White Temple
Chiang Rai is like a mini version of Chiang Mai, three hours drive to the north, in the Golden Triangle Area, once known for opium production. Chiang Rai is deeper into hill tribe territory and therefore offers better hill tribe trekking opportunities if you’ve got more time. Wat Rong Khun (the “White Temple”) is not an ancient or traditional temple but a highly photogenic modern art gallery styled like a traditional Buddhist temple. The temple alone is worth the visit from Chiang Mai!
This long, full-day tour takes in the White Temple, as well as other sites and temples in the Golden Triangle area, including seeing the place where Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos meet from the Golden Triangle Lookout Point.
Chiang Mai should not be one quick stop on your Thailand itinerary. It’s the kind of place where you base yourself and plan a whole trip around. For my most recent trip, we spent 10 days in Chiang Mai and barely left the city or surrounding area. Take your time here, enjoying every amazing meal, marvelling at the city’s awesome temples, and exploring the Old City, hills, and countryside beyond!
Nick Kembel has been living in Taiwan and exploring Asia for 10+ years and is the author of ‘Taiwan in the Eyes of a Foreigner’ and other books. Find more of his work at Spiritual Travels.