The complete guide to Chiang Mai, Thailand

Village huts atop a foggy hillside near Chiang Mai, Thailand

Zoe Macfarlane

Posted May 09, 2023

Chiang Mai is a destination equal parts intriguing, enlightening, and rejuvenating. Here's what you need to know about a trip to Chiang Mai.

While Thailand’s beaches draw interest in the south, Chiang Mai is enchanting enough to attract travellers away from the country’s sun-drenched shores such as Koh Samui. This is thanks to Chiang Mai’s fascinating history, breathtaking temples, lush natural wonders, and appetising cuisine.

Meaning ‘new city’, Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 as the new capital of Lan Na, the former kingdom of northern Thailand. The city’s favourable position on the Ping River ensured ample trade travelled through the region, including wares from neighbouring countries. This allowed Chiang Mai to blossom into the alluring destination it is today.

The ancient moat and city wall remains of Chiang Mai’s Old City make a great base for explorations. The city’s quintessential heart, this historic area is home to over 100 temples, stunning shrines, plus lively cafes and restaurants, and Chiang Mai’s famous night markets.

Explore Chiang Mai’s history

With over 300 temples (wats) in and around Chiang Mai, choosing which ones to visit can be overwhelming. With so many in the old city, they are easy to explore on foot. Recommended stops include Wat Phra Singh, considered the most beautiful temple thanks to its large Golden Chedi (stupa), and the 14th-century silver craftmanship of Wat Sri Suphan.

Allocate plenty of time to explore Wat Chedi Luang. Its mesmerising architecture and 282-metre-tall chedi dominate the central Chiang Mai area. While you’re at Wat Chedi Luang, stop for a Monk Chat. This fascinating initiative allows yellow-robed monks to answer your questions about temple life while they practice their English.

For a fun trip out of the centre, head to Wat Doi Suthep. Perched atop Doi Suthep Mountain, this temple is one of Chiang Mai’s most important, thanks to the treasured Buddhist relics housed within.


A person carrying a traditional Thai umbrella stands outside Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wat Phra Singh's magnificent Golden Chedi (stupa) makes it one of the must-see attractions in Chiang Mai. Image: Shutterstock

Experience the best of Chiang Mai’s great outdoors

Get out in nature while you’re visiting Chiang Mai, the region’s lush forests, intriguing caves, gushing waterfalls, and misty mountains are rejuvenating! Choose to hike, mountain bike, raft or dip in a region’s three hot springs.

Thailand’s highest peak, Doi Inthanon is verdant national park southwest of the city. Along with being one of the best sunrise spots in Northern Thailand, Doi Inthanon also provides visitors with several nature-based activities. Hiking to the scenic Sirithan Waterfall is a park highlight, as is the Mae Klang Luang Village, home to the Karen hill tribe. On the way to Doi Inthanon, stop at Thailand’s own ‘Grand Canyon’. The Mae Wang National Park’s jutting red-hued cliffs resemble the US’s most famous national park. The expansive grottoes of Chiang Dao Cave await. Home to over 100 grottoes, five are accessible for visitors to discover the colossal stalagmites, stalactites, and Buddha statues within. Combine your cave visit with bush walks or Ping River kayaking.

For a more relaxing outdoor activity, why not head to one of the city’s nearby hot springs? San Kamphaeng is a popular spot to dip in the park’s sulphur-rich streams. Beloved for its gushing geyser, Pong Duat Hot Spring is also worth a visit. Hike the Pong Duat Nature Exploring Path before a therapeutic soak.

Elephant centres are big in Thailand. Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park offers rescue and rehabilitation for elephants (and other animals) who have suffered at their previous residences.


A traditional northern Thai Kantoke meal consisting of many small dishes

Chiang Mai is one of the best cities to visit for Thai food, include local favourites like khao soi. Image: Shutterstock

Chiang Mai’s delectable cuisine

Chiang Mai has a reputation as being one of Thailand’s tastiest cities. Sampling a range of eateries is best, from cheap street eats to fine dining restaurants.

Chiang Mai’s night markets are dotted around the city, offering a chance to sample how incredible Thai street food can be. From tasty snacks to belly-filling meals, it’s the perfect complement to a shopping spree. Be sure to try khanom krok, a melt-in-your-mouth coconut rice pancake dessert.

Khao soi is Chiang Mai’s most heavenly dish. A thick yellow curry soup with fried and soft-boiled noodles, it’s the kind of meal that makes you want to extend your stay. Other delectable Chiang Mai cuisine includes larb kua, a spicy minced meat dish served with sticky rice, and gaeng hung lay, a tasty ginger and pork curry. For sweet tooths, mango sticky rice pudding is a must.

For kitchen whizzes, add a Thai cooking course to your itinerary. The organic Thai Farm Cookery School offers fun classes to learn dishes like massaman curry, tom yum goong, and Chaing Mai’s famed khao soi curry. RACV Members can also pre-book cooking classes and other travel experiences through Klook.


Two pagodas on top of Inthanon Mountain near Chiang Mai, Thailand

There are more than 300 temples to visit around Chiang Mai, both in the city and in the surrounding mountains. Image: Shutterstock

Day trips from Chiang Mai

While there is plenty to do in Chiang Mai, nearby day trips reveal a different side to Northern Thai life.

Dotted around Chiang Mai Province’s nearby mountains, visit one of the nine main ethnic minority groups, known as hill tribes. Tours to any of these communities – including the Karen, Long-neck Karen, Hmong and Palong - offer insights into mountain life from their work to schooling to crafts and their colourful traditional attire.

The Golden Triangle is another exceptional day trip from Chiang Mai. The confluence of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar, the Golden Triangle was once the world’s largest opium-growing region. Visit the 101 House of Opium Museum, haggle for wares at the Mae Sai market town, and take a short Mekong boat trip to Laos.

Chiang Mai’s most famous neighbour, Chiang Rai, is another great day trip option. Driving three-plus hours to the northeast, visitors journey to Chiang Rai to see the glorious White Temple. Perhaps more art exhibit than working temple, the dazzling White Temple has to be seen to be believed. Another Chiang Rai landmark is Wat Rong Suea Ten, aka the Blue Temple, famed for its brilliant blue hue that represents purity, wisdom, and lack of materialism.

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