The Easy Guide to Exploring Chiang Mai

Elephants, Temples, Thai massage, food, live music, cafes… and the list goes on

Chiang Mai is well-known as a relaxing vacation destination in Thailand – a culturally rich city with both well-preserved ancient heritage and a young, vibrant scene for art, food, and music.

Thais and foreigners alike have flocked to this haven in northern Thailand and put it firmly on the tourist trail. But between the laid-back attitude and the sheer variety of things to do in Chiang Mai, the city continues to offer hidden gems and once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Photo of a sunset over a suburb in Chiang Mai
A beautiful sunset is seen while exploring the hills around Chiang Mai

All you need to do is stop, breathe and look around for a while. Start the day with a cup of locally farmed coffee—some of the best in the world. Get out into the cool air of the mountains for the day, whether to a waterfall or a temple. And spend the evening on the Ping River, enjoying a local curry and a view of the water at night.

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Chiang Mai is the capital of the old Lanna Kingdom—culture and civilization that spanned the north of Thailand and once rivaled the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, to the south. The northern provinces of Thailand were only annexed in 1920, and the north still retains much of its powerful culture – from Lanna language to its own unique take on Buddhism, to traditional dyeing using blue butterfly pea flowers.

If you’re planning a trip to Chiang Mai, we don’t want to just point you to the same tourist spots as everyone else. But there are a few famous must-dos that you’ll want to hit, and we want to make sure you do them right, so this guide will cover Where to See Elephants, the Best Temples, and Where to Get the Best Thai Massage.

But we’ll also give you the info you need to build your own custom tour of Chiang Mai – covering What to Eat in Chiang Mai (The Best Northern Thai Food), as well as the Best Live Music, the Best Cafes, and in-depth neighborhood guides to the Old City and Nimmanhaemin Road (“Nimman”).

But as long as you’re traveling to northern Thailand, don’t limit yourself to Chiang Mai!

Check out our guides to day trips from Chiang Mai, as well as other destinations in the North, all of which are coming soon.

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Where to See Elephants in Chiang Mai

Thai Elephants are Cool - or Like to Be
Thai Elephants are Cool – or Like to Be

Yes, seeing elephants is a pretty touristy thing to do, but once you’re out in the jungle, following a mahout and his animals, will that really matter?

If befriending elephants is on your list, spend a day (or a half-day) at Elephant Nature Park or Karen Tribe Native Elephants.

The itineraries for these trips to the jungle vary, including everything from walking the elephants, to feeding and bathing them. Pick whatever sounds appealing – no matter what, you’ll get to know these beautiful animals.

Also, take time to listen to your guides and learn about the issues around protecting the elephants and their environment. If you’re lucky, there may even be a baby elephant around!

The Best Temples in Chiang Mai

The city is packed with ancient structures and an amazing diversity of spiritual sites. But among the famous temples, or “wats,” there are a few that stand out.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

From anywhere in Chiang Mai, you can see the shining golden pagoda of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the temple that sits up on top of Doi Suthep mountain, on the west edge of the city.

At night, the pagoda is lit up, looking a bit like a UFO above the invisible silhouette of the mountain. Local legend has it that Lanna King Nu Naone built the temple to house a holy relic after a white elephant led him to the location.

Wat Phra Doi Suthep
Wat Phra Doi Suthep

A trip to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a great way to get up above the city, see a bit of the mountain and participate in local Buddhism – including the ritual of walking around the golden pagoda while reciting prayers in ancient Pali language.

To get there, take a red truck group taxi (“songtaew”) or Grab to the base of the road that goes up the mountain, near the entrance to Chiang Mai Zoo (pinned here). From there, you can take a red truck up to the temple (20-30 minutes, 40 THB per person, one-way, and the truck leave when they have 8-10 passengers).

You can also hire your own private red truck (300 THB total, one-way, or 500 THB, round trip) or hire a silver minivan for a bit more.

Admission to the temple costs 30 THB per person for foreigners.

Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phan Tao

Back down in town, the two best temples in the Old City just happen to be right next to one another – Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phan Tao.

Chedi Luang is over 600 years old and famous for its crumbling brick chedi, as well as the ornate decorations inside the buildings on the temple grounds. The temple has also organized a program for visitors to chat with novice monks, to learn more about Buddhism and the history of the temple, as well as to help the young monks practice their English. Admission to the temple costs 40 THB.

Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chedi Luang

Just to the right of Chedi Luang, if you’re on the street and facing the entrance, is Wat Phan Tao (no admission fee for this one).

The main temple hall is built from beautiful dark teak wood, and the temple grounds also hold a peaceful pond, a bodhi tree, and a stupa. If you’re nearby in the evening, it’s worth stopping into Wat Phan Tao to see if the monks are gathered to chant around the pond – this seems to happen around the full moon, but it’s best to either ask someone local or just stop in.

Keep your eyes open around Chiang Mai, especially in the Old City, and you’re guaranteed to spot worn-down brick pagodas and temples around every corner.

If you pass one and you are dressed appropriately (covered legs, covered shoulders), it’s almost always worth a look inside.

Anyone with a deeper understanding of Buddhism and its distinct schools could spend days wandering from Burmese-influenced stupas to temples made of weathered teak (Wat Lok Moli, right near the Old City’s North Gate, deserves special mention).

Where to Get the Best Thai Massage in Chiang Mai

Traveling doesn’t need to be hard work – and neither does picking a place to get a Thai massage in Chiang Mai. Traditional Thai massage usually costs 200-250 THB/hour, though most places also offer oil massages, body scrubs and other luxury treatments for a bit more.

Ask around at your hostel or hotel for recommendations and you can’t go wrong.

Traditional Northern Thai Massage
Traditional Northern Thai Massage

Massage for a Cause

If you’re in the Old City, you’ve got a chance for not only an amazing massage but also a unique, memorable experience: the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institute Vocational Training Center. I know, it sounds weird, but this social enterprise program gives women who’ve been incarcerated a chance to build job skills and improve their chances for a positive future.

The women are professional masseuses who do an exceptional job, and your money goes to support an amazing program (pinned here – there are a restaurant and cafe on-site as well, also run by women who’re trying to build a new life for after they’re released).

Nirvana Massage

If you’re looking for the best Thai massage in the Nimmanhaemin Road area, I recommend you go off the beaten track just a little to Nirvana Massage, my personal favorite in Chiang Mai.

From the moment you step inside from the lush green garden in front of the shop, the calm sets in and you can’t help but feel centered and relaxed.

The interior of Nirvana Massage is beautiful and the massage room, located upstairs above street level, truly feels like a respite from the noise and heat of the city.

It’s really the details that make this place stand out – they take a little extra care when they wash your feet with kaffir lime before the massage and even the way the place smells just makes the stress roll off your back.

Khao Soi from Chiang Mai
Khao Soi from Chiang Mai

What to Eat in Chiang Mai: The Best Northern Thai Food

Khao Soi

Khao soi (pronounced “cow soy”) is the one street food that is truly synonymous with Chiang Mai. This spicy coconut curry soup is traditionally made with chicken and eaten over egg noodles, with a few deep-fried egg noodles tossed on top for a little crunch. See my recipe here or my post on making it here.

It’s worth prioritizing khao soi and eating it early on during your trip to Chiang Mai as chances are high that once you’ve tried it, you will need to eat it again. And again. Most stands serving khao soi will give you fresh lime to squeeze on top as well as pickled cabbage, raw shallots, and bean sprouts. Add toppings to taste!

Many places have hard-boiled eggs as an option and vegetarians can order the dish without the chicken (though the broth will almost always have had meat cooking in it).

Nam Prik

“Nam prik” translates directly as “chili sauce” in English, but this staple of northern Thai cuisine is so much more.

First off, it’s a dip rather than a sauce, and the whole dish is centered around this nam prik. The other elements can vary, from sticky rice and pork and to raw, steamed or grilled vegetables.

Second, there are too many different kinds of nam prik to name here – from nam prik num (chili paste with roasted green chilies) to nam prik ong (chili paste with minced pork and tomatoes).

A dish centered around nam prik not only transports you straight to the heart of what it means to eat like a northern Thai (or a member of any of the area’s ethnic groups) but it’s also one of the healthier Thai dishes out there.

Sai Ua
Sai Ua – Tangy Northern Style Sausage

Sai Ua

You can smell sai ua cooking from down the street. And if you do, it’s almost impossible to resist walking down and seeing what’s on the grill. Sai ua, commonly called Chiang Mai sausage or northern Thai sausage, is a pork sausage loaded with herbs and seasoned to be just a little spicy and a little sour.

It’s pronounced “sigh-oo-aah,” and if you see sausage on a barbecue anywhere on the streets of Chiang Mai, chances are good that you’ve found it. Grab some sticky rice and a few raw veggies to go with and dig in.

For these and a world of other northern Thai dishes, some of the best spots in town are Tong Tem Toh in Nimman and Huen Muan Jai in Santitham, near Kad Suan Kaew Mall.

There are also plenty of Khao soi-only restaurants, usually, open just for breakfast and lunch. Some of the best are Khao Soi Mae Sai and Khao Soi Khun Yai.

The Best Live Music in Chiang Mai

Seeing great live music in Chiang Mai couldn’t be easier and it’s certainly simpler than tracking down a good venue in Bangkok.

For great jazz, blues and funk, check out North Gate Jazz Co-Op, at the top of the Old City, or Thapae East, to the east of the Old City. Both rotate through a great list of local talented musicians.

Thapae Gate Market

Thapae Gate Market

For traditional folk music, head down to Sudsanan, a hangout for local artists and a great spot to spend the whole evening (they serve great northern Thai food as well).

If you’re looking for a solid combination of Thai and Western rock and a fun night out, check out NaBe.

And for a classic Thai bar experience with a live band, head to Tha Chang – or any of the bars on the same street.

The Best Cafes in Chiang Mai

Many travelers may not realize it, but northern Thailand is a coffee-growing country. King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) began supporting farmers in the region to transition from opium to coffee in the 1970s.

Ever since then, Chiang Mai has been drinking coffee brewed with some of the best Arabica beans in the world, grown in the surrounding mountains and other northern provinces.

Today, the city is home to an almost absurd number of cafes – enough to fill a few guidebooks. So instead of making the process of choosing a cafe in Chiang Mai overly complicated, here’s the quick list, organized by neighborhood.

Nimmanhaemin Road Neighborhood (“Nimman”)

Thai Milk Tea - Lemon Tea
Thai Milk Tea – Lemon Tea

Ristr8to: The critically-acclaimed option, Ristr8to is run by an award-winning champion of latte art competitions. They serve coffees from all over the world and actually have two locations, one on Nimman Road and the other a block away, with more room to sit and relax called Ristr8to Lab.

Gallery SeescapeandSS125437 Cafe: Seescape, as it’s easiest to call this place, maybe the nicest place to stop for a coffee in Nimman. From the architecture of the cafe to the design of the interior, this place puts Chiang Mai’s creativity on display. It’s also an art gallery and event space, and the cafe serves great Western brunch food with some creative twists. Bring a camera – everything here is beautiful – a book, a journal and relax!

Old City:

Cafe de Arte: This one is a personal favorite. Cafe de Arte is housed in a beautiful little building with wooden-framed glass doors and everything about it is designed by the owner, who left his job as a commercial artist to start the cafe. He’s a joy to chat with if you get the chance – just look for the curly hair and the easy smile.

He orders all his ceramics – including that ornate little cup you’re drinking your cappuccino from – custom made from his friend and fellow artist in Bangkok. And yes, the coffee is impeccable.

Graph Cafe: This tiny little shop in the northeast corner of the Old City serves some of the finest coffee in the city. The baristas are some of the best around and the beans (though not always local) are the highest quality. They have an extensive menu of creative coffee drinks, in addition to the standard options, including their famous nitro cold brew coffee.

Between the Old City and the River:

Ma-Chill Coffee: This shop just outside the southeast corner of the Old City serves some of the best espresso drinks in the city. The beans roasted to perfection and the flavors flood through, whatever your drink of choice.

If it seems like someone you meet here is a coffee connoisseur, they probably are – your barista, the person at the table next to them – ask them about the coffee you’re drinking, and see what you can learn! That’s what it’s all about anyway, right? Making connections over coffee. The latte art is often exceptional as well.

Gateway Coffee Roasters: Just a couple blocks outside of Thapae Gate, these folks offer two things I’m a sucker for – an upstairs balcony and coffee that’s roasted on-site.

Ask for one of their stand-out signature drinks, especially if you’re lukewarm about the standard coffee options, and head upstairs to people-watch from above. It gives the place the feel of a happy hour hangout, but without the alcohol. Come back downstairs and order one of the gorgeous little tarts or brownies when you feel the call – trust me, once you’ve seen them, you will.

Chiang Mai Cityscape

Chiang Mai Cityscape

On the Ping River:

Mamia Coffee: There aren’t too many casual spots on the Ping to just have a low-key coffee and hang out. Mamia is a nice little gem where you can sit in the shade on their deck and watch the river flow by. All of their drinks are great (especially the iced lattes) and so is the food, ranging from simple Thai food to baked goods.

Woo Cafe: Though not actually on the water, Woo Cafe offers much more than coffee. Its browsing-friendly boutique meets art store, cafe, and mouth-watering bakery – seriously, if anyone you’re traveling with has a weakness for sweets (no, of course, it wouldn’t be you…) this is the place to take them.

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