We love the beaches in Thailand but if you ask us, Chiang Mai is where it's at.
I'm sure you know why you want to visit Thailand. How can you resist the idea of sipping on dreamy smoothies, heading down to white-sand beaches, or running into monkeys while you explore ancient ruins. It's hard to fit in everything about this country in only a week or two, which is why we love the idea of volunteering here for a semester.
See how you can make volunteering in Thailand actually happen!
If you need more convincing, let's talk for a minute about weekend trips. Our volunteers love jetting off to a different city every single weekend (and packing even more travel in on vacation days). One top spot just about everyone visits at least once (maybe twice!) is Chiang Mai. We think it could be the temples here, and the elephant adventures, or the chance to climb up a "sticky waterfall" just outside of town. In any case, here's your go-to guide for visiting this favorite Thai city.
- Our Favorite Things To Do Here
- Places To Stay
- Places To Eat
- Day Trips + Nearby Vacation Spots
- Getting to Chiang Mai
Our Favorite Things To Do
There is a lot to see and do in Chiang Mai. As we mentioned, most volunteers come for a weekend, but you'll want to budget 3–4 days (or more) if you really want to experience what this city has to offer. Plus, there are a few nearby destinations that make for a very fun day trip or extra excursion, which would add to your itinerary and your timeline for visiting.
Here are the top-tier things to do while you're in Chiang Mai that fit within a weekend/long weekend visiting schedule that works really well for our volunteers here. As an insider tip, we've been told that you can sometimes snag a discount at several of these activities if you mention you're a volunteer English teacher here in Thailand — it's worth asking about!
Take A Cooking Class
Chiang Mai is a mecca for cooking classes. If you love the bowls of the best noodles and coconut-based curries, this is the chance to get your hands in the kitchen and learn how to make your favorites yourself. The kinds of classes you can take vary: Chiang Mai is home to classes for beginners and full on cooking courses that are weeks long for experts, and everything in between.
We have a guide to choosing a cooking class in Chiang Mai which is full of recommendations, prices, and things to expect. This is an activity we highly recommend doing! You can book half or full day cooking experiences.
Shopping At The Best Markets
There are a ton of markets in Chiang Mai, full of the cheapest things to buy in Thailand. Most volunteers tend to do the majority of their souvenir shopping in Chiang Mai because you'll be able to find everything you want to buy for a pretty good price. You'll end up seeing the same trinkets over and over again but you'll find all the classics here: elephant pants, spices, carved elephants, paintings, etc.
When it comes to markets in Chiang Mai, you have a lot of options. Here's a breakdown of the markets to visit in Chiang Mai, but if you only have time to visit one, we suggest planning your trip to match up with the weekend night markets.
Hanging Out With Elephants
Elephants are one thing that most people think about when they think of Thailand, and Chiang Mai is one of the most popular places for elephant experiences. Similar to the cooking class situation, you will find hundreds of companies to experience elephants with. It's daunting, especially when you think about the ethics behind some of these companies who are there to exploit these gentle giants. We do not endorse these.
Instead, we suggest you do your research about which elephant sanctuary to choose! Volunteers have found certain companies that promote elephant rescue, sanctuary, and rehabilitation and have their recommendations . .. plus, one overnight hotel that lets you get up close to these beautiful animals.
We love that Chang Chill is dedicated to letting elephants simply be elephants, and not forcing them to entertain tourists. Chang Chill is an observation-only facility in Chiang Mai where you can come see these beautiful animals without causing harm.
This is typically a half– or full–day activity.
Go Zip Lining
You're near the jungle, so you might as well go zip lining! There are a handful of tour operators who will take you through the treetop on a maze of different tracks and platforms.
Some groups went with Dragon Flight; They have a package which includes transportation, a t-shirt, lunch, and almost 50 platforms. Groups report that the experience was incredibly fun and the company had nice and helpful guides to help you through to course.
Since it takes 30–90 minutes to get to the actual zip lining course, this tends to be a full–day activity.
Some ILP volunteers have visited Chiang Mai a few times during their semester (it's close enough to go for a weekend) so they've been able to hit all the highlights in Chiang Mai. If you have more time, some ILP volunteers loved doing a 2-day jungle trek. One group booked with Chiang Mai Trekking with Piroon and they "11/10 recommend!"
The 2-day trek included a guided hike, meals, and a stay in a hill tribe village, and the opportunity to feed elephants at a local sanctuary. Prices for the 2-day trek are 3,000 baht if you have more than 5 people going.
You'll see a lot of temples in Chiang Mai, but if you'd like to curate a few to visit in particular, we have some info below to help you out (and pictures to convince you to come visit). The temples on this list follow these guidelines on visiting Thai temples when it comes to how you dress and how to act while visiting.
One of the most impressive is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep ("wat" is Thai for temple). You absolutely can't miss taking the trip up to the temple grounds to admire the glittering gold tower and surrounding complex, legendary white elephants, meditation rooms, and other decorated shrines. You could easily spend an hour here (or more) looking at everything.
Getting Here: Hop into a songthaew (usually red trucks/taxis that can drive you places). You can almost always find them on Huay Kaew Road near the Zoo. Plan on paying about 40 baht per person each way. Find it here.
Entrance is 30 baht.
Plan on seeing this temple before or after a full/half day activity, or fit it into a day of site-seeing in Chiang Mai.
Want A Few More Temples To Visit?
While Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is probably the most famous in the city, there are many more to explore if you're in the mood — we have a little info about a few of the more popular options below:
Wat Umong Suan Phutthatham: This Buddhist temple has crumbling ruins and ancient tunnels. Find it here.
Wat Phra Singh Woramahawihan: Come explore ornate temples, ancient manuscripts, and detailed murals at this temple complex. Find it here.
Wat Pha Lat: You'll need to hike to this stunning temple. After your trek through the forest, you'll have the chance to admire a Buddhist temple and monastery tucked away in the trees. Find it here.
The Lantern Festival
If you time your visit right, you can take part in one of the most magical things ever (no exaggeration). The Lantern Festival happens in two different spots just outside of Chiang Mai, usually in the months of October - November, perfect for our Fall semesters.
You can get more details about the Thailand Lantern Festival here.
This is an evening activity, so you can easily fit in another adventure earlier in the day and make it to the fields where the lanterns are lit just after sunset (or a bit later).
Places To Stay
There are no shortages of places to stay in Chiang Mai. To help you narrow it down, we've included a little write up about the places past ILP groups have stayed in the past.
Thai Thai Hostel
Hang out in a common room decorated with Thai-carved wood in this hostel. We love the good location and the room set up (complete with a lamp and bedside power socket for charging your phone). This hostel also supplies lots of information about tours you can set up in Chiang Mai. Book here: Thai Thai Hostel.
One ILP volunteer had one word to say about her stay: "Excellent!". This hostel is decorated with artwork and crafts made by the owners themselves which lends this place some charm. Complete with a cool hang out area (plus a pool table) and helpful staff, dorm rooms at Monkey Toe are a steal.
The Hobnob Hostel
Here is what one group said about their stay: "Our group stayed at The Hobnob Hostel in Chiang Mai. It’s in the upper west part of the square and is really close to tons of cute cafes, shops, and night markets. The hostel itself is part of a cafe, everyone who works there is so sweet and fun to talk to! And they have really good burgers and brunch foods. We also discovered the coolest thrift store ever, it’s called Love70s, really close to the Hobnob Hostel." Book here.
Chiang Mai Gate Capsule Hostel
You'll find very helpful staff at the Chiang Mai Gate Capsule Hostel. Close to a couple of temples to explore and a variety of tours and excursions you can book with the hostel.
Eco Resort Chiang Mai
We've had a couple of groups stay here (one group went to Chiang Mai twice, and stayed here both times). They've got a great pool and jungle-type property that really adds to the experience. It's a little bit outside of the central part of the city but is still a fav. Book here.
Bed — Chiang Mai Gate
This place is a nicer hotel, so if you feel like splurging, try this one out. Situated near a few bucket list places you need to experience in Chiang Mai (like a top rated cooking school and a massage house) Bed has fabulous service, excellent food, and a gorgeous pool to hang out in. A double room is about $80 per night, adults only.
Places To Eat
We know you love Thai food, but Chiang Mai is also home to some cuisines you miss from home. We have our favorite restaurant recommendations here:
There is Mexican food in Chiang Mai. I repeat, there is Mexican food in Chiang Mai! The closest thing you'll find to Americanized Mexican food in all of Thailand, according to some volunteers, is at Salsa Kitchen. Order up quesadillas, enchiladas, burritos, and some vegetarian and vegan options too.
- Address: 26/4 Huaykaew Rd, Su Thep, Amphoe Mueang
Chiang Mai, Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50300, Thailand
- Hours: 11:00 AM to 10:00 PM
Here's what one volunteer said: "If you’re looking for some of the best pizza in Thailand, go to Dukes restaurant!!" It's an American restaurant and bar which serves burgers, pizza, sandwiches, and other foods you might be missing from home. Visit their website here.
- Address: They have a couple of locations, but we like this one:
49, 4-5 Chiang Mai-Lam Phun Rd, Tambon Chang Moi,
Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chang Wat
Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand
Hours: 10:30 AM – 10:30 PM
Mad Dog Pizza
Though you can order your favorite pizzas, this restaurant does serve other dishes like apple pie and ice cream, a full English breakfast, steak and potatoes, hot sandwiches, and a killer breakfast, for good prices.
19 1 Mun Mueang Rd, Tambon Phra Sing,
Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
- Hours: 8:00 AM to 12:00 AM
The Larder Cafe
You have got to order the French Toast at this restaurant. It's delicious, but so are loads of other options on their menu (like avocado and bacon sandwiches and smoothies).
- Address: 3/9 Sukkasem Rd
Suthep, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
- Hours: 8:30 AM to 3:30 PM
Our Favorite Day Trips + Nearby Vacation Spots
Chiang Mai's Grand Canyon — Day Trip
This place is a cool little spot outside of the city of Chiang Mai. Wondering how to spend your time in this "Grand Canyon"? you can lounge on bamboo rafts and catch some sun, take a dip in the clear waters, or rent an inner tube and float the afternoon away. There’s also a zip line you can do, and for any thrill seekers, you can take a jump off the canyon into the water. Slide down water slides, get some rock climbing in and play on the blow-up obstacle courses. Sometimes, there’s a huge inflatable “pillow” on the little lake you can jump on and launch your friends off of.
Come splash in Chiang Mai's Grand Canyon for a great day with your friends! We have all the details for your trip in this link.
Sticky Waterfall — Day Trip
Just outside of Chiang Mai is a pretty unique waterfall. The rock the water flows on is "sticky" — instead of smooth glossy stones, there are textured rocks that have enough grip that you can climb up them! That post has all the info you'll need to get there, and suggestions on what you should bring with you. It's a fun and unique little side adventure.
Get all the info about climbing this sticky waterfall here.
Pai — Nearby Vacation Spot
Pai is a spot most tourists miss. It's a cool, chill, hippie mountain village to the northwest of Chiang Mai. Come for a couple of days trekking in the mountains, exploring waterfalls, hopping from shops to darling cafes, and relaxing in our favorite hostel. The two cities are about 3 hours away from each other and make for a fun 3-4 day itinerary if you visit both.
Chiang Rai — Nearby Vacation Spot
You'll see your fill of Thai temples after a semester in this country, but the White Temple in nearby Chiang Rai is astonishingly unique! You'll also want to spend time admiring the clock tower, the Blue Temple, and more. We love adding this to your Chiang Mai itinerary. The two cities are about 3 hours away from each other and make for a fun 3-4 day itinerary if you visit both.
Get the details on visiting Chiang Rai here.
Getting To Chiang Mai
Luckily for everyone who would like to visit Chiang Mai, this Thai city is very well connected — it's a big spot for tourists, which makes getting here very easy. There are frequent flights from the capital city of Bangkok, as well as other connections. It works conveniently to use Bangkok or Phitsanulok as a jumping-off point (it's an easier weekend adventure if you're already in the north, which is why we love heading here from somewhere like Phitsanulok):
Get Here By Train
From Phitsanulok, you can snag a train (or sleeper train). Prices are anywhere from 300 to 900+ baht per person, each way. If you go the train route, alumni recommend booking second class or up for your own comfort (many agree it's not worth saving a few baht to go third class on this long of a journey).
It should take about 6-7 hours to get there, depending on the train you book. If you're trying to squeeze this into a weekend, we suggest taking a sleeper train so you can wake up and start exploring without using one of your days for travel.
Volunteers love booking on 12.go.asia.
Get Here By Bus
Bus is another popular option from Phitsanulok. Prices are typically in the 400 baht range for the 4–5 hour journey.
Volunteers love booking on 12.go.asia.
Get Here By Private Shuttle
Some ILP volunteers have preferred to contact their ILP Local Coordinator to help them arrange a private driver to bus them up to Chiang Mai. That way, you can split the price between whoever is going and can have more of a say on when you are going to leave.
+ Getting Around Chiang Mai
Most of the places you will be visiting are walkable, but you can always hire a tuk-tuk or a songthaew to take you places. When you're walking around the city, you'll find that they tend to pull over and offer if you need a ride somewhere. Around Chiang Mai, it should cost about 30 baht per person for a ride.
For excursions farther away or outside of the city, you'll likely be going with a tour that arranges hostel pickup and other transportation. Past ILP groups have liked booking a private shuttle which means you have a driver with you the entire weekend (and can easily arrange a side trip to somewhere nearby, like Chiang Rai or Pai).
What's this about volunteers living in Thailand?
Join us in Thailand next semester! ILP (International Language Programs) sends groups of college-age volunteers to countries around the world to teach English or help with other humanitarian missions. Spending a whole semester in Thailand means you're sure to hit all the best spots in this country.
We handle your flight, visa, housing, meals, and a few other perks — learn more about a typical day, program costs, and teaching English in Thailand with ILP: