• Samantha Linnett

Chiang Mai Travel Guide

Updated: Aug 7, 2019

Chiang Mai was my favorite stop on my trip to Thailand. From street food to local markets, Buddhist temples to fun-loving elephants, here are some must-do activities for your Chiang Mai itinerary:

Wake up for a Sunrise Temple Tour

Sunrise at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Buddhist Temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Sunrise at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Yes, I said it, and I mean it! Get ready for a 5am hotel pickup and watch the sunrise over an immaculate golden temple. It’s so worth it!

This was potentially my favorite part of my entire trip to Thailand, even though I’m nothing close to a morning person. We booked this tour for Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the temple that sits atop a mountain in the city of Chiang Mai. We got there so early that hardly anyone else was at the temple. It was all quiet aside from the transfixing sound of the monks doing their morning chanting and prayers. Our tour guide was amazing - we learned so much about Buddhism and the history of Thailand, all while taking in the stunning gold and jewels that cover the temple. We couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful or enchanting way to explore this beauty.

For more details on this amazing tour, check out my in-depth post on it here!

Tip on Tipping!

A few of the activities listed here are tours, so you might be wondering: do I tip my tour guide in Thailand? If so, how much? Tipping is far less common on mainland Thailand than in the U.S. You do not have to tip your guide! Service charges are usually included in the tour price. But if you really loved your tour, you should absolutely give your guide a couple hundred Baht (which is still less than $10). It doesn’t just show your appreciation, they will also be incredibly surprised and grateful for it!

Play with Elephants at Kanta Elephant Sanctuary

Elephants at Kanta Elephant Sanctuary, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Elephants at Kanta Elephant Sanctuary

It’s a pretty common must-do to visit an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, and Chiang Mai is really the place to do it. We booked a half-day session at Kanta Elephant Sanctuary, just outside of the city. A van picked us up at our hotel at 8am and off we went to feed, play with, and feed again the happy and hungry elephants. While a little intimidating at first (even the youngest, at the age of 5, was really large), the elephants were all very sweet and playful!

If you do visit an elephant sanctuary, PLEASE make sure you are going to an ethical one. There are so many “sanctuaries” set up just for tourists where they treat the elephants terribly. For more info on Kanta and our experience, and how to do your research on ethical elephant sanctuaries, see my post here.

Shop at the Sunday Market

Sunday Market in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Sunday Market in Chiang Mai

Get ready to shop! We flew into Chiang Mai on a Sunday specifically to make it there for this market. The Sunday Market in HUGE. There are tents set up everywhere with sellers and artisans of homemade goods from paintings and bags and elephant pants, to traditional Thai cloth clothing and wood carved elephants and jewelry, all at incredibly affordable prices. Basically anything you could ever want to purchase as gifts for family and friends AND for yourself is there. So seriously, come to Chiang Mai with room in your bags. You will shop more than you anticipate to.

We spent a few hours walking through the market, shopping at the tents and little shops behind them, grabbing dinner from the street vendors, and stopping to see a traditional Thai dance performance happening in a park. We still didn’t get close to seeing the whole thing, so definitely budget at least a few hours for exploring!

Taste your way through a Street Food Tour

Kao Soi, a famous Chiang Mai Dish, at the street food market in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Kao Soi, a famous Chiang Mai Dish, at the street food market

Another thing Thailand is well known for: Street Food! And oh my goodness is it delicious. But it can be a little tough to navigate the street food scene if you aren’t familiar with Thai food or the Thai language. While most of the time you can just look and point at the item you want in the stall without fail, if you’re interested in learning more about what different dishes are and exactly what is in them, I highly recommend doing a street food tour!

We booked this one. What I loved about this tour was our guide didn’t just bring us around to try different dishes, but actually taught us how to order them and how to say common Thai phrases to indicate spice levels and other flavor preferences. We visited two different markets and ate at 7 or 8 different food stalls (maybe more?). Make sure you come hungry! Even with eating family style (sharing the dishes between the whole group), we were getting full before we even made it to the second market. All of the dishes, dinner and dessert, were absolutely delicious!

Must-Try Chiang Mai Dish:

Kao Soi! This curry noodle dish is famous in Chiang Mai! You can get it in other areas of Thailand, but it’s really just not the same. We had it twice while we were there: once at a little local restaurant nearish our hotel, and once on the street food tour.

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