How to get the most from a short stay in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai, the capital of Northern Thailand, is a great place to visit for all sorts of reasons. It’s cooler than Bangkok and the southern beaches, the people are friendlier, the food is better, the accommodation is much cheaper and there’s so much to see. But if you’re only going to be in Chiang Mai for a few days, here’s six great tours you should consider to get the most from your visit.

1. Flight of the Gibbon zipline adventure tour

Glide through the canopy along 18 ziplines via 33 platform stations deep in the lush rainforest, including three hanging sky bridges and two rappel descents.
Glide through the canopy along 18 ziplines via 33 platform stations deep in the lush rainforest, including three hanging sky bridges and two rappel descents.

This full day tour will get your legs and your adrenaline pumping! You’ll be up with the sunrise to be picked up at your hotel and join your group leaving Chiang Mai in a luxury van for about a one hour drive to the rainforest.

After some safety training and instruction from the experts, you’ll get to ride 16 different ziplines through the jungle at treetop height. This is an adventure activity but not a dangerous one as you’re strapped into a safety line at all times and there’s no fear of falling. In fact this tour is suitable for children aged 6 and older.

Then you’ll fly through the rainforest canopy for about 5 hours along about 3 miles (5 kilometers) of the longest ziplines in Asia, 18 in total, and at one point you’ll drop over 800 metres! It’s nothing short of breathtaking and your small group of no more than 9 people ensures you get complete guidance and attention.

As well as the zipline adventure you’ll enjoy nature walks up to the Mae Kampong waterfalls and you might even encounter wild gibbons along the way.

At the end of the day you’ll be dropped back to your Chiang Mai hotel exhausted but amazed at the day you’ve had. The tour can be booked online and prices start at just US$110 per person.

2. Elephant ride, river rafting and hilltribe village day tour

Enjoy an elephant trek through the jungle, past bamboo trees and creepers, to a remote Lisu hilltribe village
Enjoy an elephant trek through the jungle, past bamboo trees and creepers, to a remote Lisu hilltribe village

This is absolutely one of the most popular day tour combinations from Chiang Mai. You’ll be picked up from your Chiang Mai hotel and taken to Chiang Dao Elephant Camp on the banks of the Ping River, about 60 km north, where you’ll get to see these amazing creatures in a real-life elephant training camp.

You’ll get to take a ride through the jungle on the back of an elephant with a professional mahout (elephant trainer/handler) in charge, winding up through the trees to a Lisu minority hilltribe village where you’ll eat lunch with the locals and explore a Lisu craft market.

After lunch you’ll enjoy a relaxing ride down the Ping River in a bamboo raft through some more Karen and Paluang minority hilltribe villages and you might get the chance to also visit some Akha and Lahu minority hilltribe villages as well if time allows.

On the way back to Chiang Mai you’ll explore the amazing orchid farm at Mae Sa. The tour can be booked online and prices start at just US$103 per person.

3. Mae Ping River small group half-day tour

Tour Chiang Mai's most famous river in a long tail boat and enjoy lunch with local farmers
Tour Chiang Mai’s most famous river in a long tail boat and enjoy lunch with local farmers

The Mae Ping River is the main artery through Chiang Mai and much of the city’s bustling life takes place on or near the river. Although it’s just a half day tour, you’ll find this packs in a lot more than you might expect.

You’ll be picked up from your Chiang Mai hotel and taken first to Wat Chai Mongkol, one of the oldest buddhist monasteries in Chiang Mai (about 600 years old) and extensively used by Thai royalty. Your traditional Thai long-tail boat will take you down the majestic Mae Ping River through small villages and rice paddies to the home of a local Thai farmer where you’ll enjoy a traditional Thai khao soi lunch (delicious egg noodles with chicken or beef and pickled vegetables) and learn about the medicinal plants used by the Thai people for centuries.

After lunch you’ll get to wander through fruit orchards on the Chiang Mai Plain and learn about how the Thai people grow their local vegetables, herbs and medicinal plants. Then you’ll head back to Chiang Mai by songthaew (the Thai form of public taxi) to explore the amazing Wararot Day Markets where local Thai people go to get food, clothing and household goods at bargain prices. Don’t miss sampling the snack foods and sweets in the street stalls both outside and inside the market.

Then it’s off to the Ton Lam Yai flower markets in Chiang Mai to check out the amazing array of cut flowers before either exploring further on your own or heading back to your hotel. This 4-5 hour tour can be booked online and prices start at just US$65 per person! Amazing value.

4. Doi Suthep temple and White Meo hilltribe village half-day tour

Visit the famous mountain-top temple of Chiang Mai and visit a hilltribe village market
Visit the famous mountain-top temple of Chiang Mai and visit a hilltribe village market

Doi Suthep is the mountain that dominates the skyline of Chiang Mai and on top of the mountain is Wat Doi Suthep, one of the most popular and most visited temples in Northern Thailand. As if the grand scenery of the drive up the mountain was not enough, the majesty and beauty of the temple at the top makes Doi Suthep a “must see” attraction.

You’ll be picked up from your Chiang Mai hotel and have a relaxing drive up the mountain to Wat Phra Thad Doi Suthep, a vast Theravada Buddhist temple on the mountain top about 15 km from the city centre, said to have been originally built in the 14th century and still in active use today. The temple was only made accessible by road in 1935 and is said to contain a relic of the Lord Buddha.

The panoramic views from the mountain top down over the city of Chiang Mai on a clear day are awesome. There’s also plenty to see in the temple grounds and in the small markets surrounding the entrance to the temple complex.

After visiting the temple, you’ll travel another 18 km into the Doi Suthep Pui National Park to a White Meo hilltribe village – the most accessible minority village from Chiang Mai – where you can explore local craft markets, wander through the spectacularly landscaped village and interact with the locals as they go about their day.

This 4-hour tour with a well-versed local guide costs just US$35 per person and can be booked online.

5. Padong long-neck hilltribe village day tour including long-tail boat trip

Visit Baan Thong Luang hilltribe village and the Queen Sirikit Botanic Gardents
Visit Baan Thong Luang hilltribe village and the Queen Sirikit Botanic Gardents

There are a lot of hilltribe villages around Northern Thailand but the best ones to visit are located along the Thai-Burma border in the Padong district, about 200 km north of Chiang Mai. Getting to these villages on your own can be challenging but this full day tour will get you to genuine Karen and Akha hilltribe villages and includes a trip on the Mae Kok River in a long-tail boat.

You’ll be picked up from your Chiang Mai hotel and enjoy a leisurely 90 minute drive up the highway and through scenic villages to the Chiang Dao Caves, a network of over 100 caves extending some 10 km inside a mountain in Chiang Dao National Park (only 5 of the caves are open to visitors).

From the caves you’ll travel on to visit Palong and Lisu hilltribe villages and enjoy lunch with the local tribespeople. After lunch you’ll join a traditional long-tail boat for an exhilarating ride up the Mae Kok River to Baan Mai Mok Cham, a village of the Shan people (once famous as drug lords of the Golden Triangle). Then you’ll go on to a Karen village to see the long-neck people and an Ahka village.

You’ll get back to your Chiang Mai hotel around 6-6.3o PM in time for dinner. This 10 hour tour costs just US$90 per person and can be booked online.

6. Traditional Khantoke dinner and show

Enjoy a fabulous Thai dinner and watch a stunning culture show
Enjoy a fabulous Thai dinner and watch a stunning culture show

Although in most cases I’d be reluctant to recommend any tour with the words “dinner” and “show” in it, I can tell you from personal experience that the traditional Khantoke Dinner and Show in Chiang Mai is not to be missed. It is unlike anything else you’ll experience in Chiang Mai and probably anywhere else in Thailand too.

This is an evening activity so you’ll be picked up from your hotel in the late afternoon and driven to a nearby complex where you’ll be seated (usually on the floor with cushions, but you can ask to sit at tables further from the stage) and served an amazing array of different Thai food platters to share with your group.

The entertainment will begin almost immediately and includes performances of many Thai traditional dances including the Thai finger dance , the Thai sword dance, the enchanting Thai candle dance and the Ram Wong group dance. This entertainment used to be reserved for guests of the royal family only!

After dinner and the show you’ll be invited into a rear hall where you’ll enjoy intimate performances by members of various hilltribe communities including the Yao, Lahu, Meo, Lisu and Karen. Many of these performances are by children and they are very good.

You’ll be dropped back to your hotel around 10 pm. The tour price of less than US$25 per person ($40 per couple) includes your dinner and a local guide to explain what’s happening through the show. The tour can be booked online.

Footnote:

All these tours are operated by Viator, a major tour company with lots of experience in Thailand. They are provided through experienced local tour partners and the pricing is competitive with what you will find locally in Chiang Mai but you’ll be assured of getting a place on these tours on the days you want. Confirmation of bookings is instant and you can pay securely using your preferred credit card. Prices shown on this page are variable according to the season and subject to change, but the prices shown when you click the links are correct and current.