Chiang Mai, Thailand, is a feast for the senses and an exceptional choice for a family adventure. In fact, with so much to see, it can be overwhelming to choose the best things to do in Chiang Mai with your family, but fear not. Chiang Mai is a welcoming city practically designed for exploring, meandering, and discovering.
Situated along the Ping River in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is home to nearly one million people. The charming Thai culture, rich history, exotic flavors, bustling neighborhoods, and enchanting temples combine to create an ideal family destination.
Pro tip: Northern Thailand experiences a “burning season” every year which is caused by forest fires and burning crop fields. This smokey season usually begins around late February and lasts through April. If you can, avoid these months because the poor air quality can definitely cast a haze over your trip!
If you’re heading to Chiang Mai, here are five of the best family-friendly things to do that are sure to amaze and delight.
1. Explore Endless Temples
Undeniably one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai is dedicate some time to wander through a few, (or a dozen), of the over 300 ornate Buddhist temples. Steeped in history and intricately designed and decorated, these impressive spaces are sure to captivate every member of your traveling crew.
The Old City boasts many temples within walking distance of each other, so it’s easy to see a few in one outing. It’s also affordable and rewarding to venture out of the Old City to explore surrounding neighborhoods. Here are three distinctive temples that are particularly fun to visit with kids, all of which happen to be outside the Old City. Note that proper attire is required, and you will need to remove your shoes before entering a worship space.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Situated on Doi Suthep mountain, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is the “must see” temple in Chiang Mai and offers beautiful, sweeping views of the city on a clear day. We rode up the mountain in a songthaew taxi truck which took about 30 minutes. Alternatively you can hike up the mountain if you’re feeling adventurous!
One of northern Thailand’s most sacred temples, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep has extensive grounds featuring long, serpent-lined staircases, elephant statues, intricate murals, altars with overflowing offerings, a museum, rows of large bells, and the shiny golden spire which towers above it all. Plan to go early to avoid the crowds, and note there is a nominal entrance fee.
You can elect to take a guided tour of the temple, or you can explore it on your own. Leave some time at the end of your visit to peruse the market stalls just outside the temple grounds and grab a snack before heading back down the mountain into the city.
Wat Umong is a tranquil temple located west of the Old City just south of Chiang Mai University. The wooded grounds feature a small lake with fish, and you can buy fish food before walking out to a little island. (Watch out for the hungry pigeons who also patrol the area!) Throughout the property, wise quotes are displayed on the trees which make for fun family conversations.
But the most impressive feature of Wat Umong is the underground tunnels that include small meditation nooks and skylights. Kids will love exploring the tunnels and finding hidden alcoves with little statues or candles. And don’t forget to pick up a snack from one of the food carts on your way out. We scored a fresh beet juice for only 30 Baht!
Wat Ket Karam
On the east bank of the Ping River, the beautiful Wat Ket Karam has multiple worship spaces, impressive altars, and colorful gardens. There is also a small community museum filled with artifacts including old photographs, dishes, musical instruments, tools, and literature which offer a unique glimpse into Chiang Mai’s history.
This temple is a perfect spot to enjoy a picnic lunch before hopping over the river to a buzzing market.
2. Go from to market, to market
There aren’t many better ways to feel the pulse of a city, interact with locals, try regional foods, and haggle for a unique souvenir than by wandering through a bustling market. So as you’re looking for the best things to do with your kids, definitely plan to visit a few of Chiang Mai’s many sprawling markets.
The energetic atmosphere of a market is magnetic, and both kids and their grownups will marvel at the sights, sounds, and smells. Here are three Chiang Mai markets that shouldn’t be missed.
Sunday Night Market
The Sunday Night Market opens at 5 pm and stretches about one kilometer west from the Tha Phae Gate in the Old City along Rachadamnoen Road. Vendors and stalls spill onto several side streets, expanding the market and providing hours of entertainment, activity, and eats.
There’s not much you can’t find at this enormous, bustling, colorful market. From souvenirs and local crafts to clothes and shoes to snacks and street food, this market can delight your family for hours. This is where we scored matching elephant pants for each member of our family! For dinner we tried quail eggs, dim sum, Thai sausage, avocado rice, and coconut ice cream. But there are so many street food options that even the pickiest eater in your family is bound to find something delicious.
The Warorot Market is a daily, east side, multi-level market located near the Ping River. On the first floor there is a sprawling selection of produce, prepared foods, and packaged snacks. There are heaps (literally!) of inexpensive clothes and general merchandise on the top floors and small food courts in the basements.
Spanning two buildings and several side streets, this market is a memorable place to shop. Grab a sweet Thai tea, some spicy northern Thai sausage with rice, and a serving of mango sticky rice for a satisfying lunch on-the-go.
Visit Mueang Mai Market
Not far from the Warorot Market, the daily outdoor Mueang Mai Market specializes in fresh local produce and meat. This is a fantastic place to try local fruit and vegetables and stock up on mangosteen and jujube for breakfasts and snacks.
3. Hail a songthaew or a tuk tuk
So you may be wondering: how do you get to these temples and markets? What’s the best way to navigate the city? Embrace the local “taxis”! Upon arriving in Chiang Mai, you will notice the ubiquitous red trucks known as songthaews and the dozens of little tuk tuks zipping up and down the streets.
The songthaews work like shared taxis and are often quite cheap. Tuk tuks can be a bit more expensive, but they have limited seating and of course, the novelty. Our kids loved hopping in these fun and funky vehicles to traverse the city.
Before you ride, negotiate your rate with the driver, and shop around if the first driver you find is unwilling to haggle. Easy to hail and fun to ride, these vehicles offer reliable, affordable ways to get around Chiang Mai. Note that neither of these transportation methods are car seat friendly, so if you have a young child, you’ll need to decide for yourself what makes sense. When in
Rome Chiang Mai…?
4. Meet majestic Asian elephants
If you have an animal lover in your family, or you’re just looking for an unforgettable excursion outside the city’s limits, then consider a half-day or a full-day elephant encounter. This was one of the best things we did with our kids in Chiang Mai, and I’m confident it will be an experience your family will never forget.
There are at least a dozen ethical companies that offer elephant experiences around Chiang Mai. Most itineraries include round-trip transportation to an elephant preserve, lunch, and hours of interaction with the gentle giants. A dedicated tour guide will lead your small group through a day in the life of an Asian elephant, and activities can include feeding, bathing, and walking with the elephants.
Beware of any company that offers elephant riding, as there is much controversy surrounding the treatment of elephants for that practice. On our excursion we also made medicine balls for the elephants out of rice seed, tamarin, smashed banana, fiber, salt, and a cane sugar cube. It was truly a day we will never forget!
5. Spring for family foot massages
This might not be the first activity that comes to mind when planning a day in Chiang Mai for your family, but if you like to relax, please read on. After a long day of sightseeing, what better way to rest weary feet than with a Thai foot massage? It seems every street in Chiang Mai has a massage establishment or two that offer hour-long foot massages for about 250 Thai Baht or the equivalent of about $8 USD.
Our daughter Chloe came along for a couple foot massage experiences, and the therapists loved having her. We chatted with the therapists about their lives as they happily refilled Chloe’s little snack plate several times. It was a fun, affordable way to feel pampered!
My husband and I each enjoyed a foot massage solo, too. It’s a lovely, convenient way to add a little self care to your itinerary. Navigating a foreign city with your family can be exhilarating but also exhausting, so take turns with your partner heading out for a little pampering after the kids are in bed. Most shops are open late— enjoy!
Chiang Mai is an exciting, colorful city bursting with activity. Family-friendly and affordable, it’s a wonderful destination that families of all ages can enjoy. Hopefully this list of five best things to do will get your Chiang Mai planning off to a running start. Have you been to this enchanting city? What are the best things you like to do in Chiang Mai?