Chiang Mai Itinerary: An EPIC 3 Days in Chiang Mai [2020]

statue of baby Buddha at Wat Pha Lat, Chiang Mai, Thailand
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Looking for the perfect 3-day Chiang Mai itinerary?

If so, you’re in luck. Because after living in this charming town for over a month, I’ve figured out all the activities that are worth your time (and which ones you can skip).

That said, in a perfect world, you’d have more than 3 days in Chiang Mai…there’s a TON to see.

But if you’re on a tight schedule and don’t have any extra days to spare, here’s exactly how I’d plan out your time.

DAY 1 – Coffee, Temples, and Markets

To kick off your activity-packed day with energy, start off by experiencing Chiang Mai’s impressive coffee culture. There are many quirky cafes sprinkled in and around Chiang Mai, but if you’re looking for the best quality coffee, I’d recommend Akma Ahma Coffee (located in Santitham neighborhood, right next to Nimman). We actually rented an apartment above Akma Ahma for one month and woke up to the delightful coffee aromas every morning. (Side note: This is an awesome place to live as a digital nomad in Chiang Mai).

After you’ve got your coffee fix, it’s time for some temple hopping.

While there are LOADS of temples scattered around Chiang Mai, if you’re short on time, I recommend visiting Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang. At Wat Chedi Luang, you can even chat with the monks and ask them anything you want!

After visiting the temples, take quick nap to recharge your batteries, then head out for some night market madness.

After the crazy markets in Bangkok, Chiang Mai has some of my favorite markets. If you’re in Chiang Mai on the weekend, hit up the Walking Street Markets. You’ve also got the Night Bazaar going on every night of the week from 6-10:30pm.

weapons stall at Chiang Mai night bazaar
Need some weapons? You’ll find plenty at the Chiang Mai night markets!

If this is one of your first times to a market in Asia, you’ll be blown away at all the cool stuff you can buy. Just remember to practice your haggling skills before you go. Never accept the first price offered because it will almost ALWAYS be inflated. Instead, make a counteroffer at about 60% of the asking price.

And while you’re there, don’t forget to try the fried crickets and silkworms…they take just like chicken! (but with wiry legs that stick in your teeth)

fried crickets in Chiang Mai, Thailand

DAY 2 – Jungle Temple Hikes & Cooking Class

Hopefully you didn’t stay out too late at the market last night because today’s another big day.

Today you’re going to hike to two temples: Wat Pha Lat and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is the most impressive temple around Chiang Mai (but also the most crowded).

Wat Pha Lat, on the other hand, is quieter, older, and only accessible via a jungle hike.

To get to Wat Pha Lat, take a red truck or Grab to the trailhead (just type “Wat Pha Lat Hike” into Google Maps and it’ll bring you there). At the trailhead, there is a sign showing a bunch of smaller trail loops, some of which go to waterfalls. I would recommend just staying on the main trail.

Hiking through the jungle to Wat Pha Lat in Thailand - a great activity if for anyone with 3 days in Chiang Mai
Wat Pha Lat

Once you arrive in Wat Pha Lat, do some exploring before continuing up the path to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. We got a little lost at this point (there aren’t really any signs). Luckily, we had cell service and I found these handy directions online.

The hike from Wat Pha Lat to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is pretty hot and tiring and lasts 30-60 minutes depending on your fitness level. Make sure to plenty of water, skeeter spray, and appropriate temple attire!

(Note: If you only want to see the popular Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and don’t feel like hiking, you can grab a red truck right to the entrance. This will save you time, but it’s not as adventurous. Plus, the hike is a great way to get some exercise and justify all the food you’re about to eat!)

Gold temple and emerald statue at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

The nice thing about this hike is you only have to hike one way. Once you make it to Doi Suthep at the top, you can take a red truck back into town instead of hiking all the way back down. That way, you’ll have some time to rest before your next activity—Thai cooking class.

There are many Thai cooking classes in Chiang Mai, and I’m sure most of them are great. The one I personally took was Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School and really enjoyed it. You can also ask your accommodation for recommendations or check out reviews online.

taking a Thai cooking class - a must do for any Chiang Mai itinerary

If you’re less interested in cooking and more interested in tasting, you might want to opt for a food tour instead. I recommend this company. We did their street food tour in Bangkok and loved it!

DAY 3 – Elephant Sanctuary Day Trip

During my first trip backpacking in Thailand, I was young and naive and had no idea what ethical tourism was. I saw elephant tours plastered all over the place, assumed it was ok, and rode an elephant.

Now, I realize that was a mistake.

It turns out, while there are TONS of different elephant sanctuaries, most of them abuse the elephants and torture them into behaving.

Here’s a quick (and heartbreaking) video that shows what they do to the elephants to “break” them so they will allow humans to ride on their backs.

So, if you decide to do visit an elephant sanctuary, be VERY careful which one you choose. While it is cool to say you’ve ridden an elephant, any sanctuary or tour that offers these kinds of attractions do not treat their elephants well.

Here is a useful guide that’ll help you choose an ethical sanctuary.

ALTERNATIVE DAY 3 – Bungee Jumping & Muay Thai

I’m not gonna lie—the ethical sanctuaries are a bit expensive. If you’re on a tight budget (or, like me, you’re not completely convinced they are actually ethical), here’s another option for those who want to get an adrenaline fix.

Bungee jumping in Chiang Mai is a FREAKING rush. Something I guarantee you’ll never forget.

If you’ve never bungeed before, here’s a little tip: Book and pay for your trip a day or two ahead of time.

Why?

Well, when you book a bit in advance, you’ll be braver. Then, when the big bungee day comes and you’re pooping your pants, you’ll feel obligated to follow through with it since you already paid.

While this activity only takes a couple hours in total, after the adrenaline crash, I guarantee you’ll want to just nap and chill for the rest of the day. Which is probably a good idea anyway because this 3 days in Chiang Mai itinerary has been jam packed.

That said, if you’re feeling energized at night time and want even more action, head to a Muay Thai fight. To say these are entertaining would be an understatement!

Collage of photos showing a Muay Thai fight night in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Other Fun Things to Do in Chiang Mai

Maybe you have some extra free time.
Maybe you thought my other suggestions suck.
Or maybe you just had so much fun with this 3-day Chiang Mai itinerary that you decided to stay longer. 

Whatever your motives, here are some other fun things to do in Chiang Mai to fill your days.

#1.) Taste the Northern Thai Cuisine

girl eating Khao Soi in Chiang Mai, Thailand

While you’re traveling through Northern Thailand, you HAVE to try the local dishes while you’re there (as they’ll be much harder to find—and probably won’t taste as good—the further you travel south).

Whatever you do, don’t miss the Khao Soi. We found a delicious Khao Soi restaurant in the Nimman/Santitham neighborhood called Khao Soi Maisai. But if you’re basing yourself in a different part of town, there’s sure to be a good spot to try it nearby—just ask your hotel for the best place near you.

#2.) Try “Mystery Foods”

Speaking of food, one of my favorite things to do in Chiang Mai is to hit up a market (or even just walk down a normal street) and try whatever street foods I’ve never seen before. 

It’s a culinary adventure. You never know whether what you’re about to sink your teeth into will be sweet, salty, or both. Plus, you never know…you might find a new favorite Thai snack you never knew existed!

#3.) Hit Up the Maya Mall

Christmas lights outside Maya Mall in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Forget to pack something and can’t seem to find it at any of the markets? Maya mall has you covered. It’s located in the Nimman neighborhood and is Chiang Mai’s most impressive mall. Whether you forgot something at home or you need to stock up on supplies before heading down to the islands—you’re bound to find it at Maya. 

They also have a huge coworking space and cafe called C.A.M.P if you need to get work done.

#4.) Eat a “Face Pancake”

eating a personalixzed face pancake in Chiang Mai, Thailand

If you’re in the Nimman neighborhood, start to feel your tummy grumble, and are in the mood for something completely unique—then a custom face pancake might be right up your alley. 

If you wanna see what it’s like eating your own face, head to the AS Personalized Shop a few blocks south of Maya Mall. (It used to be located in Maya Mall, so some info on the internet is outdated. Just use Google Maps and you should make it there). 

Face pancakes are a tad expensive compared to other food options, but you’re paying for the experience here. First you choose a photo of your face, then upload it to their 3d pancake printer, then watch as the guy creates it for you!

#5.) Get a Massage

You can’t travel to Thailand and not get a Thai massage. You just can’t.

If you’re pooped from adventurous activities and need a recharge day, you can find massage parlors on pretty much every street corner.

That said, not all Thai massages are created equal. On Christmas, we treated ourselves to a massage at Arisara on Nimmanhaemin Road (3 minute walk from Maya)—it was splendid!

#6.) Visit Pai or Chiang Rai

The white temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand - an awesome extra stop to add to your itinerary for Chiang Mai

If you have a couple days to spare, the towns of Pai and Chiang Rai are both 3 hours from Chiang Mai and are 100% worth visiting. 

Pai is a stunning little town with a hippy vibe. Chiang Rai has my favorite three temples in all of Thailand (The White Temple, Blue Temple, and Black House).

That said, whatever you do—DO NOT RENT A SCOOTER TO DO THIS TRIP FROM CHIANG MAI

I wanted to be cool and ride from Chiang Mai to Pai….and I ended up with a shattered wrist, multiple surgeries in Bangkok, and a year of recovery (and missing out on fun travel activities). 

Not worth it. Scooters in Thailand are dangerous. Just take the dang bus.

x-ray of broken wrist after motorcycle accident riding from Chiang Mai to Pai in Thailand
Sometimes in life, a fun activity can outweigh the risk. Riding a motorbike from Chiang Mai to Pai is not one of those times.

#7.) Cool Off at the Grand Canyon Waterpark

In Chiang Mai, it can get HOT. If you wanna escape the heat, one fun option is to take a trip to the Grand Canyon Waterpark 25 minutes outside the city. 

The “Grand Canyon” (i.e. a flooded quarry) used to be a place locals went for cliff jumping. But over the past several years, it has transformed into a full blown waterpark with water slides, wakeboarding, zip-lining, and more.

The entrance ticket is a bit pricey compared to Chiang Mai standards (currently 650 baht), but it’s a refreshing and unique experience that’ll keep you occupied all day.

The Best Time to Visit Chiang Mai

WARNING: If you visit Chiang Mai at the wrong time of year, you will be severely disappointed.

This is because for 2-3 months out of the year (roughly February through April), it is smoky season—when all the farmers in the area burn their crops and pollution levels skyrocket dangerously high.

These months should be avoided at all costs unless you want to annihiliate your lungs. Most travelers staying in Chiang Mai head to Southern Thailand during these months to escape the smoke and get their beach fix in.

That said, there is one exception. At the tail end of smoky season, Chiang Mai holds its famous Songkran water festival to celebrate the Thai New Year. If you’re in Thailand during mid-April, this is a can’t-miss activity.

Other than smoky season, here’s the rest of the lowdown on when to visit Chiang Mai:

  • November to February is high-season. The weather is nicest during this time, but it’s also the busiest and most expensive time of year.
  • February to April is smokey season. Avoid at all costs.
  • March to June is hot season. Prices will be cheaper, but temperatures can reach 40℃ (104℉).
  • July to October is rainy season. It’s not the worst time to visit, but bring a poncho!
man wearing poncho - what it looks like when you plan your chiang mai itinerary during rainy season

Planning Your Trip to Chiang Mai

Finding Cheap Flights to Chiang Mai: I always use Google Flights 2-month view to find the cheapest day to fly, then I plug that date into Skyscanner to find the cheapest prices.

Finding Awesome Accomodation in Chiang Mai: My go-to sites for finding the best prices on cool places to stay are Booking.com and Airbnb (click here for a free accommodation credit). For longer stays, you’re cheapest bet is to walk around to different apartments and asking in person after you arrive.

Getting around Chiang Mai: You’ve got LOTS of options for transport in Chiang Mai. The most convenient is ordering a car or moto using the Grab app (like Uber). You can also…
– Hop on the red trucks (AKA songthaews)
– Take a tuk-tuk (expensive)
– Rent your own motorbike (cheap, but dangerous – I took a spill, shattered my wrist into a bazillion pieces, and am still recovering)

For day trips to towns around Chiang Mai, by far the most convenient option is to buy bus tickets online at 12go.asia.

Staying Safe in Chiang Mai: Whether traveling to Chiang Mai or anywhere else in the world, DON’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT TRAVEL INSURANCE. Seriously guys! I’ve saved over $15,000 in medical expenses by buying Safeywing insurance (and coverage costs less than 40 bucks a month!).

How to Get to Chiang Mai?

Most people either travel to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, or they fly in directly to Chiang Mai’s international airport.

To get from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, you’ve got several options:

#1.) Plane – This is obviously the fastest option, and if you don’t have a checked bag, it won’t cost you much more than the long bus ride.

#2.) Bus – I’ve taken the 10-hour night bus between Chiang Mai an Bangkok several times and it’s not bad at all. I always buy my tickets in advance on 12go.asia and choose whichever bus company has the best reviews.

#3.) Train – This is the most unique option, but to get a good seat, you have to reserve way in advance (you can do this on 12go.asia as well).

Powered by 12Go Asia system

3 Days in Chiang Mai Itinerary Recap

And there you have it! An EPIC 3 days in Chiang Mai.

In case you’re a skimmer, here’s the recap:

Chiang Mai 3-Day Itinerary
Day 1: Coffee, Temples, and Markets
Day 2: Jungle Temple Hikes and Cooking Class
Day 3: Elephant Sanctuary Day Trip
Day 3 (Alternative): Bungee Jumping and Muai Thai

Other Fun Things to Do in Chiang Mai:
#1.) Taste Northern Thai cuisine
#2.) Try “mystery foods”
#3.) Hit up the Maya Mall
#4.) Eat a “face pancake”
#5.) Treat yourself to a massage
#6.) Visit Pai and Chiang Rai
#7.) Cool off at the Grand Canyon Waterpark

If you have any questions about Chiang Mai or Thailand, feel free to leave them in the comments below and I’ll see if I can help!

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Wat Doi Suthep temple in Thailand with text overlay 3-day Chiang Mai itinerary

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