How to Explore Chiang Mai in 3 Days: Popular Spots + Hidden Gems

Bharath-Mohan

After my tour from Bangkok to Phuket, I flew up to Chiang Mai by myself for 3 days. This post is an itinerary of what I saw, experienced, and loved from the trip!

This post covers a lot in 3 days, here’s the TL;DR version of what I definitely recommend doing while you’re in Chiang Mai:

Day 0.5: Settle in, explore the Old City, and hit the town!

Day 1: Book a (preferably private) tour that takes you up into Suthep mountain to see temples, waterfalls, a hill tribe village, and more.

Day 2: Visit an elephant sanctuary to feed, walk with, and bathe the elephants.

Day 3: Make your way to the Wat Umong cavern temples, and then walk to the Baan Kang Wat artist’s village. Catch the sunset at Wat Phan Tao to see a golden stupa in all its glory.

Nightlife: Head to Stamps Backpackers Hostel to make new friends, get cheap drinks at their hostel bar, and find something to do every night in Chiang Mai.

Okay – if this all sounds AWESOME, then read on to get more details on each experience and find out how you can add it to your next Chiang Mai itinerary!

Day 0.5

This itinerary actually starts with a “settle-in evening”, since I arrived in Chiang Mai around 4pm and would be leaving at 11pm on my 3rd full day. When visiting Chiang Mai, I loved staying in the Old City. It’s very walkable, quaint, and you’ll find cute little shops down nearly every street. On this first (half) day of your Chiang Mai trip, you should give yourself time to simply walk around, explore, and see what catches your interest.

If you’ve chosen to stay in the Old City (good choice!), I recommend booking a room at guesthouse or hostel – more on the hostel later. I chose to stay at Sleep Guesthouse because it’s affordable and located in a great spot in the old city. Plus, I definitely needed my own space after having a roommate for two straight weeks on the Bangkok to Phuket tour. 

Sleep Guesthouse is owned by a sweet Dutch-Thai couple named John and Jaae, and they truly made my stay comfortable and memorable. Not only were they always happy to help with any recommendations or guidance that I needed, but the free breakfast every day was also a great perk! If you’re looking for relaxation and great proximity to other attractions, this is the place for you.

Now, if you’re looking for social, here’s where you should go: Stamps Backpackers Hostel.

Stamps Backpackers Hostel exterior, across from Old City, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Stamps is a hostel that I quite literally stumbled upon as I was doing the aforementioned exploring. I actually walked about 5 minutes down the road from Sleep in order to check out a guesthouse that I had booked a tour with the next day (more on that later).

As I walked past Stamps, I saw that it had an open entrance (no doors) and there was a group of young people lounging on couches and chatting. I instantly knew I couldn’t go back to my guesthouse without learning more about this place! So, I went up to the bar and asked if Stamps did any group outings, and if “outsiders” could join. Happily, the answer was a resounding yes! That night, they were having their daily happy hour followed by a full night out, so I planned to come back to meet some of the guests.

Long story short: this hostel ended up being my second home in Chiang Mai – and it could be yours too! From going out with this group on my first night to saying my goodbyes that Friday before heading to the airport, my Chiang Mai adventure truly started with happening upon Stamps Backpackers Hostel. Prime example: making impromptu elephant sanctuary plans with new friends…the night before we planned to go. Hello, spontaneity!

Nighttime Activities

Before heading back to Stamps later that night, I needed some food in my stomach. Oddly enough, there weren’t any Thai places along the street in front of Sleep. So, I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I had pizza at By Hand Pizza Cafe across the street. I know, so tourist-y of me!

On the plus side: the pizza was great, and the menu is pretty customizable. Take a look at what I ordered:

Delicious pizza pie at By Hand Pizza Cafe in Old City, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Garlic, pesto, olives, mushrooms, and plenty of cheese…yum!

After filling up on pizza, it was time to head over to Stamps to socialize and start the night. We ended up going to three different places: North Gate jazz co-op, Fat Elvis karaoke bar, and nightclub called Spicy.

The co-op was pretty cool, but crowded…so it was hard to fully enjoy the bands that were playing since we were all standing on the sidewalk and part of the street. Fat Elvis was a lot of fun, because alcohol + karaoke is always a great idea – right? I didn’t sing much that night, but we had quite a few performers in our group! The last stop, Spicy, was my favorite because of the big dance floor and great music.

Overall, this is a great way to spend your first night in Chiang Mai if you want a mix of relaxation and socializing! Just do better than I did, and have some authentic Thai food for dinner instead.

Day 1

On your first full day in Thailand, I recommend doing a (private) tour of nearby Suthep mountain! This will allow you to see more of the city, while also experiencing temples, nature, and local food and culture. I booked a private tour with a guide named Sakorn from Funky Monkey Guesthouse, and it turned out to be a fantastic decision!

The tour started at 9am that morning, so I had time to grab breakfast at my guesthouse before Sakorn picked me up in an air-conditioned truck. Since I could talk forever about all the different activities that we did, here are the highlights:

Hike at Wang Bua Ban Waterfall

Starting the morning with a hike sounded slightly daunting since I may or may not have had a bucket the night before while I was at Fat Elvis. Those darn buckets! However, it wasn’t too intensive – so you can definitely go on the hike even if you aren’t very active. Our walk through the forest led to a freshwater stream and small waterfall, complete with very slipper rocks. Tread carefully! On this particular tour, you have the option to swim in a small pool among the rocks. I forgot to pack a bathing suit, so I just dipped my toe in. The cool water was a great contrast compared to the hot day.

Viewpoints and Local Food Tasting

Besides the great views, Sakorn also gave me a chance to try quite a few new foods. He was even kind enough to pay for a few of the more unfamiliar dishes, which I really appreciated.

First up was a sweet treat that consisted of sticky rice and black beans rolled up in bamboo and grilled. It was so good, I ended up buying a second one! After I finished that, a bottle of avocado milk. It was quite rich, but pretty enjoyable. A second food item that Sakorn suggested I try wasn’t that foreign by itself, but rather in the way it was eaten: a hard-boiled (or grilled?) egg, but with soy sauce! I love most salty foods, so the soy sauce was actually a perfect pairing for the egg in my opinion. Lastly, I ordered some fresh egg & veggie fried rice when we visited a strawberry farm in the hill tribe village (more on that later). We finished the meal with a crunchy, melon-type fruit. I still don’t know what it’s called in English, but it was very refreshing.

See below for pictures of the viewpoints and the sticky rice wrapped in bamboo!

Temples: Wat Pha Lat and Wat Doi Suthep

During this day trip, Sakorn took me to two different temples: Wat Pha Lat and Wat Doi Suthep. Pha Lat is probably less known than Doi Suthep, but both are beautiful in different ways.

Pha Lat is located in the forest, and the buildings are intermingled with winding paths, stone work, and greenery. Sakorn and I meditated here for a bit before walking around the grounds to take in the scenery.

Meanwhile, Doi Suthep is located on top of Suthep mountain, and is pretty grand. It’s the palace that you probably see the most when people talk about Chiang Mai, and it’s worth a visit! However, I would recommend avoiding a midday visit. It’s absolutely packed at that time, which is no fun. Also, don’t forget to wear or pack modest clothing, as the same temple rules apply here.

Coffee plantation and Hill Tribe Village

The last two stops on our tour were a coffee plantation and a hill tribe village. Sakorn was very knowledgeable about the coffee plantation, and showed me the beans in different stages of processing. We sat for a cup of coffee (tea for me because of a sore throat) before setting off for the hill tribe village.

Although I’ve heard mixed reviews about visiting hill tribe villages – specifically “long-neck villages” – I didn’t find our experience to be very intrusive to the local culture. Rather, Sakorn and I quietly walked along the grounds, stopping to peek in a handmade-clothing shop and briefly visiting the local school. It was so interesting to see how even a school in a relatively secluded village taught English to its students! I was really impressed, and reminded again of the privilege it is to have English as my native language. I don’t think we appreciate this privilege enough during our travels, because it can be taken for granted.

As I mentioned earlier, the hill tribe village is where I had one of the best fried rices ever. After our meal, it was time to head back to Chiang Mai.

Nighttime Activities

As you can imagine, it was a long day! By the time we got back to Sleep Guesthouse, the sun was beginning to set. For dinner that night, I was determined to get proper Thai food. Jaae suggested a nice place that was about 2 minutes down the street, called The House by Ginger. I lucked out here, because I had a delicious and savory vegetarian Tom Kha Gai soup. Word of caution though, if you don’t like spice: be sure to request the soup without the chilis, because they’re included automatically and definitely pack a punch!

That night, Stamps had planned an outing to a cabaret show at Ram Bar. Let me just say, these performers knew how to put on a show! There was a variety of song choices, from American classics to KPop bops, and it even seemed like they incorporated some traditional Thai music and costumes into the show. I highly recommend seeing a cabaret show while you’re in Chiang Mai! This one was technically free entry – you just have to buy at least one drink. Honestly, it’s a fair tradeoff.

I called it a night pretty early, because I wasn’t in a Spicy mood (pun intended?) and wanted to make sure I had energy for the elephant sanctuary the next day.D

Day 2

Elephant Sanctuary

On your second day, be sure to book a tour at an elephant sanctuary! Note: sanctuary. Going to a sanctuary is the only way to ensure that you are not contributing to elephant cruelty, and even then you need to vet the sanctuary and double-check reviews. If you want to have a humane elephant experience, here are a few keywords that you should avoid when searching for a tour: riding, trekking, painting, show. Next week I’ll be talking more about the dark side of the elephant tourism industry, and highlighting why sanctuaries are such rewarding experiences!

READ MORE: My Experience with Elephant Sanctuaries

That said, I’ll just give some high-level details of our elephant experience. I chose to book a tour with Chiang Mai Mountain Sanctuary, per the suggestion of a Stamps guest the night before. The main reason for choosing them was the presence of an adorable baby elephant named Jacky Chan. I was determined to see a baby elephant before leaving Thailand, and this was the perfect opportunity.

The one hiccup that occurred during this tour was the fact that our group of 3 was reduced to 2 last-minute, since the 3rd person had apparently broken his ankle the night before and needed to go to the hospital that morning. I won’t get into how this affected the logistics of our experience, but I will stress this point: try and make sure your group number doesn’t change last-minute.

Overall, it was still an amazing day with the elephants! I’ll get into more detail on this experience next week – as well as the one in Phuket – but here’s an overview of what you can expect during a day at a sanctuary:

  • Feeding the elephants – they love bananas and sugar cane
  • Going on a short walk with the elephants
  • Joining the elephants for a mud bath (if you choose – beware of poop)
  • Washing the elephants (and yourself!) in the river
Laughing while feeding a baby elephant during an elephant sanctuary tour in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Nighttime Activities

This was actually my last full night in Chiang Mai, as my flight was leaving super-late the following night.

For dinner, I actually decided to just have my leftover pizza from Day 0.5, because we got back from the elephant tour around 7pm and I wanted to head over to Stamps by 8:30 to enjoy one last happy hour.

The plan that night was Fat Elvis Karaoke again – but this time, we stayed much longer! Also, despite having a semi-lost voice and a cold, I ended up singing/rapping quite a few songs…which was much easier to do after having a passionfruit mojito bucket. Overall, nearly everyone in our group sang at least once, and we had an absolute blast before the bar shut down at 12am. After that, it was off to Spicy again for one more night of dancing!

Day 3

On your last day in Chiang Mai, don’t miss seeing the cavern temple (Wat Umong) and the artists’ village (Baan Kang Wat)! I happened to check out of my guesthouse that morning, and John and Jaae were kind enough to lock up my bag while I set off for Wat Umong in the early afternoon.

Before leaving the Old City for the day, I grabbed a fresh smoothie from Khun Kae’s Juice bar, located directly across from Sleep Guesthouse. They have a literal booklet of great smoothie choices, but I chose to get one that focused on “immunity”. With this cold that hit me full-force, I needed all the help that I could get!

Delicious immunity smoothie on table. Located at Khun Kae Juice Bar in Chiang Mai, Thailand

After enjoying my smoothie, I called a Grab car to take me to Wat Umong. For reference: Grab is the more prevalent version of Uber/Lyft in southeast Asia.

Wat Umong

Wat Umong was not only very peaceful to walk around, due to its slightly secluded location; but it was really unique as well. Thus far, I hadn’t experienced at temples that had shrines located in caverns – and yet, there they were! This is a must-visit in my opinion, simply to get a different temple experience.

After you explore inside all of the caverns, be sure to head to the back of the cave (on the righthand side) and go up the stairs outside. It will lead up to the top of the temples. offering a large green space and overlooking the rest of the temple grounds.

Freeative Art Space

Following the Wat Umong visit, I ultimately, I decided that it was a nice enough day to walk to Baan Kang Wat. This ended up being a great decision, because it led me to encountering Freeative Art Space.

This art space is tucked off the main road, so it really feels like a different world. It was nearly silent, minus the occasional conversation between shop owners and the slow trickle of a water fixture outside a jewelry shop.

Sign for and entrance to Freeative Art Space on the walk to Baan Kang Wat in Chiang Mai, Thailand

While here, I decided to try a vegetarian meal at the food shop in the art space. The owner was very kind, and he was the owner of the sweetest lovebird ever: Mikeen! I’ve never really interacted with birds before, so I was hesitant when he let her out of the cage and she hopped onto my arm. I was even more hesitant when she looked up at me, chirped, and then suddenly flew up to my shoulder! But, I needn’t have worried: Mikeen apparently loves selfies, and simply wanted to kiss my cheek while I took photos (and videos) with her. Such a sweetie!

Selfie of me and a really cute lovebird named Mikeen at Freeative Art Space in Chiang Mai, Thailand

On top of this pleasant interaction, the food was freshly made and delicious and I was given a dessert sample as a surprise at the end of my meal. The owner went above and beyond to make my experience special, and I really appreciated it! I sadly did not catch the name of the store, but it is a small, open-front shop on the left side, next to a jewelry shop.

This just goes to show that venturing off of the typical path can result in wonderful things. Be sure to stop by Freeative Art Space if you’re heading to Baan Kang Wat!

Baan Kang Wat

Baan Kang Wat is an artists village set up with a ton of shops that sell nearly anything you could imagine. Fine jewelry, intricate paintings, wood carvings, vintage books and notebooks – there are plenty of options! I had limited room left in my travel backpack, so I only ended up purchasing a gorgeous pair of earrings by a husband-wife team called TODESIRE and a set of mango wood coasters for my parents.

Photo of jewelry sold by high-end vendor at Baan Kang Wat artists village in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

I couldn’t stay very long unfortunately, because I needed to make it back to Chiang Mai before sunset in order to visit another temple. But, when you visit Baan Kang Wat, give yourself plenty of time to explore all of the various artisan shops, and grab some food from one of the many stalls scattered around the collective.

Check out the gallery below to see more of Baan Kang Wat!

Last Evening in Chiang Mai

For your last evening in Chiang Mai, try stopping by Wat Phan Tao to watch the sunset. Like Wat Doi Suthep, Wat Phan Tao has a beautiful gold stupa. But, it also has a bunch of lights strung around the property, as well as line of bells that visitors can ring as they walk through. The pink soft glow of the sunset made everything look pretty magical, so you can get some pretty gorgeous photos if you time it right! I certainly didn’t regret going!

After this full day, it was time to settle down for one last meal in Chiang Mai. I was on a hunt for something warm and soothing, but also authentically Thai.

During my walk back to the guesthouse to collect my bags, I came upon a peaceful-looking restaurant and guesthouse called Bodhi Tree Cafe. I had actually seen this restaurant many times during my walks through the Old City, but hadn’t stopped by until this point. The interior is quaint, with floor cushions and low tables instead of the usual chairs and table setup that you’d see in a regular restaurant.

I ordered a delicious (and very soothing) noodle soup with veggies, sipped some hot tea, and finished off with – shocker – mango sticky rice! Honestly, it was the perfect way to end my time in Chiang Mai and I thoroughly enjoyed this final meal. If you want a calming way to say goodbye to the city, Bodhi Tree Cafe will be the perfect spot for you!

The night wrapped up with me grabbing my stuff and heading over to Stamps again to say goodbye to my newfound hostel friends. Afterward, I called another Grab car to take me to the airport around 8:30pm. The airport isn’t too far away, but you never know how long that immigration line is going to be.

~

As you can tell, there is plenty to see and do in Chiang Mai! If you found this post helpful, please feel free to pin it using the image below!

A 3-day itinerary for Chiang Mai, Thailand. After my tour from Bangkok to Phuket, I flew up to Chiang Mai by myself for 3 days. This post is an itinerary of what I saw, experienced, and loved from the trip!

So, what’s the first activity that you’d want to do when you visit Chiang Mai?

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