Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai Holidays

A world away from those famous beaches is a city of sacred places, bejewelled Buddhas and jungle clad hills. Discover Thailand’s cultural epicentre on holidays to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.

Dawn breaks and a sea of monks swathed in orange and saffron robes make the journey to the bottom of Mount Suthep to collect their alms. Scooters whizz past gilded wats (temples), the smell of fresh laundry and burning incense wafts from back street houses and stall holders start stacking up dried spices, fresh green peppercorns and oversized melons. Outside the city, Chiang Mai holidays take you where the air is mountain fresh and the climate joyfully cooler, tracing a route of waterfalls, jungle, hill tribe villages and temples.

We’ve travelled to northern Thailand and can tell you about the most amazing spots for a refreshing Holidays to Chiang Mai are a captivating blend of Lanna and Burmese influences, of digital nomads building a burgeoning creative scene and of spiritual harmony in an ancient riverside city that prizes meditation, massage and complementary medicine.

There are the much-revered Thai cookery schools where you can whip up pad thai and coconut soup like a professional, legendary night markets selling handcrafted gifts and those lychee and lemongrass cocktails under a roof of white lanterns and chromatic paper parasols. You’ll find terraced rice fields in the tiny hamlets of mountains, a colourful spectacle of handmade umbrellas in the artisan village of Bor Sang and extraordinary settlements of Tibetan and Chinese hill tribes who welcome you into villages to learn about their culture.

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Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai Hotels

Our recommendations for the best places to stay in Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai

Kantary Hills, Chiang Mai

A serene, modern all-suite retreat on the outskirts of Chiang Mai.

Shangri-La Hotel, Chiang Mai

A luxurious and serene retreat in a super-central location in Chiang Mai.

The Riverie by Katathani

This river-hugged landmark is a fresh and contemporary hotel close to Chiang Rai’s centre.

U Chiang Mai

A luxurious and modern hotel within Chiang Mai’s ancient city walls.

Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort

A luxurious retreat with locally inspired style – from the architecture to furnishings – that fea...

137 Pillars House

This heritage-suffused retreat provides a luxurious home-from-home in one of Chiang Mai’s most ap...

Raya Heritage

This serene five-star all-suite hideaway within easy reach of Chiang Mai has an idyllic riverside...

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Chiang Mai Street Food

Northern Thailand’s distinctive food culture is a product of its history and geography, with influences from Laos, Burma and the Khmer Empire. On this gastronomic evening tour, you’ll learn all about its most typical dishes from someone who grew up eating them, and discover Chiang Mai’s laidback nighttime vibe at the same time. Your foodie experience will kick off with a starter at a small restaurant that specialises in the local Lanna cuisine, as it's called. Afterwards, you’ll continue on to the nearby night market - a hive of activity after dark - where stall after stall serves up irresistible street food and drinks of every kind. You’ll learn how each is made and, of course, sample more than a few. Rounding things off in style, the tour concludes with a nightcap at a hip riverside bar.

• Daily departures
• Operates year round
• Private experience

Good to know
The tour is not suitable for under 18s. Local beer is included, but there’s a surcharge for the optional craft-beer tasting.

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Chiang Mai’s Highlights in Half a Day

Thailand’s second city is an engaging place to spend a few days, and it’s not short on must-see sights either. On this half-day adventure, you’ll start in the hustle and bustle of Warorot, Chiang Mai’s oldest market. Inside the three-storey building, there are stalls selling a dizzying array of local foodstuffs, as well as clothing, beauty products and more, and the action spills out into the streets around it. From here, you’ll cross into the city’s moated old quarter for a complete change of tempo at Wat Phra Singh, known for the beautiful and intricate gilded facade of its main building. Next you’ll head to Wat Suan Dok, just beyond the city walls, with its garden of whitewashed tombs and golden pagoda. Finally, you’ll be driven up the winding road to the summit of Doi Suthep mountain to visit the ancient and venerated Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. On a clear day, you can see the 600-year-old gold-plated Chedi at its heart from miles away, and it’s even more impressive up close. Don’t miss the promenade at the rear of the temple: the view of the city from here is stunning.

• Daily departures
• Operates year round
• Private experience

Good to know
As the itinerary includes several temples, you’ll need to dress appropriately: long trousers, below-the-knee skirts and covered shoulders.

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Thai Cooking Class in Chiang Mai

It’s hard to think of a more long-lasting legacy of a trip to Thailand than being able to recreate some of its best-loved dishes back home. On this half-day cooking class, you’ll begin with a visit to the local produce market to learn about the key ingredients - from herbs and spices to vegetables and roots - and how to choose the best. From here, you’ll head into the kitchen where a professional chef will teach you how to prepare three classic Thai dishes, which you’ll enjoy for lunch.

• Daily departures
• Operates year round
• Group experience

Good to know
Suitable for children over 12. The cost includes private transfers to and from Chiang Mai, but the class itself is shared with other participants.

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Chiang Mai Old Town Walking Tour

Thailand’s second city is an engaging place to spend a few days, and it’s not short on must-see sights either. On this half-day adventure, you’ll take one of the distinctive red local taxis, or songthaew, to a laidback guesthouse by the main entrance to the moated old quarter. From here, a short walk will take you across the moat to Somphet, a typical small food market packed with stalls piled high with fruit, vegetables and more. Next, you’ll wander along atmospheric alleyways to Wat Chiang Man, Chiang Mai’s oldest temple. After a visit to the fascinating Folklife Museum, where you’ll learn something of the local Lanna culture, you’ll explore two more ornate temples: Wat Phan Tao and Wat Phra Singh. Finish with a taste of local street food for lunch before another songthaew whisks you back to your hotel.

• Daily departures
• Operates year round
• Private experience

Good to know
The tour is mainly on foot, so parents should ensure their children will be fine with walking or able to be carried if necessary. As the itinerary includes several temples, you’ll need to dress appropriately: long trousers, below-the-knee skirts and covered shoulders.

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Ethical Elephants Encounter - Morning

You’ll be collected from your hotel early and taken to ChangChill, an elephant sanctuary 90 minutes from Chiang Mai. On arrival, you’ll take an elephant walk, following a guide into the forest to watch the elephants grazing and socialising. You’ll learn more about ChangChill's four resident elephants and facts about Asian elephants. You’ll meet the mahouts and have the chance to ask questions about elephant conservation. You’ll pause for traditional Thai refreshments, watching the elephants bathing and playing in a mud pit. Then, you’ll head to a riverside Sala to help fill the elephant's feeding tubes with corn, sugar cane, grass, and bananas. During and after a lunch of delicious vegetarian Thai dishes, you’ll watch the elephants eating before you transfer back to your hotel.

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Ethical Elephants Experience - Full Day

Your day begins with an early morning collection from your hotel, heading to ChangChill, an elephant sanctuary around 90 minutes from Chiang Mai. On arrival, you’ll take an unforgettable elephant walk through the forest, led by an experienced guide. You will witness the majestic creatures grazing and interacting with one another. During the walk, you will learn more about the resident elephants at ChangChill and some interesting facts about Asian elephants. You'll take a break to enjoy some traditional Thai refreshments when you can continue to watch the elephants take a refreshing dip in a mud pit and play. Afterwards, you'll lend a hand in filling feeding tubes with a variety of elephant treats such as corn, sugar cane, grass, and bananas. Following a vegetarian Thai lunch, there'll be a traditional herb lesson which takes place in the sanctuary's own herb garden, and a 'cooking class' during which you will prepare the four elephant's supplements.

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Get to know Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai and those important practicalities when planning your perfect holiday.

Capital
TIME DIFFERENCE

GMT +7 hours

CURRENCY

Thai Bhat

FLYING TIME TO DESTINATION

Bangkok 11½ hours

RELIGION

The most common religion in Thailand is Buddhism

LANGUAGE

Thai; over 73 languages are spoken throughout Thailand

Where are Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai
In northern Thailand in a valley surrounded by mountains, Chang Mai is an ancient riverside city bordered by national parks and Burma (Myanmar) to the west. Chiang Rai is the northernmost city in Thailand and stands as the gateway to South-east Asia’s Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos and Burma (Myanmar) meet.

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Temples
With over 300 wats (temples) inside the city and surrounding countryside there’s plenty of beautiful architecture. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is the most famous of Chiang Mai’s temples and Wat Phra Singh, inside the old city, one of the most beautiful, featuring pretty pagodas and iconic Lanna-style roofs. Just outside Chiang Rai town, Wat Rong Khun has been built entirely in white, with pieces of glass in the plaster that glint in the sunlight. At some temples it’s possible to arrange Monk Chat for a one-on-one unique conversation.

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Hilltribes
Visit the ‘roof of Thailand,’ Doi Inthanon National Park and extraordinary hill tribes including the Long Neck Karen. Playing an important role in local economy, tribespeople like the Karen, Lahu and Akha raise funds for the reduction of opium cultivation by showcasing their exceptional embroidery skills, while Meo tribes provide visitors with fascinating tours around their villages for a true insight into hill tribe culture.

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Getting around
Although travelling around northern Thailand is best done by private car, more traditional modes of transport are cost effective, quick and exhilarating. Taxis are a rarity but rickshaw-style samlors, converted pickup truck songtaews and tuk-tuks are readily available. As with everywhere in Thailand, negotiate rates before travelling to avoid any surprise charges.

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Food & drink
The heady scent of lemongrass and ginger, grilled steak and oysters and spices… food in Chiang Mai is outstanding. Local specialities include fragrant but subtle dishes such as coconut and curry soup khao soi and northeast Thai barbecue chicken dish kai yang. We recommend trying Northern Thailand’s typical dishes, as they are notoriously hard to find outside the region. The street food scene is huge, but you’ll also find beautiful waterfall cafés, floating restaurants, Japanese riverside picnicking and al fresco dining overlooking the River Ping.

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