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Between chatting with monks and getting a tattoo, to learning salsa and even scoring a free yoga class, there’s something for everyone on this list.
I first wrote this post in 2013 and since then, many of the experiences and places I originally included are no longer available or open. Others have been inundated with tourists over the years (the number of visitors coming to Chiang Mai is much higher than when I first moved here!) and have started charging fees, while others are still free but now strained by people taking advantage of them without providing any sort of support or donation in return. All of these I’ve removed from the listed and updated with new experiences now available.
While many of the things below are free to experience, it’s simply good manners to make a donation, buy a drink or lend a hand when appropriate.
1. See the monks in the morning – The only cost for this is getting your bum out of bed. Each morning beginning around 6:30 am monks will walk the streets collecting their morning alms and food for the day.
2. Listen to jazz – On the north side of the Old City Northgate Jazz Co-Op. The bar opens up on to the street and on busy nights people will be standing in the road and sitting on the lawn across the street to listen to the tunes. No cover and no need to buy a drink.
3. Stroll street markets on Saturdays and Sundays – Every weekend, central streets of the Old City are closed to traffic and become full to bursting with pop-up shops, street food vendors and eager crowds. Locations and details can be found in my Chiang Mai Market Guide Part 1.
4. Head to Huay Tung Tao – Spend an afternoon lounging by the lake just outside of town, only 50 baht to get in.
5. Eat at the Vegetarian Society – Though not 100% free, the Vegetarian Society lets you serve yourself up some veggie dishes and pay using the honor system with suggested small donations. (We’re talking 15 baht for rice and three sides!) Heading away from Central Airport Plaza on Bunrueang Road look for a green sign on your left.
6. Walk up to Doi Suthep – Every year in May thousands of people make a pilgrimage starting at the front gate of Chiang Mai University on Huay Kaew Road and going all the way up the mountain to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple (with free food and drinks along the way!).
7. Visit some waterfalls – There are a lot of them. While some have minor entrance fees others, like the ‘sticky’ waterfall heading toward Phrao, are free.
8. Work out with the Thai ladies – It doesn’t get much more local than this. In the evenings at certain points around town (the park, Tha Pae Gate, often Tesco parking lots for some reason…) there will be group aerobics complete with obnoxious music and sweatbands.
9. Go on a meditation retreat – Yes, sitting silently by yourself for hours on end is free! One of the closest meditation centers is at Wat Umong near the mountain on the west side of town. It’s free to stay as long as you like (including a room and food), but you should make a donation.
10. Get a mini-meditation crash course – Don’t have time for a full retreat? For a taste, head to Hidden House Yoga in the Old City for Mindfulness Meditation from 9:00 am – 9:45 am on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Though technically free, there is a suggested donation and it’s smart to check the class schedule online before you go to make sure times haven’t changed
11. Enjoy a Cat Nap – Curl up and take a nap if you’d like, but the monthly craft market by this name might be a bit more fun. Held on the first weekend of each month on Nimmanhaemin Soi 1 (bordering the trendy new One Nimman shopping area), you’ll find handicrafts and handmade items which are definitely more hip than traditional.
12. Practice yoga – Free yoga classes are held everyday in Suan Buak Had park at 9:00am. Check out this Facebook Group before you go to make sure the time or location hasn’t changed or to volunteer to teach a class yourself.
13. Try to win at trivia night – The U.N. Irish Bar on Rathvithi Road holds a Trivia Night every Thursday starting at 8:30 p.m. While there’s a small fee to play, split between your group members it’s really nothing.
14. Wander through the Flower Festival – Every year, the inner moat road wrapping around the southwest corner turns into an impressive display of elaborate floats decorated only with flowers and plants the first weekend in February.
15. Go on a temple tour – There are more than 80 temples within Chiang Mai’s city limits and almost all, except Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh are free of charge.
16. Go back to college – Chiang Mai is home to several universities, colleges and vocational schools. By far the largest, Chiang Mai University on the west side of town has a leafy campus complete with a reservoir and view of the mountain – perfect for strolling and getting in some greenery. After wandering through campus check out the nearby trendy Nimmanhaemin neighborhood.
17. Sing at open mic night – You’ll find a couple of these around town, but Boy Blues Bar hosts one of the most popular on Monday nights. It’s a great place to mix with expats and those staying town for a while.
18. Visit the park – Relax in Nong Buak Haad park located within the moat on the south side of the southwest corner…that is, until the aerobics group starts up.
19. Do the Samoeng Loop – Rent a bike and take a leisurely drive along the Samoeng Loop. For directions check out this post.
20. Get bitten by mosquitoes – This one is guaranteed to happen absolutely free! Enjoy!
21. Experience a Buddhist holiday – There are several important Buddhist holidays throughout the year where temples will organize festivals and ceremonies. In Chiang Mai larger events are usually held at Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh, both close to the center of the Old City. Many of the holidays are based on the lunar calendar and don’t fall on the same day each year.
22. Learn another language – The Free Language Exchange Chiang Mai group organizes regular weekly meet-ups open to all to go practice speaking different languages. The changes are usually Wednesdays and Saturdays from 7:00 pm – 10:00 pm but make sure to double check the Facebook Group and find the current location before you go.
23. Visit Mon Cham – On your way to Samoeng make a quick detour stopping at Mon Cham, a garden/viewpoint/resort/restaurant that’s part of the Royal Project agricultural program, with nearly 360-degree views overlooking the surrounding valleys. There’s no fee to enter or wander the grounds.
24. Monk Chat – Several temples around town, including Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Srisuphan, offer daily and weekly ‘monk chats’ where you can go talk to a monk about pretty much anything.
25. Head to the Umbrella Festival – Each January the village of Bo Sang just 15 kilometers southeast of Chiang Mai’s Old City holds a festival celebrating the area’s umbrella making tradition and trade. Go for food, parades, markets and to peruse the handmade goods.
26. Get lost – Easy to do in the narrow, winding sois (small streets) of Chiang Mai’s Old City. Wander around the maze, but don’t worry, you’ll never get too turned around. The relatively small Old City is shaped like a square and as soon as you hit a major road you’ll be able to find out where you are.
27. Get a tattoo – Yes, you can get a free tattoo – not at a tattoo studio – but at a temple just outside of town. This isn’t just an ordinary tattoo, but a special blessing performed by a monk known as sak yant. There are a few places to get them, like at Wat San Makieng in Doi Saket. Talk to your guesthouse owners or check in at some tattoo shops to see if someone can help you with where to go and when. It’s difficult to figure out on your own and a local’s insight about the process will be immensely useful.
28. Chase the cherry blossoms – Cherry trees around the province are in full bloom late-December to mid-January. The closest spot to town is Doi Khun Chang Kien on the top of Doi Pui (go up Doi Suthep, pass the temple, and keep going up). You can also catch them on Doi Inthanon and Doi Khun Mae Ya in Pai, Mae Hong Son province.
29. Go dancing – For salsa, head to Warm Up Club on Tuesday evenings where free beginner classes run from 8:00 – 9:00 pm with open dancing afterward, to One Nimman on Sundays from 7:45 – 11:00 pm, or to The Canteen for Salsa Bachata on Fridays from 8:00 – 11:30 pm. Salsa not your thing? Try tango at One Nimman every Wednesday starting from 8:00 pm till late or Swing on on Saturdays starting from 8:00 pm.
30. Visit the Chiang Mai University Art Museum – Near the corner of Thanon Suthep and Thanon Klorng Chonpratha, the Chiang Mai University Art Museum features rotating temporary exhibitions free of admission.
31. Go hiking in the hills – Check out Chiang Mai Hiking for information on nearby hikes as well as weekly group hikes lead by volunteers.
32. Make it to the markets – You don’t have to be shopping for anything to make the markets an amusing experience, especially when there’s a market to suit everyone’s interests. Don’t believe me? Check out my Chiang Mai Market Guides one, two and three covering eleven different markets in town…and now there are even more.
33. Visit the ‘farang’ cemetery – East of the river there’s a small, older cemetery on the Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road slightly north of the Holiday Inn, where some of Chiang Mai’s first expats (mainly missionaries) are buried with interesting tombstone markings, including one with a statue of Queen Victoria.
34. Get to know your guesthouse owner – Most of the guesthouse owners speak English well and are happy to help you with anything you may need. Take some time to chat and get to know them a little bit better.
35. Walk around the moat – Pick a direction along the inner road of the moat and start moving. To walk all the way around at a decent speed will probably take you just over an hour. Take your time to check out some of the temples and street stalls along the way though!
36. Marvel at Loi Krathong – Events associated with November’s Loi Krathong, such as parades, dances, shows and lantern releases, are free of charge. There are organized paid events which confuse visitors every year thinking they have to buy tickets to ‘do’ Loi Krathong (also known as Yee Peng in the north), but the truth is that if you head anywhere with water you’ll be able to see people taking part in floating their krathong and lighting off paper lanterns into the sky. You can read more in this post I wrote for Lonely Planet about celebrating Loi Krathong in Chiang Mai.
37. See artisans at work in Baan Tawai – If you make your way out of town to the wood carving village of Baan Tawai, you’ll be sure to spot some craftsmen at work and shopkeepers putting the finishing, decorative touches onto handmade home decor and furniture.
38. Watch silver craftsmen at Wat Srisuphan – Aside from being absolutely stunning by itself, Wat Srisuphan is worth a visit to see the artisans hammering away at the onsite workshop making the silver coverings for the temple. A small entrance fee of 50 baht is asked but includes a complimentary bottle of water and is 100% worth it regardless. While the grounds are open to all, note that only men are permitted inside the shrine building.
39. Volunteer – Chiang Mai has a number of volunteer opportunities to get involved in both short and long term. Check here and here to get matched up with an organization right for you. (Know that to volunteer in Thailand you technically need a volunteer visa specifically for your placement so any volunteer activities need to be organized before you arrive in the country.)
40. Go on a photography walk – From the sparkly, detailed temples, to bright green, leafy banana trees and sizzling street stalls, Thailand is a very photogenic country. Pick a part of town and grab your camera looking for the little details of life here. Some of the my favorite areas to wander even after all these years are the south side of the Old City, the Wat Ket neighborhood and the sois on either side of Sirimangkalagarn Road in the Nimmanhaemin district.
41. Get soaked at Songkran – The Thai New Year held in the middle of April is unlike anything anywhere else. Over the three days of Songkran the streets surrounding the Old City will be completely filled with people celebrating and there are always free parades, shows, concerts and parties held at different pots throughout town.
42. Seek out the city’s ruins – Founded more than 700 years ago Chiang Mai is an old city with a lot of history. Unfortunately, most of what you see today was built fairly recently, but there are still a couple spots where you can catch a glimpse of the past like the city’s secret moat and the ancient ruins of Wiang Kum Kam about 5 kilometers from the center of the Old City.
43. Hang out at Tha Pae Gate – A major traffic and meeting spot, grab a seat and people watch for a while at Tha Pae Gate. In the evenings there are often people playing music, selling handmade goods or showing off tricks on their bikes.
44. Head to the Tribal Museum – Learn more about northern Thailand’s hill tribes, like the Akha, Karen and Hmong, at the Tribal Museum located at the Ratchamangkla Park on Chotana Road (Hwy 197), entrance is only 50 baht.
45. Find the free water – At most street stalls there will be bottles of water you can purchase or free water for customers. If there isn’t a pitcher on the table look for a large round drink cooler near the tables or cooking area with stacked cups and serve yourself. This water is purchased drinking water and doesn’t come from a tap – don’t worry!
46. Hike to Wat Palat – Starting at the top of Suthep Road you can follow a trail leading up to a hidden temple on Doi Suthep called Wat Palat. You’ll know you’re heading the right way if you keeping following the scrap of monks’ robes tied around the trees. Find directions here and watch 8 Miles from Home‘s gorgeous video including a look at Wat Palat here.
47. Live like a local – Check out this community events calendar or different Chiang Mai Facebook Groups for up to date local events and activities happening when you’re in town. There’s always some sort of show, festival, fair or exhibition opening going on.
48. See the sun set from Doi Pui – Drive up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and keep going to reach Doi Pui. As you come down the other side you’ll be able to get a sunset view.
49. Chill by the river – Along the Mae Ping River near Narawat Bridge there are several open areas to take a break. You can also go in the evening and the see the changing lights on the three bridges crossing the water – the older iron bridge coming out from Loi Kroh is particularly pretty and a popular hang out and fishing spot once the sun goes down.
50. Relax – Have you noticed there’s a laid-back vibe here? Enjoy it. Relax and take some time to slow down. The best days in Chiang Mai are the ones that aren’t planned out and you just see what ends up happening!
Did I miss any free things to do in Chiang Mai? Let me know in the comments below!
Also, if you’re looking for more Chiang Mai tips and recommendations, be sure to check out: