Top 15 free things to do in Chiang Mai
Street food and smoothies for the equivalent of $1, private rooms for around $10 and dorm beds for even less – even within Thailand, Chiang Mai is known for being an especially affordable destination. It’s easy to stick to a budget here and still feel like you’ve truly experienced the city.
But if you really want to stretch your budget, there are also plenty of superb free things to do in Chiang Mai – here’s our pick.
Note: while all the sites and activities listed here do not charge fees, several do accept (and sometimes expect) small donations or purchases, so be a responsible traveller and share some baht. It’s good karma!
1. Deepen your practice at Yoga in the Park
Most yoga classes in Chiang Mai cost between 200-300B per class depending on the studio but if you’re on a strict budget you can even fine tune your yoga flow for free. Check out the Yoga in the Park Facebook Group for the next free yoga class in Suan Buak Hat public park. Volunteer, travelling and Chiang Mai-based yoga teachers run classes year-round. If you don’t have a yoga mat or don’t want to lay it directly on the ground, woven mats are available to rent for 15B.
2. Learn another language
Connect with other language lovers from the Language Exchange Chiang Mai group, which hosts free meetups every Wednesday and Saturday from 7-10pm at Cube No. 7. The exchange isn’t limited to Thai and English; all languages are welcome!
3. Stop at some of the city’s lesser-known temples
The majority of Chiang Mai’s hundreds of temples are free to enter with exceptions being highly popular or revered temples, like Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Srisuphan, which charge around 50B. While these significant sites are worth every satang, most temples are completely free. In and around the old city, temples like Wat Jed Lin, Wat Lokmoli or Wat Duang Di showcase completely different styles and atmospheres with fewer visitors and no entrance fees. That said, it is polite to make a small donation when visiting a temple as they operate solely off of donations.
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4. Go salsa dancing
Salsa dancing probably isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you think of northern Thailand but Chiang Mai actually has an active Latin dance community that organises events showcasing salsa, bachata and more throughout the week. This includes free lessons for beginners at various venues, such as every Sunday from 8-11pm at One Nimman. Go at 8pm for the complimentary class then stick around to showcase your new moves on the dance floor.
5. Listen to live music at North Gate Jazz Co-Op
Situated on the north side of the old city right on the moat road, North Gate Jazz Co-Op hosts a medley of musicians every night with music starting at 8.30pm. Along with jazz, you can also hear a mix of blues, funk and rock all heavy on the instruments. Though chances are you’ll be standing on the sidewalk to listen to the music (it gets busy!), it’s common courtesy to at least buy one drink and – if you enjoy what you hear – tip the band!
6. Find a moment of mindfulness
Most Thais grow up learning vipassana meditation, the Buddha’s original method of choice, making Chiang Mai a welcoming place to begin practising mindfulness. Chiang Mai Holistic offers one free hour-long meditation session each week (alongside a host of excellent paid-for classes) while Hidden House Yoga in the old city usually runs donation-based morning meditation sessions three times a week. The Wat Umong Meditation Centre at Wat U Mong offers ongoing meditation retreats where guests can come and go any day but are asked to stay at least three nights. The retreats are offered on a donation basis, including accommodation and food.
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7. Hike to a temple
One of the shortest and most convenient treks to do independently is the ‘Monk’s Trail’, which leads from the end of Th Suthep to the quirky jungle temple of Wat Palat on the side of Doi Suthep mountain. The easy forest walk takes about 45 minutes, and its end point offers a lovely scenic lookout over Chiang Mai. Since the trail stops within the temple, and you may even come across a monk doing the walk, remember to wear modest clothing. Above the knee shorts or sleeveless tops are not appropriate.
8. Explore ancient ruins at Wiang Kum Kam
Established more than 720 years ago, Chiang Mai’s old city is steeped in history, but you can head even further back in time at the washed-away Wiang Kum Kam. Less than 20 minutes south of the city along the Mae Ping River, Wiang Kum Kam was the original Chiang Mai but suffered from heavy flooding. Today, more than 1,300 bricks, inscribed stone tablets, temple foundations and chedi have been excavated and visitors can ride through narrow lanes to discover small clearings with ancient ruins. If you have your own set of wheels, wandering around Wiang Kum Kam is free, otherwise you’ll need to hire a driver to take you out to the site.
9. Wander through myriad markets
You don’t need to buy anything at one of Chiang Mai’s many markets to make them an interesting outing. There are the well-known Saturday Walking Street, Sunday Walking Street and Night Bazaar, but the city is home to plenty of other markets come morning, noon and night.
Student-geared markets around Chiang Mai University are known for cheap clothes and affordable eats, while wandering through one of the city’s daily fresh markets offers a fascinating introduction to Thai fruits, vegetables, herbs and assorted edible animal parts. Only the most committed scrimpers will leave empty handed.
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10. Chat with a monk
Saffron-robed monks are a common sight but actually interacting with them is more elusive. Learn more about Thai Buddhism and monastic life at one of the city’s several Monk Chats. Held at different temples, including daily at Wat Chedi Luang between 9am-6pm or Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 5-7pm at Wat Suan Dok, this is an opportunity to ask questions, share information and make a unique cultural connection. While technically free, it’s always good etiquette to make a small donation to the temple to show your appreciation and help keep the programmes and facilities running.
11. Look at local art at free galleries
Several small galleries around town, including Gallery Seescape (attached to SS12454372 Cafe), the gallery at Woo Cafe and the Chiang Mai University Art Center are free to enter. For more comprehensive exhibitions, tickets for MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum are just 150B.
12. Relax with a gong bath
Lie down, close your eyes and feel the rejuvenating vibrations of a resonating gong. Thought to help relax one’s parasympathetic nervous system, a charity gong bath runs every Friday from 5.15-6pm during the Monk Chat at Wat Suan Dok. Though technically free, donations are greatly appreciated.
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13. Bathe in a waterfall
While some waterfalls have fees to get into, there are still several that remain free to visitors, including the conveniently located Huay Kaew Waterfall off of Th Huay Kaew at the base of Doi Suthep. Further out, Bua Tong Waterfall, more commonly known as the 'Sticky Waterfalls' – due to the fact you can walk up the falls without slipping – also doesn’t have an entrance fee.
14. Eat at the Vegetarian Society
It’s no secret that Thai street food is cheap. In Chiang Mai, you can easily find bowls of noodles or plates of rice with a topping for 35-40B – just over $1 – but the Chiang Mai Vegetarian Society raises the bar when it comes to rock bottom prices. Located on Th Mahidol, the volunteer-run Buddhist society serves purely vegan Thai fare in a canteen-like setting with individual dishes, juices, smoothies and snacks starting as low as 5B. Usually, there will be a few dishes or drinks available completely free and often all food is offered free of charge during major Buddhists holidays.
15. Marvel at the magical festivals
All of Chiang Mai’s holidays – from wet and wild Songkran to lantern-filled Loi Krathong – encompass public activities that are free to wander, witness, or join in on the streets and temple grounds. Pratu Tha Phae often serves as a central celebration point as does the Three Kings Monument but ask around and you’re sure to quickly learn where the festivities are!
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