While Thailand is an inexpensive destination for international travellers, most backpackers and study abroad students are still looking for opportunities to save money. From hiking to a forest temple on Doi Suthep (mountain) to exploring the numerous waterfalls in the area – Chiang Mai has some great free (or very inexpensive) activities.
1. Laze by Huay Tung Tao lake
A great place to spend the day, Huay Tung Tao lake is a 20 minute drive out of the city (so split the cost of a songtheaw with a group of friends or take an Uber). The lake is surrounded by mountains and the shore is lined with straw huts (salas). There are several restaurants around the lake, but if you want to save money, eat before you leave Chiang Mai and bring some snacks to munch on throughout the day.
If you choose to swim, it’s recommended to dress conservatively. Thai people typically don’t swim in just trunks or a bathing suit, so bring a t-shirt and some longer shorts (ladies) so you won’t feel uncomfortable. Although there is a small entry fee, a trip to Huay Tung Tao still makes for an inexpensive day.
2. Visit Huay Kaew Waterfall
If you’re in the mood to hike to some waterfalls, check out Huay Kaew waterfall. This is the closest waterfall to the city, located at the base of Doi Suthep mountain, on the same road to the famous Wat Phratat Doi Suthep. The bottom tier of the waterfall can get a bit crowded, but if you climb the trails all the way to the top, you’ll be surprised at how secluded it can get.
3. EXPLORE THE MARKETS
There are many different markets in Chiang Mai, but some of the most popular are the Night Bazaar (open every night), Saturday Walking Street, and Sunday Walking Street. Another great market, and less touristy is the central market – Warorot Market (or Kad Luang) in Chiang Mai. Put your Thai skills to the test and try to get a lower price. Pro tip: if you’re a study abroad student wear your CMU uniform out to the markets to get even more of a discount.
If you don’t want to buy anything, markets also provide a great opportunity for people watching and hanging out with your friends. You can also find inexpensive options for snacks and dinner at the markets, as well, so it’s a cheap alternative to eating at a restaurant. Check out these great guides to the markets in Chiang Mai.
4. Chat with some monks
Many temples in the Old City offer a monk chat program providing the opportunity to interact with both young novice monks and older monks. This is not only beneficial for foreigners, but for the monks as well. While you will be able to learn more about Buddhism, the monks are able to practice their English.
Conversations can last anywhere from five minutes to an hour, depending on how many monks are involved and how many questions are asked. In order to help the conversation flow better, prepare a list of questions to ask prior to your chat. It’s also a great opportunity for study abroad students to practice their Thai, and the monks will surely get a kick out of it.
5. Experience a Thai Buddhist Holiday
Many international travellers are most familiar with the Buddhist Thai New Year celebrations (Songkran) which has become a three-day water fight in Chiang Mai. There are also many other beautiful (and more subdued) Buddhist holidays during the year. It’s a great opportunity to feel a part of the local community.
6. Get your zen on with a Meditation Retreat
Meditation retreats provide another unique cultural experience. There are many meditation retreats offering extensive multiple-day programs, but sometimes they can be a bit pricey and pretty intense for beginners. A great, free option in Chiang Mai is the meditation retreat at Wat Umong (temple). This retreat is a bit more laid back than others, as many first-timers come here. Typically retreats last 3-4 days, but you can adjust it to fit your schedule.
Meditation is a large part of Buddhism, so this is a great opportunity for interested travelers and study abroad students in Thailand to expand their knowledge and understanding of Buddhism.
7. Morning alms round
Every morning, Thai locals line the streets and offer gifts of food and other offerings to the monks in exchange for a blessing or prayer. By giving the monks these offerings, Thai people believe they generate merit , or good karma, in return. It is a quintessential Thai experience that is not to be missed.
8. Climb uP Bua Thong Waterfalls / Sticky Falls
Hire a songthaew for the day with a group of friends and head out of town to Bua Thong Waterfalls, also known as “Sticky falls”, for a unique outdoor experience. It gets its nickname from the limestone surface that allows you to walk and climb up the waterfalls. It’s a great way to cool off and have some fun with your friends. Bring a mat and some food, and have a picnic by the waterfall.
9. Hike to Wat Palad (temple on the mountain)
The most famous temple in Chiang Mai is Wat Phratat Doi Suthep. It is a truly remarkable site, as it sits overlooking Chiang Mai, but you have to pay for a songthaew to take you all the way up and you also have to pay a small entrance fee. To skip the fee and the tourist crowds, head to Wat Palad, which is a lesser-known forest temple on the way up to Doi Suthep. You can ask a songthaew to take you there (not as expensive as Wat Pratat Doi Suthep) or you can hike through the woods to Wat Palad from the end of Suthep Road.
For students studying abroad with TEAN in Thailand, you can start this hike from your housing and save on transport. This temple is hidden in the jungle, but opens up to an amazing view of the city. Fluttering butterflies, a meandering waterfall, and sparkling temple decorations make this temple a haven for anyone who comes across it. If you have the energy you can continue the hike up the mountain to Wat Phratat Doi Suthep.
10. Explore the city by bicycle or walking
The best way to explore the city is to take a walk or a bicycle ride around the streets and winding alleyways of Chiang Mai. There’s so much to see and take in, and the best part? It’s completely free! Take a break during your explorations at Suan Buak Hat, a small park located in the southwest part of the Old City. Although it’s small, it’s a nice place to relax with friends or read a book. Unplug your devices, log-off WiFi, and get to know each other.