See also: Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
The largest city in Northern Thailand and the third-largest city in the country, Chiang Mai which has a strong historical link. Founded in 1296, the historical capital of ancient Lan Na is the present capital of the Chiang Mai province. Situated in a small valley near the highest Thai mountain, some 700 km away from Bangkok, Chiang Mai has no dearth of natural beauty and scenic attractions. Merging together urbane locales featuring modern buildings with historic temples and tribal villages as well as representing a unique culture of its own, Chiang Mai ranks high in terms of tourism. The best things to do in this city have been listed below.
Visit Doi Inthanon National Park
Spread over an area of 50, 000 hectares, Doi Inthanon National Park homes the highest mountain range in Thailand whose highest peak rises 2565 metres above the sea level and hits a temperature as low as -8 degree centigrade. Mostly made of granites, these mountains are laden with beautiful scenic views and iconic sights. The park shelters a huge variety of wildlife species starting from rare animals that cannot be found anywhere else in Thailand to wonderful plants and trees and different kinds of birds. No other place in Thailand can match the number and the variety of bird species that this park boasts of.
Not only birds and animals but this park has many spectacular waterfalls among which Mae Ya Waterfall is the best. Although there are many trails that lead to the peak, the Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail offers the best views of landscapes and mountains below and is easy to hike. You’ll also spot birds everywhere while hiking. However, apart from its natural splendour, it is also famous for its historical sites namely The Twin Pagodas, commonly referred to as the Queen and King Pagodas, which have abundant historical relics.
See the iconic Wat Pra That Doi Suthep
Doi Suthep is a mountain located 12 km away from Chiang Mai. There’s a saying that if one hasn’t visited Doi Suthep, then one hasn’t been to Chiang Mai. Doi Suthep has earned popularity because of the iconic Buddhist Temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Situated at a height of 1703 metres, the temple is steeped in history. The temple premises consist of a museum, statues, shrines and pagodas but the main attractions of the temple are a big white elephant shrine and a magnificent idol of the Emerald Buddha.
The name of the temple itself indicates that it is a sacred place containing a relic of Lord Buddha. There’s a legend which states that a monk named Sumanathera found a relic having magical powers which was claimed to be Buddha’s shoulder bone. He later took it to King Nu Naone in Lan Na, presently Lamphun, where it broke into two pieces. The king had the bigger piece placed on a white elephant which climbed Doi Suthep and died after trumpeting thrice. Considering it as an omen, the king constructed this temple in 1368. The relic lies in the rounded part of the temple’s Chedi below the ringed section and above the octagonal section.
Visit other Buddhist Temples in the city
Chiang Mai is also home to many other Buddhist temples, all of which manifests impressive architecture. Located inside Chiang Mai’s old city walls, Wat Chedi Luang, also known as the Temple of the Big Stupa, is an ancient Buddhist Temple having fallen to ruins. Presently it retains the Emerald Buddha idol which is still worshipped along with a large viharn or sermon hall, a doorstep having naga dragons, a ruined brick chedi and a grand assembly hall. Another famous temple and monastery is Wat Phra Sing which was founded in the 14th century. It comprises many buildings out of which the assembly hall is the largest.
Its prime attraction is the statue of a seated Buddha made of copper and gold. About 700 monks reside inside the temple premises and its other name is the Temple of the Lion Buddha. Other well-known temples are the silver temple named as Wat Sri Suphan, the teak wood temple known as Wat Phan Tao, Wat Phra That Doi Kham housing 17 metre tall Buddha idol on a hilltop, Wat Umong Suan Phutthatham which is famous for its underground tunnels and Wat Chet Yot Phra Aram Luang; located outside the city walls.
Chat with Monks
You’ll get here a special opportunity of chatting with monks. You can stay in a monastery and do meditation with monks, interact with them and embrace mind and body healing practices. In Chiang Mai you will see monks dressed in saffron robes everywhere. And there are temples that host monk chat programmes. Wat Suan Dok Temple lies very near to the city. So it won’t take long for you to reach there. Generally its monk chatting sessions take place on every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. You can ask the monks anything that you like and know more about Buddhism.
Ride a Songthaew
Songthaew is a red car that you’ll find everywhere in the city. Being quite similar to shared taxis, it gives tourists lift to destinations of their choice. Songthaew rides are the cheapest and the most economical way to explore Chiang Mai. The standard price varies from 20 to 30 20 baht. However, the drivers can charge higher depending on how far you want to go. All you have to do to hail a Songthaew is wave and tell where you want to head to and the driver will nod indicating either that it can’t give you a lift or will ask you to get in. And the best thing about it is you’ll be riding with other tourists and local passengers with whom you can interact all the way until your stop arrives.
Be stunned by the Pure White Temple
Just when you’ll think you’ve seen all of Chiang Mai’s temples, you’ll be surprised to find a peculiarly unconventional Buddhist temple known as The White Temple, Wat Rong Khun. Located just a two and a half hour drive away from the city, the temple’s uncommonly jaw-dropping classic Thai architecture is embellished in white which symbolises purity. Its main building, Ubosot, containing a massive three-tiered roof, carvings of Naga serpents, murals depicting faces of demons and swirling orange flames, images of nuclear warfare and terrorist attacks as well as popular western idols, conveys the message that people are won over by wickedness. To reach the main building you have to cross the “Bridge of the cycle of rebirth" and the “Gate of Heaven”. There is another remarkable ornate structure called the golden building which represents the body while Ubosot represents the mind.
Have fun at Grand Canyon
Chiang Mai’s own canyon is off the beaten path but it is worth a visit. Having a depth of 40 metres, the canyon contains collected rainwater. Looking like a water park full of inflatables this old soil quarry has some bamboo rafts to float on the water and cliffs which are as tall as 50 feet from which you can jump into the water. It is undoubtedly a great place for taking part in a lot of amusing water activities. And if you feel tired or hungry, Grand Canyon has many eateries to please you. The Tuang Thong Canyon View Restaurant is a good one which serves yummy fruit smoothies and mochi ice cream. It also offers different kinds of noodles and bear. There are barbecues where you can snack on and there are many stalls where you can drink coconut water.
See the beautiful waterfalls in and around the city
Waterfalls in Chiang Mai and its surrounding areas are also major tourist spots. Just go to the Bua Thong Waterfall which is one and a half hour drive away from the Old City and you won’t want to leave the place soon. Also known as Sticky Waterfalls, it is a marvellous multi-tiered waterfall originating from a spring that is rich in minerals. It contains limestone, mineral deposits and porous rocks that you can climb but it’s very slippery. It is composed of different sections with the lowest one falling down from a height of 30 feet. There are stairs that lead to the spring’s source which is a deep hole and the water it contains is bluish. Other remarkable waterfalls are Huay Kaew Waterfall and Mork Fa Waterfall. The former is an exotic waterfall hidden in a forest and the latter is a tall and marvellous waterfall which falls into a swimming hole and is surrounded by dense woodland. There is a cave nearby that you can explore and a sandy open ground where you can rest.
Walk through Chiang Mai’s special roads
Not only natural wonders and temples but even roads count themselves in the list of Chiang Mai’s attractions. Nimmanahaeminda Road adds a vibrant urbane charm to the city. Being lined with big shops, first-class bars, designer shops, restaurants and a huge food court this road always remains crowded. It is also the trendiest part of Chiang Mai. Another famous road is the 10 km long ‘Handicraft Highway’ which is occupied by shops, outlets and stalls selling handicraft items like pottery, silverwares, wood carvings, show pieces, silk products and small sculptures. Chiang Mai produces the best silverware in Thailand and Louis Silverware of ‘Handicraft Highway’ gives tourists the rare opportunity of watching expert artisans making such products. However, it is mainly popular because of its pottery which is known by the name “Celadon” and has a Jade-like green glaze.
Eat Khao Soi
Khao Soi is an iconic North Thailand coconut curry soup made up of coconut milk and flavoured curry on the top of which crunchy chicken and yellow egg noodles are placed. Often the soup bowl is served with a side plate consisting of lime, chopped red onions and green mustard pickle. There are plenty of food stalls and restaurants in Chiang Mai that serve varieties of Khao Sao. Some of them are Khao Soi Nimman eatery located on the side of Nimman Road, Yai Khao Soi Khun and Khao Soi Arak located in the Old City. You can also have it at Ginger & Café. The best vegetarian versions of Khao Soi are available in Aum or Pun Pun restaurants.
Go for a browse around Chiang Mai’s markets
Chiang Mai hosts some of Thailand’s most famous markets. The bustling Night Bazaar lights up the mundane Chang Klan Road every night with stalls selling handcrafted items and duplicate designer produce. Another popular night market is Marlin Night Market where you’ll find really cheap souvenirs like jewelleries and clothes. It is also great for dining. Warorot Market is a local day market in Chiang Mai where you will find whatever you want starting from varieties of meat, fresh vegetables and fruits to souvenirs, clothing and fireworks. Coming out of the market you’ll notice vendors selling Thai handicrafts produced by the local Hill Tribe at cheap rates. It’s worth visiting Jing Jai Market on a Sunday or Wednesday morning when caricature artists and live music performances make the place more eventful. Other renowned markets are the Artsy Market and the Umbrella Market. Stretching across the length of the Ratchadamnoen Road, the Sunday Market or the Walking Market is the most famous of all Chaing Mai’s markets which is full of handicraft goods and street food stalls and the place is enlivened by the live performances of street artists.
Go on a bamboo rafting day-trip at Mae Ping River
The best way to explore the Mae Ping River and its adjoining scenic areas is to float on a bamboo raft and look around mesmerizingly. It will make you feel like you are in a world way different from that of Chiang Mai and give you one of the best sightseeing experiences in the city. You’ll get to see here typical traditional teak houses amidst rustic greenery. If you are afraid of rafting, you can sail through the river on a boat. When you’re done cooling off in the river, take a stroll in the luscious gardens on the river bank and don’t shy away from visiting a local farmer’s house to see the production of jasmine rice.
Experience Chiang Mai’s nightlife
Though Chiang Mai’s nightlife scene isn’t as vibrant and famous as that of many big cities, you can still enjoy night-time activities like partying and watching live music in high end bars, most of which are located on the sides of Nimmanhaeman Road. Drinking goes on till late night at Thapae Gate. You’ll notice every bar selling bottles of spirit that people buy along with a bucket of ice and soda or coke. It is so common that you may spot someone having these at night everywhere you go. The best thing about Chiang Mai’s nightlife is the Carabet Show which is absolutely free. Many bars host this show where Thai dancers perform amusing acts. RAM Bar is known to put up excellent Carabet shows every night but if you plan to watch it there, make sure you reach there early as shows fill up quickly.
Bathe elephants at Elephant Nature Park
Thailand doesn’t have a very good reputation when it comes to ethically using animals to promote tourism. However there are a few Elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai that have contributed excellently to the rehabilitation of abused elephants and the best of this lot is the Elephant Nature Park. It is a rescue centre which keeps elephants in a natural environment and takes good care of them. Although it is open to tourists, it allows only a few visitors at a time to have an intimate encounter with elephants. It allows tourists not only to feed but also bathe these beautiful creatures. You can also volunteer to nurture the elephants and promote the park’s conservation work. Though it’s the most expensive among all elephant parks of the city, it does the best job in educating people about the need to conserve elephants and treat them well.
Tour an umbrella factory
There are many villages in Chiang Mai where local workers make umbrellas and the city also homes ample umbrella factories. One such factory is located 8 km away from the city at Bo Sang Handicraft Centre. There you’ll see workers making umbrellas right in front of you. Every part of these colourful umbrellas are handmade by Thai artisans.
Participate in Chiang Mai’s festivals
Though Chiang Mai remains lively throughout the year, it becomes livelier during festivals. When the city celebrates the most famous Thai festival known as Loi Krathong festival, it becomes ablaze with kathrongs and sky lanterns. Kathrong is a lotus shaped basket with a candle placed in its centre. This festival occurring annually in the twelfth lunar month is celebrated by floating Kathrongs in the moat water surrounding the city and flying sky lanterns to show respect to Lord Buddha.
To attend this festival, schedule your trip in November and if you can’t do this, try to visit the city in April when another famous festival, Songkran, takes place. Songkran is a religious festival that is celebrated all over Thailand from 13th to 15th April but in Chiang Mai the celebrations go on longer. During this festival people get soaked in water which symbolises cleansing one’s sins and pay visits to temples for praying and offering food to the monks who stay there. Everyone randomly throws buckets of water at each other including pedestrians. You’ll have a lot of fun if you take part in it.
Enjoy a Thai Massage
Thai Massage is another special thing that Chiang Mai offers its tourists. Starting from big ones to moderate and small parlours, the city has massage parlours of all kinds. Some good massage parlours are Green Bamboo Massage, Orn Healing Hands, The Artist Spa and Ziam Spa & Massage. In all these massage parlours you’ll be given special clothing to change. Thai massage is of various types like “hands on’ massage, “Neck, Back and Shoulder” Massage and foot massage. And the most interesting part is you can also get a massage by a prison inmate. Since ex-prisoners find it difficult to get jobs, there are several organizations which allows trained women prisoners to give massages under strict supervision so that they can save these wages and use them after their release. Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution conducts such programmes. You can opt for one if you want to help these women to improve and rectify themselves.
Watch a live Muay Thai Boxing Match
Muay Thai or Thai Boxing is an integral part of Thai culture. What baseball is to America, it is exactly the same to Thailand. You’ll have a good time watching a Muay Thai Boxing match in a small outdoor area at Thaphae. The age of participants and the quality of the match vary. You’ll see young as well old fighters. Normal and VIP tickets cost 400 and 600 baht respectively. Grab cocktails or beer if you don’t mind paying a few more bucks. You can also learn this type of boxing in any of Chiang Mai’s Muay Thai Boxing gyms.
Witness a majestic sunrise at Mai Huay Tung Tao Lake
Not many tourists know about this hidden natural treasure of Chiang Mai. It is a pretty lake that is mostly visited by locals. The place seems to be an epitome of serenity in early morning when the sunrise reflects its red hues on the crystal clear calm waters of the lake. There is a small sitting area where you can sit and admire the scene as long as you want. You can also hike around its surrounding trails.
Have delicious Thai dishes
In Chiang Mai you’ll get endless options to delight your taste bud. Start with Sai Oua which is a delicious northern Thai pork sausage consisting of meat seasoned with fresh Thai herbs and spices and added flavours. Most commonly pork and rice dish form the main course of Thai meals. Another Thai pork delicacy is Khao Kha Mo which is stewed pork leg. For starters try deep fried shiitake mushrooms and Nám prík nùm which is a green chili dip combined with shallots and garlic. If you are okay with try something strange, eat a hundred year old egg which is actually a preserved egg combined with rice hulls, quicklime and clay.
Have a Khantoke dinner which is a traditional Northern Thai meal served on a round table. Other special things are Laab; spicy salad and Cha Yen, iced tea. Sticky rice with mango, locally known as Khao Niaow Ma Muang, is a famous Thai dessert. Once you taste it, you’ll want to have it again and again. Besides these you’ll come across a great variety of street foods in the markets and roads of Chiang Mai. Some of the best restaurants that offer good Thai cuisines are Anchan, David’s Kitchen,
Cat House, Pun Pun and Aum Vegetarian Restaurant
And if you fall in love with Chiang Mai so much so that you want to extend yours stay, spend your days chilling at Chiang Mai’s malls such as Central Festival, Promenada Resort Mall, Central Plaza and Maya Mall and visit some cute cafes like Cat Café, Clay Studio Coffee, Art Roastery and the Coffee Club Thapae, just to name a few. You may also see the long neck Karen tribe.