Chiang Mai is essentially Thailand’s second city – the smaller, more relaxed answer to the madness of Bangkok. It was once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, but now is a major draw for backpackers and travelers of all kinds. The city itself offers plenty of things to do in the way of cooking classes, temple visits, street food, and culture. But beyond its boundaries, you’ll find natural perfection, awe-inspiring animals, and unique communities deep into the mountains. It’s a special city with much to offer.
Best Time to Visit
If you are planning a Travel to Thailand then the best time to visit Chiang Mai is between October and April. Weather during this period is mostly cool and pleasant with light breeze, which is also why it’s peak tourist season. Another good time to visit Chiang Mai is during the festivals when the city is at its vibrant best.
Top Places to Visit in Chiang Mai
1. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
This mountaintop temple is a must-see in Chiang Mai. Wat Doi Suthep’s central shrine contains a much-revered, seated Buddha, and is one of the most popular attractions in the city. You can reach the temple by hiking up the mountain (a sweaty but surely memorable endeavor), renting a motorbike, or hopping into a songthaew (red trucks that essentially operate as communal cabs). The drive is a short one, so you can do this whole trip in about two hours. Brace yourself for the climb because the staircase is steep, but the effort is well worth it. Statues of two demons guard the entrance to the temple precinct. Generally only two of the six gates leading to the gallery and the chedis are open. The gallery is adorned with statues of Buddha in the Chiang Mai and Sukhothai styles. The temple itself is ornate, with many representations of the Buddha, detailed dragon statues, and elephant carvings. There is also a small museum on the premises. On a clear day, you can look out over the entire city and spot the chedis atop other wats poking out among the clustered buildings.
2. Doi Inthanon
This is the highest peak in Thailand, and the national park that surrounds it is filled with some of the many natural wonders that make the country such a draw in the first place. You can do some trekking and hike the mountain, or take a more leisurely route around the park. Several waterfalls and a hill tribe village are other draws, along with two pagodas built to honor King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit. You’ll want to either hire a driver for the day or rent a motorbike and see the sites on your own, as you won’t be able to make your way through the entire park on foot. But it’s only about a two-hour drive from the city, so if you leave early, you can get in a full and satisfying day on the mountain.
3. Wat Chedi Luang
Ruins aren’t exactly a rare sight in Chiang Mai, or in Thailand generally, for that matter. But there’s something about Wat Chedi Luang that is particularly beautiful and haunting. Constructed in 1401, the imposing structure was damaged during an earthquake in 1545. But it remains remarkable today, and you can still see the massive elephant carvings that adorn it. Beneath a huge gum tree on the left of the entrance to the precinct stands a delightful little temple, the Lak Muang. Built in 1940 on the site of an earlier wooden building, the shrine is the abode of Chiang Mai’s guardian spirit (Lak Muang). According to tradition, if the great tree should fall, disaster will overtake the city. The temple is something to behold at any time of day, but it’s particularly lovely at night, when it is all lit up.
4. Wat Phra Singh
This temple stands at the heart of the Old City, which is where travelers spend much of their time. Amidst the close sois, or alleys, and heavy motorbike traffic, Wat Prasingh rises at the end of Rachadamnoen Road. It is the largest wat in the city, and dates to 1345 when an ancient king built it in his father’s honor. The father’s ashes are still buried on the grounds – but don’t let that spook you from visiting. The decadent structures are impressive, and it’s an especially great place to check out on Sundays.
5. Doi Pui
This small Hmong village is admittedly more tourist oriented than authentic. Yet there is a small exhibit of a traditional hill tribe home, and information on the history of the many groups that have settled in the Thai mountains in past generations. If you’re feeling particularly touristy, you can dress up in ethnic garb for a photo shoot. There are many small shops where you can purchase hand-woven textiles, handmade jewelry, tea, and other goods. There is a large garden with a diverse array of plants, and the view from the village is breathtaking.
6. Elephant Nature Park
A day spent here is an eye-opening experience, as you both get to spend time up close with the elephants and learn about their plight. The cost of volunteering includes transportation and lunch, and the money goes toward maintaining the grounds and providing for the animals. Be sure to book in advance, as the volunteer spots do fill up ahead of time.
7. Tiger Kingdom
Elephants are the priority animals for travelers in Chiang Mai, but tigers are a close second. The Tiger Kingdom draws large crowds because of the promise of some serious face time with one of the world’s fiercest predators. When you arrive, you can choose a package based on which tigers you want to see. The most popular are the babies (of course) and the full-grown tigers, though you can see mid-range ones as well. You’ll get 10-15 minutes in a caged area, where you can pet the animals and take photos for proof that you were actually cuddled up next to a tiger.
8. Eakachai Houseboat at Mae Ngat Dam
If you think Huay Tung Tao sounds sweet, wait until you get a load of the floating houses at Mae Ngat Dam. These small bungalows on the water can only be reached by boat, so you have to hire someone to take you out to your humble abode for the night. Whether you’re sunning yourself on your deck or paddling around the lake, you’ll be amazed by the stunning beauty of this park – found about a 30-minute ride from the city.
9. Huay Tung Tao
This is a perfect place to laze away a day under the Thai sun, surrounded by hills and with a lake to swim in at your leisure. This reservoir is popular with locals and ex-pats alike. You can rent a hut on the lake for the equivalent of a few dollars, and a huge tube to lounge on in the water for 50THB (approx.).
10. Sunday Walking Street
If you’re wondering where to get your street grub on during the weekend, fear not. Chiang Mai has a market for every occasion. The Sunday Walking Street is a must for eating and shopping, though go early if you’re not one for crowds. The main market thoroughfare is Rachadamnoen Road, which begins just behind Thapae Gate, where you’ll find vendors selling handcrafted lamps, dolls, soaps, jewelry, clothes, Christmas ornaments, local handicrafts, and just about every other keepsake you can imagine. As you reach the end of the first block of Rachadamnoen, you’ll find yourself flanked by two temples. The market stretches the length of the road, and if you’re interested in doing any shopping at all, leave yourself several hours to wander, shop, and eat.