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, not to mention retiring expats and humanitarians.
Many who come here return again and again, or stay for years when they had meant to stay only a few weeks. There’s an energy in the city that captivates those who visit, whether they seek a trekking adventure or a spiritual awakening as they travel from temple to temple.
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 tourist 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. At the base of the staircase leading up to the temple, you’ll find vendors selling souvenirs, antiques, and snacks. 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.
2 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, and there are many small shops where you can purchase hand-woven textiles, handmade jewelry, tea, and other goods.
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3 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 attractions, 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.
4 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.
5 Wat Prasingh
This temple stands at the heart of the Old City, which is where travelers spend much of their time. Amid the 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.
6 Chiang Mai Gate Market
This is the place to find the best street food in Chiang Mai. Every night, vendors set up at the Chiang Mai Gate and sell everything from pad kra pow (spicy meat and basil dish) to the perfect dessert of fresh mango sticky rice topped with coconut milk. Do yourself a favor and order a smoothie from Mrs Pa. Her stand is located directly across from the 7-Eleven and says Pa’s Smoothies on the sign. Your best bet is to let her mix up a concoction of her devising; you can never go wrong this way. The market is held seven nights a week, but it’s best to go on weeknights since there are fewer vendors on Saturday and Sunday evenings.
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7 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 in Chiang Mai. Go early, though, 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 courtyards of both are filled with food stalls offering a grand mix of pad Thai, Japanese curry, sushi for 15 cents a piece, samosas, fried bananas, and dumplings. 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. Also make sure to be patient, as the throngs can make it slow going when it comes to browsing.
8 Night Bazaar
This is a great spot for shopping, if you are prepared to do some haggling. Because the Night Bazaar attracts many tourists, you’ll want to be on your guard against getting ripped-off. But there are some great finds here, from clothes and scarves to carvings and housewares. When you’re finished shopping, you can take in a muay Thai boxing fight at the stadium on the premises. Muay Thai fights are a big part of local culture, and can add an exciting element to your stay in Chiang Mai. Entrance to the fights is usually between 200 and 400 THB.
9 Elephant Nature Park
There are many elephant camps around Chiang Mai, but all are not created equal. Many have been criticized as treating the animals poorly and overworking them. Elephant Nature Park is not one of these places. Visitors are invited to spend a day volunteering with the elephants, feeding them, and bathing them in the river. Most of the elephants are rescues, having suffered as show or labor animals. Once they come to ENP, they are no longer workers and are treated gently and respectfully.