When most people think of Thailand, they picture the post-card image of long tail boats along gorgeous blue waters with limestone formations. However, this city located in the northern part of Thailand is quite a popular tourist spot as well with some spectacular landscapes and sightseeing destinations. Set amidst mountains, waterfalls and countless beautiful landscapes, Chiang Mai is known for some incredible temples and vibrant night markets of elephant pants.
One of the most popular things for tourists to see in Chiang Mai are its temples. If you are interested in exploring Thailand’s temples, Chiang Mai is one of the best places to do so. Set against the beautiful mountains, there are several breathtaking temples to be seen. Plan some time to take a tour of some of these incredible temples:
- Wat Phra That Doi Suthep:
Definitely one of the most famous spots for tourists, Doi Suthep is located atop a mountain which gives you some spectacular views once you reach the top (after climbing a whole lot of steps, of course).
- Wat Chedi Luang:
Within easy walking distance of the Old City, this temple combines the old and the new. Wat Chedi Luang is a 600-year-old temple, which once housed the Emerald Buddha. The ruins of this temple can be seen alongside the part of the temple which has been rebuilt. It’s an easy walk from the main part of the city and definitely worth a visit.
- Wat Suan Dok (The Flower Temple):
This was another one of my favorite temples but more for my experience there than anything else. The temple itself is mostly white with several chedis, or spires which actually contain some ashes of the Royal Family. It is a very picturesque temple and people put flowers out around the temple (hence the name). It’s a beautiful place to visit, but my favorite part is the meditation center next door! I got to attend a “monk chat” where met with a few of the monks at the temple and got to talk with them about their daily lives (I’ll talk more about this later)!
- Wat Umong (The “tunnel temple”):
Another unique temple, this temple was built in the 14th century and is built within a series of tunnels! It’s a super cool spot to see amidst a beautiful landscape. This temple also has a meditation center where you can take classes and retreats if you so choose!
Nature & Wildlife:
In addition to the incredible temples, Chiang Mai also provides a unique landscape full of a plethora of opportunities for those who are more outdoorsy. There’s plenty of hiking, scenic tours, and adventure activities available in Chiang Mai!
- Elephant Nature Park:
Another thing that you cannot possibly take a trip to Thailand without doing (and ABSOLUTELY cannot take a trip to Chiang Mai without doing)… is hanging out with some elephants! Elephants are a sacred and respected creature in Thailand, and are seen as a symbol of good luck and prosperity. In Chiang Mai, you can find plenty of tours for both riding elephants and spending a day hanging out with elephants. Although riding elephants may seem really fun, keep in mind it is very harmful for the elephants and the elephants are often mistreated before being used to ride. Many people were unaware of this until recently, but now it is becoming more well-known information. Anyways, there are a few really great elephant tours but in my opinion Elephant Nature Park is the BEST. All of the elephants have been rescued and are living in this huge beautiful environment. One of my favorite parts of being in this park is feeling like we are there to visit the elephants in a natural environment rather than the elephants being there solely for our tourism. Anyways, this tour allows you to hang out with the elephants all day – feed them, bathe them, and walk around in this incredible park! They also provide a FANTASTIC vegetarian buffet lunch – with so much delicious food available. Anyways, this is a truly amazing one-of-a kind experience to get up and close with elephants – plus you obviously need the cool Instagram shot to make all your friends jealous…
- Doi Inthanon National Park:
A surreal destination, Doi Inthanon sits at the highest point in Thailand – as part of the Himalayan Mountain Range. The park has high humidity and cold weather all year round – usually staying around 50 degrees Fahrenheit (very cold for Thailand!!) The summit of the mountain contains spectacular views as well as waterfalls and hiking trails. At the summit, there are also two stupas (monuments) which are dedicated to the King and Queen of Thailand on their 60th birthday anniversaries.
- Bua Tong Waterfalls (Sticky Waterfalls):
The Bua Tong Waterfalls are amazing as well – but these are no ordinary waterfalls! The unique thing about these waterfalls is that not only are they incredibly beautiful, but you can actually climb directly up them! This is due to the limestone deposit which forms the rocks underneath – they are very callous and do not have any algae growing on them which allows an easy climb up the rocks. It sounds scary but once you try it, you will be amazed how easy it is to climb right up these waterfalls for an adventurous afternoon! The waterfalls are located only about 1 hour outside of the Old City of Chiang Mai – so you can take a songthaew ride with some friends for a pretty cheap cost!
- Hiking & Nature Tours:
There are numerous other tours and trips you can take during your time in Chiang Mai if you are interested in more wildlife seeing and/or hiking and adventure sports. With plenty of beautiful waterfalls, national parks, mountains, and wildlife in the area, there is no shortage of tours available. Although I did not get to do everything Chiang Mai has to offer including a night safari and multi-day trekking trips, I am certain that you will fall in love with any tours you choose to do while in Chiang Mai!
Temples, elephants, mountains, … and shopping, of course! You cannot miss out on Chiang Mai’s endless – and I mean endless night markets. Night markets are popular throughout Southeast Asia, but in my experience, Chiang Mai has the best! These night markets are set up exclusively for the evening time as vendors pull out their unique goods – clothing, jewelry, elephant pants, handbags, lanterns, and several other cool souvenirs. Generally, they are set up right along the street as tourists walk along the various stalls. Anyways, there are three major night markets in Chiang Mai:
- Night Bazaar:
The night bazaar is open every night and is located right in a central location nearby to bars, restaurants and live music.
- Saturday Walking Street:
The Saturday Night Market is set up along the street (per the name) only on Saturdays. However, this market is much larger and has much more vendors than the Night Bazaar. You can buy all sorts of handicrafts as well as street food!
- Sunday Walking Street:
The Sunday Market is very similar to the Saturday Walking Street except is only on Sunday nights. Both of these markets are very large and have every souvenir and type of street food you can imagine!
Monk Chats/Meditation Retreats:
As mentioned earlier, one of the things that I had the opportunity to do while I was staying in Chiang Mai was attend a monk chat at one of the mediation centers at a temple. These monk chats are held in several different locations throughout Thailand – and also within Chiang Mai. You can attend a monk chat at each of the four temples that I mentioned as well as at the MCU Buddhist University. Anyways these are held at specific times throughout the week so check online for specific times! During the monk chat, about 5 other tourists and I sat and chatted with the head monk and 2 monks in training at the temple. This is an opportunity for us to learn some more as well as an opportunity for the training monks to practice their English.
The Secret Terracotta Arts Garden:
Truly a hidden gem, this cute little garden café is quite a peaceful spot to spend a quiet afternoon. This outdoor café is surrounded by beautiful gardens and terracotta sculptures hidden away from the outside city. It’s a beautiful place to enjoy a tranquil escape from the city – with a cup of coffee and brunch.
Chiang Mai University:
Another less popular tourist stop is Chiang Mai University campus. The university is a pretty spot for a walk if you’re looking for a easy but scenic place to walk around. Also, right off the campus is the Huay Kaew Reservoir, where you can see a beautiful lake and take a path around.
Chiang Rai Day Trip:
Well, this one is not actually in Chiang Mai but if you go about 3 hours northeast of the Old City you will reach the beautiful city of Chiang Rai. Truthfully, you probably would be better off spending more than a day there but if you have limited time you can definitely make a worthwhile trip here in a day! Chiang Rai holds the famous (and surreal) White Temple – which is so incredibly white you need sunglasses to look at it on a sunny day. In addition to the White Temple, we got to see the lesser known but equally stunning Blue Temple! This temple was not quite so touristy and actually seemed to be more popular with the locals but was truly gorgeous and my all-time favorite temple in Thailand! Also, you can see the Long Neck Village tribe (which I did not do) here. Lastly, you can go to the Golden Triangle and cross over the Mekong River to Laos – this is the point where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet – and was once a popular area for opium growth.
Overall, Chiang Mai is a favored destination for tourists and backpackers for good reason! It’s a more relaxed environment than Bangkok but still has plenty to do and see for whatever your interest!