A historic city nestled between soaring mountain peaks, winding rivers, and endless tracts of overgrown forests, Chiang Mai is both a major cultural stop in northern Thailand and a launchpad to explore the nearby rural countryside.
Once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Mai retained its spiritual side with the many well-preserved temple grounds and monuments that are inseparable from its urban landscape. Yet, the influence of its modern inhabitants shines through with the hubbub of its sprawling nightly markets and lively city streets.
Visit the Doi Suthep Mountain and temple
At close to 1700m above sea level, the golden chedi of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep shimmers above the forest covered mountain peak just outside the city of Chiang Mai.
As one of the most iconic landmarks in Thailand, the 13th–century temple exhibits the once prominent Lanna Kingdom in all its glory in northern Thailand. Like a gilded nest of delicately crafted religious artifacts and relics, including an elephant shrine and a replica of Bangkok’s Emerald Buddha, this sacred site is a well-deserved reward after a jaunt hike up its 300 plus stairs.
A 12km drive north of the city, Doi Suthep mountain teems with waterfalls and lookout points, and worth a day-trip driving out.
Explore Old City Temples & Night Bazaar
There are several reminders of Chiang Mai’s history as the capital of Northern Thailand’s Lanna Kingdom. Located at the heart of downtown, the ruins of Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh, and Wat Phan Tao are impressive monuments and cultural sites.
Before falling into a moss-covered ruin, Wat Chedi Luang once housed the Emerald Buddha. It is still an active place of worship today, and the place for Monk Chat, where you get to sit and talk to a local monk about Buddhism, spirituality, Thai culture, and life’s many burning questions.
Just outside the Old City, is the Night Bazaar, a buzzing nightly market on Chang Klan Road with hundreds of stalls selling handicraft goods, electronics, art, jewelry, antiquities and housewares. Most merchandise does not have clearly labelled price tags, making haggling part of the fun while shopping.
Elephant Sanctuary Tour
Part of a new breed of ethical tourism, the elephant sanctuary tours in Chiang Mai allows travellers to mingle with elephants in natural jungle habitats. Most of the elephants at these sanctuaries were retired or rescued from logging and tourism industries, and are now given a safe haven to roam. Tours depart from the city and take place in the nearby jungles. Legitimate tour operators like Elephant Nature Park strictly prohibit visitors from riding the elephants, instead offer a chance to interact with them and give them a bath.
See the Karen Long Neck Tribe
A short drive into the outskirt north of the city, in Mae Rim, lies small villages of the Karen (Kayan) Long Neck Tribes. These ethnic hill tribes fled from Myanmar during recent political and military unrest in the country.
The Karen women are known for their elongated necks, a deformity caused by the brass coils placed around their collarbones since the age of five, pressing the bones downward to create the appearance of stretched necks. The hill tribe survives on local tourism, and in the villages, visitors get a chance to peek into their everyday life and purchase handcrafted goods.
Doi Inthanon National Park
The highest peak in Thailand, Doi Inthanon, stands at 2565m above sea level and is a natural sanctuary for many endemic wildlife and over 360 species of birds. The park boasts many scenic hiking trails surrounded by forests and waterfalls.
At the summit, are chedis dedicated to the last kings and queens of Chiang Mai, surrounded by an elegantly curated flower garden, with a lookout point to take in the far-reaching mountain range of northern Thailand rising above blankets of white mist.