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Chiang Mai is one of two tourist destinations in Thailand on TripAdvisor's list of “25 Best Destinations in the World.” The city is the largest metropolitan in the northern region, yet it is still bursting with historic Lanna charm (at one time the capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom), gorgeous temples seen on every corner, and none of the high rises you would expect to see in a big city. Compared to Bangkok, life is slower, people are friendlier, and the food is nothing short of mouth-watering.
Chiang Mai has the hippest restaurants and urban cafes that are second to none, yet the surrounding natural ecosystem is still very much intact. The city has a vast array of national parks, each with its own appeal to satisfy any nature lover or adventurous trekker. Chiang Mai is also one of the most popular places to be during the Songkran Festival, the largest water fight which takes place during the hottest time of the year.
Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX) is one of the seven international airports under the responsibility of the Airports of Thailand Public Company Limited (AOT), and is conveniently located just a few kilometers from the city. Chiang Mai is also the terminal station on Thailand’s northern railway route. Air-conditioned buses and overnight trains are also popular methods of getting here.
Songthaews (trucks with seating in the back), or as the locals call it Rod Dang, are a common mode of transport in both rural and urban areas. Tuk-Tuks (motorized rickshaws), are more intended for tourists, and can get pricey. Another option to get around the city is renting motorcycles.
The National Park includes Doi Inthanon, at 2,565 meters, the highest mountain in Thailand. Ang Ka trial, a short friendly walk which leads to Thailand’s highest point, is a must-do activity for any visitor. At the summit, during the winter time, the temperature can reach below 0° C. The peak of Doi Inthanon remains cool and humid all year round which makes Doi Inthanon an ever popular destination for Thais.
The national park is also known for its ancient forest, with a colorful variety of flora and fauna and is home to the largest number of birds in the country. There are also noteworthy waterfalls, such as the Mae Klang, Vachiratharn, and Mae Ya, located at various points in the park. Another attraction located in the park are two big pagodas, surrounded with beautiful gardens, built to dedicate to the King and the Queen of Thailand.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a must-see attraction when visiting Chiang Mai. The temple is located on Doi Suthep (Doi in Thai means mountain), 15 km from the city, and the trip up the mountain is quite a beautiful drive with viewpoints overlooking the city of Chiang Mai and the surrounding countryside. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was built in 1383 and it is believed to house a holy relic of the Lord Buddha.
The long flight of 300 steps leading to a temple is a great exercise for a fun pilgrimage, however, you also have a choice of taking the cable lift at a small cost. Once you get to the temple ground, you will assuredly be amazed by the striking picturesque image of the golden pagoda. For a superstitious gimmick, don’t forget to play the fortune sticks and discover your fortune.
Around Chiang Mai are a few elephant training camps such as Pang Chang Mae Taeng, Chiang Dao Elephant Training Centre, and Pang Chang Mae Sa. There are usually fun shows to be seen, including elephant football, elephant bathing, and elephants painting. Besides the fun shows, elephant trekking through the jungle and water rafting are the most popular activities for visitors.
A noteworthy attraction is a sanctuary and rescue center for elephants called Elephant Nature Park. There is no rides or shows for tourists, but you can visit or volunteer to stay for a day, or even longer, to help look after the elephants.
The 10-tiered stunning waterfall in Amphoe Mae Rim is set amongst towering trees, and offers a lovely breeze and flowing water all year round, making it a popular destination. You will see locals hanging out by the fall, eating lunch, and swimming at each level. Note that the route on the right side of the waterfall is easier and more scenic to hike up, and the best view of the fall can be seen once you pass the 5th level.
There are also many attractions and activities surrounding the area of Mae Sa such as a butterfly farm, monkey school, snake farm, horse-riding, bungee-jumping, and the Sirikit Botanical Garden.
Orchids are the most highly desired of all ornamental plants; if you’re a fan of this luxurious and exotic tropical flower, Chiang Mai offers four orchid and butterfly farms. All four farms are clustered in the Mae Rim district, located 13 km north of the city. Among the four, Sai Nam Phueng Farm is Chiang Mai’s largest orchid farm while the other three: Mae Rim Orchid, Suan Bua Mae Sa and Bai Orchid & Butterfly also offer their own unique vibes and aura.
Besides admiring the beautiful variety of orchids and butterflies, the farms also offers arts & crafts exhibits for viewing and souvenirs. The orchid farms are also a popular lunch spot, providing delicious and reasonably priced food for visitors.
The night market or more commonly called ‘Chiang Mai Night Bazaar’ is considered Thailand’s largest and most fascinating night market. The night bazaar offers a wide variety of items which are produced by small craft enterprises, and of course many laid-back and authentic eating joints. It is highly recommended for visitors to come here for an evening stroll, especially if you’re a first timer in Chiang Mai.
There are also a number of artists with pretty amazing artworks at night bazaar. If you appreciate handmade works or paintings, it is definitely worth a visit and you can leave with a memorable souvenir or home decoration at a good price.
The Ob Luang National Park lies 105 km south of Chiang Mai. The impressive landscape consists of limestone mountain ranges, waterfalls, caves, hot springs and a scenic river canyon popular for adventurous rafting. Ob Luang is also home to more than 34 mammal species, such as wild goats, bears, deer, jungle cats, gibbons, and more than 200 kinds of birds. Besides the park’s natural charm, archeology findings of ancient jewelries, potteries, tools and weapons were discovered here. Carbon-dating has indicated the relics to be 28,000 years old.
The real highlight of the park is the narrow and steep Ob Luang Canyon. The bridge, which crosses the Ob Luang Gorge, is the best place to admire the amazing scenery. The National Park provides rental tents and sleeping equipment for visitors at modest prices.
The attractions of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park include Bhubing Palace and Doi Pui’s summit. The National Park is located close to Phra That Doi Suthep and visitors often visit the park and the must-see temple on the same day.
Bhubing Palace is renowned for its beauty, with gorgeous gardens and immaculate Thai contemporary architecture - not surprising, as it is the winter residence of the King and the Royal Family. Within the confines is also a VIP quarter to receive national guests. The guest quarter has welcomed the Kings and Queens from Denmark and Belgium, and the Prince and Princess from the Netherlands.
Doi Pui summit is 1,658 meters high with an average low temperature of 10-12° C, the climate is cool and comfortable all year round. It is another major habitat for birds with over 300 species. There is also a camping ground located about 7 km from the Bhubing Palace.
Once a Royal temple, Chedi Luang is among the oldest of the temples in Chiang Mai. The main attraction of the temple is the majestic ruined brick chedi. At 60 meters tall and 44 meters wide it’s one of the tallest structures in ancient Chiang Mai. Located near the chedi is a magnificent assembly hall with an impressive interior built in 1928, containing a standing Buddha known as ‘Phra Chao Attarot’ dating back to the late 14th century. Wat Chedi Luang's other prominent attraction is the sao lak meuang (city pillars) believed to house the city's guardian deity.
The famed Emerald Buddha, now held in Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew, once resided here. Today there is a jade replica, given as a gift from the King in 1995 to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the chedi and the 700th anniversary of the city of Chiang Mai.
Chiang Dao is 72 km north of Chiang Mai; the name means “the City of Stars.” Chiang Dao’s main activities and attractions are bird watching, exploring the Chiang Dao Cave, and staying at San Phakia - a spot for overnight camping with a superb view of Doi Luang Chiang Dao and the valley below.
The best-known attraction here is Chiang Dao caves - a historic site with 5 caverns accessible to public viewing, containing beautifully formed stalactites and stalagmites. There are many superstitious stories associated with Chiang Dao caves, mostly about people entering and never coming out - a myth that could add some excitement to your adventure. Located in front of the caves is Tum Chiang Dao Temple, the caves used to be a place of meditation for pilgrim monks.
Mon Jam became a hot spot in Chiang Mai for Thai visitors due to a popularity of a TV drama which was filmed here several years back. Mon Jam is situated 40 minutes from Chiang Mai with a stunning panoramic view of mountainous terrains. Visitors love to come here for an overnight stay on the camping ground or in the many famous hill side resorts. Besides the gorgeous views, and beautiful seasonal flowers, visitors enjoy eating and purchasing the local fresh produce, and chillaxing with a cup of hot tea or coffee.
There is also a tribal village nearby with young locals who act as your tour guide. You can also rent tribal costumes or join fun tribal activities for a minimal fee. To get here you have to rent a van or the ‘rod dang’ prices are about 1,000 – 1,200 baht per trip.
A zoo is always a fun place to go see the country’s native animals, but the Chiang Mai Zoo offers so much more. The Chiang Mai Zoo shelters as many as 400 animal species, including elephants, hippopotamuses, ostriches, flamingoes, camels, zebras, tigers etc. The zoo also houses two large aquariums, with nearly 2,000 marine species. Among the zoo’s most famous exhibits are the three giant pandas, Humboldt penguins, and Cape fur seals.
Additionally, there is a snow dome where visitors can experience the climate of the South Pole with an added snow storm feature. Why? For kids who live in a heated tropical climate year round, and have never experienced snow or subzero temperature, it is a fun exciting experience.
The Chiang Mai Night Safari is also open during the day, but as the name suggests, the real action happens at night. The tour takes place on a tram as it transports visitors through the park’s 2 night zones: the ‘Predator Prowl’ showcases (fenced in) hunter animals like tigers, lions, and hyenas, and the ‘Savannah Safari’ provides views of animals like giraffes, zebras, and kangaroos. During the day you can enjoy a 1.2 km walk along the ‘Jaguar Trail Zone’ around a lovely swan lake. If you have children, they would love the petting zoo areas and the Children’s World mini theme park.
There is also a fascinating musical fountain and laser light show which takes place nightly at 8pm and 9pm. To get there, you can get a hotel transfer through a tour agency, or there is a free return mini bus that runs every evening from outside the Tourist Police office located in the middle of the Night Bazaar.
Nimmanhaemin, or as the locals call Nimman for short, is the trendiest neighborhood in Chiang Mai with chic boutiques, cafes, tea houses, wine bars, restaurants, galleries and hotels. It is definitely worth a visit if you want to take a break from the temples and nature to mingle with the urban dwellers.
Nimman is the place to be seen and people-watch on a slow day of relaxation. By night, it is also the place to be for dinner dates, social hang outs, and nightlife. Nimman could be described as Siam and Thonglor of Bangkok wrapped into one.
There are several hill tribe villages that are easily accessible from Chiang Mai, which were generally set up for commercial and touristy purposes.
One of them is Meo Tribal Village, situated nearby the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. The village consists mostly of shops with a small Meo museum. For some extra fun, you can dress up in tribal costumes and take photos.
Another local attraction is an organized group of tribal villages near the Maesa Elephant Camp. The 500 baht entry fee is rather steep but you will meet 5 groups of indigenous tribes, with the highlight being the longneck Karen ladies. The tribal families here make a majority of their living from the entry fee, so you can enjoy your experience as well as feel good knowing that you are helping out the local tribes.
There are several handicraft villages in Chiang Mai that help drive the local economy. The two noteworthy handicraft attractions are Bo Sang Umbrella Village and Baan Tawai, known for wood-carving. The villages in this case are not where the artisans live, but where they work, and sell handicraft goods.
Bo Sang Umbrella Village is an 8 km drive on San Kamphaeng Road from Chiang Mai. Along the way there you will find silk, silverware and gem showrooms. At Bo Sang, you will find local artisans making the world famous ‘Sa’ paper (mulberry paper) goods, like umbrellas, paper lamps, fans, and parasols that would be a wonderful gift for yourself or loved ones. The fun part is to watch the whole process unfold in front of you. If you feel creative, you also have an option of hand-painting your own ‘Sa’ paper product!
Baan Tawai is a village specializeing in wood-carving handicrafts. If you are looking for wooden artworks and furniture for home decoration, this is the place. Allow yourself several hours to go through the massive selections of goods and vendors. The crafts that you will find here include wood carving, silverware, lacquer ware, hand-woven textile, basketry and earthenware etc. Also, if you have extra time they have a workshop where you can learn how to carve wood.
The best time to visit Chiang Mai is from late October to February during the cool season, when the province experiences pleasantly mild, sunny weather. At higher elevations, temperatures can sometimes dip down to freezing at night. It is very hot and dry from March to June, with temperatures between 35 – 40 ºC, followed by the rainy season which lasts until October.