Chiang Mai is a city of approximately one million people. The town spreads at the footsteps of Doi Suthep mountain. It is a charming town, big enough to find anything you need, and adequately small to let you breath. The local people are gentle and smile a lot, the streets are jammed with cafes, live music bars and design shops. The libraries, book stores and art galleries abound as well. All the students attending the seven universities in and around Chiang Mai add a lot to the bohemian and creative vibe of the city.
I noticed tourists normally look at a trip to Chiang Mai from one of two angles. The first one – which I dare to call frugal – means a quick 3 to 5 days trip. It is the most popular thing to do as most of the tourists come to Thailand for the beaches and then they add a little extra in the North. If you fall into this category, here’s the recipe for making the most of your time:
There are over 300 temples in Chiang Mai and its outskirts. Some of them are quite new, others as old as the city itself which was built at the end of the 13th century. You will definitely not have enough time to see them all – as I am sure you lack the interest for such a thing as well – let me give you a shortlist.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Or as most people know it and call it: Doi Suthep. They say you have not seen Chiang Mai unless you saw Doi Suthep temple. Which it is true from at least one perspective: from up there, on the temple terrace, you get the best view over the city. It is worth a visit but please follow a piece of advice – do not go there during the day, but rather towards sunset, let’s say 5.30pm. This way you will avoid the massive crowds and get a chance to appreciate the stillness, the peace and the monks prayers at dusk.There is a jade factory across the street from the temple. You can learn about jade and spend some cash one some of the most beautiful pieces of jewelry there are out there.
To reach Wat Doi Suthep from the Old City jump on a songtaew (the red pick-up with benches in the back) or hire a tuk-tuk. Biking up is an option, as well.
Wat Chiang Man is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai. It’s distinctive piece is the chedi decorated with stone elephants. The temple is in the Old City and marked on any map, really easy to spot it on the little alleys.
Wat Phra Singh is renowned for the magnificent Buddha image inside. This one is also in the Old City.
Wat Suan Dok is my favourite and less visited by tourists. It is placed outside the Old City walls, on the West side. If you are interested in learning about Buddhism, this is where you should come as they host a Monk Chat program for the curious ones. You can ride a rented bike to the temple as it is not very far out.
The surrounding area
Mae Rim – an area in the Northern part of the city where you can find all the crazy tourist attractions: elephant rides, orchid nurseries, even a village where they gathered a few families of each “exotic” tribe – Kayan/Padaung (long neck), Akha, Lahu, Lisu etc. The infamous Tiger Kingdom is in this same area.
Flight of The Gibbon – Zipline Canopy Tours. They have a safety record of 100%. Jungle Flight is the main competitor, but it is developed by the same team with the same standards. They are both quite enjoyable; choose according to your budget.
Royal Flora Rachapruek is one of the largest horticultural exhibitions in the world, and it takes place every year on a dedicated space in the South-West part of the town. If you are into gardens and flowers, this is a must-visit.
Doi Inthanon – the highest summit in Thailand, reaching 2,565m. You can take a day trip to visit it. Sharing a renting car for this is the best alternative.
Night Safari – a theme park where you are taken around in an electric train, and you see all sorts of wild animals (lions, tigers, zebras, monkey, giraffes).
Chiang Mai Zoo – speaking of animals, the zoo is quite a place. Among the residents here, you can see three giant pandas and some Koala bears. The aquarium inside take pride in having the longest transparent tunnel in South-East Asia – that is the thing you walk through and see the fish swimming everywhere around you.
The Golden Triangle – it is rather far from Chiang Mai (about 250km), but there are lots of small agencies offering day trips to Chiang Sae, the point where the three borders meet: Thailand, Myanmar and Lao. The trips include a stopover at the White Temple in Chiang Rai, a boat trip to Don Sao, a small Laotian island on the Mekong, and at times a short detour to Tachilek – the bazaar town at the Burma-Thailand border. You leave at 7am and come back late at night. You spend most of the time on the minivan, but that’s the way to do it when you don’t have much time on your hands.
The handicraft villages. San Kampaeng – silk, silver, cotton. Bosang – the umbrella factory. Ban Tawai – furniture, decorations and loads of other small stuff. The three villages are worth a day trip, a packed wallet and an empty suitcase.
The West loop: Pai – Mae Hong Son – Mae Sariang
Funny enough, the best attractions, which make Chiang Mai famous, are not in Chiang Mai, but in the neighbouring provinces. In order to enjoy them you need at least 10 to 14 days in the North. This would be the second perspective I was discussing earlier. If you want to try it, I advise you to rent a car as it enables you to move freely and organize everything according to your own needs and desires. Plus the minivan drivers in Thailand are not the sanest people I have met.
Pai is halfway on the famous 1000 curves road, a small mountainous resort, very popular among the hippy travelers. The landscapes are breathtaking. The village offers a lot of very good food choices; laid back cafes, massage shops, live music venues. You see happy young people everywhere, foreigners as well as Thais. There is accommodation for any budget level. It is worth spending at least two nights in order to assimilate the chill vibe of this place.
Tham Lod Cave – you are in the area anyhow so it would be a pity not to visit one of the most impressive caves in Thailand. Tham Lod is about 50 km away from Pai (a bit over an hour), on the way to Mae Hong Son.
Mae Hong Son is the capital of the province bearing the same name. Seventy percent of the population here comes from the hill tribes. This small town is snug and quiet, placed in an area full of wonders – some of which I will detail a bit below. The Doi Kong Mu temple is worth a visit at sunset. Here, I witnessed some of the most delightful of sunsets.
Huay Sua Thao – a long neck village built a few kilometers away from the town. Built, yes, as all the families now living here have been brought from other parts of the region in order to be more accessible to the tourists. You may comment on the authenticity of the place but let me reassure you on one thing: people are as authentic as can be.