Chiang Mai is quite a unique city in Thailand. Although it is the second largest city after Bangkok, often people come to visit Chiang Mai for many of their natural experiences – the waterfalls, national parks, elephant sanctuaries and Buddhist temples. These experiences can be a world away from the hustle and bustle of city life that you will be greeted with as you land.
We were a little surprised by Chiang Mai when we arrived. We just weren’t expecting so much, city. But after a quick bit of research and the help of our driver and hotel concierge, we quickly realized that Chiang Mai is still the jungley town that we had come to visit, we just might need to drive a little further out of the city!
If you haven’t visited Chiang Mai before and are planning your first visit, here are some of the most unique and popular attractions Northern Thailand has to offer.
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Chat with a monk
Perhaps the most unique and amazing experience you can have in Chiang Mai is Monk Chat, where you can sit down with a local Buddhist monk and ask them anything that’s on your mind. If you’ve ever wanted a question answered or would like to get in touch with your more spiritual side, this is a great place to go!
Most of the time, Monk Chat is done with younger monks, allowing them an opportunity to interact with people they wouldn’t normally and practice their English. However, some of the more experienced monks also like to have a chat with visitors from time to time.
Monk Chat happens at many different temples around Chiang Mai, including Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Generally at Wat Chedi Luang the monks will hang around on the outside tables and chairs between 9am and 6pm ready to have a chat and answer any questions you might have about Buddhist life. Alternatively, as Wat Phra That Doi Suthep hold Monk Chat from 1pm to 3pm each day. As it’s so poplar here you can book your chat session in advance.
There are many different other places around the city that also offer Monk Chat. It’s such a beautiful way to get to know more about a completely different way of life and understand yourself and the world on more of a spiritual level.
Monk Chat is free, but it’s always a nice gesture to offer a donation to the temple. And as always, remember your monk etiquette. Women should not touch or be alone with a monk at any time, and everyone should be dressed appropriately.
Explore the streets of the Old City
Chiang Mai’s Old City is completely overflowing with life. There are so many things to see, temples to explore, foods to try and places to shop. Surprisingly, it’s also still very much a local place, where you can find primary schools, kindergartens and local families going about their every day life.
The Old City is where you will get more of a feel for local life. There are less big resort hotels, instead offering many local home stays and boutique hotels. The culture is right on your doorstep, and you can easily walk wherever you need to go. Due to the tall walls and moat that surround the Old City though, you should expect longer traffic times, especially if you’re trying to get in and out of the city.
Some of the best attractions to visit in the Old City include
- The Pae Gate
- Lanna Folklife Museum
- Wat Chedi Luang (see below)
- Sunday Walking Street Market
- Khantoke Dinner at Old Chiang Mai Culture Centre
- City Arts & Cultural Centre
- Wat Phra Sing
- Chiang Mai Historical Centre
- Sophet Fresh Market – for all your fresh fruit and vegetables
Visit Wat Chedi Luang
A major feature of the Chaing Mai skyline, Wat Chedi Luang is one of the most famous temples in the Old City. It’s distinctly decorated by elephants, dragons and replicas of many of the country’s most famous Buddhas.
It was built over 700 years ago, and at it’s peak it was 80 meters tall. Unfortunately, it was damaged during an earthquake in 1545 and now stands at almost half of it’s original size. It has recently bee restored and is looking better than it has in a long long time.
Wat Chedi Luang is open from 6am – 5pm each day and is located on Phrapokklao Road.
Doi Suthep & Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Considered one of the most important places in Chiang Mai, Doi Suthep offers some of the most stunning views over the city of Chiang Mai and the surrounding countryside, as well as being home to some of the most loved symbols in the Thai Kingdom.
This National Park is a constant part of life in Chiang Mai. The common saying around this part of the country is “if you haven’t tasted Khao Soi or seen the view from Doi Suthep, you haven’t been to Chiang Mai”. The National Park stretches for 261 square kilometres and is the home to dense forests, tall mountains, stunning waterfalls and of course, stunning views across the city below.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is found right in the middle of all of this natural beauty, and is the main reason that visitors come to Doi Suthep. The temple is one of the most holy Buddhist sites in Thailand, completely covered in gold and full of Thai myths, mysteries and magic dating back almost seven hundred years.
Another significant part of Doi Suthep is the Bhubing Palace, which is still used as a holiday house to the Royal Family. This palace is actually open to visitors most of the year, except when the Royal Family is staying there – which is generally sometime between mid-December and early February.
Doi Suthep is also the home to a few small hilltribe villages that continue to live minimally, the way they have for thousands of years. Some of these villages will allow visitors to have a look around, and although some have become a little commercialized they are still an interesting place to see this type of remotely authentic lifestyle. Above image found here.
Admission: Many attractions around Doi Suthep are free, however there is a fee to visit the temple. Admission is 50 baht, which includes a return tram ride to the top of the mountain. If you’re visiting on a good weather day, you can also walk to the top up the stunning staircase, which has become almost an attraction on it’s own for it’s particularly Instagrammable photos. If you the staircase, admission is only 30 baht.
The Monthathan Waterfall within the National Park also has an admission fee of 300 baht.
Opening Hours: The temple is open from 6am to 8pm each day. Weekend and holidays can be extremely crowded, so make sure you arrive early if you’re visiting on the weekend.
Dress Code: As with any temple or sacred site in Thailand, you should dress respectfully when visiting Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. No shorts, skirts or tank tops. If you arrive without the proper clothing, you can rent pants at the gate for a small fee.
Doi Inthanon is the highest peak in Thailand, rising to an epic 2565 meters about sea level and with an altitude that means temperatures are quite chilly all year round. The national park is truly the epitome of natural beauty, with tropical forests, thundering waterfalls, mighty rivers and tall mountains surrounding the whole area.
It’s also the home to 362 different species of birds, many other kinds of animal wildlife and many remote hilltribes that are trying to maintain their traditional culture. You can also find many Chedis – or monuments – around the park, dedicated to the Royal King and Queen of Thailand.
During the cool season, between October and February, the temperature at Doi Inthanon can be well, freezing to be honest, so it’s always a good idea to rug up for your visit and take a couple of extra layers with you just in case. Above image found here.
Can’t Miss Waterfalls in Doi Inthanon
Mae Yai Waterfall – standing tall at 100 meters, this might just be the most stunning waterfall in the park.
Mae Klang Waterfall – easily accessible to visitors and located right near the park entrance, it’s a beautiful spot to stop for a picnic and a rest.
Wachiratan Waterfall – about halfway up the road, you can find lots of great swimming holes at the bottom of Wachiratan Waterfall. Although, if you do decide to go swimming expect more of an ice bath.
Siriphum Waterfall – less crowded than some of the others, Siriphum is almost at the top of the mountain. The water levels here does vary depending on what time of the year your visit.
The easiest way to visit Doi Inthanon is probably on a tour, as it’s located about 2 hours away from Chiang Mai.
Visit an ethical Elephant Sanctuary
There is a lot of discussion these days about animal tourism and the ethics of visiting such places. But in Chiang Mai there has been a movement, to save the elephants from dangerous conditions and rehabilitate them in a place where they can live in harmony and peace.
There are two sanctuaries in particular that take this mission extremely seriously and are leading the way in ethical sanctuaries. The Elephant Nature Park and Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, both just outside of Chiang Mai rescue elephants from logging companies, circuses, elephant rides and torturous conditions, and offer them a new home of peace.
Often these elephants have serious conditions, injuries or issues which makes it even more important that they always feel safe, protected and free from any threats that they might have come from. They each have their own unique story and it’s such a special experience getting to know these elephants a little bit better.
The only activities at these new types of sanctuaries is feeding and bathing the elephants and taking a walk around the sanctuary. There is strictly no riding, as it causes great pain to the elephants.
In all honesty, when we visited Chiang Mai we weren’t very lucky with the weather. It was gloomy, grey and rainy almost every day of our visit (although we did get a little bit of relief at the elephant sanctuary), so it definitely wasn’t ideal conditions to take beautiful photos or embark on epic hikes.
Sometimes travelling doesn’t always go exactly how you planned, and we spent much of our time in Chiang Mai enjoying our hotel (because I was quite sick during our visit), rather than exploring the countryside. But you always have to take the good with the bad and make the most of your experience.