- The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes. Marcel Proust
Travel to Chiang Mai, Thailand
Rightfully trumpeted as Thailand’s ‘Rose of the North’, Chiang Mai is an alluring city brimming with glittering temples, enticing jungle, mouth-watering street food and the bustle of lively markets.
As the gateway to the Thai hills, Chiang Mai has grown far beyond the medieval city walls that once marked it as the original capital of the northern Lanna Kingdom. Still, its temple-lined backstreets conjure up the glory of the great Thai dynasties and it remains a city steeped in culture and tradition.
Today, ancient shrines and traditional wooden houses jostle for space with boutique hotels, stylish restaurants and trendy bars as Thailand’s second city begins to attract a heady mixture of creative college students, high-spirited expats and wide-eyed travellers with its welcoming customs and laidback pace of life.
Tourist Attractions in Chiang Mai
Wat Prathat Doi Suthep
This mountaintop temple is a must-see in Chiang Mai. Wat Doi Suthep's central shrine contains a much-revered, seated Buddha, and is one of the most popular attractions in the city. You can reach the temple by hiking up the mountain (a sweaty but surely memorable endeavor), renting a motorbike, or hopping into a songthaew (red trucks that essentially operate as communal cabs). The drive is a short one, so you can do this whole trip in about two hours. At the base of the staircase leading up to the temple, you'll find vendors selling souvenirs, antiques, and snacks. Brace yourself for the climb because the staircase is steep, but the effort is well worth it. Statues of two demons guard the entrance to the temple precinct. Generally only two of the six gates leading to the gallery and the chedis are open. The gallery is adorned with statues of Buddha in the Chiang Mai and Sukhothai styles. The temple itself is ornate, with many representations of the Buddha, detailed dragon statues, and elephant carvings. There is also a small museum on the premises.
This small Hmong village is admittedly more tourist oriented than authentic. Yet there is a small exhibit of a traditional hill tribe home, and information on the history of the many groups that have settled in the Thai mountains in past generations. If you're feeling particularly touristy, you can dress up in ethnic garb for a photo shoot. There are many small shops where you can purchase hand-woven textiles, handmade jewelry, tea, and other goods.
There is a large garden with a diverse array of plants, and the view from the village is breathtaking. Stop for lunch at one of the small restaurants overlooking the greenery below and order a hot bowl of khao soi, Chiang Mai's most famous dish. Add this to your itinerary the same day you visit Doi Suthep, since you only need drive a bit further into the mountains to reach Doi Pui. Enjoy the ride; it's a beautiful one.
This is the highest peak in Thailand, and the national park that surrounds it is filled with some of the many natural wonders that make the country such a draw in the first place. You can do some trekking and hike the mountain, or take a more leisurely route around the park. Several waterfalls and a hill tribe village are other draws, along with two pagodas built to honor King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit. You'll want to either hire a driver for the day or rent a motorbike and see the sites on your own, as you won't be able to make your way through the entire park on foot. But it's only about a two-hour drive from the city, so if you leave early, you can get in a full and satisfying day on the mountain.
Wat Chedi Luang
Ruins aren't exactly a rare sight in Chiang Mai, or in Thailand generally, for that matter. But there's something about Wat Chedi Luang that is particularly beautiful and haunting. Constructed in 1401, the imposing structure was damaged during an earthquake in 1545. But it remains remarkable today, and you can still see the massive elephant carvings that adorn it.
Beneath a huge gum tree on the left of the entrance to the precinct stands a delightful little temple, the Lak Muang. Built in 1940 on the site of an earlier wooden building, the shrine is the abode of Chiang Mai's guardian spirit (Lak Muang). According to tradition, if the great tree should fall, disaster will overtake the city. The temple is something to behold at any time of day, but it's particularly lovely at night, when it is all lit up.
This temple stands at the heart of the Old City, which is where travelers spend much of their time. Amidst the close sois, or alleys, and heavy motorbike traffic, Wat Prasingh rises at the end of Rachadamnoen Road. It is the largest wat in the city, and dates to 1345 when an ancient king built it in his father's honor. The father's ashes are still buried on the grounds - but don't let that spook you from visiting. The decadent structures are impressive, and it's an especially great place to check out on Sundays.
The wat's most sacred shrine is a small building called the Phra Wiharn Lai Kam, erected during the reign of King San Muang Ma (1385-1401) to house the famous, now sadly headless, Sukhothai-style figure known as the Phra Singh Buddha.
Chiang Mai Gate Market
This is the place to find the best street food in Chiang Mai. Every night, vendors set up at the Chiang Mai Gate and sell everything from pad kra pow (spicy meat and basil dish) to the perfect dessert of fresh mango sticky rice topped with coconut milk. Do yourself a favor and order a smoothie from Mrs Pa. Her stand is located directly across from the 7-Eleven and says Pa's Smoothies on the sign. Your best bet is to let her mix up a concoction of her devising; you can never go wrong this way. The market is held seven nights a week, but it's best to go on weeknights since there are fewer vendors on Saturday and Sunday evenings.
This is a great spot for shopping, if you are prepared to do some haggling. Because the Night Bazaar attracts many tourists, you'll want to be on your guard against getting ripped-off. But there are some great finds here, from clothes and scarves to carvings and housewares. When you're finished shopping, you can take in a muay Thai boxing fight at the stadium on the premises. Muay Thai fights are a big part of local culture, and can add an exciting element to your stay in Chiang Mai. Entrance to the fights is usually between 200 and 400 THB.