Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, is ideal for long weekend trip. More manageable than Bangkok, in terms of size and price, Chiang Mai has tons to offer those looking for culture, adventure, or a taste of the some traditional cuisine.
We stayed for about a week in total on either end of our volunteer stint at Elephant Nature Park. Our weeklong adventure with the elephants was easily one of the highlights of our trip and a wonderful thing to consider if you’re in Chiang Mai for enough time. More on that later.
First things first… Sight-Seeing Spots
There are plenty of places to check out in Chiang Mai if you’re looking for temples or simply a place that tells a unique story.
**For reference, as of September 2018, 1 USD is about 32 Thai Baht
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
The biggest tourist attraction in Chiang Mai, this massive Buddhist temple is roughly 12km outside of the city and offers a spectacular view of the city from above. The cost is around 15 baht per person.
Wat Chedi Luang
The ruins of this ancient Buddhist temple is located near the center of Chiang Mai and used to house the Emerald Buddha, the holiest religious object in all of Thailand. Cost of entry is around 40 baht per person.
Doi Inthanon National Park
This massive national park is home to both the largest peak in all of Thailand and the largest number of native bird species in the whole country. Spend a day exploring the vast, manicured parkland and take a break from the bustling city below.
Wat Phra Singh
This 14th century Buddhist temple and monastery is home to over 700 monks and offers a number of temple tours that will give you a great introduction to the rich Buddhist history and traditions in this part of Thailand. Cost of entry is about 20 baht per person.
Wat Sri Suphan
Full disclosure, this is the only temple that we actually went and visited in Chiang Mai. The silver temple is small, stunning, and close to the heart of Chiang Mai. It doesn’t take very long to visit, and only men are allowed inside (I know…), but it is marvelous to see. Entry is based on donations - whatever you feel like giving to the upkeep of the temple.
Chiang Mai’s Grand Canyon
Stunning and refreshing on a hot day, this old soil quarry has a restaurant and bar onsite and is about 40 minutes out of the city center. The cost for entry 450 baht per person (roughly $14).
Where to Eat & Stay
If you’re looking to stay in a hostel, look no further than Thunder Bird. Boasting a perfect location, Thunder Bird is right in the middle of the Old Town and only a few minutes walk from the amazing Sunday Night Market off of Phae Walking Street, one of our favorite markets in all of SE Asia. It’s clean, ultra-modern, has a bar, rooftop area, and big, comfortable rooms. What more could you want?
As for places to eat, as usual, we’ve got a few ideas for you:
Rustic & Blue: wonderful brunch place
Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak: AKA the cowboy hat lady, made famous by Anthony Bordain for her braised pork leg over rice
Sunday Night Market: THE place to try all the local favorites, especially the Khao Soi noodles (my favorite dish I tried in all of SE Asia)!
Chiang Mai’s Weekend Market
We’re always the girls who explore, but sometimes we’re also the girls who shop like we don’t live out of backpacks.
Chiang Mai’s Sunday Market starts at the The Phae Gate in the old part of the city and goes on and on and on from there. There are a dizzying number of colorful stalls and vendors selling everything from antiques to clothes to silver jewelry to wooden carvings. Barter your way through the crowds and pick up a thing or two to bring back on your journey home.
My number one thing not to miss? If you continue walking down Phae Walking Street, you’ll eventually get to a big intersection that’s a bit like the center of the market. If you take a right, you’ll immediately see, for as far as you can see, an enormous display of Thai paintings.
I’m not just talking traditional paintings or the watercolor type art you typically see in markets. There are hundreds of paintings in all different styles that are absolutely stunning, unique, and completely original to the Thai painters selling them at the market. I fell so in love with one painting that I came back the following week to buy it even though it meant carrying it with me for the seven plane trips we would take before making it home (too big for the ol’ backpack).
While you’re there, don’t miss out on trying Khao Soi Noodles, a delicious curry-type dish that’s served in the food section of the market and that is unique to northern Thailand. It is soooo good, I am not exaggerating when I say I ate this at least ten times before we left Chiang Mai and Pai.
Overnight Trips from Chiang Mai
I will always recommend that, if you have a few spare days in northern Thailand, you take the trip to Pai. A few hours and over 750 turns north of Chiang Mai, Pai is the laidback paradise you never even knew you were longing for.
I wrote an entire separate post, an ode to my love for Pai, detailing what there is to see and do in this mountain city. The highlights include the daily night market, food and coffee galore, lively nightlife, and stunning natural wonders to explore.
If you have the time, don’t miss out on Pai!
Chiang Rai & Wat Rong Khun
I’m not going to lie, we decided against this after a friend of ours went and said it wasn’t worth it. However, I have to include this overnight because of Wat Rong Khun, more famously known as the 'White Temple.'
I think most everyone who goes to northern Thailand is considering a trip to Chiang Rai with the sole purpose of seeing this unique and breathtaking place. It’s also unlike any other temple you’ll see in Thailand because it’s not actually a temple.
That’s right, Wat Rong Khun is actually a privately owned art exhibit that is designed to mirror a Buddhist temple. The construction for this exhibit didn’t even begin in 1996 and it opened its doors to visitors for the first time in 1997!
Visually, it’s supposed to be stunning. The temple was originally a traditional Buddhist temple that was in bad need of restoration. This project that was undertaken by famous Thai visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed and funded the project himself. Wat Rong Khun is now a learning and meditation center and a place for people to benefit from and better understand Buddhist teachings. Construction is still underway, but visitors still come to marvel at the the meticulous detail, design, and the way it seems to sparkle in the sun (in part thanks to glass that’s built into the plaster).
Eco-Tourism in Chiang Mai
This area of Thailand is famous for places where you can interact with some of the country’s famous and threatened fauna. There are numerous elephant reserves and parks just an hour or two out of the city as well as Tiger Kingdom, where tourists go to get their photos taken with tigers.
PLEASE DO YOUR RESEARCH!
Tiger Kingdom is disgusting. Nothing they do there is for the benefit of the species or for the individual animals kept there. The tigers are drugged and abused and that is the ONLY REASON they are docile enough for you to get close enough to touch them. It is a inhumane practice that is sustained purely for the sake of, and with the money of, tourists. Please, please avoid this place and tell others to do so as well.
Elephant parks and reserves around Chiang Mai are a little more complicated.
There are numerous and, due to the more docile temperament of elephants, it’s slightly more difficult to sort out which are genuinely built on good practices and which are mistreating the animals for your benefit.
We spent a week at Elephant Nature Park as volunteers, an amazing experience that we discuss in more detail here. ENP rescues elephants from logging practices, street performing, and other abusive situations all over Thailand. The park accepts day visitors, overnight visitors, and weeklong volunteers who help out around the park.
Here are the things they allow you to do:
Feed the elephants
Walk the park, where the elephants, as well as hundreds of water buffalos and dogs, roam freely
Pet and take pictures with the elephants
Here’s what you can’t do:
Ride the elephants
Bathe the elephants
Approach an elephant without permission from your guide
Elephants do not enjoy being ridden. It’s something they’re trained to allow, typically from a young age and in a brutal fashion. ENP doesn’t allow for the elephants there to be ridden by visitors, but other elephant parks in the area around Chiang Mai do. Believe me when I say that observing these animals in as natural a space as they’ve ever known, is magic enough.
We can’t recommend our experience and time at ENP enough. Even if you only have a short time in Chiang Mai, an overnight visit to the park is well worth your time and money. It’s an experience you won’t forget!
You can learn more about ENP, the work they do, and the volunteer/visiting opportunities they offer on their website.