The ancient capital of Chiang Mai perfectly illustrates the spectrum of what makes Thailand so great. Spectacular natural landscapes and undeniable spirituality live hand in hand alongside vicious martial arts and vibrant red-light districts.
There’s little wonder that so many ex-pats lay their foundations in this city! Though as much as we’d all love to spend months exploring this fascinating region of the world, few of us have that luxury! So, in that case, let me show you the perfect itinerary for exploring the spiritual haven of Chiang Mai!
Table of Contents
Time to hit the road running and start your first day with some of Thailand’s biggest cultural icons. You best get up early for this one!
Visit an Elephant Sanctuary
There are a few symbols as iconic to Thailand as this one! These wonderful gentle giants gather visitors from all across the world who come to spend time in their company. It’s almost become a right of passage for travellers in Thailand, and they’ll undoubtedly form some incredible lasting memories!
Thankfully, in recent years the public has become more aware of the ethical practices relating to these animals. The Elephant Rescue Park on the far outskirts of Chiang Mai is one of these spectacular sanctuaries that go out of their way to take care of these poor creatures! As the name suggests, the sanctuary saves elephants from abusive industries and provides them with a safe place to live and the care they need.
You’ll be able to feed them, give them medicine, and even get the chance to clean them! What’s more, tourist cash goes a long way to provide these poor animals with what they need.
King Cobra Farm
Thailand is home to yet another iconic animal, though this has far more of a bite to it! There are over 200 species of snakes slithering their way through these lands, so why not get up close and personal with some of them?
The King Cobra Farm has become an iconic stop for visitors travelling through Mae Rim and was even featured in the latest Rambo movie! The little roadside attraction has a large collection of reptiles, from the deadly Thai cobra to giant iguanas and snappy scorpions.
You’ll be personally guided through the compound by one of the snake handlers who will take you through each paddock to introduce you to the animals. You might even be allowed to hold a few of them, the non-venomous ones of course! At the end of the tour, you’ll be treated to a short, exhilarating demonstration with the snakes!
Mae Sa Waterfall
The landscapes of Northern Thailand consist of rolling mountain ranges and deep valleys, amongst which there are plenty of treats to be found. That includes shampoo-commercial worthy waterfalls which are scattered throughout. Down the road from the King Cobra Farm is one of the very best, Mae Sa.
The 10-storeyed waterfall cascades its way through the outskirts of Doi Suthep Pui National Park (we’ll explore more of that tomorrow!) Flowing for miles upon miles, it gathers tourists from across the region who come to beat the heat in its refreshing streams.
Baan Tong Luang Eco-agricultural Village (Karen Long Neck Tribe)
The Northern hills of Thailand have become a haven for some of Southeast Asia’s most fascinating tribes. While some escaped persecution from neighbouring Myanmar, others drifted here naturally from nearby countries. Of these tribes, one has become an iconic image recognised throughout the world, the Karen Long Neck Tribe.
The fascinating women of this tribe are renowned for the long brass coils they wear around their necks, giving them the appearance that they’ve been elongated! In reality, it’s just an optical illusion as the ladies’ shoulders have been deformed after years of ring-wearing.
Tribal villages are dotted around the provinces of Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son. Luckily for those visiting Chiang Mai, the village of Baan Tong Luang is along the road you’ll be following in Mae Rim! Though some find these places to be touristy, they’re one of the few ways that these tribes are able to make an income. Additionally, due to the recent pandemic, they need your support more than ever!
Chiang Mai Boxing Stadium
After a full day of exploring some of Thailand’s biggest cultural icons, time to finish your day with one of the more violent! The combat sport of Muay Thai (as the name suggests) was created right here in Thailand! So where better to experience the art form than in its spiritual home?
You can find a brutal, action-packed fight almost everywhere in Thailand! From neon-lit, televised stadiums to a bunch of plastic chairs and one too many beers, there are plenty of places to watch some sanctioned violence!
For your first night, there’s no better place to add to your itinerary than one of the premier venues in the country, Chiang Mai Boxing Stadium. Lucky for the bloodthirsty amongst you, fights take place there every day of the week!
Everything you need to know about the sport of Muay Thai in Thailand.
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From one action-packed day to the next. Once again, you’ll be spending your day on the outskirts of the city.
Wat Pha Lat
As this day will be all about the serenity and tranquillity of nature and spiritual houses, then it’s best to start off on the right foot.
At the base of Dui Pui mountain, Wat Pha Lat is a tiny little temple that’s slowly been reclaimed by the rainforests that surround it. You’ll find little crowds and escape the unwanted distractions of the city. Sitting beside a gorgeous waterfall and hidden beneath a thick canopy, it’s one of the hidden gems of Chiang Mai and earns a place on your itinerary!
Doi Suthep Trail
There are plenty of places around the Doi Suthep Pui National Park worth exploring, though sadly most of us won’t have the time to explore that much of it! In the interest of speed, there happens to be the perfect trail to give you a crash course in the park’s beauty!
Leading from the back of Wat Pha Lat, this serene little trail cuts through the lush rainforest while passing by some jaw-dropping waterfalls along the way. The short 30-minute trail also conveniently leads toward your next stop on your Chiang Mai itinerary!
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
To say that Chiang Mai has a thing for temples is an understatement! Though of the many hundreds found in and around the city, one is regarded above all others!
The crowning temple of Wat Phra Doi Suthep is by far one of Northern Thailand’s most sacred. Legend has it that a piece of Buddha’s shoulder bone was mounted on a white elephant (a sacred symbol in Thailand) who then climbed Doi Suthep before laying down and dying on the spot where the temple was later built.
The temple also holds yet another renowned piece, a replica of the Emerald Buddha, which is considered the holiest image in all of Thailand! On top of that, the stairway leading towards the temple is a worthy spot in itself!
Thailand’s royalty knows a thing or two about luxury, and the Bhubing Palace goes to show just that! Built by the order of King Rama V in 1961 to be his Chiang Mai residence, it also became the royal guesthouse for prominent State visitors. Fortunately for us commoners, the lavish gardens and soothing grounds are open to the public.
Amongst the ancient gardens, a large placid reservoir surrounded by fresh landscapes and trickling fountains adds an air of opulence. You can also stop to pay homage to the Khru Ba Si Wichai Monument, dedicated to the man who constructed Phra That Doi Suthep.
Baan Doi Pui (Hmong Tribal Village)
The mountains of Northern Thailand are home to more than just the Karen Long Neck tribe, in fact, there are 7 different sub-groups of tribes scattered around the surrounding region. Of them, the Hmong Hill Tribe is the second largest in Thailand and makes up about 17% of the total hill tribe population.
Though you may have come across some members of this tribe in Baan Tong Luang, there’s a village solely dedicated to the Hmong tribe here on Doi Suthep. It’s a fascinating opportunity to learn about the different aspects of their culture through their musical instruments, traditional clothing and bamboo crafts.
Of course, these places are not exactly traditional and mostly centre around tourism. However once again, this is a vital source of income for these villagers, and an excellent crash course for visiting foreigners.
Everything you need to know about visiting the Long Neck tribe in the highlands of Thailand and why you should experience it.
Whilst still in the Hmong Tribal village, there’s the perfect place to learn more about their rich cultural history! Starting in 1984, this tiny museum decorated like a hill tribe house was started by monk Ying Wangwonnat as a place to sell Mong tools and antiques to visiting tourists. In later decades the place started to gather numerous items donated by the local villagers to be a source of knowledge, and viola, you have yourself a little museum!
You can learn more about the tribe’s origins in China and how they still maintain certain Chinese practices. Better yet, at the back of the museum, you can find out exactly what the tribe’s source of income once was in the form of a genuine opium poppy garden!! A pretty rare find these days.
According to locals, you haven’t really been to Chiang Mai until you’ve seen the views from Doi Suthep! Standing 12 km outside of the city centre, the majestic mountain gives a commanding view back towards Chiang Mai and its numerous upward stretching chedi.
This should mark the perfect end to your Doi Suthep adventure, and a great opportunity to sit back and enjoy the majestic views that the mountain ranges offer! You could head further along one of the many trails, or at this point, you can call it a day and make your way back down.
After a full day of exploring, you surely will have built up quite an appetite! Luckily, Chiang Mai has the perfect place to feed your hunger!
The night bazaar is a one-stop shop for all your consumer needs! Whether you’re after cheap clothes and dodgy tech or just a bite to eat, there’s a bit of everything on offer. You can even sit down and enjoy a local Muay Thai fight in the rinky-dink ring nearby!
The night air is full of chants of haggling, beer-swilling, face-punching excitement, and is a great place to top off another fabulous day in the city!
For our third day, we will be staying within the city limits. This day will mostly focus on some of the fascinating temples that surround the city.
As there’s such a high density of amazing sites, you’ll likely pass plenty of interesting things to see while making your way through the city. There are countless more spots that I could have added to this itinerary, but these are just some of the very best that old Chiang Mai has to offer!
Wat Suan Dok
Built in 1373 under the rule of King Keu Na of the ancient Lanna Kingdom, Wat Suan Dok became his prime residence. In later years, the temple also became a place which welcomed visiting priests who would stay in the attached monastery.
The name of the temple translates to mean “the field of flowers”, as it was once placed on a blossoming flower farm. These days the blooms of plant life have been replaced by a gorgeous collection of stupas, some of which contain the cremated remains of one of Chiang Mai’s previous rulers!
The courtyard also contains Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University. As the name might suggest, this place provides higher learning for local monks!
Tha Pae Gate
This crumbling landmark dating back to the 13th century Lanna Kingdom once acted as the city’s fortress. Along with the nearby moat and several large gates, it was a formidable obstacle for the invading Mongols and Burmese armies to overcome!
Today, Tha Pae Gate marks the boundaries of what used to be the “Old City” of Chiang Mai. Its perimeters gather a congregation of hotels, bars, restaurants, cafes and massage parlours (both cheeky and otherwise).
Wat Phra Singh
Though there are a fair few temples in this itinerary, this is by far one of the most significant in Chiang Mai! This 14th-century temple is easily the city’s largest, and also comes with an attached monastery which permanently houses 700 monks!
Known as the Temple of the Lion Buddha, Wat Phra Sing is home to many decadent structures. These include the assembly hall which houses Phra Chao Thong Tip, a large copper and gold cast of the seated Buddha.
Though it doesn’t end there, as the temple’s most sacred shrine is the adjacent building. Within Phra Viharn Lai Kam is the iconic, though now sadly headless, figure known as the Phra Singh Buddha.
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Now from one of Chiang Mai’s biggest temples to one of the oldest! This 500-year-old temple’s deceptively reserved appearance makes it all the more spiritual.
The temple’s fascinating stone pagoda cascades down in 3 tiers to a surrounding of lotus flowers and chakra arches to create a wonderous spiritual landmark. It’s certainly a beautiful sight! In fact, it’s classified as a masterpiece of ancient Lanna art!
Wat Chiang Man
Yet another beautiful temple with a fascinating royal history! Dating back to the 13th century, this temple acted as the residence of King Mengrai while the city of Chiang Mai was still being built!
The inner halls also hold a number of fascinating artefacts with a unique history! The sacred marble Phra Sila, which depicts a standing Buddha taming an elephant, originated from India while others debate it came from Sri Lanka. Either way, pretty fascinating!
There’s also a 10 cm-tall quartz crystal Phra Satang Man Buddha, which is believed to have been made around 200 CE! The figure is revered for its ability to protect the city from disasters.
Chiang Mai Women Correctional Institution Vocational Training Center
After 3 action-packed days of exploring every corner of Chiang Mai, your body must be in agony! So, what better way to relieve your tension than a good old-fashioned massage? Though here, they do it a little differently.
The Woman’s Prison in Chiang Mai runs various programs that allow soon-to-be-released women an opportunity to learn some useful skills which they’ll be able to use following their freedom. As such, current felons and ex-prisoner travel to a nearby massage parlour to practice their trade!
Though it may be difficult to relax in the circumstance, feel secure in the knowledge that these women are watched at all times! What’s more, this is an important life-changing opportunity for them, so they can’t afford to break your neck!
Wat Chedi Luang
As pristine as many of the temples of Chiang Mai are, there really comes a beauty with one that’s been left in ruins! That’s the case with Wat Chedi Luang, a crumbling ancient structure in the heart of Old Chiang Mai.
Before an earthquake damaged a large portion of the temple in 1545, it was once home to the Emerald Buddha, which now stands in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok. Following the capture of Chiang Mai from the Burmese a few years later, the temple was left to fall into the ruins that they are today.
To this day, the temple is still an active place of worship that attract countless monks daily. The courtyard also contains a smaller temple which has a shrine dedicated to Chiang Mai’s guardian spirit, Lak Muang. The temple stands below an enormous gum tree which, according to tradition, if it should fall, disaster will overtake the city.
Loi Kroh Boxing Stadium
Ding-ding!! Though you may have already watched some violent blood sports, I guarantee you’ve never experienced it quite like this! You’d be doing an injustice if you left out Loi Kroh Boxing Stadium from your Chiang Mai itinerary!
This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, as the ring is in the heart of Chiang Mai’s red-light district. Observing men and women getting beaten half to death in the midst of lady bars (if you know, you know) filled with scantily dressed women with a mission to flirt.
Regardless of your ethics, the combination of beer-fueled, neon-lit, last days of Rome vibe makes it such an exciting experience!
For your final day, we’ll take things a little easier and end your Chiang Mai itinerary with some serene relaxation!
Though night bazaars are most definitely worth your time, seeing local markets in the early hours of the morning is a whole different beast. Of the many places to check out, Warorot Market is by far the mightiest!
This is the local market where the prices are kept much lower compared to the tourist spots. Here you’ll be able to find everything from local produce to clothing and souvenirs! The outskirts of the markets also have a myriad of handicraft goods made by the local Hill Tribes which are also much cheaper compared to anywhere else.
Many are too afraid to try some street food in case they get sick!
Running adjacent to the former eastern wall of the city, the Ping River separates Chiang Mai’s west from the little-visited eastern side. Though it’s glorious just to sit next to the gentle running water, there’s the best way to experience it is by cruising along it!
Along the river cruise, you’ll pass fishermen going about their day and get the opportunity to explore traditional local villages. A great change of pace and an opportunity to get in tune with the surrounding landscape.
Wiang Kum Kam
Though you might be templed-out by now, there’s one more worth visiting for good measure! About 5 km south of Chiang Mai are the wondrous archaeological sites of Wiang Kum Kam. This ancient city dates back to the 8th century Haripunchai Kingdom, and would later serve as the capital of the then Lanna Kingdom for a short while until it was replaced by Chiang Mai in 1296.
Though the site has some gorgeous modern halls, the main attraction is the ruins that were left behind! Some of the greatest discoveries in the area include stone tablets with Mon inscriptions, Buddhist sculptures, architecture, and pottery.
Bo Sang Village
Though you’ve come across some fascinating villages on this trip, time for one with a bit more of a curious twist! About 9 km outside of the Old City, the village of Bo Sang has a unique speciality. The village is renowned for the outstanding umbrellas they hand-craft from sa paper, which is made from the bark of mulberry trees.
The village acts as a wonderful production line that plays a role in everything from creating umbrellas to selling them in mass. You’ll find everything from hand-painted parasols for gardens to tiny cocktail umbrellas. Though most traditionally have floral patterns, the designs have evolved with time to include depictions of Chiang Mai’s rural scenery and even abstract patterns.
San Kamphaeng Hot Springs
Whilst sweating your balls off in 40°C weather, stepping into the toasty waters of a hot spring might be the last thing on your mind! Though after days of hiking and aching calves, its the perfect way to soothe those sore muscles of yours!
Nestled within the forest deep in the countryside are the San Kamphaeng Hot Springs. These iconic mineral baths are famous for the streams of boiling water that they shoot from the ground below! The highly sulfuric spring water is also believed to have curative powers. A perfect way to end your Chiang Mai itinerary.
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Thank you so much for reading The Ultimate Itinerary: Chiang Mai in 4 Days! Now check out these other helpful articles!
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.