Thailand is a country of diverse cultures and undeniable spirituality, all scattered amongst some of the most breathtaking natural landscapes anywhere in the world! Where Bangkok rules the centre, Phuket the south, the north of Thailand belongs to one very special city, Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai covers the cultural spectrum of Thailand better than any other city! The ancient Thai capital is home to countless spectacular temples, whilst also being home to a myriad of other iconic institutions, from Sak Yant tattoos to incredible Muay Thai fights! There’s plenty to fill your itinerary, so here are the 20 best things to see during your time in Chiang Mai!
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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 chedis poking through the skyline.
Other than an awe-inspiring view, the mountain is also home to some of Thailand’s most beloved symbols! At 5400 metres high, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep houses a large white elephant shrine and a replica of the Emerald Buddha, which is considered the holiest image in all of Thailand!
To get there you can hike, rent a scooter, or hop in the back of a songthaew (red trucks which are communal taxis). And be sure to dress appropriately by covering your legs and shoulders!
Karen Long Neck Tribe
The images of the Karen Long Neck Tribe are recognisable throughout the world, as the women of the tribe (or at least one sub-group of the Karen) are renowned for the long brass coils they wear around their necks. Though the tribes were originally from Myanmar, they were sadly forced to flee from fear of cultural oppression and the political unrest brewing in the country at that time. Since then, these tribes have found a home in the hills of Northern Thailand where they live in their own traditional villages.
Villages are dotted around the provinces of Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son, and luckily for those visiting Chiang Mai, there’s one just outside the city in the region of Mae Rim. Visiting the village is a great opportunity to experience everyday tribal life and to see their crafting expertise firsthand! It’s highly recommended that you buy a souvenir while there, as it’s sadly one of the few sources of income the tribes have!
A guide on everything you need to know about visiting the Long Neck tribe in the highlands of Thailand.
If Chiang Mai is known for one thing, it’s temples! Of the 300 wats scattered throughout the city and the surrounding countryside, it’s tricky picking out the best ones to see. Though there’s no doubt that his next one deserves a place on the list!
The ruins of Wat Chedi Luang are the remains of an ancient temple situated 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 to the ruins that they are today.
Despite its crumbling structure, 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.
Get a Sak Yant
Some people leave Thailand with something much more memorable than any typical souvenir. The unique Buddhist form of tattooing known as Sak Yant has become modern backpackers’ “I’ve been to Thailand” badge of honour. Though don’t be mistaken, it’s so much more than a vain way to earn those Instagram likes!
Sak yants are hand-poked tattoos made up of sacred scriptures arranged in geometrical designs. The designs include Buddhist psalms and spells written in Thai or the ancient Khmer or Lanna scripts. These Sak Yants are designed to protect against illnesses, physical harm and even bad luck. They’re also thought to be able to change personalities and the achievement of goals by improving your power, charisma and fortune.
Genuine Sak Yants are only given by Buddhist monks or Ajarns, both of which are highly respected in Thailand. There are hundreds of different designs, each unique to the master who gives them. The most common designs are the three Master Yants which cover the majority of people’s desires; Hah Taew (five lines), Gao Yord (Buddha peaks) and the Paed Tidt (8 directions)
Though temples throughout Thailand give Sak Yants, the spiritual home of the art form is here in Chiang Mai! You could arrange one for yourself, however, you could be waiting in line for hours with very little choice or explanation of what’s happening.
Your best option is to go with a tour company, which guarantees a booking and provides you with an English speaking guide that’ll walk you through the process and, more importantly, act as a translator between you and the monk.
Everything you’ll ever need to know about Sak Yants and how to get one during your time in Thailand.
Yet another iconic image of Thailand, the majestic elephant is also the country’s most famed animal by far! Any visit to Thailand always includes a customary visit to a sanctuary to spend some time with Earth’s biggest land mammal!
Of course, in recent years it has come to light that elephants are often mistreated in many of these sanctuaries, and particularly in other industries. It’s now common knowledge that riding elephants is a cruel practice, thus such places should be avoided! Thankfully, however, there are still plenty of kind-hearted souls out there who do their utmost to take care of these beautiful creatures to the best of their ability and in some cases even rescue them from abuse, such as those used in logging industries.
In these ethical sanctuaries, you’ll have the opportunity to get up close to these wonderful creatures! You’ll be able to feed them, give them the medicine they need and you’ll even get the chance to clean them! Just make sure you research beforehand to find some ethical places to visit!
Wat Phra Singh
Of course, there has to be another temple on this list! Known as the Temple of the Lion Buddha, Wat Phra Sing is also a monastery that permanently houses 700 monks! Built as early as the 14th century, the temple stands right at the heart of the old city.
Chiang Mai’s largest wat was built by an ancient king in dedication to his father, whose ashes are still buried on the grounds. Of the many decadent structures, the assembly hall is by far the most grandiose which also houses Phra Chao Thong Tip, a very large copper and gold cast of the seated Buddha.
Though it doesn’t end there! The temple’s most sacred shrine is the adjacent building known as the Phra Viharn Lai Kam which houses the famous, now sadly headless, a figure known as the Phra Singh Buddha.
King Cobra Farm
They may not be as iconic as the humble elephant, though these slippery serpents are certainly a notorious Thai inhabitant! Thailand is home to over 200 different snake species including pit vipers and king cobras, which only happen to be the world’s deadliest snake! So why not get up-close-and-personal with these lethal killers?
The King Cobra Farm in Mae Rim is your chance to get to know these deadly critters! The farm is the largest of its kind in the region and houses an enormous collection of snakes as well as other reptiles and creepy crawlies.
Upon arrival, you’ll be personally guided through the compound by one of the snake handlers who will take you to each paddock and 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, the handlers will guide you to a small staging area where they’ll perform a short demonstration with the snakes!
Wiang Kum Kam
Another highlight, and another temple to visit! About 5 km south of Chiang Mai along the Ping River 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 are 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.
Chiang Dao Cave
Not only does Chiang Mai have plenty of amazing sites to see above ground, but under it too! Within the immense system of Chiang Dao Cave are 12 km of interconnected caves which, as legend has it, stretches all the way to the Shan State in Myanmar! As tempting as it may be to explore its entire length, only a small section is open to the public!
Inside the cave systems, you’ll come across several Burmese-style images of Budda which line the walls of the caverns. The further you delve into the labyrinth, the darker it gets until you reach complete darkness. From then on you’ll have to rely on some pretty powerful torches to inspect some of the caves’ natural beauties.
Amongst the numerous figures of Buddha, you’ll come across countless stalactites and stalagmites. Though nothing can compete with the wonder of the frozen water walls which were formed by centuries of dripping water.
Doi Pui Tribal Village and National Park
In the mountainous region of Northern Thailand, there are plenty of peaks worth exploring! Doi Suthep-Pui National Park features several waterfalls fit for any shampoo commercial! Montha Tan Waterfall is easily one of the best with its nine cascades that flow into Huay Kaew Waterfall at the foot of Doi Suthep. Others worth your time include Tat Mauk Waterfall and Mae Sa Waterfall.
The national park is not only home to one of Thailand’s highest peaks, but it’s also home to the Hmong Tribal Village. Much like the Karen Hill Tribe village, you’ll have an opportunity to look at the daily life of these tribal villagers. It’s a fascinating opportunity to learn about the history of the tribe and different aspects of their culture through their musical instruments, traditional silver-embroidered costumes and bamboo crafts.
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Back in the city, Tha Pae Gate marks the boundaries of what used to be the “Old City”. This crumbling landmark dating back to the 13th century Lanna Kingdom once acted as the city’s fortress. During the city’s formation, the wall, adjacent moat and several large gates were built to defend against attacks from Mongol and Burmese armies!
Today the area acts as a tourist centre with a congregation of hotels, bars, restaurants, cafes and massage parlours (both cheeky and otherwise). The area also has a spacious public square that plays host to a variety of events, from lantern-lighting during Loy Kratong, to water-fights at Songkran and regular live music and cultural shows throughout the year.
Doi Inthanon National Park
Temple’s aren’t the only speciality Chiang Mai has! As this list shows, the province is renowned for its extraordinary national parks, and this is the biggest of all! At 2565 meters high, Doi Inthanon is the highest peak in Thailand! The immense altitude means that it’s one of the few places in Thailand that remains relatively cool throughout the year, and can even get below freezing!
The mountain also has its fair share of waterfallsand a hill tribe village, though the real attraction is found near its peak. Amongst a beautifully designed garden standing side-by-side are two beautifully designed chedis built to honour King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit.
It’s possible to hike the mountain, however, if you hope to visit all the sites you’re better off hiring a driver or, better yet, rent a scooter for yourself!
A Traditional Thai Massage From A Prisoner
Nothing beats a stress-busting massage while on vacation. Since you’re visiting a country that literally has a type of massage named after it, why not indulge yourself by having a cut-priced rub-down from a local. If that’s not tempting enough, why not get yourself a relaxing close-contact massage from a convicted felon?
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. These programs offer services both within prisons from current felons and by ex-prisoner in a nearby massage parlour.
Before you get all tense, feel secure in the knowledge that these women are watched over at all times! What’s more, this is an important life-changing opportunity for them! This is their chance to set up a new life after prison, so they can’t afford to break your neck!
Bor Sang Village
About 9 km outside of the Old City is another curious village, one that has a very unique speciality! Bor Sang 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.
Every decent city needs a decent centre of hustle and bustle, and this is Chiang Mai’s! The night bazaar is a one-stop shop for all your buying needs! Whether you’re after clothes and tech or just after a bite to eat, there’s a bit of everything on offer. You can even sit down and enjoy a local Muay Thai fight! The night air is full with chants of haggling, beer-swilling, face-punching excitement, and is a great place to top off another fabulous day in the city!
Watch A Muay Thai Fight
The incredible city of Chiang Mai ticks all the iconic boxes of Thai culture. Temples, elephants and Sak Yants are just some of the most well-known, but there’s another cultural masterpiece that’s resonated throughout the world. The combat sport of Muay Thai (as the name suggests) was created right here in Thailand, and where better to experience the art form than in its spiritual home!
You can find a fight going on 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! As for the north of Thailand, Chiang Mai is where it’s at. Many people even believe it’s where the sport was first developed!
For a higher level of production, head to Chiang Mai Boxing Stadium, where you’ll be able to see a brutal fight every day of the week! If you’re after a more personal and beer-fueled experience, you can check out Thapae Boxing Stadium or Loi Kroh Boxing Stadium where you’ll likely see more tourists. For a completely informal setting, check out the aforementioned Anusarn Boxing Stadium at the hear of the Night Bazaar.
Everything you need to know about the sport of Muay Thai in Thailand! From where to watch a fight to where to train it yourself!
Running adjacent to the former eastern wall of the city, the Ping River separates Chiang Mai’s west from the little-visited eastern side. It’s a great place to find some accommodation as you’ll be able to watch life slowly flow past as fishermen go about their day! Though there is no better way of experiencing it than getting on the river yourself!
A boat trip along the Mae Ping River is an excellent way to explore deeper into the countryside surrounding Chiang Mai as you delve deeper into traditional local villages. On some tours, you’ll even have an opportunity to visit local farms and learn about life in the area. A great change of pace and an opportunity to get in tune with the surrounding landscape.
The San Kamphaeng Hot Springs
For even more sense of variety, why not visit a natural wonder! Nestled within the forest and mountains 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 area also includes mineral baths and traditional mineral pools, however, it’s not that tempting in 40°C weather! Yet it might be worth it, as this highly sulfuric spring water is believed to have curative powers! If you ever get hungry you could even buy an egg nearby and drop it into the near-boiling water!
Bua Thong Sticky Waterfalls
As this list shows, there are just as many amazing things outside the city as there are inside! Hidden deep down the forest-covered mountains, is yet another fascinating natural wonder, the Bua Thong Waterfalls. The surface of the falls is made up of mineral deposits which have made the rocks incredibly grippy, even as the water is running over them! You can literally walk along the surface of the waterfall without a problem!
Though the night bazaar is certainly worth a visit, nothing beats the might of Warorot Market! Opening early in the morning, this is the local market where the prices are much lower than tourist markets. Pick up everything from local produce to clothing and souvenirs! Surrounding the market you can even find Thai Handicraft goods made by the local Hill Tribe which are also much cheaper prices than anywhere else.
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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.