The Thai winter is upon us, and people in Thailand (tourists, locals and expats alike) look to the north when making their end of year travel plans. Chiang Mai is one of the most coveted travel destinations as, towards the end of the year, the temperature drops slightly below 30 degrees Celsius and the mercury in the thermometers hover around this marker until late January.
Being such a huge province with so many tourist attractions, there is a plethora of destinations worth visiting. But, all these famous places attract hordes of people too, so on your next trip to Chiang Mai, consider mixing popular attractions with lesser-known ones. This way, you’ll surely get a better travel experience and really see what the province has to offer.
Here are 10 destinations in Chiang Mai province which reflect a large spectrum of attractions, from nature to religion to culture to urban life. It’s hard to recommend an order for these destinations to be visited in as, on most occasions, you’ll get sidetracked by other attractions you’ll surely see on your way (and, most often, stop to check out).
- Bhubing Palace (www.bhubingpalace.org)
Built and still used as a royal residence, Bhubing Palace is also famous for receiving and lodging foreign dignitaries who visit Chiang Mai. The Log Cabin built for this purpose has an amazing view of an artificial lake with huge water sprinklers. Apart from a large variety of trees specific to the cooler climate, the grounds are dotted with colorful flowers beds, including the famous local orchids and roses. The few buildings found here, including the palace itself, are built in characteristic Thai architecture and, although they’re not open to visitors, they make great photo backgrounds.
- Chiang Mai Zoo (www.chiangmaizoo.com)
Regardless of whether you’re travelling with kids or not, the zoo in Chiang Mai is great not only because it’s got over 400 animal species but also because it has two big aquariums. One of them boasts of having “the world’s longest tunnel aquarium” which gives the visitors an amazing (though quite dizzying) “underwater” experience. Among the animals you can see here are pandas, koalas, camels, lions, tigers and even a rhino – the only one in Thailand.
- Doi Inthanon National Park (www.dnp.go.th)
If you like being on top of things, then Doi Inthaon is the mountain to climb. At an altitude of 2.565 meters, Doi Inthanon is the highest mountaintop in Thailand, and a peak to tick off the list of any wannabe mountaineer. The dense forests that encompass the national park are home to over 360 bird species, some of which are visible with the naked eye. The trip to the top can be made both on foot or by car. Make sure that, on the way to the top, you stop at the two chedis built on two adjacent peaks. The moss covering the trees here is especially beautiful when covered by morning dew and the view is magnificent.
- Doi Suthep Temple (www.doisuthep.org – Thai only)
Not to be confused with the mountain where it’s located, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a temple that gives the best panoramic view of Chiang Mai City and the surrounding area. The “white elephant legend” – which tells of a white elephant that climbed the mountain, trumpeted three times, and then died on the spot – was seen as a good sign for the Siamese who built the temple complex there. The trip to the top of the mountain has several scenic spots and the 309 steps that need to be climbed to the very top make this destination one of the highlights of any visit to Chiang Mai.
- Doi Pui Hmong Village (www.hmongnet.org)
A Lonely Planet recommended destination, Doi Pui Hmong Village is a place that seems to have been transported in the mountains surrounding Chiang Mai out of a different century. Apart from taking a nice walk along tight alleys filled left and right with ethnic merchandise of various real-value, you can also visit a small museum, enjoy a walk in a mountainside garden with a waterfall, and even have a go at shooting a hand-carved mini crossbow. While you’ll be aiming at big fruits, the local Blue Hmong villagers actually use these crossbows to kill rats.
- Monthathan Waterfall
When most foreigners see an itinerary that involves a stop at a waterfall, the first thing they think of is, “Did I bring my swimming suit?” At Monthathan Waterfall you don’t need to worry about your attire as, apart from dipping your feet in the rushing water, there’s no pool to go swimming into. But, the big rocks surrounding the vegetation and waterfall are a great place to sit down and enjoy the nature. If there aren’t too many Thai people chit-chatting over food and drinks, it’s also a great location to do some meditation with the sounds of the falling water in the background.
- Muang-on Cave
Exploring caves can be a lot of fun, especially when there’s some climbing and a bit of adventure and mystery involved. Muang-on Cave is such a place: from the parking lot at the base of a hill, you’ll have to sweat it out a bit to the entrance of the cave, but not before having climbed almost 200 steps flanked by two mythical naga serpents. In the main cave chamber there’s a 10-meter long reclining Buddha statue and, if your imagination is vivid enough, you might even be able to see the fossilized skeleton of a dinosaur in the ceiling above.
- Sankampaeng Hot Springs
Interested in seeing hot water coming out of the ground? Then Sankampaeng Hot Springs is a neat place where, apart from observing the wonders of Mother Nature with its geysers spewing hot water above the ground, you can also boil eggs directly in the hot spring and even dip your feet in a hot spring “bath.” The surrounding gardens and benches make it a great place to bring your picnic basket along and have something to eat.
- Wat Pan Whaen
There are over 300 temples in Chiang Mai and you can easily visit ten of them within minutes of your walking out of the hotel room. Unless you’re an expert in Thai religious architecture, these temples will most likely look fairly similar to each other. Guide books, travel websites, and tourist maps will surely point you to the most “important” ones, but if you’re looking for that serene temple you saw on National Geographic, then try to locate Wat Pan Whaen. The temple is made entirely of wood and, although the paint is peeling and the front door golden decorations are fading, the atmosphere is so peaceful and inspiring.
- Night Bazaar
Evenings and nights in Chiang Mai are bustling with people going out to the famous Night Bazaar on Chang Klan Road. The Night Bazaar is a sweaty affair with hundreds of people browsing for bargains, buying food, and drinking refreshments (sometimes at the same time). Even if your luggage is full, it’s worth spending a few hours in the bazaar. It’ll be probably an experience you’ll not forget any time soon.
Chiang Mai will require at least a few days if you want to cover the destinations recommended above, but you wouldn’t ran out of things to do or see even if you stayed for a month. To save time, it’s not a bad idea to rent a songthaew for a day or half a day and agree with the driver on the places you want to visit. If time is not an issue, then take Chiang Mai one day at a time, go on walking tours, adventure trips, and explore its nightlife at your own pace.
The 700 kilometers from Bangkok to Chiang Mai can be travelled by air, bus, or overnight train and you could be there in as little as 70 minutes, 11 hours, or half a day respectively. If you drive your own car, it’s not a bad idea to break the journey in two days and stop for the night in a province halfway though. Either way, it’s going to be a trip to remember.