This is a general guide for activities you can do and sites to see in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
There are many old and beautiful wats (temples) to discover in the historic city center of Chiang Mai. Some highlights:
Wat Phra Singh: built in 1345 (and where I did my practice teaching during TEFL). Very beautiful with lovely gardens in the back where you can see older monks and young students walking. There is also an all-boys school on the grounds.
Wat Chedi Luang: built around 1400 and later renovated. I really like this wat because it has some very cool ruins behind the main building with large elephant statues.
Wat Suan Dok: built in 1371, easily my favorite wat. There are many small white chedis (or shrines) that house the ashes of the old royal family behind the wat. There are also some very cool old white entry-ways on the grounds and many friendly soi (street) dogs. It’s always very quiet and tranquil as most tourists don’t venture out of the old city (it’s located just below the university). The best part? There is an awesome restaurant behind the monks’ school building that has hands-down the best vegetarian food in Chiang Mai. It’s called Pun Pun’s and is supported by a local farm co-op (the founder did an awesome TED talk that can be found here). They have the most delicious smoothies and drinks too if you just need a refreshment, with a moving tree in the middle of the patio give it a nice ambiance. I love this place.
Doi Suthep: Doi, meaning mountain, describes this green giant looming over Western Chiang Mai. About halfway to the top is a lovely wat complex called Wat Phra That (wot-praw-tot), a major tourist attraction for foreigners of all nationalities. It is always busy, packed full of Buddhists making their offerings and sending up prayers as well as scantily clad Westerners who seem to miss the whole ‘appropriate attire’ memo (come on people, do some research beforehand! Would you walk into church in a spaghetti strap and booty shorts?). When there is no fog or clouds, you can get an amazing view of the Chiang Mai city center and outskirts. Wat Phra That can be reached by taxi, songtaew, or my favorite mode of transportation, a motorbike. But beware, the roads are very windy, so if you are prone to car-sickness, prepare yourself!
One of my favorite activities in Chiang Mai is trekking through the nearby mountains. A variety of options are available for all ages: day-trekking (or walkabouts), multi-day treks, eco treks, etc. The most interesting treks, if you have the time, take you far outside of Chiang Mai into hill tribes where only a single trekking group stays and involves exciting, beautiful, but also very difficult hiking. The most popular treks are the packages including hiking, a waterfall, river rafting, and an elephant ride. DON’T CHOOSE ONE WITH AN ELEPHANT RIDE*. Also, a word of warning: be sure that you are in good physical condition before embarking on the multi-day treks. The one I went on was grueling 80% of the time, but very worth it. The treks are also expensive, and can cost as much as 100$ or more a day. To make it cheaper individually, get a group of travelers together and try to go for a group deal.
*The animals on these treks are not treated well, they are overworked, and their backs were not made to carry fat tourists. Sorry, but it’s true. For an elephant to be that docile, they must endure a painful and traumatic ‘breaking’ process as a baby that would turn anyone’s stomach and bring tears to your eyes. Please don’t support this tradition.
Elephant Nature Park
I was lucky enough to visit this wonderful park (thanks Mom!) where the owner, Khun Lek, rehabilitates injured, abandoned, and rescued elephants. It was established in the 1990’s and allows tourists close contact with elephants that does not impinge on their personal freedom to roam about or enjoy the nearby river. There is NO elephant riding by visitors, but you do get a chance to feed them and wash them in the river which is a lot of fun. All of the proceeds go to rehabilitation efforts for the elephants, forest preservation, the soi dog spay/neuter and rehabilitation center on the grounds, and other great causes. I can’t speak for other elephant sanctuaries, but do your research when choosing to make sure the sanctuary is a reputable place. If you want more information on the Elephant Nature Park, check out their site here.
Chiang Mai, being notorious for it’s delicious and cheap food, is a popular place for Thai cooking classes. There are stacks of brochures at most hotels and guest houses offering one option or another, and for the most part, they look very similar. I haven’t tried one yet, but Chiang Mai is the place I would do, without a doubt. Classes usually take about 3 hours and let you keep all the delicious food you make! Most offer one appetizer, one curry, one noodle dish, and one dessert.
The Samoeng Loop
For the brave (and experienced) moto drivers out there, the Samoeng Loop is a shorter and easier driving experience than the larger Mae Hong Song Loop. It takes about 6 hours with regular stops and offers you some amazing views. If you hit the loop at the right season, you can also see the local strawberry patches and buy delicious local strawberries and homemade strawberry ice cream from the roadside stands. You can stop at the Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens and local waterfalls along the way. I recommend going from North of the old city to the South (ending up by the airport).
Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens
The lovely Queen of Thailand is well known for her conservation efforts and love of nature, which can be seen in the botanical gardens given to her for one of her birthdays. The garden grounds are amazing, and best driven through (walking would be a journey, but it’s doable). There is an amazing orchid greenhouse, lotus greenhouse, carnivorous plants greenhouse, etc. and the complex is usually not very busy as most tourists don’t make journey up there. It is located along the Samoeng Loop, only about a 30 minute drive from the city center (without traffic). There is also a lovely waterfall on the grounds.
Phu Ping Palace
Yeah, it’s pronounced ‘poo ping’. This is the royal winter palace where the royal family used to spend their winters to escape the dry heat of Bangkok. I have not been here myself, but have heard from other tourists that when it’s open, the grounds are lovely and it is a sight to behold. Plus, it’s called PooPing Palace. What more could you ask for?
Do you have any specific recommendations of places people should try? have you had any memorable experiences at any of the places on this list? Let me know in the comment below or email me here.