Chiang Mai’s top tourist sights are encompassed by its ancient Lanna culture, but there are many natural and modern attractions which are easily accessible and within a short drive from the city. The surrounding mountains are home to plenty of spectacular caves and waterfalls, which combined with the many temples and traditional architecture have visitors returning to the city time after time.
The first stop on most tourists’ sightseeing agenda is the famous hilltop temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which clings to Doi Suthep/Pui mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. Strangely, few visitors care to make their way farther up the mountain, where the royal family’s summer residence Phuping is found. There are also isolated hilltribe villages and coffee plantations just a short hike away.
Chiang Mai itself is home to plenty of beautiful temples, where you can just sit and soak up the peace and quiet away from the bustling streets and lanes. Wat Pra Singh is one of the most important Chiang Mai attractions and has recently been renovated, while Wat Chiang Man is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai. Those who want to learn more about the life of a Buddhist monk can visit Wat Suan Dok, where a daily ‘monk chat’ is organised by friendly, English-speaking monks.
The best way to really take in the daily life of Chiang Mai is to lose yourself among the narrow lanes and alleyways. This way you’ll come across plenty of attractions otherwise ignored by the tour groups, but which really make up the heart and soul of this city. Wandering around the local markets, notably Warorot and Somphet, is far more rewarding sightseeing than squeezing through the ever-popular but touristy Night Bazaar. More on Chiang Mai shopping.
A stroll along the pretty city moat and past the old city walls is a good way to get your bearings before exploring Chiang Mai in more depth. Thapae Gate is the best known of the four city gates and right in the centre of the main tourist strip with plenty of nearby attractions.
Continue on to Chiang Mai Gate with its bustling market before enjoying in a well deserved break in Buak Hat City Park. Next up is Suan Dok Gate with Wat Phra Sing just a short detour into the old city. The moat dates back to the city’s founding in 1296, and the renovated corner bastions and city gates have been retained for effect. Chang Puak Gate invites sightseers to its lively market and Wat Papao, just along the road on the outer side of the moat, is the spiritual home of Chiang Mai’s considerable Burmese Shan population.
There are many more temples and other attractions listed on our main 1stopchiangmai site. More on virtual tours of Chiang Mai.
Daytrips from Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is made for daytrips, with the many mountains, waterfalls, caves, hot springs and other natural attractions all easily reachable and welcoming sightseers throughout the year. The mother of all daytrips is the ride up Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain at 2,565 metres. The best option is to rent a car or strong motorbike so you can stop off at the many attractions on the way up the mountain. It’s an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai and has several jaw-dropping waterfalls. More on Doi Inthanon.
Two other important northern towns are found south of Chiang Mai. Another moated city of Lamphun is only 30 minutes drive away and pre-dates Chiang Mai with some ancient temples from the Haripunchai Kingdom. Farther south (100kms) is sleepy Lampang which is noted for some important temples.
The Samoeng loop is also an easy daytrip with plenty of attractions, and nice way to sample the northern Thailand mountain scenery in a single day. Head out of the city towards the airport and then turn right towards Samoeng, a charming little village with a strawberry fair in February. On the way, you’ll pass lots of beautiful resorts leading eventually to the north side of city and Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens, with plenty of orchids and plants not normally associated with tropical climates. Attractions of the Mae Sa valley.
Continue down out of the valley to the spectacular nine-level Mae Sa Waterfall before hitting Mae Sa valley, Chiang Mai’s ‘adventure valley’. Here you can catch a monkey or snake show, brush up on your archery skills, ride an ATV, play Rambo in the paintball arena or take a leap of faith on the bungee jump among many other attractions.
The lesser east side of the valley is noted for the Sankhampeng hotsprings and enormous Mae On Cave. Few people continue on from here up into the mountains as far as the eco-village of Mae Kham Pong, but the lush scenery is gorgeous and there is a great restaurant, David’s Place, at Tangthong lodge.
An easier trip is south to the handicraft village of Baan Tawai in the Hang Dong district, which can be combined with a visit to Doi Inthanon. This is a shoppers delight with wholesale prices on a range of delightful hand made items.
This seven day exotic tour highlights the most fascinating treasures in two of Thailand’s most visited cities, the ancient city of Chiang Mai in the northern part of the country and the bustling and colourful metropolis of Bangkok. On tour you get an introduction to the best loved sites in both cities and experience Thailand through some quintessential Thai activities like elephant-backed riding.