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Things to Do in Chiang Mai

After the dizzying metropolis of Bangkok and the buzzing beach resorts of the south, Chiang Mai shows off a side to Thailand that many visitors miss. The capital of northern Thailand is a city infused with Thai culture and it’s best explored at a leisurely pace, strolling around the maze-like lanes of Old Chiang Mai, admiring the ancient temples and royal pagodas, or browsing the markets for traditional handicrafts. Looming over the northwestern edge of the city, the mountaintop Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple is the crown jewel of Chiang Mai’s spiritual heritage. Back in the city, Wat Phra Singh (Wat Phra Sing Waramahawihan), Wiang Kum Kam, and Wat Chedi Luang are among the most visited landmarks, while those intrigued by Thai culture can experience a Thai massage, take a Thai cooking class, or sample a traditional khantoke dinner. Chiang Mai also serves as a popular base camp for trekking to the Hmong, Karen, and Lisu hill tribe villages, and there are ample opportunities for jungle treks, white-water rafting, bike tours, and zipline adventures in the surrounding region. A short drive from the city, the Doi Khun Tan and Doi Inthanon national parks abound with lush rainforest, cascading waterfalls, and forest-cloaked temples. Further north, Chiang Rai is the gateway to the so-called “Golden Triangle,” the meeting point of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.
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Wat Chedi Luang
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78 Tours and Activities

If you’ve ever wanted to chat to a Buddhist monk, pull up a chair at Wat Chedi Luang. As you enter the wat from Th Phra Pokkao, turn right and you’ll see some tables under a sign reading ‘Monk Chat.’

The partially ruined wat dates back to the year 1441, and is most famous as the former home of the incredible Emerald Buddha. Nowadays, a jade replica fills the eastern niche of Wat Chedi Luang, and you can see the original in Bangkok at the Wat Phra Kaew.

Wat Chedi Luang has undergone a restoration program, which has added several Buddha images, porticoes and statues.

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Wat Phra Singh Waramahawihan
60 Tours and Activities

If you only see one temple during your time in Chiang Mai, Wat Phra Singh (also known as Wat Phra Sing Waramahawihan) should be it. Set in the heart of the old city, the temple was founded in 1345 and is home to Chiang Mai’s most sacred relic – the Phra Singh (Lion Buddha image).

The temple consists of many buildings, but the most spectacular is the golden wihan that houses the Phra Singh. Look for classic Lanna architectural features like the three-tiered roof, white chedi with an octagonal base, and lion statues guarding the entrance. It is possible to go inside to see the Buddha statue, just remember to remove your shoes first. Wat Phra Singh is an active temple and lucky visitors may see chanting monks or a blessing ceremony. Many novice monks study here and are happy to practice their English by sitting and chatting with tourists in the temple gardens.

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Warorot Market
40 Tours and Activities

Whether it’s dried durian paste and spicy bowls of hot curry or prayer beads and bath towels, the halls of Warorot Market definitely have a little something for everyone. The indoor hub for local ingredients and inexpensive clothing is a perfect place for travelers to sample local cuisine and stock up on handmade items and cheap souvenirs. The streets surrounding the market are also lined with stalls selling handicrafts and artwork from area hill tribes at a fraction of the cost.

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Wat Suan Dok
30 Tours and Activities

Wat Suan Dok’s brilliant golden spire stretches high into the skyline of the northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai and has done so just west of the old city walls since the 14th century. The name roughly translates to "field of flowers," as the temple stands on a site that was once the garden of a ruling monarch. Today, the ashes of some of the royal family are tucked into the wat’s spires, as homage to leaders past.

Wat Suan Dok is a favorite among travelers, particularly photographers, who gather amid the temple’s ornate structures during sunrise and sunset to capture impressive photos filled with rose-colored light. A 500-year-old bronze buddha—one of the largest in the region—also makes this a popular stop. Aside from the structure itself, there is a Buddhist university at the site as well. Monks in training are often eager to share conversation and practice their English with visitors in informal "monk chats."

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Tunnel Temple (Wat Umong)
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This Buddhist temple near Doi Suthep mountain is also known as the “Tunnel Temple,” both for its unique network of underground tunnels and its location in the forest. There is a large stupa to visit, as well as “talking trees,” which feature words of wisdom in both Thai and English. Monks here live in a very natural setting, among deer and ponds full of fish and turtles.

Stroll the temple grounds under trees and across trails, or explore the underground tunnels, featuring many shrines to Buddha. It is said that the tunnels, dug underneath an artificial mound, were created to keep a highly regarded monk who was prone to wandering from getting too far from the temple. It was later abandoned, adding to its ancient, wooded feel—but today several monks live on the site. Its tranquil environment makes it a popular spot for meditation.

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Chiang Mai Night Bazaar
13 Tours and Activities

Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar is perhaps the city's most popular must-do attraction. The colorful mix of regular shops and stalls create a unique market buzz.

You’ll find everything for sale here, from ersatz designer brands to embroidered hill tribes textiles, lacquerware, silver jewelry, carvings, silks, ceramics and antiques.

The best range of antiques is on the second floor of the covered market building called the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, to the north of the busy intersection near a narrow cross street.

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Mae Ping River
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The Mae Ping River cuts through Chiang Mai just a few blocks east of the old city and night market. In central Chiang Mai the banks of the river have been developed and are home to hotels, open-air restaurants, and bars, while in the countryside the river retains its natural charms. The ancient city of Wiang Kum Kam is also set on the banks of the Mae Ping River south of Chiang Mai.

Sight-seeing tours and dinner cruises along the Mae Ping River available. For the more adventurous, kayaking and rafting trips can be arranged.

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Three Kings Monument (Anusawari Sam Kasat)
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The Three Kings Monument (Anusawari Sam Kasat) is located in the center of Chiang Mai’s walled city in front of the old provincial administration building, which now houses the Chiang Mai City Art & Cultural Center. This is one of several museums that have opened within old municipal buildings surrounding the Three Kings Monument, making this area particularly popular with history fans and other tourists.
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Chiang Mai Night Safari
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Chiang Mai Night Safari is a large zoo and theme park that is open throughout the day and night. Particularly popular with families, it is modelled on Singapore Night Safari but is twice the size; the site is sprawled across some 300 acres and is home to around 1400 animals.
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Wiang Kum Kam
13 Tours and Activities

Wiang Kum Kam is an ancient “lost city” located on the banks of the Mae Ping River. It was founded in the 13th century by King Mangrai and was the royal capital prior to Chiang Mai. Wiang Kum Kam was abandoned in the 16th century due to flooding, and was only rediscovered in 1984.

Wiang Kum Kam has been partly restored to its former glory and visitors can tour the ruins of ancient temples and see the carved stone tablets unearthed by archaeologists. Some of the sites have plaques with information in English and guides are available for hire.

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More Things to Do in Chiang Mai

Baan Thong Luang

Baan Thong Luang

10 Tours and Activities

This eco-agricultural village in northern Thailand is the present home of four hill tribe groups: the Lahu, Palong, Lahu and famous long-necked Karen tribe. Built in 2005 as a cultural preservation project, the village brought together the different tribes into one community and became accessible to visitors.

Set peacefully in the hills among rice fields and thatched-roof houses, the village grants the opportunity to experience hill tribe life in one place. Walk through the winding trails and see women wearing brightly colored textiles—many of them weaving and spinning clothes. Many of the tribes have migrated from nearby Myanmar (Burma) and maintain their cultural traditions, including the wearing of several brass rings around women’s necks. There are various handicrafts on display throughout, including jewelry, dolls and textiles—the sale of which provides income for the people here.

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Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre

Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre

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For a crash course in the history of Chiang Mai, pay a visit to the Arts & Cultural Centre in the heart of the old city. Using a mixture of labeled artifacts, audio recordings, photographs, and life-size dioramas, the centre’s multimedia exhibits take you on a journey from Chiang Mai’s ancient past as the Lanna Kingdom to its present as a modern, cosmopolitan city. Topics include royalty, religion, agriculture, and hill tribe people. There are also subtitled videos about the history of Chiang Mai that you can watch in air-conditioned comfort.

In addition, the Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre serves as a venue for special exhibits and cultural events. Enquire with the staff about upcoming events like dance or music performances.

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Art in Paradise

Art in Paradise

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Thapae Stadium

Thapae Stadium

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Mae Sa Waterfall

Mae Sa Waterfall

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Located in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, Mae Sa Waterfall is one of the most enjoyable waterfalls to visit in Chiang Mai province. The waterfall consists of eight tiers which cascade over rocks in the midst of the jungle. A well-worn path leads from the lowest fall to the highest and each tier has a marker sign. Since the individual falls are not that high or fast-moving, they are ideal for swimming.

Mae Sa Waterfall is a popular retreat from the city and full facilities are available including washrooms, picnic tables, and food stalls.

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Araksa Tea Plantation

Araksa Tea Plantation

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Suan Bua Mae Sa Orchid Farm

Suan Bua Mae Sa Orchid Farm

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Thailand is renowned for its variety and quality of orchids, and the Mae Sa Valley, north of Chiang Mai, is a place to go and see their beauty at the source. The Mae Sa Orchid farm is home to a large complex of thousands of orchids and an enclosure of live butterflies, and in addition to the 50-plus types of brightly colored orchid flowers to see, there are also tropical plant species and hybrid plants to explore.

Visitors can stroll through the peaceful gardens, breathe in the floral-scented air and see the orchids, which bloom year-round. Butterflies flutter overhead, as the farm doubles as a sanctuary for hundreds of them. Enjoy the variety of tropical species on display in their natural habitat, or have lunch at the onsite restaurant.

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Elephant Parade House

Elephant Parade House

From the Conservation Center to the Nature Park, the north country of Thailand offers travelers plenty of opportunities to get up close and personal with some of the nation’s biggest mammals. But perhaps the most unique elephant-themed experience—and certainly a favorite among travelers—is a trip to the Elephant Parade House.

Visitors can wander the colorful gallery of life-sized baby elephant statues painted in vibrant hues by local and international artists. These fun 3-D artworks have been displayed in public markets, parks and train terminals in cities all around the world. Handcrafted replicas of some of Elephant Parade House’s most famous statues are available to take home, but the best part of visiting this popular stop is the chance to paint a personalized statue, which could be displayed in the next big public elephant parade.

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Baanchang Elephant Park

Baanchang Elephant Park

Not all elephant parks in Thailand are created equal—in fact, the popular activity can sometimes lead to deplorable conditions for these gentle giants—but at Bannchang Elephant Park and Day Care, some 45 miles north of Chiang Mai in Mae Taeng, you can feel good about your visit. A nonprofit rescue center, the site takes working and orphaned baby elephants out of unsavory conditions such as logging camps and circuses to give them the new job of teaching visitors to respect and help conserve wild elephant populations.

Courses and tours here last either one, two or three mostly-full days and teach visitors the work of a traditional mahout or elephant caretaker. Regardless of length, each visit includes the opportunity to feed, bathe and bond with the elephants, but longer courses can incorporate knowledge of commands, communication techniques and the chance to ride an elephant bareback on a jungle trek through the park’s property and to a small area waterfall.

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Elephant Nature Park

Elephant Nature Park

From scenic day trips to weeklong volunteer adventures, Elephant Nature Park offers travelers a variety of ways to get up close with these giant mammals and learn more about conservation efforts in Thailand.

Visitors can take a scenic drive through the rural countryside, where they’ll hear stories about rescued animals and see these once wild animals roaming the protected sanctuary. Interested travelers can also sign on for volunteer excursions that include real hands-on experience with the elephants. These week-long sessions include direct service that helps to protect and preserve the animals on site.

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Ban Hmong Mae Sa Mai Village

Ban Hmong Mae Sa Mai Village

One of the most fascinating and enriching aspects of traveling to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand is the opportunity to learn about the history and culture of some of the local hill tribes. The Hmong, believed to be the first inhabitants of the Yellow River Valley in China, are today one of the most successful tribes in Thailand, and Ban Mae Sa Mai Village is one of the most accessible Hmong villages from Chiang Mai.

Only reachable via four-wheel vehicles, the mountain village is somewhat of a step back in time, as local residents often don their traditional garb and demonstrate to visitors what day to day life is like in a Hmong village. Since the village is frequented by tourists, the village houses a few shops selling Hmong handicrafts.

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