Most visitors to Chiang Mai come for fresher mountain feel and the elephants but there are more things to do in Chiang Mai than just nature. The ancient capital of the Lanna Kingdom has evolved significantly over the last few years. When I first visited in 2006 I found the city to be quiet and remarkably different from Bangkok. Today, the number of activities in Chiang Mai has increased exponentially but a lot of the items in a “Must do in Chiang Mai” list still revert to the heritage and historical points of interest.
If you are only visiting for a short period and are looking for only the best places to see in Chiang Mai this list should be enough to give you a great feel of old, new, shopping and nature.
Wat Chedi Luang
Built over the 14th and 15th centuries, Wat Chedi Luang is best visited at dusk when the sky turns orange and the lighting of the temple gives it an orange tone that is almost magical.
Wat Chedi Luang was reconstructed several times through the years when earthquakes or instability problems collapsed some parts of it. It used to house an Emerald Buddha that was then moved to Luang Prabang. The structure is 82m high and has a base of 54m. Climbing up to the top is not allowed so walk around it and admire its majestic Lanna architecture.
Wat Phra Singh
Wat Phra Singh is a royal temple that gets its name from the Buddha statue inside. The statue is walked in the streets of Chiang Mai during Songkran. Legend has it that the head of the statue may not be original but a copy as it was stolen at the beginning of the 20th century. This is the most beautiful temple in Chiang Mai and one of the best things to see in the city.
Wihan Lai Kham, a small retreat or shrine, inside Wat Phra Singh is the most notable part of the temple. It is a fine example of Lanna architecture and design. The walls are covered in yellow, gold and maroon not leaving a single empty space. This is a temple that is so intricate and wonderful that one just wants to sit down and let the beauty of the place sink in.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Located at the top of a 1,600m hill and national park above Chiang Mai, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep offers swiping views of the city and a refreshing break. The site is 15km from Chiang Mai and can be accessed by taxi or tuk tuk over a paved road. There are then 300+ steps or a tram to get to the top. The original stupa was built in the 14th century and has been expanded and beautified over time with more additions in the later centuries. The site is considered sacred by many Thai.
The temple is also known for the white elephant legend around a Buddha shoulder bone relic that was placed on the back of a white elephant by King Nu Naone of Lanna. The elephant climbed the mountain and trumpeted three times before dropping dead. The King decided to build a temple on the same location. This is a great activity to do in Chiang Mai when you are craving some nature and fresh air.
Sunday walking market
Sunday walking market extends over a kilometre along the Ratchadamnoen Road from 4pm to midnight. You will find anything from food to handicrafts, drinks and handmade items. This is the place where local craftsmen and women come to showcase their goods. When you have had enough of the crowds, atop at Villa Duang Champa for a drink in their peaceful patio and watch the people. Along the way you may also find some stalls that will let you try shooting, see how good you are!
Also known as Talat Warorot, this is the market where locals do their shopping in Chiang Mai. Apart from day to day stuff, you can find fruit stalls selling all the great tropical fruits (I love mangosteen!) as well as Hill Tribe and Northern Thai handicrafts at cheaper prices to the Saturday walking market. There is also a flower market as part of this which is beautiful although not as big as the Bangkok Flower Market.
Muang On Cave
Located 30km from Chiang Mai this cave system is believed to be the hiding place of local villagers when the Burmese invaded the area. The system of caves is well illuminated and filled with stalactites and stalagmites. A different type of activity in Chiang Mai giving you a chance to get away.
Dhara Dhevi Spa and Wellness Centre
A magnificent and grand hotel built to replicate a Lanna Kingdom, complete with intricate rooftops that took 3 years a team of 150 craftsmen to build. Visit for their incredible spa structure, Ayurveda treatments and stress management retreats. Even if you do not come for the spa, come for the dessert brunch or for a romantic dinner at Le Grand Lanna, the Thai restaurant on site, complete with live music. This is definitively a must see place in Chiang Mai. if you go for dinner, make sure to order Khao Soi, the red curry noodle dish, so yum!
Play with elephants
Among the many things to to in Chiang Mai, most people come to see the elephants. The area used to be the center of logging in Thailand and these gentle giants were used to drag the trees from the forests. Now that logging has mostly disappeared, the elephants and their mahouts can be found across Thailand in parks and entertainment venues. But please do not ride elephants.
If you, like me, do not condone riding elephants, visit the Elephant Nature Park instead. This is one of the most talked about ethical elephant sanctuaries and wildlife conservation initiatives in Thailand, possibly in the entire Asia. Here you will still have a great time feeding and bathing them but will not get to ride them. Trust me, it is much more enjoyable and soul satisfying to play with them than to ride them.
Wat Rong Kuhn – The purity of Chiang Rai’s white temple
Are you tired of all the gold and maroon colours of the temples? Would you rather see a temple that is as white as a 500-thread linen bed sheet? One of the most bizarre and fascinating things to do in Chiang Mai is to visit Wat Rong Kuhn. Although, technically, the temple is in Chiang rai, about 2,5h away.
Contrary to what you may expect, this is not an ancient temple but one built rather recently and privately owned. Opened in 1997 and yet to be completed, it was later closed in 2014 when an earthquake damaged the structure. It is now open again to visitors although you cannot get inside. The temple was designed by local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat who expects immortality from Buddha for his generosity. He is fully financing its construction and entrance is free. The complex is filled with symbolisms and strange statues. A fascinating trip from Chiang Mai.
Chat to a monk
The Buddhist university in Chiang Mai offers meditation retreats and the chance to speak to a monk. I had the opportunity to exchange thoughts and ideas with monks in Siem Reap a few years ago and found it most fascinating. You can join a scheduled one or book your own.
Have you been to Chiang Mai? What did you get up to?