28 Apr Chiang Mai Essentials: Orientation and key sites inside and outside the city walls
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second major city and the capital of the north, and is nestled into the foothills of the Himalayas. This gives it a very different vibe to the southern areas of Phuket and Koh Samui. While the city is a sprawling metropolis, the old city has remained intact as have old colonial areas, riverside mansions and Chinese quarters. The area is also home to more than 300 temples, making it a stunning place to visit. Here we give you the essentials of visiting Chiang Mai. Theres a handy map at the bottom.
Why should I visit the city of Chiang Mai?
Chiang Mai can best be described as a sanctuary. The pace is laid-back, the cooler (ish) weather is refreshing and the landscape is stunning. Chiang Mai used to be the capital of the Independent Kingdom of Lanna (1296–1768) so is steeped in history. It is 700 km north of Bangkok and sits along the beautiful Ping River.
Chiang Mai could only be reached by a 3 week river journey and jungle trek until the roads and rail came in the 1920s. This isolation helped keep Chiang Mai’s distinctive culture intact. Chiang Mai is one of the best places in Thailand to experience both historical and modern Thai culture existing side by side. It is also a great launchpad for exploring the mountain areas that border Burma and Laos.
Getting to Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX) receives up to 28 flights a day from Bangkok (flight time 1 hour 10 minutes). The airport is 3 km from the city centre.
Bus from Bangkok
A variety of buses leave frequently from Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal (Mo Chit), with choices of price, comfort and length of trip. The trip is long so we recommend you opt for a luxury night bus but take a jumper because the aircon is cold. At the Arcade Bus Station in Chiang Mai, where you’ll arrive, public songthaews or taxis are available. Buses take around 12-13 hours from Bangkok.
Services from Bangkok’s Hualampong Railway Station leave on a regular schedule and take 13-15 hours to reach Chiang Mai. We recommend the night train in the classes where you get a bunk bed. Try to book the one which arrives into Chiang Mai later in the morning so you can see the landscape as the sun rises.
The famous walled city
History is abundant within the moat encircled ‘Old City’, which retains some of the wall and all four gates. The old city of Chiang Mai is a great location to see the north’s diverse cultural identity that includes Art, cuisine, architecture, festivals, handicrafts and classical dance.
Inside the city walls are more than 30 temples dating back to the founding of the kingdom in 1296. They are a combination of Burmese, Sri Lankan and Lanna Thai styles, decorated with beautiful wood carvings, Chedis, Naga staircases, Buddha statues and gold covered Pagodas.
Phae Gate (East Gate)
The east entrance to the old city of Chiang Mai is a great area to shop, eat and spend a few hours soaking in the atmosphere. The Three Kings Monument and several temples such as Chedi Luang, Phra Singh, Chiang Man, are in this area. It also has museums, boutique shops, restaurants and cafes. The Sunday Night Walking Street and Saturday market is here, and it’s close to the Ping river, making it very picturesque.
The hipster/yoga scene
Chiang Mai has a thriving arts culture. There are many galleries, jazz venues and vespa clubs and may amazing coffee shops, antique shops and food trucks. Chiang Mai is also a hub for many yoga sanctuaries, yoga studios, detox retreats and massage training schools. It also has some world class vegetarian restaurants.
There are over 300 wats (temples) in the Chiang Mai area dating back to 1296, some inside the old city and some outside. The most famous is Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, which overlooks the city from a mountain.
Here is a list of our top picks for temples in and near to Chiang Mai.
Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chedi Luang is particularly beautiful. Built in 1401, the structure was damaged during an earthquake in 1545, but it remains mainly intact. You can still see the massive elephant carvings and they are a wonderful photo opportunity. The temple is particularly lovely at night, when it’s lit up. Nearby, there’s an ancient tree planted next to the city pillar, meant to protect the city and its grounds. This tree is huge and because of its sacred purpose, will not be cut down.
This temple is in centre of the Old City and is is the largest temple in the city. It was constructed in 1345 when a Lanna king built it in his father’s honour. The temple’s most sacred relic is the very old and famous, (now headless) Buddha called Phra Singh Buddha. According to legend the Buddha came to Thailand from Ceylon to Ayutthaya and then to Chiang Rai, Luang Prabang and back once more to Ayutthaya. In 1767 it arrived in Chiang Mai where it has been ever since.
This forest temple and cave complex is very beautiful and distinct in style to other temples in Chiang Mai. The corridors under the temple still have visible paintings from the 13th century, and the Chedi is plain but appropriate for its wonderful woodland setting. Wat Umong is one of the oldest temples in the area and is a great way to see the countryside around Chiang Mai. This temple is close to Wat Suan Dok.
Wat Doi Kham
Although small, Wat Doi Kham is well worth a visit. There is a 17 metre white Buddha statue and a beautiful gold Chedi at this temple and there are lovely views of the valley below. Legend has it that this site was established long ago by Buddha himself when he met and converted the indigenous Lua people to Buddhist practices.
Wat Suan Dok
This temple is built on what were once a 14th-century Lanna King’s gardens. Some of the temple’s Chedis contain ashes of the old Lanna Royal Family. A 500-year-old bronze Buddha image, one of the largest in northern Thailand, is also at Wat Suan Dok and is well worth visiting.
Warorot Market, also known as China Town is a sprawling indoor and outdoor market just 2 minutes north of the Night Bazaar and next to the Ping River. It’s where the locals shop and has cheap clothing and other handicrafts that aren’t typically seen in Thailand’s other street markets. It is open every day from morning to around 8pm.
Warorot Market also has really good street food at reasonable prices. Peruse the many fabrics, spices, tea, and dried fruit at your leisure and know you will get better value here than at the very touristic ‘Night Bazaar’.
Anusarn Market is on Chang Khlan Road near the end of the Night Bazaar and is open every evening until midnight. It is a busy outdoor food night market with lots of little Thai, Indian, and Western restaurants and food stalls. It is a great place to relax and eat after visiting the night bazaar. There are some nice little massage shops here too and a good old fashioned Irish Pub.
Friday Morning Hill Tribe Market
This is a fresh produce market held every Friday morning near to the Mosque on Chang Khlan Road, not far from the Night Bazaar. This little market is where the ethnic minorities who live around Chiang Mai bring their own distinctive food products to sell.
The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is the city’s most popular market for tourists so expect to do some hard bargaining for some not so genuine souvenirs. There are plenty of stalls selling clothes, handbags, candles, soaps, home décor, postcards, textiles etc. and the atmosphere is bustling, festive and laid back.
Since the night bazaar is in a popular area there are plenty of food and drink vendors plus the likes of Burger King, McDonalds and Starbucks. The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is located on Chang Khlan Road, just outside the city gate on the east side.
Sunday Walking Street
On Sunday evenings, the street just inside the Tapae Gate is closed to traffic and stalls selling local handicrafts as and food are all open for business. Many foreign visitors don’t know it exists but it is a great shopping attraction.
Outside the city
Wat Prathat Doi Suthep
This mountain top temple is a must see if you visit Chiang Mai. Doi Suthep was founded in the 14th century and today is the most important temple for Theravada Buddhists in the north of Thailand. It is a journey every Thai Buddhist is recommended to make at least once in their life so it is not just a temple but a pilgrimage too.
The temple is beautiful with lots of sections, courtyards and views. There are many representations of the Buddha, ornate dragon statues, and also lots of relics. The views are also spectacular.
This is the highest peak in Thailand, and the national park that surrounds it is stunning. You can do some trekking and hike the mountain, or take a stroll on a shorter route. It is a two-hour drive from the city. There is also a camping option here and nearby to the national park a Golf Resort. The walk to the top is easy or you can drive most of the way.
Sirithan and Wachirathan Waterfall
Sirithan Waterfall and Wachirathan Waterfall are both worth visiting too and are inside this national park too. Wachirathan is developed with a carpark and restaurant, whereas Sirthan is just at nature intended. You should also consider stopping at the two Royal Chedi’s on the way back from the summit. The two huge Chedi built in honour of the current King and Queen of Thailand have been built on opposing peaks and are very impressive.
Each is a temple type construction with lovely wall carvings and paintings. If the stairs to the top of Chedi looks daunting, you can get escalators to the top.
Bua Thong Sticky Waterfalls
This series of 7 waterfalls and the surrounding area is perfect to spend a day visiting. The wooded area surrounding the falls is serene and peaceful and you can walk up the waterfalls like steps (hence the word sticky in the name, because they are not slippery as you would expect) For between 300-800 baht, you can hire a songthaew or tuk-tuk driver to take you out and back.
Huay Tung Tao Lake
This reservoir is beautiful and relaxing and only 10km from the city of Chiang Mai. It sits at the base of Doi Suthep and is popular with locals and ex-pats rather than tourists. You can rent a bamboo hut on the lake to eat a delicious meal from the local vendors and hire a large tube tyre, or pedal boat to relax in on the water. It’s perfect for swimming and the water is very cooling on a hot day.
Mae Ngat Dam and the Floating Houseboats
The floating houses at Mae Ngat Dam are a wonderful getaway for a small group of friends. Only a 35 minute drive from the city of Chiang Mai, the cute little houseboats on the water can only be reached by a 15 minute boat ride.
These floating houses are a series of basic one-room cabins connected side-by-side and float on the lake’s surface. There are several companies, each operating a group of identical bamboo cabins that open up to a wide wooden deck which has little restaurants.
On the deck is plenty of space for relaxing, and it’s the perfect location to jump off to go swimming and tubing. Kayaks here are about 150 baht an hour and you can also hire fishing rods and fish off a kayak.
Phu Ping (or Bhuping) Palace
This Royal Winter Palace, built on a small mountain outside Chiang Mai has wonderful landscaped gardens and is open to the public when the Royal Family is not in residence. The palace itself which was built in 1961 and is not particularly exciting, but the extensive gardens are picturesque including tropical flowers, old trees and giant bamboo.
The rose garden is very popular with Thais because it is only in the north at higher altitude that roses can bloom.
Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden
This is Thailand’s best botanical garden and is dedicated to the conservation of Thai flora. It holds collections of rare and endangered species and is situated in the lush mountains of Doi Suthep, about 20km outside of the city of Chiang Mai. The gardens and the many glasshouses are stunning and a must anyone who wants to relax around a plethora of tropical colours and scents.
Flight of the Gibbon
Flight of the Gibbons is a company which runs is a zipline through the 1500 year old rainforest high above the forest floor. Located 40 minutes outside of Chiang Mai in a national park it features 5 km of ziplines which connect lookout platforms, lowering stations, and sky bridges. it is a wonderful adventure and comes well recommended on TripAdviser.
At 800 metres, the longest zipline in Asia can be found here and there is also a chance to see gibbons in the wild. As part of this tour you can hike up the 7 tiers Mae Kompong Waterfall. The whole thing will take 7 hours from pickup to drop off and food and drinks are included.
Easy ways to get around Chiang Mai
If you’re visiting the old city and nearby you can easily walk between locations. Otherwise there are several bicycle hiring companies here. If you are a good driver it is simple to hire a car or motorbike which is a good option if you intend to leave the city and head for the hills. If you don’t want to drive yourself, you could hire a private car or mini van for the day, which lots of tourists do to avoid the busy group tours.
By songthaew (pronounced song-tee-ow)
These covered pick-up trucks have two long bench seats and are a really good option in Chiang Mai. They mainly have fixed routes, picking up passengers at any spot along the way.
Red songthaews, however can be hired outright and will take you anywhere you like. Fixed route songthaews generally start at Warorot Market. White ones go to the eastern suburb of Sankampaeng, yellow ones go to Mae Rim in the north, blue songthaews go to Lamphun in the south, and green songthaews travel to Mae Jo in the northeast.
Tuk-tuks are a quick way to get around. Fares are usually 40-50 baht for a short trip and 50-100 baht for longer distances.
What are the seasons like?
Chiang Mai is cooler than elsewhere in Thailand but still pretty hot and humid throughout the year in the daytime. It does cool down very nicely in the evenings though, making it perfect for night time shopping at the open air markets. You made need a sweater if you go up into the mountains and especially if you are staying overnight up in the hills between October and Feb which is their ‘winter’ and temperatures can drop blow 10 degrees at night.
- cool/dry season is from mid Oct-mid Feb
- hot season from is mid Feb-mid Jun
- wet season from is mid Jun-mid Oct
Is there a downside to visiting Chiang Mai?
Like all cities in Thailand there is a overly touristic side to Chiang Mai and also a seedy side. Also between February and April, a nasty smog hits the city. In recent years it has got so bad that I recommend that you do not visit during these months especially if you are travelling with kids.
Also, you might have noticed that I have excluded all attractions involving hill tribes and animals. There is a lot of exploitation in the north of Thailand for both animals and the Hill Tribe people and if you intend to visit with them. please research the credentials of the organisation you are paying.
Do not go jungle trekking with elephants as it is very bad for their backs. I have also excluded Chiang Mai Zoo and the Tiger Kingdom from my recommendations because there are animal welfare issues at both places.
I hope this has given you lots of information about Chiang Mai and some tips on what to see. Enjoy your stay at this wonderful heritage city.
Map Of Central Chiang Mai
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Images courtesy of Flickr.com Featured image by Igor, Wat Chedi Luang by Alpha, View from Doi Suthep by Christine Olson, Night Market Photo by Connie Ma