9 thrilling day trips from Chiang Mai

The area surrounding Chiang Mai provides plenty of opportunities for day trips. There are mountains, lush valleys and national parks, the majestic cliff-top temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and the historic towns of Lamphun and Lampang are just a few. Here are the best for your trip to Northern Thailand
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a must-see on your trip to Chiang Mai
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a must-see on your trip to Chiang Mai

We can't deny that Chiang Mai is an incredible destination, and one that deserves your time and attention. But when you're through with city life and you want to escape to the country try one of these day trips... 

Some of northwest Thailand’s most intriguing attractions are in Chiang Mai's surrounding mountains and valleys. To the northwest of the city are the mountains of Doi Suthep and Doi Pui, while southwest is Thailand’s highest peak, Doi Inthanon. But the most striking mountain scenery is northwards, around the country’s third-highest peak, Doi Chiang Dao (also known as Doi Luang), where forested limestone cliffs and caves stand alongside craggy ranges.

The valley plains south of Chiang Mai contain two of Thailand’s most historic towns, Lamphun and Lampang. Both are endowed with lovely Lanna-period Buddhist monasteries, and are not yet swamped by tourism.

1. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

A steep series of hairpin curves climb the 1,676-metre (5,497ft) Doi Suthep, along Thanon Huay Kaew, 15km (9 miles) northwest of the city. Chiang Mai’s best-loved temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep lies halfway up the mountain, and was sited here, according to legend, in the mid-1300s by an elephant that was turned loose with a Buddha relic strapped to its back. It climbed then would climb no more. The temple was built at the spot where it halted, and consecrated in 1383. You'll see spectacular scenery and views of the city as you wind through Doi Suthep/ Doi Pui National Park; experience it for yourself on Insight Guides' Thailand Explorer adventure. When you arrive, seven-headed naga undulate down the balustrades of a 290-step stairway from car park to temple. For the weary, an enclosed cable car makes the ascent for B30. From Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai is spread out below.

In the temple grounds, beyond cloisters decorated with murals depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life, is a 24-metre (80ft) high gilded chedi, partially shaded by gilded parasols. The chedi is surrounded by an iron fence topped with praying thewada, or angels. At the eastern end of the compound, a sermon hall, or viharn shelters nuns in white robes chanting prayers each dawn. At sunset, monks chant from a similar hall in the west.

2. East of Chiang Mai

About 9km (5.5 miles) east of Chiang Mai on Route 1006 is Bo Sang (or Bor Sang), known as the “Umbrella Village” because much of the village is devoted to the crafting of painted paper umbrellas made from the bark of the mulberry tree. But umbrellas are not the only products sold here; there are a variety of other handicrafts, including lacquerware, silverware, hill-tribe jewellery, silk, bronze sculptures, woodcarvings and ceramics.

Alternatively, some 28km (17 miles) east from Chiang Mai, off Route 1317, on a scenic country road that parallels Route 1006, is Tham Muang On, a sacred Buddhist cave set into a huge limestone cliff. A large stalactite found in the cave’s main chamber is worshipped as a natural chedi by Buddhist visitors. Close to the cave is a set of steep cliffs known as Crazy Horse Buttress, with 16 crags and over 100 popular rock-climbing routes. Add rock climbing and other activities to your Thailand itinerary with the help of an Insight Guides' expert: simply submit a trip request

3. South of Chiang Mai

About 15km (9 miles) south of Chiang Mai is Hang Dong, a burgeoning centre for ceramics, antiques, wooden furniture and crafts made from woven bamboo, cane and rattan. Shops along Route 108 sell to both retail and wholesale buyers. Either way, bargain for a price.

Ban Wan, to the immediate east of Hang Dong, is a village with a small selection of relatively high-quality antique and furniture shops. A few kilometres further east, its larger, more famous sister Ban Thawai has shops and factories of woodcarvings and made-to-order furniture.

Even if not buying, Ban Wan and Ban Thawai are worth visiting to watch artisans at work.

Route 108 leads to the district of Chom Thong, 58km (34 miles) further southwest. This is the jump-off point for Doi Inthanon National Park. The pride of Chom Thong is the elegant temple of Wat Phra That Si Chom Thong, where subdued light accentuates a beautiful collection of bronze Buddhas. While much of the temple decoration reflects a Shan/Burmese penchant for elaboration, the central Buddha image, with its protective naga, seems eminently Lanna, and resembles the image at Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai. 

Include a day exploring quieter northern towns to Insight Guides' The Best of Thailand tour: review the full itinerary and enquire online now.

Mae Klang waterfall.

Mae Klang waterfall. Photo: Shutterstock

4. Doi Inthanon National Park

From Chom Thong, the gateway to Doi Inthanon National Park, it’s another 47km (28 miles) up steep, forest-clad slopes to the top of Doi Inthanon, which at 2,596 metres (8,516ft) is Thailand’s highest peak. The ashes of Chiang Mai’s last king are enshrined on its mist-shrouded summit. Hmong and Karen villages have been allowed to remain in the reserve since they take part in temperate-weather vegetable farming – part of the Royal Project’s opium cultivation eradication program.

Of the trio of waterfalls along the way to the summit – Mae Klang, Wachiratan and Siriphum – Mae Klang is the most popular and most accessible, as a footbridge links viewpoints at various elevations. By making prior arrangements with park authorities, visitors can take a three- to five-day trek up the mountain on foot or by pony. Several campsites (B40) and bungalows (B800–1,000) provide simple accommodation for trekkers.

5. Lamphun

Straddling the Ping River 25km (15 miles) south of Chiang Mai along tree-lined Route 106, the town of Lamphun is said to date back to the 8th century. It was a centre of Mon culture until King Mangrai overran the city in 1281. Highway 11, the main road from Chiang Mai to Lampang, bypasses Lamphun, which has enabled the town to preserve its mellow, upcountry quality. Today, it is famed for its attractive, confident women, succulent lamyai fruit and two elegant temples. It has also become a popular place of residence for Thai artists seeking peace from city life. 

Lamphun houses two of the most famous temples in Thailand, both of which you can explore for yourself by adding a stop to Insight Guides' Golden Triangle Tour. Wat Phra That Hariphunchai has one of the eight holiest chedi in the country. For the best perspective of the temple, enter through its riverside gate, where statues of mythical lions guard the portals. Inside the large compound, monks study in a Buddhist school set amidst monuments and buildings that date back to the 11th century, making this temple one of the oldest in northern Thailand. 

A gilt-roofed ho trai (library) stands to the left of an open-air pavilion that shelters one of the world’s largest bronze gongs. The temple museum contains several styles of old Buddhist art.

Visit Karen tribes outside of Chiang Mai.Visit Karen tribes on a day trip outside of Chiang Mai. Photo: Shutterstock

6. Wat Chama Thewi

A kilometre (0.6 mile) west of Lamphun’s old moat stands Wat Chama Thewi, also known as Wat Kukut. It was originally built by the Dvaravati Mon in the 8th or 9th century and rebuilt by the Hariphunchai Mon in 1218. The monastery contains a superb and unusual tower called Chedi Kukut. The rectilinear chedi consists of five tiers, each of which has three niches. Each niche houses a Buddha statue, making for an impressive display of 15 Buddha images on each side. The overall plan is very similar to Sri Lanka’s Satmahal Prasada, which is approximately a century older, suggesting a Buddhist link between Hariphunchai and Sri Lanka.

At nearby Thanon Inthayongyot is the Hariphunchai National Museum, which has a very good collection of historical artefacts on the surrounding region. These mainly focus on the Hariphunchai kingdom, along with a number of items from the Dvaravati and Lanna kingdoms.

7. Thai Elephant Conservation Centre

Off Highway 11, southeast towards Lampang from Lamphun or Chiang Mai, is the royally sponsored Thai Elephant Conservation Centre. Its stage shows run three times a day (10am, 11am and 1.30pm) to demonstrate how elephants were once used as work animals for logging and agriculture. The elephants have been trained to play music together on gigantic Thai musical instruments. They can also hold brushes in their trunks and paint colourful scenes on canvases, all of which are available for purchase after the show.

For an additional fee, visitors can take elephant rides through the grounds, lasting from 15 minutes to one hour. An on-site hospital treats sick or injured animals. You can learn to be an elephant handler (mahout) here, with courses lasting one to three days. They also have homestay facilities.

Recreate this experience by travelling on Insight Guides' Chiang Mai Safari Adventure holiday

Horse-drawn carriage in the province of Lampang, Thailand.

Lampang is the only province in Thailand that still use horse-drawn carriage ride to the city. Photo: Shutterstock

8. Lampang

About 30km (18 miles) further to the southeast, Highway 11 enters the provincial capital of Lampang. Although much of its bucolic tranquillity has disappeared, it retains one relic found in no other Thai city: horse-drawn carriages. These can be hired by the journey or by the hour. There are few more romantic experiences in Thailand than clip-clopping down a moonlit backstreet.

Several unique temples in Lampang, each showing various degrees of Burmese, Shan and Lanna influence, are worth seeing. On the right bank of the Wang River, Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao is a striking fusion of Burmese and Lanna architecture. In the mondop (square pavilion), teak columns soar to a ceiling covered in a kaleidoscope of inlaid enamel, mother-of-pearl and cut glass, depicting mythical animals.Surrounded by rice fields 6km (4 miles) north of town, the 20 chalk-white chedi of Wat Chedi Sao occupy lovely monastery grounds landscaped with casuarinas and bougainvillea. A 15th-century solid gold Buddha image weighing 1,507kg (3,311lbs) is on display in a glass-encased room built over a pond.

A masterpiece of northern Thai temple architecture, Wat Phra That Lampang Luang is situated 20km (12 miles) south of town in Ko Kha district. Cherished by scholars for its antiquity and delicate artwork, the temple compound is all that remains of a fortress city that flourished more than a millennium ago. The temple’s triple-roofed, open-sided main chapel, Viharn Luang, was built in 1476 and is thought to be the oldest existing wood building in Thailand. A large gilded and enclosed shrine in the back of the hall displays a venerable 16th-century bronze Buddha image. 

9. North of Chiang Mai

Northwest of Chiang Mai is Mae Sa M, a valley that was once a thriving agricultural region. Today, a variety of tourist developments have taken hold, including resorts; elephant camps; butterfly farms; orchid nurseries; tiger, snake and monkey exhibitions; and adventure parks. One of the most visited is Mae Sa Elephant Camp (shows at 8am, 9.40am and 1.30pm), near the Mae Sa Waterfall. Visitors can watch elephant activities, ride them and take an elephant training course.

Sai Nam Phung Orchid and Butterfly Farm is the better of two orchid options. About 2km (1.6 miles) away are the Queen Sirikit Botanic Gardens, developed with the help of Britain’s famous Kew Gardens and including a 5km (3-mile) nature trail. Included on Insight Guides' Chiang Mai Sustainable Trails holiday, you can explore trails, streams and glasshouses while spotting beautiful blooming flowers.

At the km 56 marker is the Chiang Dao Elephant Training Centre on the bank of the Ping River, which has elephant training routines daily at 10am. You can ride the elephants (mornings only), including to a hilltribe village, and take a bamboo raft for a 45-minute trip down the river.

About 60km (40 miles) north of Chiang Mai on Route 107, a dirt road branches left to Doi Chiang Dao, which at 2,186 metres (7,175ft) is Thailand’s third-highest peak. A jeep or a trail bike is needed to negotiate this 9km (6-mile) long track up to the Hmong village of Pakkia on the mountain. Entry to the sanctuary is restricted, and permission must be obtained from the wildlife headquarters near Tham Pha Plong Monastic Centre at the foot of the mountain.

Further north, Route 107 enters the quiet town of Chiang Dao, located 70km (45 miles) from Chiang Mai. At the far end of town, a road leads off west and to the left for 5km (3 miles) to the caves at Tham Chiang Dao. Guides lead visitors deep into high caverns that contain Buddha statues. Further down is a large, reclining limestone Buddha.

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