Top 10 things to do in Chiang Mai

Which Wat should you visit? Which night markets have the best food? Where can you come face-to-face with elephants? Uncover the best things to do on your trip to Chiang Mai
 Chiang mai Songkran festival
Chiang mai Songkran festival. Photo: Shutterstock

Chiang Mai Songkran festival. Photo: Shutterstock

Bangkok may be the obvious starting point for a trip to Thailand but its size, noise and congestion can be overwhelming. Head to the northern city of Chiang Mai and you’ll find its compact centre a real pleasure: less humid, less frenetic, easier to negotiate and far more relaxing, as well as a handy springboard for trips to visit the Thai hill tribes

The Chiang Mai city authorities have been making efforts to reverse the damage wrought by rapid urbanization in the late 20th century. In the beautiful Old City, new construction is limited to three storeys, concrete lamp standards have been replaced with ornate Parisian-style lanterns, and the city walls restored. The once polluted moat is now populated by fish and turtles.

When to go to Chiang Mai

December to early February are north Thailand’s winter months and the days are warm and clear; a jacket or fleece will come in handy at night. Avoid the hot, humid months of March to May, when a haze of dust and smoke (from the burning of rice fields in the north) often forms over Chiang Mai and the surrounding region.

What to do in Chiang Mai

1. The Gated City of Chiang Mai

The Old City quadrangle, bounded by canalised moats and crumbling brick city walls, is filled with historic temples, shops, old hotels and guesthouses. Away from the main avenues and tourist districts, the narrow, winding soi (lanes) of the moated city will draw you into an atmospheric world populated by cobblers and other tradespeople, noodle shops and over 30 temples.

2. Wat Chiang Man

Situated within the old city walls, and built in the 13th century under King Mengrai, Wat Chiang Man contains two important religious statues, the Crystal and Marble Buddhas – protected behind a railing, bars and glass – which were ancient long before this monastery had been conceived. Sculpted elephants surround a chedi at the rear of the temple.

Temples, traditions and tasty night markets: review Insight Guides' Chiang Mai: Sustainable Trails trip itinerary

Wat Chiang Man. Photo: ShutterstockWat Chiang Man. Photo: Shutterstock

3. The huge, ruined chedi of Wat Chedi Luang

Built in the 15th century, Wat Chedi Luang was damaged during an earthquake over 400 years ago. In the temple grounds stands a gigantic gum tree shrouded in silk which, it is said, will continue to grow for as long as the city prospers. Beneath the tree, locals leave wooden elephants and phallic objects as offerings to the guardian spirit of the city.

4. Wat Phra Singh, home to a magnificent Buddha statue

According to legend, the Buddha icon was on its way to the king when the chariot carrying it broke down in front of the temple. Believing this to be a signal that the image wished to go no further, the people installed it without question, and there it has remained ever since, along with a beautiful library and several fine carvings and sculptures.

5. Wat Suan Dok

The best time of day to visit Wat Suan Dok, which is off Suthep Road on the city outskirts, is at sunset, when the chedi is bathed in soft light. The ashes of the kings of Lanna are housed within the temple, which is said to hold an important relic of the Buddha.

6. Wat Jet Yot

A final temple not to miss is Wat Jet Yot, also known as the Seven Peaks because of its seven chedis. Local guides say it was inspired by the great Mahabodhi Temple in India in 1455, during the reign of King Tilokaraja.

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The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. Photo: ShutterstockThe Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. Photo: Shutterstock

7. Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre

The Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre offers superb exhibits and interactive displays. Built in 1924, this is a good example of European-influenced Thai secular architecture. The centre has interactive displays on Chiang Mai’s history and culture and is a useful first stop for visitors wanting to familiarise themselves with the city’s heritage

8. Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre

The Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre, a charming old northern-style house, with traditional Lanna dance and hill tribe demonstrations. Alternatively, explore markets like Somphet (Moonmuang Road), or busy Warorot (Wich-yanon Road), where you can try exquisite local delicacies.

9. The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

Don’t miss The Night Bazaar, on Chang Klan Road, which offers northern handicrafts. You’ll be overwhelmed by the sheer variety, which is probably greater here than at any other market in Thailand.

10. Chiang Dao Elephant Training Centre

At the Chiang Dao Elephant Training Centre, 56km (35 miles) north from Chiang Mai, you can watch elephants timber-lifting and bathing in the river. You can also ride these gentle giants, and then take a raft trip through the lush countryside.

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Chiang Dao Elephant Training Centre. Photo: ShutterstockChiang Dao Elephant Training Centre. Photo: Shutterstock

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