Surrounded by mountains, Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand is a relatively less travelled destination. While most of the tourists prefer Bangkok or the beaches of the south, I chose Chiang Mai as it offers more authentic Thai experience.
Saying that, it is no longer a hidden gem, especially during Yi Peng festival, thousands of tourists gather in the city from all over the world.
I could manage only one-week long holiday in Thailand, and out of which I kept five days for Chiang Mai, but it seemed very less at the end. The ambience is so magical, you will definitely want to stay longer once you are there. The laid back kind of lifestyle, hundreds of temples, close proximity to mountains and above all, the always smiling Thai people, will not let you go so easily.
This article is my experience during my stay in the city. As I have mentioned, five days is insufficient to explore everything in the city. Apart from places I went, I will also mention the places I wanted to go but could not.
Explore the old city
While planning to visit places, we often forget the most important objective of a travel: seeing the culture and people of a place. Don’t forget to spend at least a few days in the old city only. This brick-wall bordered city is the capital of old kings in the region. The moat around the city will surely give you a fort-like feeling. However, hundreds of temple tells a different story. While you visit there, make sure to book your accommodation within the old city only. Otherwise, you will completely miss the vibe of the city. This 2km X 2km city can be easily travelled by foot, and each corner will offer you something that you cannot miss. Wat Chiang Man, Wat Phra Sing, Wat Chedi Luang are some of the must visit temples. Also make sure you are there during weekends because the you can’t be in Chiang Mai and not go to the Sunday night market.
Climb Doi Inthanon National Park
Doi Inthanon is the highest peak of Thailand rising a height of more than 2500 meters (8400 feet). There are a number of beautiful places here. I started by visiting the heighest point of Thailand, followed by a nature trail. The King and Queen pagodas are wonderful place to spend an hour. The mountain is also house of many beautiful waterfalls. While the Watchirathan Waterfall can be reached all the way by car, there are some, which needs a small hike. Do not forget to buy dried fruits from the hill tribe markets. There are also tribal villages cultivating flower on the mountain. During the blooming season, it will be a sight to behold. The highest point means the coolest temperature. Even during the hot days in the city, the peak rarely crosses 10°C.
Watch the city from Doi Suthep
More popular to the tourists visiting Chiang Mai, Doi Suthep is about an hour drive from the city. In fact, you can see the temple from the city as well. The summit offers magnificent view of the city and the airport while you will enjoy the pleasant weather. The mountain hold significant Thai icons among which the most visited one is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. The jaw-dropping 24 meters tall Gold plated chedi is always ready to offer its visitor a blaze. Not less beautiful is the 300-steps stairs to the temple railed by a serpentine sideways.
Voyage to Chiang Rai
The magnificent White Temple, Wat Rong Khun, is recently drawing thousands of tourists every day. This place is more than 200 kilometers far from Chiang Mai and the hilly roads make it about four hour drive (or an hour flight). Despite the distance, it is totally worth visiting this temple while you visit Chiang Mai. Many companies offer one-day trip from Chiang Mai. I started at 7 in the morning and back to Chiang Mai at 10pm. Apart from the most famous White temple, there are many other temples, tea garden, museum to visit during the day trip.
Attend the Yi Peng Festival
Chiang Mai witnesses its height tourist influx during Yi Peng festival, which occurs during the countrywide Loy Krathong festival. These are two different festivals occuring during the full moon day of last lunar month. While Loy Krathong (means floating lamp) is celebrated all over Thailand, Yi Peng (or the Lantern Festival) is centered only in North Thailand. The whole city and its surroundings are decorated with hanging lanterns, which enhances the vibe to thousands of times. On the full moon day, the Lanna tribe release sky lanterns, which is one of the most famous sight of the city. Literally, there are lanterns everywhere during this festival. If you are planning to visit during this time, make sure to book your accommodation months ahead.
Visit the Bor Sang Umbrella Village
Although popularly called a village, it is within the extended city and only half an hour drive away from the old city. Make sure to visit the umbrella factory where they hand craft every part of the paper-made umbrella including the paper itself. If you book a private driver as we did, they will show you how the umbrella are made. You can decorate your bag or other belongings, the artist will paint it in front of you. Make sure to tip them if you get something painted.
Taste some Thai delicacy
Thai people make awesome dishes to serve your cravings. They use lots of spices and be cautious about the amount of umami. When you are in Chiang Mai, some dishes not to miss are Pad Thai, Sticky rice, Mango rice, Khao soy. When you are exploring the city, you will find lots of street vendors service freshly prepared barbecue, fruits, juices. Don’t hesitate to grab some as you move.
Bathe with the elephants
This is an activity that I wanted to do badly, but my limited time did not allow me to do so. Thai people love their national animal with full heart. While I am totally against animal rides, Thai elephant sanctuaries are something entirely different. Getting dirty (I mean mud) with the wild giants is so much fun and heartwarming experience.
Go zip lining
The mountains of Northern Thailand are home to some of the world famous zip lines. If you want to feed some adrenaline rush, you will not regret taking one.
Explore the caves
Initially in my list of “Places to go” but later replaced by Yi Peng Lantern release, Chiang Dao is a different experience. If you have a day to spend, you can definitely go there. The cave, combined with a zip line or elephant sanctuary will make a perfect day trip.