When it comes to the stunning town of Chiang Mai, Thailand it is best to come in with eyes wide open, an empty belly, and an appetite for exploration. This town - no metropolis - is large, very large. Population: 960,906 as of 2019.
While it is easy to imagine Chiang Mail like any other urban center, it somehow feels like a very approachable and welcoming city. Nicknamed “The Rose of the North,” due to its mountainous location, Chiang Mai has been able to retain its cultural heritage all the way since its founding in 1296. During the time of its founding, Chiang Mai took over as the new capital of Lan Na, an Indianized state centered in the region from the 13th to 18th centuries, from its former capital of Chiang Rai (another city definitely worth exploring).
Eventually, the founders fortified the city by building a moat and wall - both of which are still easily seen when you explore the city center (the old city). After falling into decline in the 1500s the city eventually was abandoned between 1776 and 1791 due to warfare (between the Taungoo and Thonburi groups).
Interestingly enough, the city - though it has been around since 1296, is relatively new in terms of being established as a "Thai city". According to most accounts, Chiang Mai only became the city it is today in the early 1900s: the city dates its “creation” to a sanitary district (sukhaphiban) that was created in 1915. It was then upgraded to a city municipality (thesaban nakhon) in 1935. From the 30s onward Chiang Mai started to explode in size and population.
Recently, the city has risen quickly on the tourist circuit as a great place to not only travel to but to work from (it often ranks quite high as a destination for digital nomads). Once you visit it is easy to see why: beautiful architecture, rich culture, delicious (and cheap) food and friendly locals. We were lucky enough to spend 5 months in the city studying abroad during the spring semester of our junior year in college. And man, not only did we fall in love with Chiang Mai and Thailand itself, but with the idea of adventure, exploration and travel overall.
Before we jump into the article on the best adventures to be had in Chiang Mai, here are a couple of important things to know:
| Wat, means temple - and you will see A LOT of them in Chiang Mai
| Street food is absolutely the BEST way to get an idea of the culinary makeup of the city, plus it is cheap and damn delicious
|The month of February is the worst month to visit Chiang Mai. Why? Because it is the time of year when everyone (including neighboring countries) is burning their plants. Meaning it is not only stifling hot (we are talking 110 degrees+) but also smoky as hell. When we were there the AQI would reach over 200 PPM (100 PPM is considered unhealthy).
| If you can, rent a motorbike to help get around. While the “red trucks” (songthaews, a red covered taxi with benches) are perfect for exploring Chiang Mai proper, if you want to explore the areas outside of town (which you absolutely should) then a motorbike is the way to go. Luke rented one for around $30 USD a month.
Okay without further ado, here is what we believe are the best things to explore in and around the beautiful city of Chiang Mai.
7 Top Places to Explore in Chiang Mai
There is something very exciting about roaming around markets in Thailand. The sounds, the smells, the hidden walkways and tunnels that transport you through stalls after stalls of unique items. Chiang Mai itself has a number of fun markets, from the highly touristy to the very local. Here are the three top ones to check out when wandering about the city.
| Warorot Market
This is definitely a locals market, something you notice right away once you step into the maze of stalls selling spices, raw meat, dried fruit, and all kinds of clothes and household goods. Warorot Market (or Kad Luang) is located outside the old city right on the bank of the Ping River. It is roughly three stories high with each level selling different items. One of the best things about this market though is at night they open up a lot of small stalls outside that sell food and treats (their coconut pancakes are amazing). Come here during the evening for a nice street food dinner and a view of the river.
| University Market
This market is definitely geared more towards the younger, hip crowd - likely due to its location right on the edge of Chiang Mai University. Here you will find lots of clothing, including a good number of funny t-shirts, stylish dresses, and cheap sunglasses, as well as street food and drinks (like Boba tea) at night. While we don’t love consumerism, it is still a fun market to wander around and just check out the sites. There is also a small carnival/fair in the back that has games and rides.
| Sunday Night Market
This is by far the most touristy of all the markets in Chiang Mai. Every Sunday the main streets in the old city turn into a huge market that sells lots of food, crafts, and other goods (like jewelry, clothes, artwork, etc.). All of it is really touristy - but, like the University Market, it is fun to check out at least once.
Chiang Mai Province is home to more temples than anywhere else in Thailand. Supposedly, there are over 300 scattered throughout the city and surrounding countryside. With that many temples to choose from, it can be hard to know which ones are worth seeing (don’t worry - all are beautiful).
In the five months we were in Chiang Mai we definitely saw our fair share of temples or wats. Here are some of our favorites:
| Wat Pha Lat
Otherwise known as “Monks Trail” this temple is really a compound located on a hillside surrounded by dense forest. Unlike many of the wats in town, this one has a number of different buildings spread throughout a forest, including a colorful temple, white and gold sculptures (some overgrown with vines), an ornately carved white building, and even a waterfall. Even though it is located close to town, you feel like you have been transported deep into the Thai jungle and have just stumbled upon the ancient ruins (all very Indiana Jones-esque). Note: you can actually hike from town up to the temple, just drive out towards the Chiang Mai Zoo and then park at the Army Radio and Television Tower, from there you can follow the trail up (it is about a 20-30 minute walk).
| Wat Umong
Another unique temple, and one that does not see as many visitors as the temples in the historic old city. Similar to Wat Pha Lat, Wat Umong is more of a Buddhist temple complex than just one temple. Spend an hour or so walking around its numerous temples, including one with various tunnels, check out the worn-down sculpture garden, and take in the various artwork that covers the buildings (including some very cool dragon sculptures).
| Wat Chiang Man
This wat is the type you imagine when you see photos of Chiang Mai: golden roofs, colorful interiors, and lots of Buddhist symbols. Located in the historic old city, Wat Chiang Man was built in the 13th century and today is one of the most well-preserved and beautiful wats in the whole city. One of the more unique offerings is the golden topped chedi with elephant sculptures making up the base. Another interesting thing to note is that this wat was actually the first one built in Chiang Mai, though back then it was known as Wiang Nopburi and was a fortified town for the Lawa people.
| Wat Chedi Luang
One of the largest temples in Thailand, Wat Chedi Luang, which translates to “temple of the big stupa or temple of the royal stupa” stands proudly in the middle of Chiang Mai’s old city. Built in the 14th century, the temple actually was once part of a much larger temple compound that included two other buildings: Wat Ho Tham and Wat Sukmin. Wat Chedi Luang once stood 82 meters high and had a base diameter of 54 meters, making it, at that time, the largest building of all Lanna. But in 1545, the upper 30 meters of the structure collapsed after an earthquake (something you can clearly see today). Note: there are monk chats at the wat every day, so if you are curious about anything to do with Buddhism or Thailand in general, consider stopping in.
| Wiang Kum Kam
Not a wat per se, but a great place to explore if you are curious about Thai and Chiang Mai history (or just want to head out of the main city for a bit). This archeology site is situated along the Ping River and is home to various ruins, including a large number of wats, each in various forms of decay. This historic settlement was built by King Mangrai the Great as his capital before he moved it to Chiang Mai. Wiang Kum Kam was flooded and abandoned more than 700 years ago (the area also flooded in 2005 three separate times…), but some of the more unique temples remain. Including, Wat Chang Kham, aka "Elephant-Propped Temple", Wat Chedi Liam aka "Temple of the Squared Pagoda", and Wat I Khang aka "Langurs' Temple", which got its name after the former prevalence of wild old world monkeys at the site. Note: to reach the archeology site, head out of town towards the airport. The site is located off Road 3029, right after the Ping River.
Explore the historic center
You will know you have entered the historic old city once you pass over the historic moat and enter through one of the old gates. The old city, clearly outlined by the moat and in the shape of a square, has been around since its inception as the capital of the Lan Na people in the 1200s. The defensive wall was built to withstand invasion and attack from the nearby Taungoo people as well as the Mongol Empire.
Today, even so many years later, you can still clearly see the fortified wall as well as a number of the historic gates, including the Tha Phae Gate, the most famous and intact gate in the old city (this is also the location for many community events). The historic old city is filled with other historic buildings, including many wats (see above). It is also the most touristy spot in Chiang Mai, meaning lots of hostels, bars, overpriced restaurants, and massage places (including the ones with fish who eat off your feet's dead skin).
While we suggest spending more time outside the old city (there are a lot of really cool areas to check out instead, including the Nimman area), it is important to explore Chiang Mai’s exciting history - and there is no better way to do that than by walking around the old city.
Hike up the Mountain to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
If you are looking for an amazing view of the city, then definitely head up to Doi Suthep, a large, gold embossed temple complex with stupas, Buddhist symbols and statues, pagodas, and a museum. Another can’t miss thing are the stairs to reach the temple itself: 309 steps up a hillside with lots of colorful tile and even two large dragon heads at the base.
The temple is one of the most sacred sites in Thailand (it can see around 120,000 visitors per month), mainly due to its association with the White Elephant Legend, which (and this is just a very basic overview) states that a monk named Sumanathera from the Sukhothai Kingdom had a dream. In this vision, he was told to go to Pang Cha and look for a relic. The monk then ventured to Pang Cha and found a bone, which many claimed was Gautama Buddha's shoulder bone. Supposedly, the relic displayed magical powers: it glowed, it was able to vanish, it could move and replicate itself. This is where things get complicated. The monk, after trying to show the relic to King Dhammaraja, the ruler of Sukhothai (where the powers of the bone suddenly vanished) then took it to King Nu Naone of Lan Na in 1368.
Once there, the relic broke into two pieces. The smaller piece was enshrined at Wat Suan Dok (also located in Chiang Mai), while the other piece was placed on the back of a white elephant, which was then released into the jungle. The elephant is said to have climbed up Doi Suthep, at that time called Doi Aoy Chang, before stopping, trumpeting three times, and then dropping dead. This was interpreted as an omen, and the Lan Na king immediately ordered the construction of a temple at the site. And wa la, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was created.
While you can take a car or motorbike up to to the top, we suggest instead hiking up from town along the “Monks Trail.” Yes, the one you also take to reach Wat Pha Lat. While it is a steep ascent, you will get to see various Buddhist symbols along the way. Including, a forest with bright orange fabric tied around all of the trees (see below).
Another interesting site to explore near Doi Suthep is the Bhubing Palace, a royal palace surrounded by a beautiful and expansive rose garden.
Eat Street Food
If you are a foodie or just someone who loves trying new foods, then Chiang Mai is the place for you. Home to hundreds of food stalls, restaurants, and cafes, there is no shortage of unique cuisines to try.
We absolutely loved the amount of street food that was available all over the city. And while you can likely find a small stall even in the furthest reaches of Chiang Mai, there are a couple of awesome places to check out while exploring the town.
Our personal favorite is along Suthep Road, the main thoroughfare from the historic old city to the university. We are a bit biased because we lived right off of Suthep, but believe us when we say, if you want delicious, inexpensive food in a fun atmosphere, come here at least once (or every night if you’d like, we sure did). Once the sun goes down the whole street quickly fills up with food stalls, each with its own set of tables and chairs. We suggest walking down the street and picking up a couple of different items to share (or eat them all on your own, we won’t judge).
| Warorot Market
We mentioned Warorot Market previously, but we just want to reiterate - if you want an authentic Thai dining experience, head to the market and get some street food at least once. They sell everything from Pad Thai, to Khao Soi, to Sai Oua, to one of our favorites: Mango Sticky Rice. Once you have your food in hand, head either down to the Ping River to sit and eat or go a for a walk in the neighborhood nearby, which will lead you past hidden temples, small quiet streets and some cute little cafes and shops.
Curious about other amazing traditional dishes you can’t miss in Chiang Mai? Then check this out.
Explore unique cafes
Similar to the amazing food scene in Chiang Mai, is an equally awesome coffee culture. As two coffee enthusiasts, we absolutely loved exploring the exorbitant amount of coffee shops in the city. Honestly, walk down practically any street in Chiang Mai and you will come across a coffee shop in some form or another. While you can’t really go wrong, here are a couple of our favorites.
| Green O’Clock
This cafe-restaurant is another true hidden gem. Located down a random road in the Wat Ket area (close to the Ping River), this spot feels like someone’s home. Green O’Clock is located on the ground floor and includes a nice green garden area. If you are looking to be transported away from the hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai, then this is a good spot to go and relax.
| PAUSE Coffee at CMU
Thanks to it being located so close to the university and our dorms, we often would hit up PAUSE Coffee at least a couple of times a week. The atmosphere was great, the surroundings were actually quite peaceful and the coffee was tasty. Definitely worth stopping in for a nice refreshing iced coffee during the heat of the day. Note: if you are doing the Monks Trail hike, this coffee shop is right near the entrance.
| 8 Days a Week
This is another stylish, hip cafe with lots of tables and outdoor seating. 8 Days a Week is located in a quieter area, so you can be productive here all day. Plus, the coffee is tasty and the people are super friendly.