Though Chiang Mai has a wealth of attractions to keep visitors busy for days on end, the city’s appeal as a travel destination is enhanced by its location. The Rose of the North is situated amidst jungle-blanketed hills and rolling rice fields, where cottage craft industries still thrive and distinct temples dazzle. It’s a world crying out to be explored.
From lakeside pampering in Huay Teung Tao to hilltop hiking around Doi Inthanon, here are five of the best day trips from Chiang Mai.
Watch the sunrise at Doi Inthanon, Thailand's best-known national park
Travel time: 2 hours
Taking its name from Thailand’s tallest peak at 8415 feet (2565m), Doi Inthanon National Park is one of the country's best-known national parks, covering more than 185 sq miles (480 sq km) and home to numerous waterfalls, hiking trails, viewpoints, hill tribe villages and bird species.
It’s kind of a big deal, particularly during the country’s cold season from November through January when temperatures drop at the higher elevations and sometimes even frost appears – a phenomenon that attracts Thai visitors used to sweltering tropical weather. Sometimes it even makes the news.
Doi Inthanon is also one of the few national parks in Thailand that’s easy to drive through, with smooth roads connecting key sites and attractions such as the Kaew Mae Pan Nature Trail. This short but spectacular trail, which requires the help of a local guide (and supplied bamboo hiking stick), winds through a section of the park’s best landscapes to beautiful viewpoints overlooking the surrounding valleys.
Many people explore Doi Inthanon as a day trip, either on their own or through an organized tour, but you can also stay in basic bungalow accommodations or camp on the mountain overnight to wake up above the clouds.
How to get to Doi Inthanon from Chiang Mai: A full day taxi service including return journey and different stops around the park, costs around 3000B ($95). A cheaper option is to hop in a shared songthaew (passenger van) heading in the direction of the park.
Graze on delicious Thai food overlooking Huay Teung Tao
Travel time: 30-45 mins
Technically a man-made reservoir, tranquil Huay Teung Tao is a local haunt for whiling the day away in simple bamboo huts right on the water. It’s particularly popular with families and groups of friends over the weekends and public holidays.
In recent years, there’s been an increase in activities offered around the reservoir, such as ATV riding or paddle boarding, but settling into one of the huts for an afternoon of grazing on local Thai fare and bottles of beer is still the favorite way to "do" Huay Teung Tao. Each hut is tied to a different restaurant, which all offer similar menus, quality and pricing – simply pick a spot, order some food or drinks and stay as long as you like.
How to get to Huay Teung Tao from Chiang Mai: Just 9 miles (14km) away from the center of Chiang Mai’s old city, along the 121 or "Canal Road," Huay Teung Tao is quick and convenient to get to in a songthaew, by calling a car with the Grab ride-sharing app, or with your own set of wheels.
Visit traditional artisans in the villages of Bo Sang and San Khampaeng
Travel time: 1.5 hours for both
Chiang Mai has long been a handicrafts hub, known for its experts in the disciplines of wood carving, silversmithing, weaving and more. Today, skilled artisans still practice many of these traditional arts and crafts and, as a result, you can find many unique, handmade souvenirs for purchase around the city and in its myriad markets, from baskets and furniture to jewellery and ceramics.
But for the optimum choice of authentic souvenirs, head east out of town on Highway 1006, also known as the "handicraft highway," to reach the small villages of Bo Sang and San Khampaeng. While Bo Sang serves as a center for umbrella and paper making, San Khampaeng specializes in textile and ceramic items. Many workshops and showrooms are on the main road or marked with signs pointing the way.
For a contrasting look at Thailand’s art and handicrafts, stop by the MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, just a couple of miles from Bo Sang, to take in exhibitions showcasing contemporary Thai artists. Alternatively, if furniture and home decor are more to your taste, go south of Chiang Mai city toward Hang Dong to the woodcarving village of Ban Tawai.
How to get to Bo Sang and San Khampaeng from Chiang Mai: White songthaews depart for Bo Sang from near Warorot Market in Chiang Mai. Otherwise, taxis and Grab cars are readily available, which are also the best option for reaching Ban Tawai.
Photograph the incredible White Temple and Black House
Travel time: 3.5 hours for both
Though a little taxing as a day trip, if you have limited time and won’t make it to neighboring Chiang Rai Province as part of your travels in Thailand, it is possible to see two of the region’s most beloved sites – Wat Rong Khun and Baandam – in one day from Chiang Mai.
Commonly known in English as the White Temple (though it is not actually a place of worship), Wat Rong Khun was the brainchild of contemporary Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. Quirky is perhaps the best way to describe the glittering white complex, with visitors having to walk past a sea of yearning arms (symbolizing desire) to reach the temple’s interior, where trippy murals that include images of Keanu Reeves and Superman adorn the walls.
Nearby, Baandam, meaning "Black House," is another otherworldly creation, this time from the mind of Chiang Rai-born artist Thawan Duchanee. Unlike the sparkling Wat Rong Khun, Baandam’s sprawling collection of structures, sculptures and gardens feature dark teak wood, dead animal parts and macabre arrangements. Both white and black complexes will likely live long in the memory – or potentially nightmares – of visitors.
How to get to the White Temple and Black House from Chiang Mai: Rent a car to do the journey or look for one of a number of package tours to the temples that will likely pick you up from your hotel by 8am and return back to Chiang Mai in the evening around 8pm. If you want to go it alone, inexpensive buses run regularly from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai.
Do the Samoeng Loop on a motorbike tour
Travel time: 2.5 hours
You can’t visit Chiang Mai without getting out into its surrounding hills. For those comfortable on two wheels, the 62-mile-long "Samoeng Loop" is a hit with locals and tourists alike, especially on the weekends and in the dry cooler season.
Driving straight through will take you around 2.5 hours. However, throughout the route there are plenty of places to stop off, including the Nam Tok Mae Sa, a scenic – though sometimes busy – tiered waterfall that’s good for swimming, and Queen Sirikit Botanic Gardens, a huge, manicured green space bursting with exotic flowers, so plan for four hours or more. Though you could do the loop with a car and driver, it’s really the journey itself – experiencing the air rushing by your face and taking in 360-degree views – that’s the drive’s main draw.
Scooter rentals are available from a number of operators in Chiang Mai, including Mr Mechanic and Toon’s Bikes. Alternatively, organized motorcycle tours around the loop are available.
How to get to the Samoeng Loop from Chiang Mai: Start by driving north out of town on Highway 107 to Mae Rim and then turn left onto Highway 1096. This will take you climbing up into the hills, passing small rustic restaurants, strawberry fields, Royal Project agriculture initiatives and views of the valley before reaching the small village of Samoeng. Turn left onto Highway 1296 to start looping back towards Chiang Mai.