Chiang Mai Province
Thailand’s northern capital is an overnight train ride and light years away from the bustle of Bangkok. Wrestled from Burmese control by the kingdom of Siam, the former capital of the Lanna people is a captivating collection of glimmering monasteries, manic markets, modern shopping centers, and quiet residential streets that wouldn't look amiss in a remote village.
It's more country retreat than mega-metropolis, but this beguiling city still lures everyone from backpacking teenagers to young families, round-the-world retirees and a huge contingent of tourists from China, who are redefining the city's traveler experience.
Historic monasteries and cooking courses are just part of the picture. Get out into the surrounding province to find a jumble of forested hills, great for rafting, hiking, mountain biking and other adrenaline-charged activities. Most visitors will leave the city at least once to interact with elephants, dip into hot springs and wander experimental farms and botanic gardens.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Chiang Mai Province.
Overlooking the city from its mountain throne, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of northern Thailand's most sacred temples, and its founding legend is learned by every schoolkid in Chiang Mai. The wát is a beautiful example of northern Thai architecture, reached via a 306-step staircase flanked by naga (mythical sea serpents). The climb is intended to help devotees accrue Buddhist merit.
Wat Chedi Luang isn't as grand as Wat Phra Singh, but its towering, ruined Lanna-style chedi (built in 1441) is much taller and the sprawling compound around the stupa is powerfully atmospheric. The famed Phra Kaew (Emerald Buddha), now held in Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew, resided in the eastern niche until 1475; today, you can view a jade replica.
Chiang Mai's most revered temple, Wat Phra Singh is dominated by an enormous, mosaic-inlaid wí·hăhn (sanctuary). Its prosperity is plain to see from the lavish monastic buildings and immaculately trimmed grounds, dotted with coffee stands and massage pavilions. Pilgrims flock here to venerate the famous Buddha image known as Phra Singh (Lion Buddha), housed in Wihan Lai Kham, a small chapel immediately south of the chedi (stupa) to the rear of the temple grounds.
Chiang Mai's oldest public market, Warorot (also spelt Waroros) is a great place to connect with the city's Thai soul. Alongside souvenir vendors you'll find numerous stalls selling items for ordinary Thai households: woks, toys, fishing nets, pickled tea leaves, wigs, sticky-rice steamers, Thai-style sausages, kâab mŏo (pork rinds), live catfish and tiny statues for spirit houses.
Without doubt the most atmospheric wát in the old city, this teak marvel sits in the shadow of Wat Chedi Luang. Set in a compound full of fluttering orange flags, the monastery is a monument to the teak trade, with an enormous prayer hall supported by 28 gargantuan teak pillars and lined with dark teak panels, enshrining a particularly graceful gold Buddha image.
Not to be confused with the small Wat Umong in the old city, this historic forest wát is famed for its sylvan setting and its ancient chedi, above a brick platform wormholed with passageways, built around 1380 for the 'mad' monk Therachan. Keep an eye out for the Sri Lankan–style stupa, and as you wander the arched tunnels, look for traces of the original murals and several venerated Buddha images.
At this community-based, elephant retirement and small animal rescue sanctuary, humans work for the elephants (not the other way around). Just three elephants reside here, along with plenty of rescued cats, dogs and injured wildlife, which the sanctuary works to rehabilitate and release. Travellers and volunteers report high satisfaction in learning about Asian elephants here, as well as observing them, preparing food for them, cleaning the areas they inhabit and helping care for other rescued animals.
Ever walked up a waterfall? An increasingly popular day trip from Chiang Mai to Si Lanna National Park's 'Sticky Waterfall' allows visitors (with no magic powers or even climbing skills) to do just that. The secret lies not in the cartoonish-looking, mysteriously clingy rocks, but in the calcium-rich spring above that feeds the three-tiered, 100m waterfall. That water leaves mineral deposits on the rocks, preventing slippery stuff (like algae) from growing.
It should come as no surprise that the silversmiths along Th Wualai have decorated their patron monastery with the same fine artisanship shown in their shops. The 'silver' ubosot (ordination hall) is covered with silver, nickel and aluminium panels, embossed with elaborate repoussé-work designs. The effect is like a giant jewellery box, particularly after dark, when the monastery is illuminated by coloured lights.