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THAILAND: CHIANG MAI
Things to Do in Chiang Mai

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Chiang Mai

Known as the “Jewel of the North”, the ancient city of Chiang Mai is located around 700km north of the capital but is easily reached by remarkably cheap air tickets from one of the low-cost carriers. Steeped in history and culture, the city is cooler, quieter, and more laid back than the chaotic capital of Bangkok and has been a popular destination with tourists for decades.

The central portion of the city (known as Old Town) is surrounded by a square moat, and the remnants of the ancient city walls (built to repel Burmese and Mongol attacks) are still visible, particularly at Tha Phae Gate. One for culture vultures and nature enthusiasts, the city offers better value than more popular destinations such as Phuket, but still has plenty to see and do and even has some pretty decent nightlife, most notably around the Loi Kroh Road area.

There are numerous nature reserves and national parks within a stone’s throw of the city, including Thailand’s highest peak of Doi Inthanon, and you can still get your shopping fix at one of the city’s many malls and markets.

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Doi Inthanon National Park

There are numerous national parks and nature reserves in the surrounding areas of the city, with many beautiful, untouched regions awaiting the intrepid traveler. However, Doi Inthanon National Park is home to Thailand’s highest peak (at 8415ft) with some breathtaking views and photo opportunities for those willing to make the climb.

At the peak are two elaborate chedis set in beautifully manicured gardens but the rest of the park is also dotted with rivers, waterfalls, and attractions (including a huge variety of flora and fauna for nature enthusiasts), and several hill tribe villages. Around 70km southwest of the city center, it is one of the more spectacular national parks in the country, but be warned; distances between points of interest can be significant, therefore you’ll need a car, motorbike or to make use of a private guided tour.

There are campsites, bungalows, and restaurants around the park if you decide to stay overnight, which is highly recommended.

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Visit the Museums

There are many fascinating museums in the city where you can find out more about Chiang Mai’s history and get an insight into Lanna culture; you can easily spend a whole day or even more and not see everything.

If you’re interested to find out more about the region’s hill tribes (including Hmong, Akha, and Yao), head to the Tribal Museum of Chiang Mai where you can see traditional costumes, artwork, tools, and handicrafts.

The Arts and Cultural Centre is dedicated to preserving the city’s history and here you can learn more about the fascinating history and culture of the city itself, as well as about the inhabitant’s daily lives, agriculture, and Buddhist practices. Then theres the Chiang Mai National Museum with an interesting collection of artifacts from the region, various art museums (including the 3D Art Museum and Contemporary Art Museum), the Museum of Insects and Natural Wonders, and an Airforce Museum (with a rare collection of WW2 planes), to name but a few. If museums are your thing, you’re going to love Chiang Mai.

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Tribal Museum of Chiang Mai

Also known by it's formal name the Highland People Discovery Museum, this is the perfect starting point to learn about Thailand's minority hill tribes before you head out on a hike or visit a tribal village. Northern Thailand is home to several mountain tribes, including the Karen and Hmong (the two largest), as well as smaller ethnic groups, such as the Akha, Lua, and Mien, among others.

This great little ethnographic museum should be at the top of your places to visit if you want to learn more about the local hill tribes and their unique identity and culture. Indoor exhibits cover jewelry and costumes, traditional tribal music, handiworks, and more. There's also photo and video presentations explaining the unique differences among tribes and their difficult history and conflicting relationships with mainstream Thai society.

Because most of the tribes don't have a written language, the museum plays an important role in preserving and showcasing the history and culture of these ethnic minorities.

Outside the museum building, visitors can explore recreations of tribal huts in a tranquil garden setting. The museum's gift shop sells authentic handiwork from the various tribes represented here.

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Night Markets

When in Chiang Mai, whether you are looking for authentic souvenirs or simply strolling around, it is a lot of fun to walk through the city’s famous night markets.

A combination of local food and a lively buzzing atmosphere, a trip to Chiang Mai is never complete without visiting these markets.

The night markets in Chiang Mai are considered the most famous in the whole of Thailand. Visitors to are thrilled to see rows and rows of vendors selling an array of items, ranging from handicrafts to jewellery and clothing and are also be able to enjoy a wide range of street food.

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The Elephant Nature Park 

People travel from all over the world to visit the Elephant Nature Park. There are many elephant experiences around Chiang Mai, but this one boasts their fair treatment of the animals. The elephants who come to ENP are rescues from a variety of harsh environments and unfair treatment. You’ll get the opportunity to be up-close and personal with elephants as you help bathe them, feed them, and more. You’ll also learn about the challenges these animals face and how you can help save the elephants.

There are many elephant camps around Chiang Mai, but all are not created equal. Many have been criticized as treating the animals poorly and overworking them. Elephant Nature Park is not one of these places.

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Bua Thong Sticky Waterfalls

You'll definitely want to spend a day outside the city checking this place out. The wooded area surrounding the falls is serene and peaceful, but the real draw is the fact that you can walk up the falls. The limestone is "sticky" even as the water runs over it, so you can climb up and down to your heart's content. It's a real treat and provides a welcome complement to some of the more traditional tourist activities.

Aim to go on a weekday, since the place is fairly crowded on weekends. For between a few hundred and a thousand Thai baht, you can hire a songthaew or tuk-tuk driver to take you out and back.

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The Night Bazzar Chiang Mai

Whether you call it the night market or the night bazaar, this is one of the most visited tourist spots in Chiang Mai, and you need to go at least once. It’s open from 6 PM-midnight every night and has vendors with everything you can think of. Most sellers speak some English and you can use your bartering skills to buy a traditional skirt, a bracelet, a hand-carved box, or other beautiful souvenirs. 

When you're finished shopping, you can take in a muay Thai boxing fight at the stadium on the premises. Muay Thai fights are a big part of local culture, and can add an exciting element to your stay in Chiang Mai. Entrance to the fights is usually between 200 and 400 THB.

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 Wat Doi Suthep 

Chiang Mai is home to one of the country’s most stunning temples, known as Wat Doi Suthep. It sits perched atop a steep hill (known as Doi Suthep), and on a clear day, the golden chedi of the temple can be seen from the city despite being around 17km away by road. It was built in 1383 during the Lanna period and offers stunning views of the city and surrounding area. To get up to the temple you will need to catch a taxi or songthaew or use the cable car.

The temple complex is vast and beautifully ornate and is considered to be one of the most sacred pilgrimage spots in all of Thailand, attracting up to 120,000 visitors per month. In addition to the temple complex, a short distance further along the main road is Bhuping Royal Palace Gardens and a hill tribe village where you can buy all manner of handicrafts and souvenirs and get some great photos.

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Wat Chedi Luang 

Wat Chedi Luang was built more than 600 years ago. Ancient ruins are what remains. The mysterious temple draws visitors from all over the world. Elephant statues surround the exterior of the building and it is important to the culture and history of Chiang Mai. If you love archaeology and history, this is the perfect tourist spot for you.

Ruins aren't exactly a rare sight in Chiang Mai, or in Thailand generally, for that matter. But there's something about Wat Chedi Luang that is particularly beautiful and haunting. Constructed in 1401, the imposing structure was damaged during an earthquake in 1545. But it remains remarkable today, and you can still see the massive elephant carvings that adorn it.

Beneath a huge gum tree on the left of the entrance to the precinct stands a delightful little temple, the Lak Muang. Built in 1940 on the site of an earlier wooden building, the shrine is the abode of Chiang Mai's guardian spirit (Lak Muang). According to tradition, if the great tree should fall, disaster will overtake the city. The temple is something to behold at any time of day, but it's particularly lovely at night, when it is all lit up.

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Taste the Northern Cuisine

Northern Thai cuisine is delicious and every visitor to Chiang Mai should take the opportunity to give it a try. The most famous dish is called “khao soi” which is crispy, deep-fried noodles in a deliciously fragrant broth with meat which is a bit like massaman curry. You’ll most commonly find it with chicken, and it’s sold all around the city with prices around 40 baht per bowl. You can’t leave Chiang Mai without trying this one, it’s rich, moreish, and simply delicious.

The next thing you must try is called “sai ua” which is a grilled pork sausage packed with fresh herbs and spices and a bit of red curry paste. It is often served sliced with some sticky rice and dipping sauce, it’s extremely fragrant and delicious.

Another delicious northern dish is called “gaeng hung lay” which has a very strong Burmese influence. It’s a slow-cooked, pork belly curry with lots of delicious spices and sometimes even pineapple, and the pork becomes so tender that it just dissolves in your mouth.

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Wat Prasingh

This temple stands at the heart of the Old City, which is where travelers spend much of their time. Amid the sois, or alleys, and heavy motorbike traffic, Wat Prasingh rises at the end of Rachadamnoen Road.

It is the largest wat in the city and dates to 1345, when an ancient king built it in his father's honor. The father's ashes are still buried on the grounds – but don't let that spook you from visiting. The decadent structures are impressive, and it's an especially great place to check out on Sundays.

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The wat's most sacred shrine is a small building called the Phra Viharn Lai Kam, erected during the reign of King San Muang Ma (1385-1401) to house the famous, now sadly headless, Sukhothai-style figure known as the Phra Singh Buddha.

According to tradition, the Buddha, in the familiar "calling the earth to witness" pose, came to Thailand from Ceylon, finding its way first to Ayutthaya and then to Kamphaeng Phet, Chiang Rai, Luang Prabang, and back again to Ayutthaya before, in 1767, arriving in Chiang Mai, where it has been ever since (but there are doubts as to the relic's authenticity).

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Head to Wat Phra Singh in the early afternoon, and you'll have a chance to browse a market on the grounds, perusing creative souvenirs and sampling fresh juices and teas after visiting the temple.

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Discover Doi Pui Village

This small Hmong village is admittedly more tourist oriented than authentic. Yet there is a small exhibit of a traditional hill tribe home and information on the history of the many groups that have settled in the Thai mountains in past generations.

If you're feeling particularly touristy, you can dress up in ethnic garb for a photo shoot, and there are many small shops where you can purchase hand-woven textiles, handmade jewelry, tea, and other goods.

You can also explore a large garden with a diverse array of plants and enjoy breathtaking views from the village. Stop for lunch at one of the small restaurants overlooking the greenery below and order a hot bowl of khao soi, Chiang Mai's most famous dish.

It's a good idea to add this to your itinerary the same day you visit Doi Suthep, since you only need to drive a bit farther into the mountains to reach Doi Pui. Enjoy the ride; it's a beautiful one.

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Take a Class

Chiang Mai offers a huge range of classes and workshops, from the ubiquitous Thai cooking classes to yoga workshops and Muay Thai training, the list is almost endless.

For an amazing Thai cookery class, head to Smile Organic Farm, which is 45 minutes drive from the city near San Kamphaeng hot springs, you’ll be able to pick your own vegetables and herbs and learn to cook incredible Thai dishes to wow your friends when you get home.

If you are interested in learning some Thai language, there are three schools inside the Pantip mall on Changklan Road where you can have one-to-one tuition for which you can pay by the hour.

For Muay Thai training, head to the Chiang Mai Muay Thai gym on Wiang Kaew Road in the old town (inside the moat). Also, there are dozens of yoga studios, massage schools, and art classes available in the city, and even a hill tribe weaving class if you fancy something a bit different.

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Art in Paradise

At Art in Paradise, you can surf a big wave, ride a magic carpet, and stand amid an erupting volcano, or at least look as though you are. This illusion art museum displays 3D art that has an incredibly realistic effect, providing plenty of fantastic photo opportunities.

The collection includes more than 130 photos divided into six different zones, such as the underwater world, wildlife, Ancient Egypt, and European cities. Plan on spending at least two hours here, posing for photos in the scenes of your choice for fun mementos of your visit.

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Relax at Huay Tung Tao

This is a perfect place to laze away a day under the Thai sun, surrounded by hills and with a lake to swim in at your leisure. This reservoir is popular with locals and expats. You can rent a hut on the lake for the equivalent of a few dollars and a huge tube to lounge on in the water for a small fee.

Don't worry about packing lunch because you can order fresh fish and other dishes from the local kitchens. And it's only about 10 kilometers from the city, so it makes a perfect day trip. You can hire a driver and negotiate a pickup and drop-off rate. It's worth purchasing an inexpensive Thai SIM card, so you can give the driver a call if you need to make adjustments to your meeting times.

Where to Stay in Chiang Mai

If you're planning to see the top tourist attractions in the city of Chiang Mai, the best place to stay is near the walled Old City, a wonderful place to explore on foot, with its Buddhist temples, bookstores, antique shops, and cafés. Near the Old City's Tha Phae Gate, the lively Night Bazaar buzzes with activity and the surrounding area is also popular and centrally located for sightseeing.

Hotels in the area of town called Riverside tend to be a little more tranquil but still lie within easy access of all the attractions.

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