Exploring historic Chiang Mai and its environs
The 2-sq.km original city plan of Chiang Mai forms a near-perfect square, bounded on all sides by a moat and towering brick walls (of which only the corner bastions remain for the most part). Within these walls a charming network of narrow lanes, bisected by four broader avenues, lead to 33 historic Lanna temples and a legion of guesthouses, hotels, art galleries, bookshops, markets, cafes, and restaurants. The easy-going pace of the city, combined with the relatively pedestrian friendly flow of traffic, makes it a great place to wander around and explore in-depth. There are also spectacular sites outside the downtown core that make for fantastic day trips.
Wat Phra Singh: Considered Chiang Mai’s most revered temple, the lavish monastic buildings and immaculately trimmed grounds are testament to the prosperity of this religious landmark. Devotees come to worship Phra Singh (Lion Buddha), housed in Wihan Lai Kham, a small chapel immediately south of the chedi to the rear of the temple grounds. The idol is reputed to have arrived in Thailand from Sri Lanka, and was enshrined in 1367.
Wat Chedi Luang: The glorious, towering ruins of a Lanna-style chedi (built in 1441) are what draws so many sightseers, so don’t be surprised to find this landmark crowded at all hours of the day. You can also view a jade replica of the famed Emerald Buddha (currently held in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew), which originally resided in the temple’s eastern niche until 1475. The temple’s other claim to fame is the Làk Meuang (city pillar), allegedly raised by King Mengrai himself when Chiang Mai was founded in 1296.
Wat Ketkaram: Just east of Nawarat Bridge, a road running north along the Ping River changes names from Charoen Rat to Faham as it winds through what was the main centre for Westerners involved in trade and missionary work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, however these days the historic homes and shophouses have been converted into hotels, restaurants, clubs, and galleries. One of the most historically significant landmarks here is Wat Ketkaram (known as “Wat Ket” or “Wat Gate” for short), a monastery built around the Phra That Ketkaew Chulamani stupa between 1578-81. Today it’s one of the 10 holiest stupas in northern Thailand.
Tha Phae Road: Between the Old City’s eastern gate and the banks of the Ping River, an amorphous conglomeration of streets lined with Shan-Burmese temples, hotels, guesthouses, tourist restaurants, and the famed Chiang Mai Night Bazaar spreads north and south of Tha Phae Road. This area was, until relatively recently, the city’s most important tourist centre.
Wualai Walking Street: Wualai Road has been Chiang Mai’s centre for traditional Lanna silversmithing for over a century. Every Saturday evening—from 5pm till midnight—the street closes to vehicles and fills instead with vendor stalls offering silverwork and other handicrafts. Bands pound out Thai folk music from rustic stages while neighbourhood grannies hawk local snacks.
Ratchdamnoen Walking Street: Along Ratchdamnoen Road, stretching west from Tha Phae Gate through the heart of the Old City, this lively, crowded market replaces the Night Bazaar as the premier shopping draw every Sunday evening from 5pm till midnight. As at Wualai, the emphasis is on local handiwork, but here you’ll also see crafts imported from Nepal, China, and elsewhere.
Out of Town
Doi Suthep: Of many well-known, well-touristed temples in Chiang Mai, Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep—a gilded 14th-century cloister perched 1,676 metres above the city on the side of the mountain known as Doi Suthep—should not be missed. If you’d rather not climb the 306-step naga-lined staircase, take the elevator-like tramway for B50. To avoid crowds, arrive around 5pm and stay through sunset, when the chanting of resident monks generates a peaceful environment (open daily 7am-7pm).
Doi Inthanon National Park: Part of the Himalayan mountain range, Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s tallest peak (reaching 2,565 metres above sea level). The park covers an area of 482.4 sq.km, and natural attractions include Namtok Mae Ya—a beautiful waterfall that flows down a steep 280-metre cliff onto different rock formations—as well as spectacular caves, various nature trails, and Phra Mahathat Napha Methanidon and Phra Mahathat Naphaphon Bhumisiri, twin pagodas that offer spectacular mountain views.
Doi Mon Jam: At the heart of the Nong Hoy Royal Project, this humble peak offers surprisingly majestic views across the Mae Ping Valley. After touring the project’s strawberry fields and grape orchards, stop at the openair dining room for herb teas, natural fruit juices, and Thai fusion cuisine prepared using farm-fresh produce (open daily 8am-7pm).
Wiang Kum Kam: Approximately 5 km south of town stand the excavated ruins of Chiang Mai’s first city site, founded by the Mon in the 11th century and later sacked by Burmese invaders. Stroll among the brick remains of seven temples, and visit Wat Chedi Liam, one of two additional temples still functioning (open daily 8am-5pm).
Bright red songthaew—small, dilapidated pickup trucks with two benches for passengers in back—ply the streets of Chiang Mai starting from B20 one way. Tuktuks and car taxis are also available at rates of around B200 per trip. To get around conveniently, many visitors prefer to rent cars (B1,000 and up) or motorbikes (B150-250 per day), or bicycles (B100 per day), from various rental shops around town.