If you’re planning to visit Thailand, I can’t urge you enough to explore Chiang Mai. But how long should you spend in the northern capital of Thailand? Maybe there’s no right answer, but here are some suggestions.
When traveling to Thailand, it would be almost impossible to skip the temples. There are some really famous ones around the country, including Wat Pho (connected to the Grand Palace) in Bangkok and Wat Rong Khun (better known as the White Temple) in Chiang Rai.
Chiang Mai has its own share of temples, including three which are classified as Royal Temples. The most popular is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep high on the Doi Suthep mountain overlooking the city. Wat Sri Suphan, located near the Saturday Night Market, is a close second due to its unique status as the world’s first silver temple. Finally, there’s Wat Suan Dok. This one is full of white mausoleum containing the ashes of Chiang Mai rulers from the past six centuries.
You could easily visit all three of these temples in a single day. I would recommend visiting Wat Doi Suthep for sunrise (or sunset, but the sun sets on the far side of the mountain), Wat Suan Dok during the day, and Wat Sri Suphan at night when the silver is lit up with colored spotlights.
Waterfalls, Hot Springs, Elephant Sanctuaries, Waterparks and More
Bangkok is the most-visited city in the world with over 30 million tourists every year. Many of those continue down to the islands while others head up to Chiang Mai in the north. The city has capitalized on tourism and built up plenty of attractions, or utilized natural activities like waterfalls and hot springs.
My personal favorite activity in all of Thailand is the elephant sanctuaries (not to be confused with elephant parks which usually include elephant riding, chains, etc). In 2017, I visited the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary where I got to feed the elephants, give them mud baths, wash off the mud in the waterfalls, and enjoy a locally cooked buffet lunch. Half-day tours start around $40, or you can get multi-day tours which include jungle treks, visits to local villages, etc.
If you’re traveling with a family, I’d recommend a visit to the Chiang Mai Grand Canyon where you’ll find an exhilarating waterpark. The first time I went in 2015, activities were limited to cliff diving. Now there’s a floating obstacle course in the water which has filled in an old quarry.
You can also visit waterfalls, hot springs, Botanical gardens, night safaris, adventure parks and many other attractions within an hour of Chiang Mai. You can get public transportation to them for just a few cents and pay your way in, but it’s a lot easier to book a tour if you’re not on a budget.
Night Markets, Night Bazaars and Festivals
After your day of fun, resist the temptation to crash at your boutique hotel and head out to a night market instead. Every night, you can visit the Night Bazaar on the east side of town near the Ping River. On Saturday nights, the street running south from the Chiang Mai Gate of the Old Town turns into a massive night market. Then on Sunday, several streets within the Old Town itself are shut down and the stalls go up. The vendors and products are mostly the same between all the markets, but they are still unique in their own ways. Whichever one you choose, make sure you visit at least one before leaving Chiang Mai. After all, who can leave Thailand without a pair of elephant pants?
Relax in a Cafe or Ten
If you have a bit more time, you might want to slow down and spend some time in a cafe. Chiang Mai has some truly unique ones, including tree house cafes, dog and cat cafes, cafes with impressive art galleries, and even cafes with nets suspended over waterfalls.
If you only have a couple days, you’ll probably have to skip the cafes. On the other hand, it’s the cozy, cheap cafes of Chiang Mai, many of which are open 24 hours, which impelled me to choose Chiang Mai as my winter home base.
An Optimum Itinerary
As you can see, there are plenty of activities in Chiang Mai to fill up several weeks. If you’re on a tight schedule, I’d say the minimum amount of time to spend in Chiang Mai is four days. One for the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, one for temples, one for various activities during the day and a night market, and one just to explore the city (concentrate on the Old Town and the posh Nimman district). If you have less time than that, well, you’re going to have to skip something you shouldn’t.
Then again, that’s just in Chiang Mai. Just to the north are several more towns I would highly recommend. Pai is a hippie village up in the mountains full of more waterfalls, hot springs, the Pai Canyon and beautiful nature. Mae Salong is a Chinese settlement where they have rolling hills of tea plantations and a really unique history. Chiang Rai is a town with fantastic and unique attractions like the White Temple, the Blue Temple and the Black House…but that’s another story in itself. Yeah, you’ll probably just have to come for a few months…or expatriate for a few years in Thailand, as so many others do.