Things to Do in Northern Thailand
Rising 8,415 feet (2,565 meters) above sea level, Mt. Doi Inthanon, situated in the center of Doi Inthanon National Park, is Thailand’s tallest mountain. While many visitors strive to see the views from its summit, the surrounding forests, waterfalls, stupas—dome-shaped Buddhist shrines—and trails are just as impressive.
The mountainous border regions of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand come together in the exotically named Golden Triangle—a haven of Buddhist architecture, lush forest, and colorful riverfront villages. Located in the Chiang Rai province at Thailand’s northernmost tip, the Golden Triangle is thick with wonders, both natural and man-made.
With brilliant white spires, eaves, and bridges that all glitter in the sunshine and reflect in surrounding pools, the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) is Chiang Rai’s signature sight. The building’s surroundings and interior are filled with art inspired by everything fromThe Matrix, to Hello Kitty andKung Fu Panda.
The golden spire of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep glitters near the summit of Doi Suthep, a 5,499-foot (1,676-meter) mountain outside Chiang Mai. The wat, established in 1383, is one of northern Thailand’s most sacred temples. The International Buddhist Center at the wat hosts informal discussions, chanting, and meditation.
This partially ruined wat, possibly the largest structure in ancient Chiang Mai, dates back to the year 1441 and is most famous as the former home of the incredible Emerald Buddha. Nowadays, a jade replica fills the eastern niche of Wat Chedi Luang, although you can see the original in Bangkok at the Wat Phra Kaew.
Chiang Mai Night Safari is a large zoo and theme park that is open throughout the day and night. Particularly popular with families, it is modelled on Singapore Night Safari but is twice the size; the site is sprawled across some 300 acres and is home to around 1400 animals.
There is a scenic daytime walking route called the Jaguar Trail that winds around the lake and passes all the most popular animal enclosures, but arguably the best time to visit Chiang Mai Night Safari is after the sun goes down. The nighttime area is split into two zones, the Savanna Safari Zone and the Predator Prowl Zone, both of which are open from 6pm daily. Visitors travel through the different zones from the safety of an open-sided tram, spotting such animals as white tigers, rhinos, hyenas, lions, cheetahs, wildebeests, giraffes, ostriches, zebras, bears, water buffalos, crocodiles, kangaroos and more.
In addition to the walking trails and night safari, there are a variety of other shows and attractions at the park. One of the most popular is the nightly Laser Light Show. There are two shows per night, one at 8pm and one at 9pm, and many visitors consider it one of the main highlights of their visit. It involves a stunning display at the site of a giant fountain, with the cascading water combining with clever light and sound effects to create a spectacular audiovisual experience.
For the most convenient way to visit Chiang Mai Night Safari, book a tour that includes round-trip hotel transportation and admission fees.
One of the few natural hot springs in northern Thailand, the Mae Kachan Hot Spring (Mae Ka Chan is so hot—reaching temperatures of 194˚F (90˚C—it can boil an egg in minutes, a feat that locals are more than happy to demonstrate. As well as cooking your breakfast, you can dip your toes in several pools.
If you only see one temple during your time in Chiang Mai, Wat Phra Singh Woramahawihan should be it. Set in the heart of the old city, the temple was founded in 1345 and is home to Chiang Mai’s most sacred relic—the Phra Singh, an image of the Lion Buddha housed within a golden shrine.
Warorot Market is a feast for the senses, where stalls selling dried durian paste and exotic fruits stand cheek by jowl with vendors offering fluffy bath towels and Buddhist amulets. The indoor hub—a more authentic alternative to Chiang Mai’s night markets—is a great place to sample local delicacies and purchase handicrafts at low prices.
The remnants of Chiang Saen’s former glory—the 7th century capital of the Lanna Kingdom—still lie scattered around the modern town. One of Thailand’s oldest towns, it boasts a strategic location along the Mekong River, serving as a border crossing to Laos and the gateway to the famed Golden Triangle region.
More Things to Do in Northern Thailand
Wat Suan Dok’s brilliant golden spire has stretched high into the skyline of the Northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai since the 14th century. The name roughly translates to "field of flowers," as the temple stands on a site that was once the garden of a ruling monarch just west of the Old City walls.
The Mae Ping River cuts through Chiang Mai just a few blocks east of the old city and night market, where its banks have been developed with hotels, open-air restaurants, and bars. As it passes through the countryside, the river retains its natural charms. The ancient city of Wiang Kum Kam is also set on its shores south of Chiang Mai.
Doi Suthep-Pui National Park protects a swath of verdant forest and mountain ranges in Northern Thailand near Chiang Mai. Named after a hermit who lived in the forest before it became a national park, Doi Suthep-Pui is perhaps most famous for the temple at the summit of Doi Suthep Peak (known for its stunning views of Chiang Mai).
Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar is perhaps the city's most popular attraction. The colorful mix of shops and stalls sell all sorts of things, from ersatz designer fashions to embroidered hill tribes textiles, Thai silks, silver jewelry, carvings, ceramics, and antiques. It’s also one of the best places in town to sample some spicy street food.
With its secluded forest location and elaborate network of tunnels, Tunnel Temple (Wat Umong) is unique among Chiang Mai temples. The 15-acre (6-hectare) temple complex is home to saffron-robed monks, as well as free-roaming deer and ponds full of fish and turtles. Signs painted with words of wisdom hang from the ‘talking trees.’
Perched in the highlands near Chiang Rai, the Choui Fong Tea Plantation has been producing some of Thailand’s highest quality teas for decades. Benefitting from the rich soil and climate of the region, the plantation grows a variety of teas that are handpicked and then blended by tea specialists from Taiwan.
Situated within Chiang Dao National Park, the 6-mile-long (10-kilometer-long) Chiang Dao Caves system penetrating Thailand’s third-highest peak ranks among the most spectacular in the country. Impressive stalagmites and stalactites grow from the ceilings and floors of the five interconnected caves, along with other limestone and crystal formations.
The private Tweechol Botanic Garden, founded in 1997, encompasses 114 acres (46 hectares) of manicured gardens, lakes with paddleboats, bike trails, and playful topiaries, making it one of the largest gardens in Thailand. A standout of the collection are the 107 varieties of palm trees from around the world. The petting zoo is popular with young visitors.
Wiang Kum Kam, an ancient “lost city” on the banks of the Mae Ping River, was founded in the 13th century by King Mangrai as the Lanna capital before Chiang Mai. The city was abandoned in the 16th century due to flooding and was only rediscovered in 1984. Since then the temples and other structures have been partially restored.
Thought to be the oldest temple in Chiang Mai, Wat Chiang Man is a typical Northern Thai temple, with massive teak columns holding aloft the central sanctuary. The wat has two important Buddha images—one on a marble bas-relief, the other a crystal seated Buddha—both of which are visible in a glass cabinet housed in a smaller sanctuary.
Golden Mountain Temple (Wat Phra That Doi Kham) is named after the forested mountain on which it’s located, just outside Chiang Mai. A much-revered site in Thailand, the temple was built towards the end of the seventh century and is known for its 56-foot-tall (17-meter-tall) Buddha statue swathed in gold robes.
Located at the heart of the Golden Triangle—the intersection of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar—the Hall of Opium Museum explores the impact that opium seed has had on the area. Exhibits trace the seed back to its first use 5,000 years ago and raise awareness of current abuse and addiction issues.
Situated on the slopes of Doi Suthep, the Chiang Mai Zoo and Aquarium is Thailand’s oldest zoo and a favorite with visiting families. Hundreds of species are represented between the zoological park and its aquarium, including a pair of giant pandas. The aquarium’s 436-foot-long (133-meter-long) aquatic tunnel ranks among the longest in the world.
The Three Kings Monument(Anusawari Sam Kasat) is located in the center of Chiang Mai’s walled city in front of the old provincial administration building, which now houses the Chiang Mai City Art & Cultural Center. This is one of several museums that have opened within old municipal buildings surrounding the Three Kings Monument, making this area particularly popular with history fans and other tourists.
The bronze sculpture of the founder fathers of Chiang Mai – King Mengrai standing with King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai and King Ngam Muang of Phayao – is a proud symbol of the history of Chiang Mai, commemorating the alliance forged by the kings in the development of the city in the 13th century. The monument serves as a shrine for local residents, who often leave offerings of flowers and candles in the hope of receiving blessings.
Due to its historic and cultural significance, as well as its central location, visiting the Three Kings Monument is included on various Chiang Mai sightseeing tours, including historic bike tours and even food tours.