Chiang Mai is dramatic. Wedged between sheer mountains, spreading along an ancient alluvial plain, the unofficial capital of Northern Thailand conceals a tumultuous history dating back to the 13th century. A plethora of unique tourist attractions matched with extreme affordability, draws over 14 million tourists per year.
I recently had the opportunity to spend 3 days in Chiang Mai and planned an action-packed itinerary to make the most of my time in the region.
But, when I arrived, I was completely exhausted!
After over 1 month of touring around Thailand, I could have pushed through my itinerary and visited Chiang Mai’s serene temples, exotic national parks, traditional villages and historical landmarks, but instead I decided to listen to my body and take some much-needed downtime. I scaled back my itinerary to the bare essentials… the Chiang Mai attractions that I simply couldn’t bear to miss.
Here are the 6 things that made my list:
1. Chiang Mai Night Bazaar
We stayed at Mövenpick Suriwongse Hotel Chiang Mai. Across the road from the hotel, every evening starting at 6pm stalls forming the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar streamed down both sides of Changklan Road as far as the eye could see. Nearby streets were filled with taxis, tuk-tuks and tour busses carting in tourists eager to hunt for bargains.
This night bazaar is one of the oldest and most popular evening markets in Thailand and it’s easy to see why. A huge variety of items are on offer at bargain prices, and the hard-working stall owners pack up their temporary shopfronts each night only to set them up again the following day.
If you are looking for a souvenir or gift, this is the place to find it. Items for sale include clothing, jewellery, accessories, homewares, toys, gimmicks, antiques, and a range of handmade crafts like soap, jewellery and wood carvings. No one will guess you brought their gift from right outside your hotel!
The night bazaar overflows into other nearby night markets: Ploen Ruedee Night Market (just 2 blocks north of the Movenpick) offering the city’s best street food, Kalare Night Bazaar (1 block north), and Anusarn Market (just 1 block south of the hotel) with higher quality handmade products and the added convenience of a rooftop (for those rainy evenings).
2. Wat Chedi Luang
One thing I couldn’t cut off my list of historical sites was Wat Chedi Luang. This ancient Buddhist temple was first built in the late 1300s and is unlike any other temple I’ve seen in Thailand. Wat Chedi Luang was once home to Thailand’s most sacred religious relic, the Emerald Buddha, which is now housed in Wat Pra Kaew, next to the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
The once 80-meter tall stone temple was severely damaged during an earthquake in 1545 and lost almost half of its height. Restoration works to the temple were completed in the 1990s, but it’s still possible to see areas where large sections of stone came crashing down the temple’s angled exterior.
The wihan near the complex entrance houses a large golden Buddha statue named Phra Chao Attarot which dates back to the 14th century.
Also, near the complex entrance is Chiang Mai Pillar City Shrine which is only accessible by men (sorry ladies). The sacred pillar is said to have been handed to the Lawa people from the god Indra to protect against disaster. It’s well worth taking a quick look at the colourful ornate wall paintings inside.
Entrance to Wat Chedi Leung is 40 baht (US$1.25) per person and like most religious sites in Thailand, there is a strict dress code. If you don’t dress appropriately, you can hire a t-shirt or sarong for a 100 baht (US$3.10) deposit which you get back when you return the clothing.
Tip: On the side of the ticket booth is a QR code that you can scan to access a free tourist video (in Thai, English & Mandarin).
3. Wiang Kum Kam
Damn, this place was hard to find. The main reason is that’s there’s no consensus exactly where this place is!
I saw photos online of a majestic bright white structure named Wat Chedi Liam located in Wiang Kum Kam that reached to the sky like a beacon and decided I had to go there. Simple enough. Google should do the job. The only problem is that it’s hard to find since there are several places with similar names. It even confuses the locals.
A lot of websites recommend to visit this place, but very few offer a useful map – and not all the maps are correct. Even photos on Google Maps aren’t all accurate.
If you don’t have the patience, here’s exactly where it is.
I’ll try to make sense out of this for you… Wiang Kum Kam is the name of the ancient capital before it was moved to Chiang Mai. The old city was repeatedly flooded (that’s a good reason to move a city), and then after the Burmese conquest in the 1500’s it was completely abandoned. 200 years later people moved back here and the town was renamed Chang Kham village. This region was excavated by archaeologists in 1984 and now ancient ruins stand side-by-side with village housing.
So, there isn’t one exact spot for Wiang Kum Kam, it’s spread out over an entire village.
Here’s a few ruins within the village:
- Wiang Kum Kam (confusing name as it’s the same as the old city – and there’s a temple here too called Wat Kan Thome which was built in 1290 AD and restored in 1984)
- Ancient Temple of Ku Pa Hom
- Wat E-Kang
- Wat That Kaow
Each of these sites could be visited for 5-10 minutes quite easily, and the signage is very basic (if any). However, getting between them isn’t comfortable walking distance, there’s no footpaths and no taxis. The majority of the locals speak no English so it’s jolly challenging to navigate the narrow sign-less roads.
The original name for Wat Chedi Liam was Wat Ku Kham which is confusingly similar to these places (they’re not the right place), and nowhere near where Bangkok.com claims it should be:
- Wat Khum Kham (also called “Wat Pa Prao Nok”, very close by)
- Wat Koo Kam
- Wat Ku Kham (spelling is right, location is wrong!)
- Wat Doi Ku Kham
And to add salt to the wound, Google Maps spells it differently – “Wat Chediliem” (instead of Wat Chedi Liam). And seeing the above differences, you can understand why the right location is easy to overlook.
TL;DR? I’d just suggest getting a taxi (or tuk-tuk) to Wat Chedi Liam and then ask your driver to stop at a few of the ruins (like Wat E-Kang) but don’t let them drive away or you’ll have a long walk back to civilisation (like we did).
Note: I want to give a special shout-out to GPSmycity for displaying the correct location. *applause*
4. Chang Mai’s Handicraft Villages
Chiang Mai is famous for its skilful artisans who have honed their craftmanship over many generations. Each handmade product has its own “village” where visitors can see the entire production process, from raw materials to finished goods ready for purchase. In reality, most “villages” are a single destination, as opposed to a what you might imagine a village to be. We only visited a few of the many handicraft villages in Chiang Mai that ranged from hand-made jewellery and clothing to wood carving and parasols.
Chiang Mai’s Thai Silk Village really opened my eyes to how this beautiful fabric is made. The village houses enclosures of silk worms, silk moths and cacoons, and staff members talked us through the various stages of a silk worm’s lifecycle. We then walked past ladies cleaning and unravelling cacoons before winding them into reels of thread ready to dye. We were shown different types of natural and artificial dyes and saw another group of ladies weaving the different coloured threads to make exquisite roles of fabric.
Just behind the factory is a retail shop where visitors can buy exquisite Thai silk clothing, fabric, and small souvenirs. Entry to the Thai Silk Village is 40 baht (US$1.25) per person.
I realise that silk production can be a controversial topic, so be aware that worms are harmed in the production of silk, if you’re sensitive to the subject.
Next door to the Thai Silk Village is a jade jewellery village called Jade Siam Gift where we were shown different types of jade straight from a mine in Burma. The owner explained the carving techniques and process for different types of jade, and showcased impressive detailed carvings in progress. The jewellery and statues for sale were reasonably priced. Some items were more expensive but small charms can be picked up for under 100 baht (around US$3). Entry is free.
You just don’t see these around anymore, other than as garnishes on cocktail glasses… unless you’re in Chiang Mai. At the Saa Paper and Umbrella Handicraft Center, elderly Thai women sit and make wooden umbrella frames before carefully covering the frames with a special paper and painting them in bright colours and patterns.
Parasols small enough to fit in a handbag or large enough to shade an outdoor dining area can be purchased from the shop in a range of colours and designs, or you can choose a parasol with your own custom design. The shop offers international shipping so there’s no need to worry about fitting a 6-foot umbrella in your suitcase. There is another umbrella village just a few hundred metres down the road - Umbrella Making Center.
We stopped by the Gems Gallery to see how jewellery was made. Security is much tighter here, as you can imagine, so unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to take photos. Hard-working craftspeople were carving and shaping rings, earrings, pendants and more. This store claims to be the world’s largest jewellery store. I don’t know if that’s accurate, but there was A LOT of jewellery on sale – every colour and style you could possibly imagine. I didn’t find the prices that appealing, so if you wish to skip over this one you won’t miss out too much.
If your time is limited, and you can only make one stop, an alternative option is the Bo-Sang Handicrafts Center which sells all the above products in 1 location – parasols, Thai silk clothing, carvings, home decor and more.
Chiang Mai’s handicraft villages are located in an industrial area and while most villages have a small shop selling drinks and snacks there aren’t many full restaurants. There are some food stalls that mainly cater to locals so you’ll probably need a friendly local to show you where these are. Our tuk-tuk driver recommended a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant, Khun Chan Tam Laek, that sold chicken and rice. Just chicken and rice. Nothing else. No menu, no confusing choices. Just chicken. And rice. Together. So that’s what we ordered! Our meal was simple yet full of flavour and only cost 90 baht (US$2.75) for 2 people.
5. Catch a Tuk-Tuk
Even if you’ve tried Thailand’s famous three-wheeled, open-aired mode of transport in Bangkok, catching a tuk-tuk in Chiang Mai is still a must-do. In Bangkok, tuk-tuks are really only used by tourists. They fly down side streets and weave in and out of traffic with music blaring and passengers gripping on with all their might.
In Chiang Mai, there’s no Bangkok traffic, but long and narrow open roads with miles to travel between attractions. From the back of a tuk-tuk, you can feel the tropical breeze in your hair as you cruise along the streets and take in the scenery.
We hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us to and around Chiang Mai’s handcraft villages. Our trip took around 3 hours and only cost 300 baht (US$9.20), after a little haggling.
6. Make The Most Of Your Hotel
Is there any better way to recharge than with a relaxing massage followed by lounging around with a cocktail from a pool bar? This was my first priority when I arrived in Chiang Mai.
When we wanted a change of scenery, we enjoyed watching the streets of Chiang Mai from the small but pleasant rooftop pool (a rare find in this city) and relaxed with a massage in the in-house spa. I was pretty impressed with the Movenpick’s spa. They offer a range of traditional Thai and relaxing massages like most hotel spas, but they also do manicures and pedicures and have an in-house hair salon. It’s very easy to treat yourself to an extra little papering without leaving the hotel.
It’s easy to indulge your tastebuds without leaving the hotel complex too. We tried delicious Thai, Italian, and Japanese restaurants on the Movenpick’s upstairs terrace. The terrace alfresco offers views over the bustling street and Night Bazaar stalls below. It was hard to resist finally leaving the hotel to explore Chiang Mai, but adventure was calling.