Chiang Mai is the largest and the most culturally significant city in northern Thailand. Many travellers use it as the main base if they are looking to explore the north – and that’s due to its culture, friendly locals, food markets and the relaxed vibe. What I personally loved about this city is that it hasn’t lost the old Thai-ness like in Phuket and arguably Bangkok. We spent two nights, three days here before heading to Bangkok – and my only regret was not staying longer! Here are the top 10 things to do in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai:
1. Visit Wat Doi Suthelp and its 304 Steps
Wat Prathat Doi Suthep is Chiang Mai’s most sacred temple. It is located at the top of Doi Suthelp Mountain, 1053m above sea levels – thus offering impeccable views of the entire city. As soon as the taxi driver dropped us at the entrance, we had to climb 306 steps to reach the temple (however there was the option of ascending by funicular railway) – we all marvelled at the intricately carved mythical Naga (Serpent) Staircase and its surroundings. The main attraction is the on the 2nd floor terrace where lays a picturesque golden pagoda or cedi that enshrines the relic. The pagoda in its centre supposedly contains some of the relics of the Buddha. Around it has five-tiered umbrella built in honour of the city’s indepdence from Burma and its union with Thailand. I was in awe of the temple and the Buddhas around – if you ever visit Chiang Mai – make sure you visit this temple – it is a must!
2. Visit Karen (Long-Necks) Tribe village
Right after visiting the White Temple in Chiang Rai, our taxi driver took us for a quick stop to northern Thailand’s Karen Long-Neck Hilltribe. They are known for spiral brass coils around their necks. The taxi driver explained how many of the Karen tribe actually reside in Burna, but the ones we saw that day fled to Thailand as refugees to escape the conflict. It is said that they are not able to work in normal Thai companies/jobs and so had no choice but to set up these tourists sites for income. As soon as we arrived, we walked past a few bamboo homes on our way to the heart of the tribe. We continued walked and saw rows of stalls selling scarves, souvenirs etc. It was too commercialized and touristy for my liking. We then took pictures with the women. The traditional purpose of the rings was to achieve the ideal beauty with the elongated neck. Some of the women were from the ‘Big Ear’ tribe and had large silver gauges in their insteads. The experience was okay – but would have liked to see some authentic northern Thailand tribes.
3. Go to Tiger Kingdom
This was one of the attractions in Chang Mai that we all really wanted to do (except my Dad – he wasn’t keen on being in a cage with an animal that kills). All I was thinking about is that interacting with the tigers is something you should do once in your life and the pictures we would be bomb. Even though we read conflicting reviews about how they mistreated the animals, we thought to give it a shot. After convincing my father that we will survive this experience, we walked around the tiger kingdom, looking at the tigers who were so adorable. Our next stop was to see the big tigers. We entered the cat cage and I just remember thinking how quickly they could take us out if they wanted to. There were a few tigers in the cage, but most of them were napping. We took some pictures and then went to the tiger which was awake. The trainer got him to play with a large cat toy – we proceeded in taking pictures with them, lying on the tiger. It was a petrifying experience – but one I will never forget.
4. Chang Rai, Golden Triangle
The taxi dropped us off near the opium museum. We were not interested in going in but a few steps from that was the Golden Triangle. This is the name given to the area of the convergences of three countries: Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. Until the 21st century, most of the world’s heroin came from the Golden Triangle until overtaken by production in Afghanistan. With our passports in hand, we hopped on a boat that took us right on the border of Laos where there was a little market. The trip to Laos is like visiting a leather bag factory on the side of a road. I don’t recommend taking the boat – even if you are pressured by the tour guide, but I do recommend coming to see the Golden Triangle – only if you have done everything else on this list.
5. White Temple, Chang Rai
The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) is a beautiful 20 year old building constructed by a local artist. He claims that this temple is a tribute to Buddha but many of the locals argue that it is just a privately, modern art project. Whatever the reason may be, you can not help by admire the beautiful temple. What I still remember to this day is when you walk past the ticket booth and cross the bride, you see hundreds to hands grasping upward. I couldn’t help but feel that It was like I was walking over hell towards the bright white temple. Another memorable aspect of this trip was the Golden Toilet. So unnecessary but beautiful. I definitely recommend going!
6. Watch a Cobra Show at Mae Sa Snake Farm
This farm is the largest snake farm in the region and famous for exhibiting snakes, from Pythons to Cobras. I wasn’t particularly interested in going in but my brother and father were super keen – especially after they found out that they filmed the film Rambo here. We all took it in turns to hold a live cobra and python in our hands, and pretending to be enjoying it for the photo. “Just smile for the camera” was a line repeated numerous times by my mother. They also put on a Cobra show where he was “training” the cobra. It was very entertaining and dangerous.
7. Go to the Hot Water Springs
8. Cool down at Mae Sa waterfall
We didn’t actually ask to go to the Mar Sa Waterfall – but the taxi driver must have passed it on his way back from Tiger Kingdom and thought it was worth us checking it out. It was a really beautiful waterfall and was a perfect last spot for the day. We didn’t bring our swimming cozzie but did have a little splash about.
9. Mae Sai (The Northernmost Part of Thailand)
The Mae Sai district is as far north as you are able to do in Thailand before reaching Myanmar. The taxi driver drove right up to the border of Thailand and Myanmar and then we got out and walked to the “Northern Most of Thailand”. To get to this point, we did have to walk through a stuff alley vfilled with olibgatory market stalls. We could see the bridge which was letting people through the border on both sides – coming from the UK, where there are stringent border controls – this was quite interesting to see. Otherwise, there is not really a lot going on here.
10. Eat Fried Insects
Because when else can you eat a fried cockroach?