Chiang Mai is both a natural and cultural destination. The city centre retains a ‘small-town’ intimate feel and houses numerous historical temples and attractions within walking distances of each other.
Just under half an hour’s drive, Chiang Mai’s verdant countryside and mountains offer limitless possibilities for nature explorations as well as visits to many fascinating ethnic hill-tribe villages. In fact, there are so many places to see in and surrounding the city that you’ll have to plan well to fit them all in, and this is where these Top 10 Chiang Mai Attractions come in very handy.
Chiang Mai Zoo
Although not the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of the city, the Chiang Mai Zoo is surprisingly interesting. Covering 200 acres of land in the foothills of Doi Suthep and providing excellent views of the city in addition to its fascinating wildlife exhibits, Chiang Mai Zoo is certainly worth a visit, especially if you’ve had your fill of temples.
Nearly 400 different species of animal are kept at the Chiang Mai Zoo, including elephants, tigers, chimpanzees, hippopotami and rhinoceroses. The zoo also features some outstanding special attractions such as the walk through aviary, a fascinating freshwater aquarium and the zoo’s stars – Chuang Chuang and Lin Hui, two young pandas who were sent as goodwill ambassadors from China in 2003.
The emphasis here is on creating a natural feeling environment, an illusion of being out in the wild. Many of the enclosures, such as the giraffe and zebra exhibit, have ramps and walkovers that allow visitors to get up close and personal with the zoo’s furry residents.
Conservation and education are top priorities at Chiang Mai Zoo; the animals are well cared for and quite happy and healthy. The animal population of the zoo is as diverse as the human population of northern Thailand. Here you will find a wide variety of Southeast Asian species, such as the Giant Mae Khong Catfish, the Tiger and the rare Serow, which has existed almost unchanged for 7 million years.
In addition to these regional species, the zoo is home to creatures from all corners of the globe, including the Alpaca from South America, Giraffes and Zebras from Africa, Kangaroos and Dingoes from Australia and Scops Owls from Europe, among many others. A truly unusual sight is the Humboldt Penguin exhibit. Seeing birds traditionally associated with the frigid Polar Regions thriving in balmy Thailand is definitely one to file in the something-you-don’t-see-everyday column.
Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai
Wat Chedi Luang’s massive chedi (pagoda) was built sometime between 1385 and 1402, during the reign of King Saen Muang Ma, 7th ruler of the Mengrai dynasty and is a distinctive feature of the Chiang Mai skyline. At its peak, the chedi measured 60 metres across at the square base and 80 metres tall and was once the home of the Emerald Buddha, Thailand’s most sacred religious relic.
Damaged during an earthquake in 1545, the chedi’s height is reduced to nearly half of its original size yet it is still an impressive structure. In 1992, the Fine Arts Department finished restoration work around the chedi, bringing back the naga (water serpent) staircase on each of its faces and wonderful statues of elephants adorning the base. The actual work on the chedi itself, however, was never quite complete, leaving it in its present state.
Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai
Doi Suthep is a constant part of life in Chiang Mai. A Thai saying goes, “If you haven’t tasted Khao Soi or seen the view from Doi Suthep, you haven’t been to Chiang Mai.” This regal mountain overlooks the city from the northwest, providing commanding views from its summit. Aside from its dominating presence on the horizon, Doi Suthep is the home of some of the most deeply loved symbols in the Kingdom.
In 1981 Doi Suthep, Doi Pui and Doi Buakha, along with the 161 square kilometres (62 square miles) of forest in which they are located, became Thailand’s 24th national park. A year later a 100 square kilometre (38 square mile) annex was added, bringing the park’s total area up to 261 square kilometres (100 square miles). Dense forests hang from the mountain’s shoulders like a cloak; deciduous at lower elevations and evergreen near the peaks of the mountains.
The highest peak in the park is Doi Pui which tops off at 1,685 meters (5,528 feet), making it the eighth largest mountain in Thailand. Flowing from these heights are some of the most highly enjoyable and accessible waterfalls in the Kingdom’s northern reaches. Mae Sa Falls, Huay Kaew Falls and Monthathan Falls are among the most popular sights of the park and are easily reached from the main road. The forest is also home to a variety of wildlife, including many small mammals and birds as well as the rare Crocodile Salamander, which is only found in four places in Thailand.
The park’s high elevation keeps the temperature pleasantly cool, even during the blistering heat of June. Doi Suthep National Park also incorporates the Mae Sa Valley, a veritable buffet of activities and sights. Farther north, in the park’s 100 square kilometre (38 square mile) annex you will find the delightful and often overlooked Mok Fa area which boasts a wonderful waterfall, a cave and a nature trail.
Despite all of this stunning natural beauty, the main reason many visitors come to Doi Suthep National Park is to visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a venerable and venerated temple that is one of the most holy Buddhist sites in Thailand. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a major pilgrimage destination, especially during the Buddhist holidays of Makha Bucha and Visakha Bucha (February 13 and May 11, respectively).
This awe-inspiring temple is crowned by an elaborate Chedi (Monument), 24 meters (79 feet) tall and gold plated from top to bottom. On a clear day the Chedi’s golden exterior catches the sun and blazes like a beacon over the city. The temple dates back to the 14th century and the tale of its founding is a quintessential Thai myth, full of magic and mystery. Those moved by the serenity and spirituality of the temple may wish to take a meditation course at the International Buddhism Center located on the temple grounds.
Adding to the importance and prestige of Doi Suthep is the palatial Bhubing Palace, a vacation home of the Royal Family. When not serving as the Royal Residence, the Bhubing Palace serves as a guest house for foreign dignitaries. Built in 1961, the Palace’s first guests were the King and Queen of Denmark. Visitors to the park can also pay a visit to the small hilltribe villages on the park grounds, which offer a glimpse into a way of life that has changed very little in hundreds of years.
Chiang Mai Night Safari
Modeled after a the Singapore Night Safari, the Chiang Mai Night Safari park is part of the Thai government’s huge multi-million baht plan to increase Chiang Mai’s attraction to tourists. The concept of the park is to provide visitors with a thrilling experience similar to being out in the wilderness at night.
Apart from touring the three animal zones – Savanna Safari, Predator Prowl, Jaguar Trail – via an open-sided tram or on foot, enjoy a range of activities designed to keep you entertained throughout your visit, from hand-feeding wild animals and petting tiger cubs to a laser light show and ‘dancing’ fountain.
Wiang Kum Kam
Located in attractive countryside about five kilometres south of Chiang Mai along the Ping River, Wiang Kum Kam is an ancient city dating back to the eighth-century Haripunchai Kingdom. Later on it served as the capital of the then Lanna Kingdom for a short while until Chiang Mai was chosen to replace it in 1296.
Expect to see many interesting items and structures such as stone tablets with Mon inscriptions, Buddhist sculptures and architecture, earthenware and pottery. Taking a horse-drawn carriage is a popular way to enjoy the ruins although some visitors prefer to take their time to appreciate this large site on foot or by rented bicycle.