Chiang Mai tours are numerous and can be arranged from your guesthouse and hotel, or one of the many tour agents located around Chiang Mai. Tours are also a great option for getting into the mountainous interior of northern Thailand. Surrounded by lush mountains and basking in an agreeable climate, Chiang Mai has plenty to see, and much of it you can explore at your own leisure if group tours aren’t your thing.
Chiang Mai is one of the few cities in the world which boasts a well preserved moat, and Chiang Mai city tours by foot or bicycle are highly recommended. Spanning roughly a square mile, this pretty water feature dates from the founding of the city in 1296 and is lined with shady trees, grassy banks and historic ramparts. Take a tuk-tuk ride around its perimeter to admire the four bastions on each corner and to photograph the pretty fountains. By entering the old city, through one of the five restored gates, you can explore its quiet lanes, lined with traditional shop fronts and old Thai-style teak houses. By night the moat takes on a different character as it comes alive with illuminated colour.
Temple tours of Chiang Mai are a good way to familiarise yourself with the city’s past. Within the old town you will discover some of the city’s most prestigious temples, as well as many more equally appealing Buddhist sanctuaries. Wat Phra Singh (end of Ratchadamnoen Road) is perhaps the most important. It contains the much revered Phra Singh Buddha which dates from the early 1400s, and has an exquisite maroon interior.
The oldest temple in Chiang Mai is Wat Chiang Man, which was supposedly ordered built by King Mengrai at the time of the Chiang Mai’s founding. It contains some ancient Buddhas and is constructed of massive teak columns, seldom seen in other temples.
Wat Chedi Luang is conspicuous for its huge ruined chedi (the tallest structure in the old town). This temple complex dates from the 1400s and was once home to the highly sanctified Emerald Buddha (now in Wat Phra Kaew/Grand Palace in Bangkok). Nearby is one of the city’s most remarkable temple, Wat Phan Tao, built almost entirely of teak with unique nagas (protective dragons) outside and colourful mosaic work. By simply wandering along Thapae Road towards the city gate you pass three photogenic temples, Wat Chetawan, Wat Mahawan and Wat Bupparam.
Farther out of town are a number of wats and sites which tell the story of Chiang Mai’s auspicious past. Wat Suan Dok is the site of a Buddhist theology university and dates from the late 1300s. Every evening from 5pm there is a monk chat session here where Buddhist knowledge is exchanged for informal English language practise with the student monks. The collection of lofty whitewashed stupas here mark the remains of various buried members of the Lanna royal family.
Further west, towards the mountains, tucked away in the suburbs, is Wat U Mong – a forest retreat with a historic stupa and a tunnelled prayer sanctuary. Visit in the late afternoon to hear the monks chanting.
Across town and heading north is Wat Jed Yod. It was built for the Eighth Buddhist World Council (convention) in 1477, and the seven symbolic ‘spires’ represent connections with Lord Buddha’s stay in Bodghaya, India, on which the designs are based. Right next door is the National Museum of Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai Life
The best way to appreciate the timeless face of Chiang Mai is to walk, or cycle, in the narrow lanes within the moat and experience the lazy pace of this ancient Asian city, while admiring traditional stilted wooden houses and curious shophouses doubling as noodle shops. Chiang Mai city tours offer guides all over the city.
Markets are always a lively place for people watching and absorbing everyday Thai life, and Wororot Market (beside the river) and Somphet Market (on the west inside flank of the moat) are wonderful places to bargain, smile and laugh with the ever-friendly Thais.
The Night Market is located between the Old Town and river and shows how Chiang Mai has moved with the times to accommodate the influx of tourists. The variety and prices here are astonishing. From Wat Chaimonklong (Chareon Prathet road, along the river’s west bank) you can hop aboard a longtail boat for a cruise up the Ping River.
Further afield are the popular attractions of the Doi Suthep (mountain), the ancient ruined city of Wiang Kum Kam and the pretty Mae Sa Valley, with its waterfalls, orchid farm and elephant camps. Also popular is Chiang Mai Zoo and Huay Kaew Waterfall.