Part of Chiang Mai’s popularity is its location in the mountains of Northern Thailand. It’s a great base for soft adventure, including daytrips to national parks, visits to elephant camps or a host of activities like trekking, mountain biking, whitewater rafting and ‘flying’ through the jungle canopy on a zip line.
The city itself is a charming cultural experience, but most trips to Chiang Mai invariably involve a day tour to one of several wonderful nature areas within easy reach of the centre. Many of the attractions are reachable under your own steam using a rental bike or hired taxi, and you don’t have to venture too far out of the city to experience the mountains and nature of northern Thailand.
Visiting Chiang Mai would not be complete without a trip to the temple on top of Doi Suthep – an imposing mountain to the west of the city. You can hop aboard a tour, catch a songtaew taxi or hire a moped to travel the 15-kilometre journey to the summit. The highly sanctified chedi and temple at the top is a popular pilgrim spot for visiting Thais and the views of the entire valley are humbling. Also, on top of the mountain, you can visit Phuping Palace gardens and Hmong villages, or go walking in the lovely forests of Doi Pui peak which looms behind it. This is one of the most popular daytrips in Chiang Mai.
At the mountain’s base are two superb waterfalls, Huay Kaew Falls and Montha Falls. Here you’ll also find the Chiang Mai Zoo, home to Asian and international wildlife as well as three famous pandas, including an infant panda born at the zoo in 2009 – they are ‘exchange students’ from China on a goodwill mission. A recently added aquarium and monorail make it a worthwhile attraction for families.
Northern Thailand is a Wilderness of unspoilt forest and Chiang Mai lies at its heart. Not surprisingly, it’s a popular launching point for hill treks into the interior. These can be arranged from the many travel companies found in Chiang Mai and take you into the heart of rural Southeast Asia. Typically, they last up to four days, but with less time to spare, we recommend a day or overnight trip to the fabulous Doi Inthanon National Park – home of Thailand’s highest mountain. Here you can click away at some gorgeous waterfalls, visit hill-tribe villages and admire the pristine wilderness area.
Closer to Chiang Mai is the Mae Sa Valley (30 minutes), where you’ll find the magnificent multi-tiered Mae Sa Waterfall, an Orchid Farm, Monkey and Snake Farms, and Botanical Gardens. Daytrips to this part of Chiang Mai are very worthwhile for the sheer number of activities and sights. You can also experience the thrill of trundling through the jungle on the back of an elephant and learn more about these massive Asian workhorses at the Mae Sa Elephant Camp.
The Samoeng Loop is another excellent daytrip, if you’ve only got a single day to experience the mountainous scenery of the north. The road to Mae Sa Valley climbs up into the highlands through pretty scenery and continues on a 90-kilometre circumnavigation of the Doi Pui/Suthep Mountain that dominates the western side of Chiang Mai city. Along the way you catch a glimpse of the manifold ranges that stretch away to the Burma border, with very little human habitation. The road eventually emerges to the south of the city, having passed through Krissdadoi, where there are numerous resorts to stop at for a bite to eat.
Southwest of Chiang Mai, where the Samoeng Road re-enters the city, follow signs to the Chiang Mai Night Safari and Royal Flora Grounds. Open day and night, the Night Safari rivals the zoo for a family-orientated ‘African’ experience and is best visited in the early evening before dark. Beforehand you can wander the pretty landscaped gardens of the Royal Flora Grounds, and seek out the enormous seated Buddha at Wat Doi Kham on the hill behind.
An often-overlooked part of the Ping River valley is the eastern side, which is a 45-minute drive and reveals a much more dramatic mountain vista, with several attractions. Daytrips to this side of Chiang Mai will reveal the popular San Khampaeng Hotsprings, the cavernous Mae On Cave and the charming mountain hamlet of Mae Kampong. To reach the latter follow the road beyond the hotsprings, and wind your way up into the mountains, following a cascading stream. The very steep road crosses over the mountains and heads down to the lovely Jae Sorn National Park in Lampang province.
Heading north, Chiang Dao is a stark mountain about an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai, again passing through some arresting scenery. This is Thailand’s third largest, and most distinctive, peak and the base is riddled with cave systems providing an adventurous day out. An intriguing meditation retreat is set into the mountainside nearby. A good lunch can be had nearby at Chiang Dao Nest Guesthouse.