Things to Do in Northern Thailand
With brilliant white spires, eaves, and bridges that all glitter in the sunshine and reflect in surrounding pools, the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) is Chiang Rai’s signature sight. The building’s surroundings and interior are filled with art inspired by everything fromThe Matrix, to Hello Kitty andKung Fu Panda.
Rising 8,415 feet (2,565 meters) above sea level, Mt. Doi Inthanon, situated in the center of Doi Inthanon National Park, is Thailand’s tallest mountain. While many visitors strive to see the views from its summit, the surrounding forests, waterfalls, stupas—dome-shaped Buddhist shrines—and trails are just as impressive.
Nearly 200 different ruins are strewn across the 27-square-mile (70-square-kilometer) Sukhothai Historical Park (Historic Town of Sukhothai), including towering Buddhas, ornate palaces, and crumbling temples. The UNESCO World Heritage Site—one of Thailand’s most impressive—hints at what the country’s first capital might have looked like in its golden age.
Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar is perhaps the city's most popular attraction. The colorful mix of shops and stalls sell all sorts of things, from ersatz designer fashions to embroidered hill tribes textiles, Thai silks, silver jewelry, carvings, ceramics, and antiques. It’s also one of the best places in town to sample some spicy street food.
The golden spire of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep glitters near the summit of Doi Suthep, a 5,499-foot (1,676-meter) mountain outside Chiang Mai. The wat, established in 1383, is one of northern Thailand’s most sacred temples. The International Buddhist Center at the wat hosts informal discussions, chanting, and meditation.
The mountainous border regions of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand come together in the exotically named Golden Triangle—a haven of Buddhist architecture, lush forest, and colorful riverfront villages. Located in the Chiang Rai province at Thailand’s northernmost tip, the Golden Triangle is thick with wonders, both natural and man-made.
Chiang Saen is a town in northern Thailand on the bank of the Mekong River that is known for its historic ruins. Though Chiang Saen is a small, sleepy town by modern standards, until the 14th century it was home to a powerful independent kingdom. Ruins of the ancient kingdom of Chiang Saen can still be seen, including temples, Buddha images, and the old city walls, and there is an excellent history museum.
Chiang Saen is also near the "Golden Triangle" where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet. The town offers hotels and guesthouses as well as restaurants, banks, and an immigration office.
This partially ruined wat, possibly the largest structure in ancient Chiang Mai, dates back to the year 1441 and is most famous as the former home of the incredible Emerald Buddha. Nowadays, a jade replica fills the eastern niche of Wat Chedi Luang (you can see the original in Bangkok at the Wat Phra Kaew).
Wat Suan Dok’s brilliant golden spire has stretched high into the skyline of the Northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai since the 14th century. The name roughly translates to "field of flowers," as the temple stands on a site that was once the garden of a ruling monarch just west of the Old City walls.
Wat Phra That Hariphunchai is a large and famous Buddhist temple located in the center of Lamphun in Northern Thailand. The complex’s numerous structures originate from different periods; while the temple is thought to date back to the 11th century, the central stupa originated in the 9th century.
An arched entrance gate guarded by giant statues of red lions gives way to the walled temple grounds. The complex features some unique architecture, some fine Buddha images, and two chedi in the typical Hariphunchai style. One of the ancient chedi, Chedi Suwan, is a Mon style brick spire standing 21 meters tall that dates back to the beginning of the 15th century. The newer Lanna style chedi, Phra Maha That, stands at 46 meters high and is covered with golden plates and flanked by a multi-tiered golden umbrella.
Other structures of note include the temple’sHo Trai, the building where the ancient Buddhist scriptures are kept. This Lanna style scripture library is an elegant teak structure with a multi-tiered roof and intricately carved doors. It sits on top of a three-meter high red stone platform, which protects the scriptures from flooding.
More Things to Do in Northern Thailand
If you only see one temple during your time in Chiang Mai, Wat Phra Singh Woramahawihan should be it. Set in the heart of the old city, the temple was founded in 1345 and is home to Chiang Mai’s most sacred relic—the Phra Singh, an image of the Lion Buddha housed within a golden shrine.
Doi Suthep-Pui National Park protects a swath of verdant forest and mountain ranges in Northern Thailand near Chiang Mai. Named after a hermit who lived in the forest before it became a national park, Doi Suthep-Pui is perhaps most famous for the temple at the summit of Doi Suthep Peak (known for its stunning views of Chiang Mai).
Perched in the highlands near Chiang Rai some 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) above sea level, the Choui Fong Tea Plantation has been producing some of Thailand’s highest quality teas for nearly half a century. Benefitting from the rich soil and climate of the region, the plantation grows Assum, Oolong, green and black teas, which are handpicked and then blended by tea specialists from Taiwan.
Visitors to the Choui Fong Tea Plantation can see firsthand how tea is grown. Neat rows of tea trees cascade down a hillside, where workers can be seen carefully picking the leaves by hand. Next door to the plantation building is a cafe and shop, where you can sample teas and treats with stunning views overlooking the plantation or purchase teas or tea-themed souvenirs to take home.
Set at the intersection of Thailand, Laos and Burma (Myanmar) known as the “Golden Triangle,” the Hall of Opium Museum seeks to inform its visitors about the history and effects of the opium seed.
The Golden Triangle area is historically well-known for its role in the growth and distribution of opium. Tracing from its first use over 5,000 years ago to current abuse and addiction issues, learn about the opium trade’s past and present both in this area and worldwide. There are several educational multimedia exhibitions throughout, including ones on the process of production and the dangers of consumption. Walk through a dark tunnel to a flowerbed of poppies, the plant from which opium is derived, to enter.
You can boil an egg in minutes in the 80 C water of the Mae Kachan Hot Spring (Mae Ka Chan) located in Chiang Rai province. The water from the main geyser is too hot for bathing, so instead there are separate pools where you can soak your feet in the naturally warm water and relax amid the gardens.
Mae Kachan hot springs make a popular rest stop for people traveling between the cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. In addition to the hot springs, you’ll find washrooms, souvenir shops, restaurants, food vendors, and people selling raw eggs to boil in the hot springs!
Warorot Market is a feast for the senses, where stalls selling dried durian paste and exotic fruits stand cheek by jowl with vendors offering fluffy bath towels and Buddhist amulets. The indoor hub—a more authentic alternative to Chiang Mai’s night markets—is a great place to sample local delicacies and purchase handicrafts at low prices.
Chiang Mai Night Safari is a large zoo and theme park that is open throughout the day and night. Particularly popular with families, it is modelled on Singapore Night Safari but is twice the size; the site is sprawled across some 300 acres and is home to around 1400 animals.
There is a scenic daytime walking route called the Jaguar Trail that winds around the lake and passes all the most popular animal enclosures, but arguably the best time to visit Chiang Mai Night Safari is after the sun goes down. The nighttime area is split into two zones, the Savanna Safari Zone and the Predator Prowl Zone, both of which are open from 6pm daily. Visitors travel through the different zones from the safety of an open-sided tram, spotting such animals as white tigers, rhinos, hyenas, lions, cheetahs, wildebeests, giraffes, ostriches, zebras, bears, water buffalos, crocodiles, kangaroos and more.
In addition to the walking trails and night safari, there are a variety of other shows and attractions at the park. One of the most popular is the nightly Laser Light Show. There are two shows per night, one at 8pm and one at 9pm, and many visitors consider it one of the main highlights of their visit. It involves a stunning display at the site of a giant fountain, with the cascading water combining with clever light and sound effects to create a spectacular audiovisual experience.
For the most convenient way to visit Chiang Mai Night Safari, book a tour that includes round-trip hotel transportation and admission fees.
With its secluded forest location and elaborate network of tunnels, Tunnel Temple (Wat Umong) is unique among Chiang Mai temples. The 15-acre (6-hectare) temple complex is home to saffron-robed monks, as well as free-roaming deer and ponds full of fish and turtles. Signs painted with words of wisdom hang from the ‘talking trees.’
The private Tweechol Botanic Garden, founded in 1997, encompasses 114 acres (46 hectares) of manicured gardens, lakes with paddleboats, bike trails, and playful topiaries, making it one of the largest gardens in Thailand. A standout of the collection are the 107 varieties of palm trees from around the world. The petting zoo is popular with young visitors.
The northernmost town in Thailand, and one of the few official crossings to Myanmar, Mae Sai (Maesai) is an ideal starting point for tours of the Golden Triangle.
The Mae Sai valley is in Chiang Rai province, and the busy border town at its heart is in a hilly location on cliffs bordering the Mae Nam Sai river.
Take a walk around the hilly town to visit Wat Phra That Doi Wao for views into Myanmar from the temple.
Being a busy border town, Mae Sai has plenty of accommodation, food stalls and restaurants. Shops here sell Burmese lacquerware, gems and jade.
Wiang Kum Kam, an ancient “lost city” on the banks of the Mae Ping River, was founded in the 13th century by King Mangrai as the Lanna capital before Chiang Mai. The city was abandoned in the 16th century due to flooding and was only rediscovered in 1984. Since then the temples and other structures have been partially restored.
The Mae Ping River cuts through Chiang Mai just a few blocks east of the old city and night market, where its banks have been developed with hotels, open-air restaurants, and bars. As it passes through the countryside, the river retains its natural charms. The ancient city of Wiang Kum Kam is also set on its shores south of Chiang Mai.
Thought to be the oldest temple in Chiang Mai, Wat Chiang Man is a typical Northern Thai temple, with massive teak columns holding aloft the central sanctuary. The wat has two important Buddha images: one on a marble bas-relief, the other a crystal seated Buddha. They’re visible in a glass cabinet housed in a smaller sanctuary.
Beneath the shadow of Doi Suthep sits Huay Tung Tao Lake (Huay Tueng Thao Reservoir), a manmade reservoir popular as a swimming and picnicking area favored by locals and expats looking for a break from Chiang Mai. On a sunny day, it’s common to see groups of Thais sitting on the banks of the lake dining on steamed fish and cold beers.
Not many international tourists visit this hidden gem, but those who do will find grassy banks dotted with bamboo picnicking areas, shallow waters ideal for cooling off, paddle boat and inner tube rentals and vendors selling local favorites, like dancing shrimp -- a dish comprising live freshwater shrimp that jump around on the plate -- as well as sour orange catfish curry, sun-dried pork or grilled chicken
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