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.
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.
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.
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.
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, although you can see the original in Bangkok at the Wat Phra Kaew.
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.
Situated within Chiang Dao National Park, the 6-mile-long (10-kilometer-long) Chiang Dao Caves system penetrating Thailand’s third-highest peak ranks among the most spectacular in the country. Impressive stalagmites and stalactites grow from the ceilings and floors of the five interconnected caves, along with other limestone and crystal formations.
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.
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—both of which are visible in a glass cabinet housed in a smaller sanctuary.
More Things to Do in Northern Thailand
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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
Situated on the slopes of Doi Suthep, the Chiang Mai Zoo and Aquarium is Thailand’s oldest zoo and a favorite with visiting families. Hundreds of species are represented between the zoological park and its aquarium, including a pair of giant pandas. The aquarium’s 436-foot-long (133-meter-long) aquatic tunnel ranks among the longest in the world.
Nestled among the forested mountains of Northern Thailand, Ban Mae Kampong village epitomizes traditional Thai culture with wooden cottages and ancient agricultural practices. The village is in the vanguard of sustainable tourism: Visitors enjoy homestays, jungle ziplines, and hiking routes through tea plantations, while villagers maintain their traditional way of life.
This historic town in the north of Thailand is known for its quaint streets and horse-drawn carriages. Travelers use this quiet area on the bank of the Wang River as a convenient jumping-off point for trips throughout the region, but it’s also worth exploring in its own right thanks to its excellent markets, restaurants, cafés, and attractions.
The Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden conducts research to conserve Thailand’s extensive natural plant resources. Visitors can walk through an indoor southern Thai forest, see the country’s largest public display of orchids (more than 400 species), and stroll footpaths past azaleas, rhododendrons, and many other flowering plants.
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
The biggest orchid farm in Chiang Mai, Sai Nam Phung Orchid farm is also home to nearly every species native to Thailand, including the incredibly rare pure white orchid. Visitors to the farm get to learn about how the flowers are grown, and the on-site gift shop sells lovely orchid- and butterfly-themed items you’re unlikely to find elsewhere.
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.’
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