Thailand’s ‘Northern Capital’

Hills of Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is a brilliant place and has a well-earned status as a tourist hub, offering visitors the chance to connect with ancient traditions, view amazing ruins, explore pristine rainforests, and get a truly unique, up-close cultural experience like few other places can offer.

But not everyone has the luxury of a week in Chiang Mai to explore and discover. Chiang Mai is at the literal end of the rail line, but it’s not at the literal end of the road, as it once was. Increasingly varied itineraries are taking visitors further afield than ever before, and these days, it’s common to see people with only a few days to spend in Chiang Mai. It’s not a perfect situation, but you have to work with what you get. So, with that in mind, what are a few must-see, can’t-miss attractions if you’ve only got 48 hours to spare?

Give alms to the monks

Monk in Chiang Mai
Monk in Chiang Mai

If you’re a morning person, one of the coolest things you can do is hit a temple to give alms to the monks. Only permitted to eat twice per day – breakfast and lunch – monks rely on donations by laypeople, for supplies, everything from food to soap to reading material. You can do at most any temple, but for an extra dose of culture, head to Wat Chiang Man, which is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai, dating back to 1297. Watch what the Thais do when a monk approaches and copy what they do  – which usually consists of kneeling on the ground to present them with whatever it is you’re donating. Karma points: achieved!

Now it’s time to fill your own stomach, and you can’t beat the Blue Diamond, which is just a few steps away from Wat Chiang Man. It’s always packed with locals and tourists alike and is known for its generous servings and truly badass American breakfast. And of course this being Thailand, you’re never more than a few minutes’ walk from more food should this not fit your taste.

Wat Doi Suthep

Wat Doi Suthep Entrance
Wat Doi Suthep Entrance

As the day gets hotter, you might find yourself wanting a bit of a break, and there’s no place better than Wat Doi Suthep. Yes, it’s crowded and over-touristed, but for a good reason – it’s a gorgeous temple and its location near the top of misty Mt. Suthep provides a magnificent view of the entire city and the hills in the hazy distance. Pro tip: Most people see this and head back down, but if you continue up the hill you’ll come to Bhubing Palace, a royal residence with large, beautiful gardens that provide fantastic photo ops. [Tweet “Pro tip: Continue up the hill at Wat Doi Suthep to Bhubing Palace for a fantastic photo op!”]

These two activities should take you well into the afternoon, which is where we’d recommend a meal, a cool drink, a foot massage – something to rest your feet, because we’ll be using them tonight.

Chiang Mai Night Market

Once the sun has set, its time to hit the Chiang Mai Night Market. One of the city’s oldest and busiest attractions, the market is well known for its artistic crafts. Everything from textiles and jewelry to art and home made furniture. But there are an endless number of other vendors as well – food, animals, plants, clothing, perfume…everything you could want. It’s easy to spend 3 or 4 hours here, so be careful you don’t spend all your cash up front.

We did a lot during the first day, so the second 24 will be a bit more relaxing. You could always get up early and give alms to the monks again, but we’ll let you decide that. A big breakfast is a must, this time why not head to any of the little breakfast places that are dotted around for a bowl of “jok”. It might seem like simple rice porridge…okay, it is simple rice porridge, but usually mixed with balls of pork, ginger, spring onions, cilantro, and an egg. This is often eaten with “patongkoh”, fried dough dipped in condensed milk. Follow this with sweet Thai coffee and you’ve had a typical everyday Thai breakfast.

[Tweet “Try “jok” – rice porridge mixed with balls of pork, ginger, spring onions, cilantro, and an egg!”]

Chiang Mai University Campus

Chiang Mai University Campus
Chiang Mai University Campus

A great way to walk off breakfast is to head to the campus of Chiang Mai University. It was founded in 1964 on 725 acres of land, and is a gorgeous place to wander and explore. Huge trees, walking trails, exercise areas, restaurants and coffee shops dot the area. Note: A recent Chinese movie, “Lost in Thailand”, was filmed here, and went on to be a gargantuan hit at home. Hordes of Chinese tourists have since descended on the campus to take photos, and some even go so far as to sneak into classes! It’s become a problem, and university management are wary, so stay out of the way and don’t go where you’re not supposed to. Some great photo opportunities here, as the rising sun filters through the trees and mist. If you’re feeling like lunch after your wander, there are lots of great restaurants on Huai Kaeo Road to serve the large numbers of students.

Relax by the lake

One of our favorite places to explore is actually outside of Chiang Mai. About 10km north of town lies Hua Tung Tao, a large manmade lake that’s a great place to escape the heat of the afternoon. There are bamboo platforms in intervals around the lake and you can order fresh-cooked Thai food and cold drinks right to your piece of paradise. Go for a swim if you feel like cooling off, or explore the area by foot.

Put your feet up!

How about a bit of entertainment to finish things off in Chiang Mai? Head to Promenada, one of the biggest and newest malls in the city. Yes, we know, going to a mall doesn’t seem too cool, but understand – in Thailand, it’s a legitimate destination for young and old alike. They’re air-conditioned, safe, family-friendly, and have food and entertainment, all under one roof. The new movie theaters here play many of Hollywood’s top hits with Thai subtitles. If you’re with someone you wouldn’t mind cuddling with, spring for the sofa seats, which are just what they sound like, and a huge step up over traditional movie seats.

With all those things out of the way, you’ve managed to see a good chunk of Chiang Mai in only 48 hours. There’s still lots to see, so keep track of the ones you’ve done, and we hope to see you back again for your second round soon!

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