Things to Do in Northern Thailand
Nearly 200 unique ruins are tucked into the 70 square kilometers of land that make up the Sukhothai Historical Park, including towering buddhas, ornate palaces and crumbling temples. Travelers can wander the area on foot, or rent bikes and ride between the structures that date back as far as the 13th and 14th centuries.
Visitors love the quiet, peaceful escape of the park, which provides a stark contrast to some of Thailand’s more urban destinations. The most popular ruins are located near the central entrance and are visited by most tour groups, but the sites further afield are equally beautiful and far less crowded.
In the center of Doi Inthanon National Park rises Thailand’s highest peak. Doi Inthanon, named after Chiang Mai’s last sovereign, King Inthawichayanon, summits at 8,415 feet (2,565 meters) above sea level, and while temperatures at the top run much cooler than in Chiang Mai, you’ll never see snow on the peak.
While a vast majority of visitors come to the park to take in the views from the summit (accessible by car), the surrounding forests, waterfalls, stupas and nature trails make it one of Thailand’s most spectacular national parks. Birdwatchers flock to the park in hopes of spotting some of its 362 species of birds, while other visitors come to picnic and swim at Mae Klang Falls.
Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar is perhaps the city's most popular must-do attraction. The colorful mix of regular shops and stalls create a unique market buzz.
You’ll find everything for sale here, from ersatz designer brands to embroidered hill tribes textiles, lacquerware, silver jewelry, carvings, silks, ceramics and antiques.
The best range of antiques is on the second floor of the covered market building called the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, to the north of the busy intersection near a narrow cross street.
The golden spire of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep glitters near the summit of Doi Suthep, a 1,676 meter (5,500 foot) mountain outside Chiang Mai. The wat was established in 1383, and is one of northern Thailand's most sacred temples.
Gold and copper catch the sunlight, including a five-tiered gold umbrella that's one of the holiest sites in Thailand.
The International Buddhist Center at the wat hosts informal discussions, chanting and meditation.
While you’re here, enjoy the cooler mountain climate and explore the park’s forest, orchids and wildlife.
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.
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.
The borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand come together in the exotically named Golden Triangle in the northern province of Chiang Rai. The official center of the Golden Triangle is the town of Sop Ruak, where the Mekong meets the Nam Ruak.
The term actually covers a much wider area stretching into the three bordering countries, linked by the trade in opium.
Browse the souvenir stalls in Sop Ruak, have a soothing massage, go for a cruise on the Mekong River or visit the House of Opium Museum for insights into the trade.
Doi Suthep-Pui National Park protects a swathe 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, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
Founded in 1383, the temple is one of the most sacred in the North and affords some of the most spectacular views in Chiang Mai. The temple is reached via 306 steps leading up to the peak, but the climb is worth it for the views and the stunning temple itself. Other cultural attractions of note within the park include Bhubing Palace, the winter residence of the Thai royal family, as well as San Ku, an ancient earth mound dating back to the thirteenth century. While most visitors come to Doi Suthep Pui National Park to see the temple, it’s also a place of great natural beauty, where numerous nature trails wind through the forest and past several waterfalls.
If you’ve ever wanted to chat to a Buddhist monk, pull up a chair at Wat Chedi Luang. As you enter the wat from Th Phra Pokkao, turn right and you’ll see some tables under a sign reading ‘Monk Chat.’
The partially ruined wat 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, and you can see the original in Bangkok at the Wat Phra Kaew.
Wat Chedi Luang has undergone a restoration program, which has added several Buddha images, porticoes and statues.
More Things to Do in Northern Thailand
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.
If you only see one temple during your time in Chiang Mai, Wat Phra Singh (also known as Wat Phra Sing Waramahawihan) 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 (Lion Buddha image).
The temple consists of many buildings, but the most spectacular is the golden wihan that houses the Phra Singh. Look for classic Lanna architectural features like the three-tiered roof, white chedi with an octagonal base, and lion statues guarding the entrance. It is possible to go inside to see the Buddha statue, just remember to remove your shoes first. Wat Phra Singh is an active temple and lucky visitors may see chanting monks or a blessing ceremony. Many novice monks study here and are happy to practice their English by sitting and chatting with tourists in the temple gardens.
Wat Suan Dok’s brilliant golden spire stretches high into the skyline of the northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai and has done so just west of the old city walls 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. Today, the ashes of some of the royal family are tucked into the wat’s spires, as homage to leaders past.
Wat Suan Dok is a favorite among travelers, particularly photographers, who gather amid the temple’s ornate structures during sunrise and sunset to capture impressive photos filled with rose-colored light. A 500-year-old bronze buddha—one of the largest in the region—also makes this a popular stop. Aside from the structure itself, there is a Buddhist university at the site as well. Monks in training are often eager to share conversation and practice their English with visitors in informal "monk chats."
This Buddhist temple near Doi Suthep mountain is also known as the “Tunnel Temple,” both for its unique network of underground tunnels and its location in the forest. There is a large stupa to visit, as well as “talking trees,” which feature words of wisdom in both Thai and English. Monks here live in a very natural setting, among deer and ponds full of fish and turtles.
Stroll the temple grounds under trees and across trails, or explore the underground tunnels, featuring many shrines to Buddha. It is said that the tunnels, dug underneath an artificial mound, were created to keep a highly regarded monk who was prone to wandering from getting too far from the temple. It was later abandoned, adding to its ancient, wooded feel—but today several monks live on the site. Its tranquil environment makes it a popular spot for meditation.
Whether it’s dried durian paste and spicy bowls of hot curry or prayer beads and bath towels, the halls of Warorot Market definitely have a little something for everyone. The indoor hub for local ingredients and inexpensive clothing is a perfect place for travelers to sample local cuisine and stock up on handmade items and cheap souvenirs. The streets surrounding the market are also lined with stalls selling handicrafts and artwork from area hill tribes at a fraction of the cost.
You can boil an egg in minutes in the 80 C water of the Mae Ka Chan hot springs 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 Ka Chan hot springs is 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!
The northernmost town in Thailand, and one of the few official crossings to Myanmar, Mae Sai 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.
The Mae Ping River cuts through Chiang Mai just a few blocks east of the old city and night market. In central Chiang Mai the banks of the river have been developed and are home to hotels, open-air restaurants, and bars, while in the countryside the river retains its natural charms. The ancient city of Wiang Kum Kam is also set on the banks of the Mae Ping River south of Chiang Mai.
Sight-seeing tours and dinner cruises along the Mae Ping River available. For the more adventurous, kayaking and rafting trips can be arranged.
Beneath the shadow of Doi Suthep sits Huay Tung Tao Lake, 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.
Doi Mae Salong is a mountain in northern Thailand with an elevation reaching 1,800 meters. The stunning scenery and cooler temperatures make it a popular retreat for Thais and tourists alike with activities such as mountain trekking, visiting hill-tribe villages, and touring tea plantations.
Nestled near the mountain is the village of Mae Salong (officially known as Santikhiri, meaning "hill of peace") which offers accommodations to suit all budgets. The village was originally settled by anti-communist exiles from China who were granted asylum by Thailand. The Chinese influence can still be sensed in the town's language and food.
Thought to be the oldest wat 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. The walls of the wat feature red stenciled murals, depicting scenes from the life of Chiang Mai's founder, Phaya Mengrai.
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