Get ready to unlock the hidden gems surrounding Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand’s crown jewel! Sure, the city has its laid-back charm, but did you know it’s also a launching pad for epic day trips?
Picture this: Chiang Mai, nestled by the enchanting Ping River, with dense forests as its backdrop. Now, venture beyond its borders to discover jaw-dropping waterfalls, mysterious caves, and captivating Indigenous villages.
How to get there? Take your pick: Grab, Song Taew (a funky passenger truck), guided tours, or even renting a car like I did for Doi Inthanon and Mae Kampong Village.
Confession time: I vividly recall my own escapades, as I decided to rent a car during my stay, eager to uncover the treasures of Doi Inthanon and the captivating Mae Kampong Village. Admittedly, I was initially apprehensive about acclimating to the “wrong” side of the road. Yet, like an intrepid adventurer (ha!), I quickly adapted, and navigating our way to these hidden gems proved to be a seamless and exhilarating experience.
Join me as we delve into the enchanting secrets that lie in wait beyond Chiang Mai’s tranquil embrace. Get ready to be captivated by the wonders that await you, where each day trip promises an unforgettable rendezvous with nature’s breathtaking beauty.
Ready for the adventure of a lifetime? Let’s go!
1. Mae Kampong Village
Mae Kampong is a village that dates back more than a century. Well-known for its natural beauty and interesting architecture, the community is situated up a windy (and steep!) mountain road.
There are coffee and tea plantations, numerous waterfalls, and forests on both sides of the nearby creek. Because of the pleasant year-round climate in Mae Kampong, local Thai people adore heading to the village for a visit.
It can be challenging to find parking, but once you do, it’s time to explore! Since there are no sidewalks, you must walk on the road. Be aware of oncoming traffic, and stay alert.
After winding through a few shops, it is time to snack at one of the eateries that dangle over the creek. It was quite warm the day I visited, and I was thrilled to find a vendor selling frozen Cokes. The machine spun a glass bottle of Coke in a vat of ice and salt — freezing the beverage into a delicious slush right in the bottle!
Once you’ve had your fill of the village, you can find the Mae Kampong Waterfall a further five minutes drive down the road. There is no fee to park, although the lot is relatively small. You can take a quick dip of your feet in the water to relieve some of the heat or take the long climb up the staircase to the top of the falls.
One of the region’s last and most northern Mon kingdoms, Haripunchai, had its historic capital at Lamphun. The city is the oldest in the nation because it predates the establishment of Siam’s first kingdom.
Wat Phra That Hariphunchai, which is situated in the heart of Lamphun city, is one of the most well-known and well-liked temples in Northern Thailand, and it is a must-see. A Hariphunchai King constructed the temple in the early 12th century to house a Buddha relic that was discovered nearby.
Lamphun is home to several other temples worth visiting, including the vibrant Wat Mahawan Woramahawihan and Wat Chammathewi, whose historic chedi rises 21 meters high.
3. Chiang Dao Caves
For those who prefer to avoid crowds, the Chiang Dao Cave continues to be off the beaten tourist path. This dark wonder, also known as Tham Chiang Dao, spans a 12-kilometer underground cavern inside Doi Chiang Dao Mountain — the third-largest mountain in Thailand. The cave is off-limits to solo exploration because of the likelihood of getting lost in such a vast natural beauty, but many local tour operators are available.
As you explore the cave, keep looking for sleeping bats — you will likely find thousands of them slumbering the day away. Plus, numerous cave formations abound some resemble animals, including elephants.
Be sure to stop at the medicine market in the parking area near the cave entrance when your tour is finished. There is also an affordable restaurant, a few gift shops, and a cafe with coffee, Thai tea, and other amenities. The cave entrance fee is just a few American dollars. Note: The cave is considered a temple; you must wear clothes covering your shoulders and knees.
4. Doi Pui Hmong Village
The village is situated at the top of Doi Suthep. It is home to the Hmong hill tribe people — one of six major Thailand hill tribes. The village consists of a museum, a beautiful garden, houses, and souvenir shops.
The village is spread over the side of the hill, and the garden settings are lovely. The shops sell handmade goods such as clothing, bags, purses, hats, and gifts. There are colorful designs at a good value.
Some reviewers call it a “tourist trap” due to all the market stalls, but that’s a bit unfair. The daily market is a significant part of the villagers’ income. So, by buying here, you’re contributing directly to the community.
5. Grand Pagodas of Doi Inthanon
The twin Pagodas — Pra Mahatat Noppamethanedon and Pra Mahatat Nopphonphusiri — honor the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit. The temple grounds consist of beautiful gardens and a panoramic view of the area around Doi Inthanon.
When you drive up to the Grand Pagodas, you’ll be greeted by a checkpoint where you need to pay an additional entrance fee. You’ll be advised to park your vehicle and then either take a Song Taew or hike the 1-minute walk up the hill, where you can catch the escalators to the two pagodas.
Many people enjoy visiting the Grand Pagodas in time to see the sunrise. You’ll need to leave Chiang Mai about two hours before dawn if you want to catch this sight.
6. Mae Ngat Dam
Mae Ngat Dam is roughly an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai. However, you’ll feel like you’ve traveled to another world when you get there. The area is extremely peaceful.
Created about 30 years ago, it’s two hydroelectric generating units, each having a capacity of 4.5 MW. The dam is 1,950 long, and it reaches a height of 59 meters. Most people visit for the relaxation, however. You can spend your visit swimming or kayaking!
If you have a lot of time to spend, you could book one of the floating bungalows for an overnighter (or a whole weekend!) If you don’t go on a tour from Chiang Mai, you’ll need to rent a boat to get you out to the floating bungalows.
7. Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai was initially founded in 1262 by King Mengrai, making it one of the oldest cities in the country. Many people make the trek to Chiang Rai to visit the Golden Triangle — an overlook on the Mekong River where you can see both Myanmar and Laos.
In addition to the Golden Triangle, you can also visit Wat Phra That Doi Tung temple and the nearby markets. The vendors sell faux jade jewelry, Thai desserts, and many other trinkets.
Another tourist attraction in Chiang Rai is the White Temple. While it’s called a temple, it is not actually a place of worship. It was created by a contemporary Thai artist named Chalermchai Kositpipat. The outside is a mesmerizing white, and the interior includes art installations like quirky murals featuring Superman and Keanu Reeves!
8. Mae Sa Waterfall
The Mae Sa Waterfall consists of eight beautiful tiers. The view from the top is stunning (and tends to be the least crowded.) Some tiers are unsafe for swimming, but the last tier has a large pool safe for taking a dip. There are also large rocks great for a photo op or bathing in the Thailand sun’s warm rays.
You can sample goodies from the onsite food vendors if you don’t bring along a picnic. You’ll often find spicy Thai salads, fried meats, and more.
Once you’ve had your fill of Mae Sa, you cam take a short trip down the road and stroll the lovely Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens! Opened in 1919, the gardens include 560 acres of tropical Asian plants including a Rainforest Glasshouse.
Keep Exploring Northern Thailand
While you could easily fill your days in the city of Chiang Mai, it is fun to take a trip out into the surrounding country as well! If you only have time for one day trip, I would choose either Mae Kampong Village or the Grand Pagodas at Doi Inthanon. Both will help beat a little of the heat since they are at higher elevations, but they are also absolutely stunning! Don’t leave your camera behind.