Chiang Mai is a laid back town nestled in the mountains of northern Thailand. It’s about as far from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok as you can get. In fact, I think the vibe feels closer to sleepy Vientiane, Laos than to the busy Thai capital. But thanks to its compact size, two days in Chiang Mai is enough to check out most of the major attractions. Of course, you should absolutely stay longer if you can – especially if your visit coincides with the autumn lantern festival like mine did. I actually spread the activities listed below over four full days, with afternoon pool breaks and evenings taking in all the festivities. But if you are short on time or visiting in another season, two days in Chiang Mai will suffice.
Day One: Exploring the Old City
Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 and served as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom for nearly three hundred years until it was sacked by Burma. Thick walls and a moat surround the Old City, which can be easily explored on foot.
There are over 300 temples in Chiang Mai and they all start to look the same after a while. But there are three that you must see: Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Phan Tao. All three are conveniently located along Ratchadamnoen Road, the main street that runs through the middle of the Old City. And each has special features which help them stand out from the crowd. Give yourself plenty of time to explore the temple grounds and participate in a monk chat, if possible.
Wat Chedi Luang
The crumbling façade of Wat Chedi Luang is perhaps the most recognizable. It dates to the 14th century and was the largest structure in the Lanna Kingdom until being toppled by an earthquake in the 1500s. Chiang Mai’s city pillar, a shrine dedicated to the city’s protective deity, can be found on the grounds. A large prayer hall next to the city pillar holds a 14th century Standing Buddha image.
Wat Phra Singh
Wat Phra Singh is the most religiously significant of the temples in the Old City. It holds the Lion Buddha, a sacred image said to have come from Sri Lanka in the mid-1300s. The temple’s gold-covered chedi dates to the same time period and is notable for the elephants emerging from the base. The most beautiful building on the grounds is the temple library. Its ornately carved base lifts up a teak house where ancient Buddhist texts are kept. Inside the main pavilion, astonishingly life-like wax figures of important monks sit facing a large seated Buddha. It was funny to watch tourists tentatively approach these monks to see if they were real.
Wat Phan Tao
This lesser-known temple is worth seeking out for its prayer hall made of solid teak. It dates to the mid-1800s and once served as a royal throne room. Monks live in a monastery behind the prayer hall and tend the temple’s lovely garden. Check out my guide to Chiang Mai’s temples for more details and photos.
Chiang Mai is a shoppers paradise, and a great place to get Thai souvenirs. Every Sunday, Ratchadamnoen Road is closed to traffic and a market known as the “Sunday Walking Street” takes over. You can find everything from jewelry and sarongs to hand-woven textiles from the local hill tribes. There are also charming boutiques sprinkled all over town. One of my favorites is “See You Soon,” which is chock full of pretty clothes and decorative household goods. Another great choice is the Elephant Parade shop. It sells hand-painted porcelain elephants and donates some of the proceeds to conservation charities.
Day Two: Beyond the City Walls
Charming as the Old City is, there is much to see beyond its walls. The best way to explore more of Chiang Mai is to hop in a Songthaew, one of the ubiquitous red truck taxis. Negotiate with the driver before getting in. Depending on the size of your party, it might make sense to hire him for the day.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
This temple is the star attraction in Chiang Mai and absolutely should not be missed. With its mountaintop location and golden chedi glistening in the sun, it is truly stunning to behold. The chedi protects a sacred Buddha relic and draws pilgrims from far and wide. A steep staircase featuring the longest naga balustrade in Thailand and 306 steps leads up to the temple. On a clear day, you can see Chiang Mai in the valley far below.
Officially known as Wat Sri Suphan, every inch of this fantastic temple is covered in silver. It dates to the early 1500s and was once the main temple for a silversmith village. Frustratingly, women are forbidden from entering the shrine, so I sent my partner in with my camera. (Women are free to roam the grounds, assuming we are appropriately covered up.) If you are coming from Wat Doi Suthep, have your songthaew driver drop you off at the Silver Temple and then walk back into the Old City from there.
Get a Massage
After a day of strenuous activity, you might find yourself drawn to one of the many massage parlors in Chiang Mai. I randomly chose one near my hotel and was happy with the result. The massage consisted of a series of deep stretches reminiscent of yoga poses. In one move, the masseuse used her full body weight to stabilize my lower half while slowly pulling my arms behind me. It was the most active massage I’ve ever received and I left feeling two inches taller. Count me as a fan!
Where to Eat in Chiang Mai
If you don’t eat well in Chiang Mai, you are doing something wrong. The food selection here is amazing! My favorite Northern Thai dish is Khao Soi, a spicy and sweet chicken curry. The creamy coconut milk broth packs an addictively fiery punch and the egg noodles add a wonderful richness. One of the tastiest versions I had in the Old City was at Its Good Kitchen. This popular cafe also has adorable servings of bear-shaped mango sticky rice.
This delightful eatery won me over with its high-quality food and gorgeous setting. The teak wood house is on a quiet lane in a corner of the Old City, with a large patio surrounded by lush foliage. Live musicians add the finishing touch to the ambience. My friends and I ate here several times, sampling many items off the extensive menu. Winning dishes include the khao soi, “grandma’s” stir-fried eggplants, spicy Northern Thai pork sausage, and fried shrimp coated in puffed rice.
White Elephant Ice Cream
If you are looking for a sweet treat, check out the White Elephant Ice Cream shop. The aptly named “Mango Paradise” will have you forgetting all about the oppressive Southeast Asian heat. Plus, the homemade coconut ice cream is vegan, so you can enjoy guilt free!
I began these two days in Chiang Mai with a hearty breakfast at my hotel. Sufficiently fueled, this allowed me to skip lunch in favor of more sightseeing and an early dinner. Plus, there’s so much great street food in Chiang Mai, you’ll never go hungry.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
You will want to stay in the Old City for both atmosphere and convenience. And you will definitely want to choose a hotel with a pool! I enjoyed my time at the Jomkitti Boutique Hotel. It’s centrally located near the main temples making it easy to pop back for a refreshing afternoon swim.
Bonus tip: keep your eyes peeled for street art in Chiang Mai. I found colorful murals all over the city!
Would you like to spend two days in Chiang Mai?
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