Chiang Mai is the cultural capital of Northern Thailand and with its laid-back atmosphere many people visiting get stuck for a few days longer than they have originally planned. This is not only due to the charm of the 700-year-old town with all its small cafés, hidden gardens and lanes, temple hopping opportunities and unique boutique and handicraft shops.
The mountains and beautiful natural surrounding of Chiang Mai are adding to the atmosphere that this city is covered in.
In general staying in town is more affordable than the southern beach resorts or Bangkok as it is also a nice change to breathe in the fresh air of the mountains.
Elephant rides, trekking in the mountains and visits to hill-tribe towns nearby remain popular and in case you are looking to take one of them make sure to browse around to find an authentic and ethical tour as some companies may only be operating on a pure commercial purpose.
However this post is about small day trips out of Chiang Mai to organize and take on your own and when I talk about driving I mean driving yourself on a scooter not necessarily in a car. I think this gives you ultimate flexibility as you may stop anywhere interesting that catches your eye.
Alternatively, if you don’t feel confident riding a scooter, you can hire a tuk-tuk or one of the many red Songthaews (best in bigger groups) to get around places.
Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep
At about 1,670 metre above sea level and a 30-minute ride out of town sits Wat Phrathat on Doi Suthep mountain. After climbing the over 300 steps from the car park you reach this beautiful temple overlooking the city of Chiang Mai.
Don’t be deceived, this temple is a major tourist attraction of Chiang Mai and there is a whole tourist village around it selling anything from tacky elephant souvenirs, scarfs (which may actually be needed on one of the rather cool December evenings) to food.
But don’t be turned off just yet!
The thing I enjoy most about this little trip is the drive up the mountain and I’d highly recommend hiring a scooter to do that. This way you can stop off at other smaller lookouts or waterfalls on the way. There is actually another viewpoint that is half way up the mountain which is a little quieter than the top. You should still be prepared for locals selling souvenirs and food, but if you’re like me you might like snacking on some fresh fruit or a waffle.
Finally, the view you will get from the top really is amazing!
There is also a viewing platform to take some beautiful landscape pictures from.
My ultimate recommendation is to come just before sunset to see the light fade and watch the city bathe in all shades of red, yellow and orange light until the temple lights will come on and you can take a seat inside the temple to hear the monks chanting.
There is an entry fee of 50 THB to the temple as a foreigner.
Also be mindful where you take off your shoes as people just leave them lying around anywhere. It’s best to put them in one of the shoe shelves near the stairs that lead up into the temple.
From Doi Suthep you may also continue the road for another 6km to hit Phu Phing Palace, the royal winter residence where you can visit the gardens containing fountains, exotic flowers and large bamboo plants. Make sure to wear long pants and something over your shoulders as you may otherwise need to hire a sarong for a fee at the entrance.
Also it’s best to check ahead for the bloomy season and if you can visit the inside of the Palace as this is only possible in certain months and there’s been reports about recent renovation works.
Huay Kaew Waterfalls
These waterfalls are quite small but still pretty and you can even walk there from the city centre. Passing Chiang Mai Zoo you will soon see a little temple and a crowd of flower stands to your left, this is where you turn for Huay Kaew Waterfalls. Walking past a couple of street stands you will soon see a sign pointing you into the right direction. Head straight. Once you cross over the little wooden bridge you will see the waterfalls.
On the right of the waterfalls you can even climb up to the top, however it’s quite steep but once you get up, there are some nice big rocks to relax and catch a few sun rays.
I took an early morning walk there and no soul was to be seen around the falls. On hotter days the place is more popular with locals flocking to the water to take a dip or picnic nearby. Entry is free.
As you drive (or walk) a little further up the hill you will pass by Mon Tha Than Waterfall. Here you will have to pay an entry fee of 100 THB. If you are interested in something more active, there is a Nature Trail leading from the Doi Suthep National Park headquarter back down to the falls.
Doi Inthanon National Park
Also called “the roof of Thailand”, this national park is located 66 km from Chiang Mai city and it is home to the highest mountains in Thailand boasting with lush green forests and an abundance of wildlife species.
Heading south from Chiang Mai on Highway 108, then turn onto Highway 1009 just before Chom Thong Village (you will see signs pointing to Doi Inthanon) and pretty much head straight until you reach the headquarters of the park. See here for more help on how to get to the park. Entrance is 200 THB plus 20 THB if you come on a scooter.
As part of the Himalayan mountain range and set at over 2,565 metres above sea level, winter gets freezing with below 0 degrees and high humidity around the year. Here the rarely seen frost normally occurs around New Years however it will never snow. Even on hot summer days the mountain summit gets quite chilly so be prepared with warm clothes and always carry a jacket with you. The lower areas are dry and warmer.
There is a lot to see in the national park, from caves to waterfalls to hiking trails and stunning landscape views. The parks map helps for better orientation what to find where. The best time to visit the waterfalls is throughout the rainy season between May and November when the streams carry the most water.
There is one waterfall a little more off the path called Mae Ya Waterfall and I think it is the most beautiful one in the park and also accounts as one of the largest waterfalls in Thailand.
Don’t miss to see the two stupas Phra Mahathat Naphamethanidon and Nophamethanidon located 3km located from the summit which are dedicated to the king and queen of Thailand. There is an additional entry fee of 40 THB to see the stupas to be paid at the top.
As it is quite a trip with the scooter out of Chiang Mai it will either be a full day trip or I would also recommend staying a night around here to make the most out of it. The town closest to the park is called Chom Thong and Agoda has a few guest houses to choose from. Additionally, you can check on Tripadvisor to find a suitable place.
Huay Tung Tao Lake
This man-made lake just 15 minutes outside of town is super nice to spend a relaxing afternoon lounging in one of the bamboo huts right on the waters edge. You can easily get there by driving towards the North on Canal Road towards Mae Rim until you see a big blue sign pointing left into the direction of the lake.
Take the turn and you will drive along another small road until you hit the entrance of the lake area which costs 20 THB.
The lake which is sometimes also referred to as “Chiang Mai Beach” is very tranquil, peaceful and phone reception is almost non-existent and it’s good this way! Hang out for the afternoon, read a book, paddle on the water, grab a fried rice lunch from the food stall or watch the sunset over the mountains. You are allowed to swim in the water too however it looks quite muddy and I didn’t dare to encounter some funny animals chewing on my feet. I have seen locals do it though.
Mae Sa Waterfall
This popular waterfall is located about 26 km from Chiang Mai travelling on Highway 107 towards Mae Rim. With its eight levels the waterfall sits in a beautiful green environment among big trees and is part of the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park.
You can easily climb the paved stairs to either side of the waterfall which lie in the shade and the big stones adjacent make for breezy picnic spots for both locals and foreign visitors. Entry fee is 100 THB plus parking (20 THB) if you come by motorbike.
If you forgot to bring your own picnic there are plenty of food vendors next to the main car park.
Still haven’t seen enough water? There are also a few other waterfalls in the area you can enter with the ticket on the same day.
Bua Thong Waterfall
Rather unusual and quite special are those limestone waterfalls about one hour (40 km) out of Chiang Mai. Often-times you will hear people speak about the “sticky waterfall” as the rocks are very gripping and you can take easy steps to climb them up.
Heading out North on the Superhighway turn onto Highway 1001 towards Phrao. You are on the right way if you drive past Maejo University and keep heading north on the 1001 and then follow the blue signs pointing towards the waterfalls.
Entrance is free. You are not allowed to bring food or drink to the waterfall to prevent littering however there are picnic tables at the top level where you can sit and eat. Make sure to also bring swimming stuff and some dry clothes to change for the windy scooter ride home.
Mon Jam Village
If you are looking for great mountain vistas, Mon Jam located in the Mong Nong Hoi Village is your bet. About 40km out of Chiang Mai towards Ma-Rim, you will find this village in the mountain where you can take a seat in one of the beautiful open-air bamboo huts to have a fresh lunch or dinner. The quality of food has consistently been reported as very good.
Additionally, you can take a wander around and explore the strawberry fields, glass houses and wildflowers. It’s quite high up so bring a jacket as it can get chilly. Also if you take a scooter, the roads are windy and it get’s quite steep the closer you get to the destination, just to be aware.
Once a secret hotspot for travellers heading to the north of Thailand, now Pai is not so unknown anymore. However, it’s a popular spot for adventure and nature activities as well as its laid-back town atmosphere. It’s do-able as a day trip but I would really recommend staying at least 1 or 2 nights (or even longer!) as you will get the most out of it then. You can get to Pai very easily by bus from Chiang Mai or visit it as part of the Mae Hong Son loop, a multiple day self-drive route through stunning mountain scenery. If you love Chiang Mai, Pai will probably inspire you in a very laid-back manner too.