48 Hours in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai is known as Thailand’s second city, and is famous for it easy-going ambience.  It is the largest and most culturally significant city in northern Thailand, and has become an increasingly modern city. Chiang Mai attracts over 5 million visitors each year, and for good reason.
48 hours in Chiang Mai is not nearly enough. That’s the bad news. Between the dozens of temples throughout the Old City (also called the square) and the city’s reputation as a jumping-off base for northern Thailand, 48 hours is not nearly enough. Nonetheless, if you’re limited to a weekend or a couple days, let’s make the most of your time.

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DAY ONE
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Today’s travels can be entirely accomplished via walking or biking. Your call.
 
9:30 A.M.

Wat Chiang Man (also spelled Wat Chiang Mun) is your first stop – the city’s oldest Buddhist temple is also a fine place to start this trip. Built in 1297, the temple houses a white quartz Buddha image, a marble Buddha, and a stone inscription from the 16th century. It’s one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations, and as such you’ll see the touristy side of the city early on.

11:00 A.M.
Your next stop is the Tha Pae gate – also spelled Tapae gate, it was part of the fortified wall that protected Chiang Mai back in the day. Today, it’s an open platform for events and festivals. It’s a great mixture of locals and tourists, and a fine place to get some lunch. There’s plenty of see on either side of the gate, and it’s constantly changing.

1:00 P.M.
Next up: Wat Chedi Luang – about as centrally located as it gets in the Old Town. Literally the temple of the big stupa, what you see today is the combination of three smaller temples. Completed in the mid-15th century, the stupa was at one point 82 meters tall – the tallest building in the entire Lanna kingdom. An earthquake in 1545 made the upper part of the structure collapse, and the main building was reconstructed in the early 1990’s.

3:00 P.M.
It’s time to get out of the Old Town for your next destination. The Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders is a great little oddball museum that offers a diverse variety of both. The owner, a quirky and extremely well-educated lady in her own right, adds a little religion to an otherwise scientific museum.

Start by taking in the first main exhibition, a garden-like room with plenty of insects, information, and cabinets. In some cases the cabinets have plenty of information (a sheet in English offers you some more information on numbered exhibits), while others have none.

This first room also displays the ‘wishing bell’ stone, which symbolizes good luck. Knock the bell to make a wish. Not pictured are signs encouraging you not to squish God’s creations and other religious signs.

5:00 P.M.
Your last planned stop of the day is nearby: Nimmanhaemin road, Chiang Mai’s trendy area. The university is on the southern end, while the intersection with Huay Kaew sports the still-shiny Maya mall (pronounced ‘may-yah’). In between are plenty of coffee shops, Thai massage places, and Korean ice shavings along with plenty of artsy stores.

Consider this your official opportunity to get off script and explore as you like. This is a perfect place to get dinner away from the masses of tourists, with a selection as diverse as you’ll find in the city. The sois (side streets) have plenty more to explore, depending on how much time you want to spend exploring. On the weekends, there’s plenty of live music around, but do note it’ll be entirely in Thai!

DAY TWO
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Day 2 is filled with places that will require some wheels. Your options are to charter a songthaew and driver for the day (safer but more expensive) or to rent a scooter (cheaper but requires more focus). Either way, get that sorted before starting out for the day.

9:30 A.M.
Your first stop is Doi Suthep, perhaps Chiang Mai’s most popular destination. A mountain 1,676 meters tall about 15 kilometers from Chiang Mai, the main destination on the mountain is Wat Phrathat (pronounced ‘pra-taht’). Dating back to 1383, the pilgrimage site requires a 309-step climb or a 30 baht fee (about $1 USD) to take a tram. However you get there, take in the Buddhist and Hindu influences and enjoy the sights. This is as good a place to get an early lunch, so go ahead and do so across the street from the temple entrance.

12:00 P.M.
For extra credit, continue up the hill for Phuping Palace and the Mon Tha Than Waterfall. The former is a palace where the royalty stays when they come up north, while the waterfall is a worthy site for plenty of photographs.

You’ll want to pick one or the other destinations here (though if you didn’t dally around Doi Suthep, you can get to both of them).

2:00 P.M.
Baan Jang Nak – well off-the-beaten-path to foreign visitors, this workshop-cum-museum houses a fascinating collection of carved wooden elephants. This is your chance to see the non-touristy version of how these exquisite objects are made. During my most recent visit, the artisans were working on a group of large dinosaurs to go along with their usual elephants.

5:00 P.M.
Your other option is the Elephant Poo Paper Park. Opened in early 2013, it’s a stone’s throw away from the incredibly touristy (and more questionable) Tiger Kingdom. As you’ll guess from the name, they really do make paper from elephant poo. Not just from elephant poo, of course, but it is an ingredient. The park documents the process, and you’ll get to watch how things go from poo to paper. You’ll also have the chance to make a greeting card or a mini-journal (pay when you leave).

As mentioned at the beginning, 48 hours is simply not enough time. Chiang Mai deserves several days, and a week could be filled without too much effort.

BIO:
Chris Backe is the blogger behind One Weird Globe, the author of Weird and Wonderful Korea, and a professional photographer. He’s currently living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and has lived in Asia since 2008.

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