Chiang Mai is best known for its floating lantern festival (a.k.a., Yi Peng) and being one of the best places for digital nomads because of the low cost of living, good internet connection, and proximity to the border (read: visa run). However, there are a lot more Chiang Mai attractions that I wasn’t able to appreciate when I first when there.
I had visited Chiang Mai with a travel buddy in 2014; he got bored after a few days and he convinced me to move on to Chiang Dao. One possible reason for the boredom was the fact that we just stayed in the Old Town; we never did try to find out if there are other things to do in the northern capital.
Sure, the food in Chiang Mai is great, the massage cheap, and the night market was lively. However, we had already gotten templed out, and going around seemed too much of a hassle.
I was glad, then, that I got another chance to see the attractions in Chiang Mai through the invitation of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (Philippines) and Thai Airways. We stayed 4 days in the northern capital and saw so much.
So if you have a chance to visit several Chiang Mai attractions, consider any of these off-the-beaten-path destinations.
Have a fire massage at Ban Rai Kong King
If you’re looking for an enriching yet relaxing experience, Ban Rai Kong King is a great choice thanks to its traditional organic-farming practices and herbal remedies and therapies.
This small village in Hang Dong district switched to a holistic approach after their use of artificial chemicals on crops started taking a toll on residents’ health.
Drawing on ancient wisdom, they were able to find modern-day applications for age-old techniques. Now they turn the plants and herbs they grow into medicine and bath products, and share their knowledge and skills to those who visit.
You can check out their organic garden to discover how they nurture crops sans chemicals and join the hands-on cooking classes on how to prepare local dishes like green curry with chicken and khanom jok (coconut-pumpkin dough wrapped and steamed in banana leaves), among others.
What I loved best about this is the Yum Kang fire therapy. This unusual but soothing Thai massage involves hot coals, aromatic herbs, flames and hot-iron griddles. The masseuse dips his foot in oil, and when it catches fire, he massages your back with his foot.
You won’t get burned; the fire goes out in a few seconds, leaving the masseuse’s foot warm. Watch my video below.
Shop at Warorot Market
At the center of little Chinatown, close to the riverside, is the city’s oldest public market — Warorot Market (Kad Luang). Quirky and vibrant, this multi-storey shopping center gives you a glimpse of traditional Chiang Mai and of the Thai way of life.
It actually targets locals rather than tourists, so you can shop for practical, everyday-use goods and watch how Thais browse and haggle for bargains. Some of my friends bought really nice woven bags.
Warorot Market is also one of the best places to get a taste of local flavors. Among the specialties they have are crispy pork skin (cap moo), red and green chili dip (nam prik ong/nam prik noom), grilled northern-style sausage (sai oua), khao soi noodles (my favorite Thai food!), and sweet curries (kaeng hangle).
You can even catch vendors in action, with the entire basement and a section of the first floor filled with “open kitchens” where savory eats are expertly made from scratch.
Watch craftsmen at Wat Sri Suphan (Silver Temple)
Wualai Road, located south of the walled Old Town, is known for its traditional silver-making workshops. What many do not realize is that just off this road is a lane that leads to one of the most unique and impressive temples in northern Thailand — Wat Sri Suphan, also called the Silver Temple.
Dating back to the early 1500s, Wat Sri Suphan has been renovated a number of times since it was first built. With the help of local silversmiths, it now features extensive silverwork that’s sure to leave you impressed.
The highlight is the silver-colored ordination hall, which shimmers in the sunlight and features intricate details and exquisitely-crafted panels illustrating stories from Buddhist mythology. (Women, however, are not allowed to enter this hall.)
In addition to silver buildings, the temple has structures with fine woodwork, glass mosaics and metallic blue, crimson and gold hues. There’s also a silver workshop on site, where you can observe artisans-in-training.
For a more memorable visit, drop by on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday, at around 5:30pm, to engage in a “monk chat” — a program that lets visitors chat with the temple’s English-speaking monks. You can even extend your visit for an introduction to meditation course, which starts at 7pm.
Buy handicrafts at Borsang Village
Have you ever seen those iconic paper umbrellas that are often pictured to represent Thailand? Those are made in Chiang Mai, and you can see how the pieces all come together at Borsang Village.
They say a Thai Buddhist monk, returning from Burma, introduced this craft to the village many generations ago. Today, Borsang is famed for the top-notch quality and signature floral design of their paper umbrellas.
During your visit, you’ll get to observe how the frames are created, how the paper is produced and how the parts are assembled. You’ll also get to watch workers as they meticulously hand paint the umbrellas.
You can also bring home your own paper umbrellas, which are sold in the adjoining gift shop along with other handmade souvenirs.
Relax at Baan Kang Wat Artists’ Village
If you want a break from all of your sightseeing, you won’t regret adding the Baan Kang Wat Artists Village, in the area of Suthep, to your itinerary. It is bursting with character and creativity, and for those who are into it, it is also very Instagram-worthy.
The village hosts a series of two-floor shop houses that sell locally crafted, handmade, organic, or sustainable products. For instance, you’ll find hand-stitched garments, jewelry, house ware, and hand-painted ceramic from Tiny Space and Bookoo Studio.
There is also a variety of “zakka” items from Jibberish (zakka is a Japanese fashion trend focusing on minimalist design and a modern palette of soft pastels, cream, and gray).
The products are displayed on the ground floor, which is made mainly of concrete, while the artists who run the shops live on the upper floor, where the fittings and windows come in wood.
Designed by Nattawut “Big” Ruckprasit, the structures fuse old and new architectural elements — they look like traditional teak Thai houses but with a split-level layout and lots of outdoor spaces.
While the shop houses are the primary attraction here, the village also has galleries you can explore, studios that hold art workshops you can join, and cafés you can hang out at when you need a drink or light snack. There is also an amphitheater, a small organic vegetable and fruit garden, and a hair salon.
My favorite was the library. I started reading The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom and managed to finish 75% of it when we had to go. Reading is free.
Have tea at Vieng Joom On
Tea lovers won’t want to miss out on Vieng Joom On, a lovely tea house along Sukhumvit Soi 24 that’s easy to spot with its bright pink facade and the pink parasols of the tables in its front terrace. True to its name (which translates to “pink city”), this shop features a largely pink color scheme and Moroccan-style interiors.
A partition wall with golden peacock paintings divides the space into two sections: a shop and a tearoom. The shop sells beautifully packaged and high-quality teas, along with honey, jam and embossed china.
The tearoom, on the other hand, has floor-to-ceiling windows, wicker tables and chairs, and low tables and seat cushions, giving it a very laid-back vibe.
As for the tea, you can look forward to an array of black, white, red, green, herbal, fruit and Chinese teas from all over the world. The must-tries include the rose tea, brewed with miniature pink rose buds; the refreshing yet strong Moroccan mint tea; and the blooming tea, featuring flowers wrapped with tea leaves that unravel in warm water.
Or you could order their signature Vieng Joom On tea, a fragrant blend of black pepper, black tea, cardamom, cinnamon, clover, ginger, plum and rose petals.
For snacks and desserts, among the menu options are sandwiches, rotis, scones, blueberry cheesecake, and cherry panna cotta.
Go cruising on Mae Ping River
A cruise along the Mae Ping River, east of Chiang Mai, lets you see and experience the city from a different vantage point. You’ll get to sail under bridges, through the countryside and the suburbs, past riverside homes and cafés, alongside lush landscapes and majestic trees, and out to tourist spots that aren’t as accessible via land.
The trip itself is leisurely and pleasant. We didn’t get to see much, since we had a dinner cruise, but it was a relaxing time just the same. The menu featured northern Thailand’s signature dishes plus dessert and a beverage.
This is by no means an exhaustive itinerary of all the things you can do in Chiang Mai, but the places and activities we had done would be good additions to your itinerary should you go to observe the Floating Lantern festival.
With its rich history and cultural heritage, picturesque scenery, traditional villages, and charming structures, Chiang Mai has tons in store for visitors, especially if you’re up for offbeat destinations and unconventional activities.
Have you been to Thailand? What other Chiang Mai attractions can you recommend?