The scent of delicately basted meat being grilled over charcoal fire and the sharp, intoxicating trail of freshly brewed coffee is hard to ignore – old city Chiangmai is littered with meat stalls and petite coffee houses. I like low-key holidays with long lunches and easy living as much as the next girl… so days strolling through the old city and evening bazaars were perfect. But just outside the city lie wonders of a different kind, and I put my explorer shoes on (Dora, who?) and headed out.
Up, up and away
Endless views of Chiangmai city (if the sky is clear), a national park to trek through and of course, the Wat Phra Doi Suthep, to appease your inner devotee. The Doi Suthep mountain is 40kms from the city and worth making a day-trip for. My companion and I picked a bike, but make sure you invest in a heavy-duty bike that can handle the winding uphill roads, because ours started over heating after about 20 minutes on the highway.
The weather is pleasant in Chiangmai in January when we visited (and tends to get cooler as you get higher), so make sure you’re well covered. Head to the Bhubing Palace first, if you’re a botany or flower enthusiast – it’s all about the well-manicured gardens, stopping to smell the roses and appreciating the finery that you’ll probably never have. The next stop was of course the Wat Phra Doi Suthep, which I found way too crowded to enjoy. The views from the wat are sublime (they’d better be, after the endless stairs you have to climb up to get there) but the temple itself was too crowded to buckle down and enjoy the space.
That’s why our next stop was the (shockingly) isolated Monta Than Waterfall at the Doi Suthep National park that is en-route the wat. Quiet, remote and cut off from the cacophony at the wat and the touristy rush in Chiangmai city, we loved the 40-50 min trek that brought us right back to the waterfall we started at. Carry a swimsuit and a change of clothes if you intend to take a dip and snacks to make a day out of it (no alcohol is allowed at the park). Tents pitched a few metres from the waterfall are where you can camp out if you choose to stay overnight. (Check details in advance on the park’s website)
The highest mountain in Thailand. The popular Kew Mae Pan that offers endless views, the promise of waterfalls, cloud forest and a vigorous workout. We were super excited about our day trip to Doi Inthanon. About 104kms away from Chiangmai city, the day trip seemed doable on paper.
However, we stopped midway to the destination because our bike was overheating, and we realised belatedly that we needed a much more powerful (read reliable) vehicle for the long/uphill journey. Don’t make the same mistake we did and rent an able car or engage a city tour group to organise your trip – you’ll find agents scattered all over the old city. There are a couple of hotels around the park (still quite far) and you can camp overnight, so make sure to plan your day trip as soon as you land in the city, so you have enough time to plan correctly. While we were disappointed at this development, we stopped over at the Grand Canyon Water Park where you can drown your sorrows in food, drink, zip-lining and other water-based adventures. It’s no Doi Inthanon, but for us eternal children, there’s no place more fun than one you can cannonball into the water at! A word to the wise, while Chiangmai old city’s incredible food, exciting night life, endless bazaars and touristy vibe might tempt you to sleep in and saunter around at leisure, give the great outdoors a chance, set the alarm earlier than you’d like to… and we’re promising rewards of the best kind. Sunrises, sunsets, waterfalls gushing, viewing points with soul-stirring coffee, the wind in your hair and lots, lots more. Get set, go.
We recommend planning these day trips on weekdays as weekends at any of the above involve dealing with long queues and large crowds (both locals + tourists)
Location: Chiang Mai City, Chiang Mai Province, Thailand
Getting there: Easily accessible via road and rail (Approx 685 kms from Bangkok, overnight bus and train, booked prior to travel is your best bet – you can get tickets on the day of travel, if you are lucky) and air (closest airport: Chiang Mai International Airport CNX)
Best time to visit: October – April
Other attractions: Elephant sanctuaries (Elephant Nature Park; Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary; Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand), San Kamphaeng Hot Springs
Read more on our adventures in our complete guide to Chiang Mai