Day trips tend to promote Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai's famed mountain and temple; however, don't miss the charming allure of nearby Lampang or Lamphun, both sleepy rural towns with old teak homes and some very lovely Lanna temples -- you can pop into the Elephant Training Camp in Lampang en route.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
The jewel of Chiang Mai, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep glistens in the sun on the slopes of the mountain, known as Doi Suthep. One of four royal wats in the north, at 1,300m (4,265 ft.), it occupies an extraordinary site with a cool refreshing climate, expansive views over the city, and the mountain's idyllic forests, waterfalls, and flowers.
In the 14th century, during the installation of a relic of the Buddha in Wat Suan Dok (in the Old City), the holy object split in two, with one part equaling the original size. A new wat was needed to honor the miracle. King Ku Na placed the new relic on a sacred white elephant and let it wander freely through the hills. The elephant climbed to the top of Doi Suthep, trumpeted three times, made three counterclockwise circles, and knelt down, choosing the site for Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
The original chedi was built to a height of 8m (26 ft.). Subsequent kings contributed to it, first by doubling the size and then by adding layers of gold and other ornamentation to the exterior; it now measures 16m (52 ft.) tall. The gilded-copper decorative umbrellas around the central chedi and the murals showing scenes from the Buddha's life are especially attractive.
Other structures were raised to bring greater honor to the Buddha and various patrons. The most remarkable is the steep 290-step naga (sacred riverine snake) staircase, added in 1557, leading up to the wat -- one of the most dramatic approaches to a temple in all of Thailand. To shorten the 5-hour climb from the base of the mountain, the winding road was constructed in 1935 by thousands of volunteers under the direction of a local monk.
Visitors with exposed legs are offered a sarong at the entrance. Most Thai visitors come to make an offering -- usually flowers, candles, incense, and small squares of gold leaf that are applied to a favored Buddha or to the exterior of a chedi -- and to be blessed. Believers kneel down and touch their foreheads to the ground three times in worship. Some shake prayer sticks to learn their fortune.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (admission 30B) is open daily 7am to 5pm; come early or late to avoid the crowds. To get here, take a songtaew from in front of the zoo, at the western end of Huai Kaeo Road. The fare is 50B going up and 40B for the descent. The ride can get cool, so bring a sweater or jacket. The bus stops at the base of the naga staircase. If you'd rather not climb the 306 steps, a special part of the experience, there's a funicular railway to the top for 50B. You can simplify matters by booking a half-day trip though any tour agency for around 600B, including a stop at Phuping Palace.
Phuping Palace is the summer residence of Thailand's royal family, which is 4km (2 1/2 miles) beyond Doi Suthep, 22km (14 miles) west of the Old City off Route 1004. When the royal family isn't present, visitors are allowed to enter and stroll through its beautiful gardens. When it is open (check with the TAT), the hours are Friday to Sunday 8:30am to 4:30pm, and admission is free. You really have to dress conservatively for this one; military guards at the gate act like the fashion police. The Doi Suthep minibus continues to the Phuping Palace from Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
The oldest continuously inhabited city in Thailand, just 26km (16 miles) south of Chiang Mai, Lamphun was founded in A.D. 663 by the Mon Queen Chamadevi as the capital of Nakhon Hariphunchai. Throughout its long history, the Hariphunchai Kingdom, an offspring of the Mon Empire, was fought over and often conquered; yet it remained one of the powers of the north until King Mengrai established his capital in neighboring Chiang Mai.
The best way to get there is by car, taking the old highway, Route 106, south to town. Superhighway 11 runs parallel and east of it, but you'll miss the tall yang (rubber) trees, which shade the old highway until Sarapi, and the bushy yellow-flowered khilik (cassia) trees. Buses to Lamphun and Pasang leave from the Chang Puak Bus Station (tel. 05321-1586), while songtaews leave regularly from just south of the TAT office on the Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road.
The town is legendary for its beautiful women. There are some historical wats, including excellent Dvaravati-style chedis, and a fine museum. Longan (lamyai), a native fruit that resembles clusters of fuzzy brown grapes -- which peel easily to yield luscious, crisp white flesh -- are popular here. The trees can be recognized by their narrow, crooked trunks and large, droopy oval leaves. On the second weekend in August, Lamphun goes wild with its Longan Festival, with a parade of floats decorated only in longans and a beauty contest to select that year's Miss Longan. Lamphun and Pasang (to the south) are also popular with shoppers for their excellent cotton and silk weaving.
The highlight of Lamphun is Wat Phra That Hariphunchai, one of the most striking temples in all of Thailand. (Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was modeled after it.) The central chedi, in Chiang Saen style and said to house a hair of the Buddha, is more than 45m (148 ft.) high and dates from the 9th century, when it was built over a royal structure. The nine-tiered umbrella at the top contains 6,498.75 grams of gold, and the chedi's exterior is of bronze. Also of interest in the temple complex are an immense bronze gong (reputedly the largest in the world), and several viharn (rebuilt in the 19th and 20th c.) containing Buddha images. According to legend, the Buddha visited a hill about 16km (10 miles) southeast of town, where he left his footprint; the site is marked by Wat Phra Phuttabat Tak Pha. During the full-moon day in May, there's a ritual bathing ceremony for the Phra That.
The Hariphunchai National Museum, Amphur Muang (tel. 05351-1186), is across the street from Wat Phra That Hariphunchai's back entrance. It is worth a visit to see the many bronze and stucco religious works from the wat. The museum also contains a fine collection of Dvaravati- and Lanna-style votive and architectural objects. It's open Wednesday to Sunday from 9am to 4pm; admission is 100B.
Wat Chamadevi (Wat Kukut) is probably one of the most unique temple complexes in the country, located less than 1km (2/3 mile) northwest of the city center. The highlights here are the superb examples of late Dvaravati-style (pyramid) chedis, known as Suwan Chang Kot and Ratana, built in the 8th and 10th centuries, respectively, and thought to be modeled on those in Sri Lanka's ancient capital Polonnaruwa. The larger one is remarkable for the 60 standing Buddhas that adorn its niches. The original temple was built by Khmer artisans for King Mahantayot around A.D. 755. The relics of his mother, Queen Chamadevi, are housed inside, but the gold-covered pagoda was stolen, earning this site its nickname Kukut (topless).
The sprawling town of Lampang (originally called Khelang Nakhon) was once famous for its exclusive reliance on the horse and carriage for transportation, even after the "horseless carriage" came into fashion. These often florally adorned buggies can still be rented near the center of town next to the City Hall or arranged through any hotel for about 300B per hour; it's an enchanting mode of transport and a pleasant (and more eco-friendly) way to see some of the city's sights.
Lampang is graced with some of the finest Burmese temples in Thailand and supports the celebrated Thai Elephant Conservation Center. Because of the region's fine kilns, there are dozens of ceramics factories producing new and reproduction "antique" pottery. For visitor information, contact the Lampang Tourist Office, Thakhrao Noi Road, near the central clock tower (tel. 05423-7229). The easiest way to reach Lampang from Chiang Mai is by car, taking Route no. 11 southeast for about 100km (62 miles). Buses to Lampang leave throughout the day from Chiang Mai's Arcade Bus Terminal (tel. 05324-2664). The 2 1/2-hour trip costs about 60B.
For an overnight sojourn, the stylish Wienglakor Hotel (138/25 Phaholyothin Rd.; tel. 05422-4470; www.wienglakor.com) is the best choice in town. Rooms start at 1,400B and are comfortable and clean with all the right amenities. Tipchang Hotel (54/22 Thakhrao Noi Rd.; tel. 05422-6501; fax 05422-5362) is a second-rate option.
Lampang's wats are best toured by car or horse and carriage, as they are scattered around. Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao is 1km (2/3 miles) to the northeast of the town center on the other side of the Wang River. For 32 years, this highly revered 18th-century Burmese temple housed the Emerald Buddha that's now in Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew. Legend has it that one day the prince of Chiang Mai decided to move the Emerald Buddha from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai. His attendants traveled there with a royal elephant to transport the sacred icon. But when the elephant got to this spot, it refused to go on to Chiang Mai with its burden, and so a wat was built here to house the image. There's an impressive carved wooden chapel and Buddha: a 49m-high (161-ft.) pagoda houses a strand of the Buddha's hair. Poke around in the dusty Laan Thai Museum toward the back of the compound; it contains some fine woodwork and an old sarn phra phum (Spirit House).
Wat Phra That Lampang Luang is in Koh Kha, 18km (11 miles) southwest of the center of Lampang. This impressive temple complex is considered one of the finest examples of northern Thai architecture. If you mount the main steps, you'll see a site map, a distinguished viharn (inspired by Wat Phra That Hariphunchai in Lamphun), and, behind it to the west, a chedi with a fine seated Buddha. Go back to the parking area and pass the huge Bodhi tree -- whose stems are supported by dozens of bamboo poles and ribbons -- and you'll see signs for the Emerald Buddha House. The small Phra Kaew Don Tao image wears a gold necklace and stands on a gold base; it's locked behind two separate sets of gates and is difficult to see.
The Thai Elephant Conservation Center (on the Lampang Hwy.; tel. 05424-7875; www.thailandelephant.org) is 37km (23 miles) west of Lampang. They have elephant shows at 10am, 11am, and 1:30pm, and the cost is 80B per person. The center is open to visitors from 8:30am to 3:30pm and elephant rides cost 800B per hour. This place has nothing like the pony-ride atmosphere of most elephant camps; instead, the focus is on the animals, and the country's only elephant hospital is on-site, caring for abused and injured elephants. They also offer mahout training courses, but these need to be booked in advance through the website. This was the first elephant camp to include a musical performance in its elephant show, and its accomplished Elephant Orchestra is still much more impressive than any of its imitators.
Doi Inthanon National Park
The turnoff for Thailand's tallest mountain, Doi Inthanon -- 2,565m (8,415 ft.) -- is 55km (34 miles) southwest of Chiang Mai along H108. It crowns a 482-sq.-km (186-sq.-mile) national park filled with impressive waterfalls and wild orchids. A good, sealed road climbs 48km (30 miles) to the summit. At the base of the climb is the 30m-high (98-ft.) Mae Klang Falls, a popular picnic spot with food stands. The road to the top of the mountain features fine views and three more falls, Wachirathan, Sirithan, and Siriphum, all worth exploring. At the end of the park road, you are at the highest point in Thailand. There is a small visitor's center and a short trail into a thick wooded area of mossy overhanging trees called the Ang Khang Nature Trail, which makes for a short but picturesque walk.
Admission to Doi Inthanon National Park is 200B (children 100B). It's open daily from sunrise to sunset. Tents and bungalows are available for rent -- contact the Department of National Parks at tel. 02562-0760 or visit www.dnp.go.th.
The area is a popular day trip destination for residents of Chiang Mai, particularly in the cool season when occasionally frost (an alien concept in the tropics) can be seen near the summit. Day trips organized by Chiang Mai tour companies will cost around 1,100B, including lunch and a few other stops for sightseeing. You can always use your own rented car, too -- as long as you are confident driving on switchbacks and steep slopes; take Route 108 south through San Pa Tong, then turn right after 55km (34 miles), and follow the signs to the national park. You can take a 13km (8-mile) side trip to Lamphun on Route 1015.
Mae Sa Valley
The lovely Mae Sa Valley area is about 20km (12 miles) northwest of Chiang Mai. A rash of condo construction and the sprouting of roadside billboards all indicate that Mae Sa Valley is being developed as a rural tourist resort, but it still has an unhurried feel. Attractions include elephant shows (with rides), a tiger camp, a snake show, a monkey show, bungee jumping, the Queen Sirikit Botanic Gardens (tel. 05384-1000; www.qsbg.thaigov.net/), and orchid nurseries. Some of these attractions are packaged by Chiang Mai tour operators as a half-day trip costing about 700B.
The town of Chiang Dao, 72km (45 miles) north of Chiang Mai, and its environs offer several small resort hotels and a few fun activities, but if you don't have a car, the easiest way to sightsee is by joining a day trip organized by Chiang Mai operators, which costs about 1,500B per person (half-day trips are also offered). The Elephant Training Center Chiang Dao, close to kilometer 56, on H107 from Chiang Mai, is rather touristy and not as good as that in Lampang, but it's still a nice treat for kids. The adventure begins as you cross a rope bridge and walk through a forest to the camp. After the elephants bathe in the river (showering themselves and their mahouts), they demonstrate log hauling and log rolling. After the show, you can climb into a howdah and take a safari across the Ping River to a Lisu village.
Sixteen kilometers (10 miles) north of the Elephant Training Center is the Chiang Dao Cave (Wat Tham Chiang Dao), one of the area's more fascinating sites. Two caverns are illuminated by electric lights, and you can see a number of Buddha statues, including a 4m-long (13-ft.) reclining one. The row of five seated Buddhas in the first cavern is particularly impressive. The cave and two connected caverns extend over 10km (6 1/4 miles) into the mountain, but you'll have to hire a local guide with a lantern to explore the unlighted areas. It is open daily from 8:30am to 4:30pm, and a stop here can be included with any itinerary that brings you to the elephant camp.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.