Thailand’s “northern capital” of Chiang Mai is situated in a valley between multiple national parks and rainforests, so day trips from Chiang Mai are amazing experiences. Many travelers visit northern Thailand to volunteer at Elephant Nature Park in Mae Taeng District or hike to the tops of the astoundingly scenic mountaintops in the region. For travelers into trekking, conservation, hilltribe culture, fantastic food and cooler weather (than the rest of Thailand anyway), a getaway from Chiang Mai is a must!
Getting Around Chiang Mai & Northern Thailand
Chiang Mai is a huge city with a rural feel, and that is partly because the city does not have a metro system – or even a local bus system for that matter. Getting around both Chiang Mai city and province is easy, though, once visitors get used to hailing song thaews (red trucks with two rows of covered seats in the back) and tuk tuks (three-wheeled vehicles that seat three to four people, max) and hiring private drivers.
- Song thaews and tuk tuks are available on any major road in Chiang Mai. To get one, just lift your arm to get one to stop, state your location to the driver and settle on a price before you hop in.
- Hiring a driver is the best way for tourists to reach places outside Chiang Mai. Hotels often have their own private drivers and will set guests up with trusted services at extremely affordable prices. Private drivers also can be found at Chiang Mai International Airport, Chiang Mai Bus Terminal 3 near Star Avenue Lifestyle Mall and sometimes at Chiang Mai Railway Station.
- Adventurous tourists can get around on motorbikes, which can be rented at several shops around Chiang Mai Old City Moat.
- Visitors with international driver’s licenses (who are comfortable driving on the left side of the road) can rent cars at Chiang Mai International Airport, Chiang Mai Bus Terminal 3. (A major credit card is required.)
Elephant Nature Park
Elephant Nature Park is a great place to spend a day, and hardcore conservationists can even volunteer on the grounds for several days at a time. The peaceful sanctuary in in Mae Taeng District houses more than 80 elephants, some of which have been rescued from the wild. Others have been born right in the sanctuary, so visitors often get to see baby elephants in the wild! Volunteers and visitors also have opportunities to feed and care for the elephants as well as watch them frolic, play and interact with each other in a natural environment.
Travel time: 1 hour
Doi Inthanon National Park
Just southwest of Chiang Mai sits Thailand’s tallest mountain, Doi Inthanon, the star attraction at Doi Inthanon National Park. Four hiking trails leading up the mountain give sightseers a vigorous trek that ends with a reward of unbelievable views. Doi Inthanon is one of the coolest places weather-wise to visit in Thailand, and as trekkers reach the summit of the mountain, they often are met with a sea of clouds. Along the hiking trails and on the way up the mountain, visitors will get Insta-worthy views of terraced rice fields and rural farmlands, waterfalls, wildlife and remote villages built right into the mountainside. At the top of Doi Inthanon, visitors can document their victorious hike with a selfie in front of a sign the marks the highest point in Thailand.
Travel time: 2 hours
Entry fee to Doi Inthanon National Park: 300 THB (10 USD) for foreigners
The magical city of Chiang Dao, which literally means “Star City or City of Stars,” is a rural community nestled in the mountaintop of Thailand’s third largest mountain, Doi Chiang Dao. The city and mountain are within Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary, and a day trip to the area guarantees an authentic northern Thai cultural experience. No matter the time of year (and no matter how hot it might be in Chiang Mai), visitors should be sure to take a jacket, as temperatures can be drastically cooler in Chiang Dao than in Chiang Mai.
Travel time: 1 hour
What to see and do in Chiang Dao
- Chiang Dao Cave (Wat Tham Chiang Dao) – a safe and easy way to go caving, Chiang Dao Cave stretches 12 kilometers and also serves as a Buddhist temple. Walkways and handrails allow for safe passage, and guests can enjoy views of ornate Buddha statues and even a koi pond.
- Doi Luang Chiang Dao – the highest peak on Chiang Dao offers jaw-dropping views of the region and is almost always overcast by a sea of fog.
- Baan San Pa Kia Campground – die-hard nature fans who can’t get enough of the view from Chiang Dao can camp on the mountainside in either a tent or bungalow at Baan San Pa Kia Campground.
Mae Sa Waterfall
With eight levels of crystal-clear flowing waters and a small swimming pool at the bottom, Mae Sa Waterfall in Mae Rim District is a perfect place to cool off and get a taste of nature in rural Thailand. Located in the foothills of Doi Suthep mountain, the area is a hotspot for activities beyond the waterfall. Visitors also can tour Maesa Elephant Camp and enjoy traditional Northern Thai food and culture in the Long Neck Karen Hilltribe community.
Travel time: 30 minutes
Families and backpackers will love a trip to quaint Mon Jam, a scenic viewpoint on the northern side of Doi Suthep mountain. The region features spectacular jungle views of the surrounding peaks and valleys as well as the Nong Hoi Royal Project garden that always has something colorful in bloom. During cooler months, tourists can pick strawberries while overlooking the mountainside from a garden skywalk. Many visitors like to stop for traditional Thai food at the Mon Jam restaurant. Visitors can enjoy lunch from a bamboo hut and even spend the night if the mood strikes them. Mon Jam is just 30 minutes past Mae Sa Waterfall, so with good planning, travelers can see Mae Sa Waterfall and Mon Jam during a quick 1- or longer 2-day getaway from Chiang Mai.
Travel time: 1 hour
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai