CHIANG MAI is known as the cultural capital of Thailand, a city of temples, retreats and cultural markets. It is all of these things, but more as well, especially if you get outside the city limits.
Northern Thailand has a wealth of beautiful natural landscapes and formations, and you don’t even need to venture too far from the city to find them. Even those on a tight schedule in Chiang Mai will find it easy to escape the tourist traps and see something a bit off the beaten path.
Each of the following destinations can be reached in an hour or less, with the exception of Doi Inthanon, and are easily accessible by motorbike or simply hiring a songthaew, a public truck for hire, or a taxi for a few hundred baht (usually around $15).
Good for a day trip but even better for an over-nighter. The lake houses at Mae Ngat are a fairly well-kept secret – from travelers at least. These cozy bungalow-style establishments are great places to stay for a weekend outside the city. Located on the lake at Mae Ngat Dam & Reservoir , the houses are small but clean and all come with a private bathroom. During the day, you can swim on the lake surrounded by mountains green with lush vegetation. Waiters come and take your order, and will bring you freshly cooked Thai food. If you’re spending the night, pick up a bottle of Sangsom, a popular Thai whiskey, and enjoy a few drinks by the lake. Even by Thailand’s standards, Mae Ngat is a serene escape.
There is a lot of beauty to be enjoyed outside Chiang Mai, and the Sticky Waterfall is one of the loveliest spots. The water runs over a series of limestone steps that make it “sticky” and essentially safe for climbing. While climbing a waterfall sounds like a counterintuitive behavior, this is a beloved place to visit among many an ex-patriate and long-term traveler in Chiang Mai.
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Doi Inthanon is the highest peak in Thailand, and is worth seeing for a day or for an overnight camping trip. The national park, which encompasses the mountain, is home to multiple waterfalls, gorgeous flora and is a great place to escape the city for the night. Guests can rent bungalows in the park, or rough it with a tent and sleeping bag. Doi Inthanon is a lovely place to spend an evening and get a break from the crowds while reflecting on your travels before embarking on the next leg of the tour. Admission is steep – 500 baht for an adult (roughly $15) – but worth the extra cash for the serenity and amazing views.
Here again is a low-key getaway made for relaxation. Huay Tung Tao is a great space to while away an afternoon. Visitors can rent out small bungalow-style huts for a mere 20 baht a day (less than $1USD) and either bring their own picnic foods or order local dishes at the lake, which will be delivered directly to their huts. Because it is only a few kilometers outside the city down route 121, you only need to steal away for a few hours to enjoy the sunshine, swimming and generally relaxing atmosphere.
5. The Quarry
Adventure-seekers may get a kick out of visiting the quarry, which can be found about a half hour south of Chiang Mai’s Old City. This secluded spot has become well-known for being beautiful, and for it’s cliff-jumping opportunities. Do so at your own risk, however – there have been rumors that the waters aren’t exactly healthy, though that doesn’t seem to stop groups of ex-pats from heading out there on a regular basis. And, as goes without saying at most places in Thailand, there are no authorities watching out over thrill-seeking foreigners. If you do brave the jump, wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty, as the water and mud will stain. The best way to reach the quarry is to rent a motorbike or scooter (you can rent them for as little as 150 baht – about $5USD – per day). To get there, head south on Canal Road and take it until you can go no further. There will be a Canyon Restaurant on your right, and you’ll turn right there and drive straight over a bridge. Then you’ll make a right at the first crossroads you reach, and drive straight until you see the quarry.
For a handy and pocket-sized Chiang Mai companion, check out Footprint’s Chiang Mai & Northern Thailand handbook