When every other travel list tells you to visit a coffee shop, you should travel consciously and check out the coffee plantations instead.
25 years ago, I visited Chiang Mai with my family. As a high school teenager, I got to see Chiang Mai as a developing city full of serenity drifting in a calm and collected pace. My family rented bungalows in a resort previously owned by the Thai princess, and I tranquilly flipped through pages of summer reading assignments underneath large banana leaves. Chiang Mai was a peaceful sanctuary, away from bustling Bangkok. The city sang along to the winds of the Northern mountains with very few travelers in sight.
Today’s Chiang Mai is vastly different. Tiger Kingdom, elephant sanctuaries, and night safari are flooded with tourists busily snapping photos. Never mind that the tigers are allegedly sedated (Think: why would the largest species among the Felidae remain calm in human contact?) According to The Jakarta Post, Chiang Mai welcomed around 10 million tourists in 2017. The affordability of eating, drinking, and most importantly, staying in Chiang Mai has captivated the attention of Chinese, European and American travelers.
No longer a hushed getaway, the city of Northern Rose is still worth a few days, if not, a few weeks of discovery. With 300 wats (Buddhist temples) to explore and endless varieties of khao soi (Chiang Mai’s famous dish) to taste, there’s an ethical way to choose the landmarks you’ll pay entry fees for. Here are my personal suggestions for how you can see Chiang Mai. When every other travel list tells you to visit a coffee shop, you should travel consciously and check out the coffee plantations instead.
1. Wat Phra Singh
Located in the city center, Wat Phra Singh is an easy temple to visit. Constructed in 1345, King Phaya, who was the 5th king of the Mangrai dynasty, had a chedi (pagoda) built to keep his father’s ashes. Today, you’ll see other buildings that were added years later on the temple grounds. The name of the temple derives from the Phra Buddha Singh statue that was brought to the wat in 1367. When entering any interior building, you must take off your shoes, and ladies, be sure that your shoulders and knees are covered up.
2. Wat Chedi Luang
Just an 8-minute walk from Wat Phra Sing is another ancient site: Wat Chedi Luang, which was constructed in the 14th century by King Saen Muang Ma because he wanted a royal place to bury his father’s ashes. After a decade, the construction stopped but was later continued by the king’s widow. When it was finally completed during mid-15th century, the wat was the largest building in Lanna but collapsed after an earthquake. Once home of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Chedi Luang was reconstructed by UNESCO and the Japanese government who were criticized for changing several elements of the temple to Central Thai style rather than the original Lanna architectural style. Wat Chedi Luang is quite large for a temple ground, and it hosts monk chats on a daily basis. Travelers can even speak to the monks or ask any questions regarding Buddhism.
3. Wat Pha Khao
With 300+ wats dispersed throughout Chiang Mai, Wat Pha Khao might not be a famous temple, but it’s certainly a hidden gem. Upon entry, there are colorful umbrellas hanging in the courtyard. Known as the Temple of White Clothes, the small temple features Buddhas in multicolor illuminations. With monk statues surrounding a golden chedi, this is one random but beautiful find.
4. Doi Suthep
One of the most famous landmarks in Chiang Mai is a bit further from city center: Doi Suthep. Either hire a driver to do Doi Suthep and Sticky Waterfall on the same day, or you can take the bus (or use the ride-sharing app: Grab) to the sacred site. The temple’s real name is: Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, but most people refer to it simply as “Doi Suthep” which is the name of the mountain where the temple is located. When visiting the temple, be sure to take off your shoes and wear appropriate clothing.
Founded in 1383, Doi Suthep came to life from a monk’s dream in which he was told to look for a bone which was believed to be the Buddha’s shoulder bone that could glow, move, disappear and replicate itself. When brought to the king, the relic didn’t display any special elements, so the disappointed king allowed the monk to keep it. When brought to the northern Lanna King, the relic broke in two pieces with the larger piece placed on the back of a white elephant which was released to the jungle. The elephant carried the bone and arrived at Doi Suthep, it trumpeted three times then collapsed. Believing that it was an omen, the king commissioned the temple to be built there. This story explains the temple’s longer name in which “Wat Phra That” means: Temple Buddha Relic.
Today, Doi Suthep is the site of pilgrimage attracting Buddhists from China, Singapore, India and Thailand. The wat receives 120,000 visitors every month, and even more during religious holidays.
5. Bua Tong Sticky Waterfall
Situated inside Si Lanna National Park, Bua Tong Sticky Waterfalls is a must-do that’ll require a driver / bus / Grab app to get there. The spring’s richness in calcium flows down over boulders of the waterfall, which in turn creates a sticky sensation so that visitors can grip on with bare hands and feet without slipping. There are three levels of waterfalls, and various climbing trails to offer gorgeous views of the natural landscape.
6. Hill Tribe Villages
While many tours offer a visit to the Hill Tribe Villages in Chiang Mai, they tend to stop for a few hours of photo session and that’s it. Traveling ethically means that you should opt for a tour which offers homestay, so you can spend more time with the villagers. Learn about their history, speak to the elders, and purchase their handmade textiles or other handicrafts. Don’t treat them like a good opportunity for a photo op, but talk to them to understand that tribes like the long neck Karen traditionally came from Myanmar. Many are refugees in Thailand due to the political climate in their homeland. Learn about their farming, language, traditions, garments, cuisine…their way of life that needs to be preserved.
7. Elephant Sanctuary
While elephant sanctuaries is on top of every traveler’s checklist, not every elephant sanctuary is…well, a sanctuary. Although many sanctuaries allow travelers to wash and bath elephants, keep in mind that when elephants are adapted to human contact, it also means they’ve been through much abuse in order to behave as such around humans. The most ethical way to visit an elephant sanctuary is through observing them from afar, so do your research, and select the sanctuaries that are further from city center where you can even spend a night there.
8. Coffee Plantations
Due to the rise of digital nomads living in Chiang Mai, there has been a huge trend of coffee shops and café culture in the city. Hence, many travel platforms suggest visiting coffee shops in Chiang Mai as a must-do. Unless you don’t hang out at coffee shops in your home town, why would anyone put this on their must-do list? Coffee shops in Chiang Mai may serve ethically sourced coffee beans, and the more ethical way to support local industries is to visit a coffee plantation. This may require a few more hours of your day and you may need to hire a driver (or use the Grab app,) but coffee plantation tours provide a better understanding of how Thai coffee beans flourish and the ways the industry have supported local communities.