What to see and do in Chiang Mai if you only have two days to spare

Enjoy the cascading waters at Dantayvada (Dantewada Land Of Angels Waterfall Park).

Thailand's capital, Bangkok, is renowned for its vibrant city life, lively night life, wonderful street food and bustling markets.

Chiang Mai, on the other hand, is a mountainous city known for its beautiful nature and calm atmosphere, but it is still just as interesting as Bangkok.

My friend and I recently set out on an adventure to check out some supposedly “hidden gems” in Chiang Mai, based on countless posts on social media and travel articles online. We took an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai which was a little ... shaky.

There are actually several travel options available from Bangkok to Chiang Mai (or to a few other destinations within the country), but the sleeper train is said to be the best when it comes to experiences, especially for tourists.

We boarded the train at Krung Thep Aphiwat Central Terminal Station (also known as Bang Sue Grand Station), the main terminal in Bangkok for long-distance rail travel – located near the famous Chatuchak Weekend Market. The train runs daily and leaves Bangkok at the same time each day, at 6.40pm.

Tickets have to be booked online in advance; you can collect them at a travel company, or have them delivered to you for a small fee.

By 6.20pm, the queue to board the train had started to build up, and we could see that there were more locals than international tourists lining up with us. Travelling by rail is considered a common way of commuting in Thailand, as the service is comparatively more affordable than other forms of transportation.

Once we got on the coach, we stored our bags and sat in our seats, waiting to begin the 12- hour journey – the longest train ride either of us had ever taken.

An attendant is stationed at every coach to assist passengers and to help convert the seats into beds, which typically starts around 9pm.

When this is done and the curtains are drawn, passengers on the lower berth are able to sleep in darkness as everything is covered. In the morning, they get to witness a spectacular view from their windows. Imagine waking up to a view of lush greenery and dense clouds forming over the mountains – it’s not something everybody gets to see each day.

The sleeper train service is one of the best ways to travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.The sleeper train service is one of the best ways to travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

Meanwhile, those sleeping in the upper berths have to face the cabin lights. They’re dimmed but not completely turned off, presumably for safety reasons. You would have a bit more space to toss and turn while trying to sleep though, so that’s ... good.

My advice is to get a sleeping mask or have a scarf or towel handy to cover your face if you know you’re going to get the upper berth.

Another thing to keep in mind is how the train moves. It’s not like sitting in an LRT, MRT or bullet train. The sleeper trains are older so you feel their every movement. It may take a while for some people to get used to it, more so to fall asleep. It can also get pretty loud so do bring along earplugs, earphones or headphones to block out the engine noise.

Embracing nature

Over the years, the city of Chiang Mai has become quite a magnet for travellers seeking a calm and relaxing holiday. Chiang Mai is Thailand’s third largest city, and it is surrounded by mountains and the forest.

For those who love hiking, the city has various trails for you to try.

Rolling hills and verdant valleys aside, this city is also known for its cultural wonders – from ancient temples to lesser-known hill tribes to unique culinary experiences.

A golden temple called Wat Phra That Doi Suthep sits atop a mountain and overlooks the city. Built more than 600 years ago and named after the Doi Suthep mountain, the temple is said to be an important historical landmark in Chiang Mai. Legend has it that the temple was built to house a piece of bone from the shoulder of Buddha.

Our first stop in the city was Dantayvada. Also known as the Dantewada Land Of Angels Waterfall Park, this is one of Chiang Mai’s latest attractions that opened in 2021. It is located in Mae Taeng district, and it roughly an hour to get there from the town centre.

With enchanting man-made waterfalls and a gorgeous fields, the park is more than just a visual delight as it offers a respite from the bustling cityscape. The stunning jungle-like setting adds to the “otherworldly” charm of Dantayvada.

Mae Taeng is also home to one of the nation’s most unique hot springs – the Pong Dueat Geyser. There are hot spring pools here for travellers to take a dip or have a soak during their visit.

For those who want to have a quick bite or take a breather from their adventures, there are a few coffee shops within the park to check out.

We got into our ehailing car and went back into town. We saw many stalls selling all kinds of trinkets lining both sides of the road. As we were going past a women’s prison, our driver, Gai, said that some of the offenders will be sent to a massage training programme as part of their rehabilitation.

Gai suggested that we check out villages where we could learn about the five hill tribes of Chiang Mai. She told us about the Long Neck Karen Village which, which was not too far away from where we were staying. The women in this village wear brass rings around their necks. This tradition is said to be a symbol of beauty for the women in the tribe.

Free and easy

One of the benefits of travelling without a guide is that you get to plan your own itinerary and cherry pick activities you want to partake in. This was how we found ourselves visiting the city’s oldest market, the Waroros (or Warorot).

The market is located along the Ping River in the Old City, and is often dubbed the “Chinatown of Chiang Mai”.

According to Gai, the river hosts Chiang Mai’s Yi Peng Lantern Festival celebration every November. Thousands of visitors, including local and international tourists, will flock to witness this spectacular event.

The market, also known to locals as Kad Luang, is a historical landmark and has been around since the early 1900s. This was where the funeral ceremonies of Chiang Mai’s rulers were held.

We arrived at the market brimming with anticipation, delighted to find that it was already buzzing with activity. You will stumble upon endless food offerings, from fresh produce to dried fruits and preserved meats. There are also an assortment of handicrafts and clothes on sale.

Waroros is definitely a feast for the eyes and senses. The market is open between 4am and 6pm daily.

Waroros Market has been around since 1910.Waroros Market has been around since 1910.

Speaking of food, one of the delicious dishes to try in Chiang Mai is khao soi – a northern Thai curry noodle soup with braised meat.

At night, head to the markets to get your dinner or supper. We checked out the Kalare Night Bazaar to see what it had to offer.

We were not disappointed as the bazaar had lots of scrumptious traditional northern delicacies. If you are game for it, you can try more “exotic” dishes like crocodile meat...

We were supposed to go on a little road trip the next day to Mae Wang National Park, which was approximately 47km from town. Mae Wang is a considered an off-the-beaten-path destination because of its remote location. This is where you can find naturally-formed rare rock sculptures, famously known as the Pha Chor Canyon.

The canyon is the result of the shift in direction of the Ping River; The resulting shift formed the 30m soil pillars. According to some articles, the journey to the viewpoint only involved a brief hike through marked paths. Visitors can also try bamboo rafting along the river with a guide.

That said, though, we didn’t manage to visit Mae Wang National Park. Instead, we decided to go cafe-hopping around town, covering four outlets in half a day. Two of the most aesthetically pleasing cafes were Mars, a planet-themed spot, and Fohhide, a coffee bar overlooking the mountains ... it was simply breathtaking.

Chiang Mai is a nice place to visit if you only have a couple of days to spare. It is easy and convenient to move around the city via ehailing cars or local taxis, too.

For those who wish to explore outside the city, you could also head to Chiang Rai, which is close to the Laos and Myanmar borders. The easiest way to get there is by bus, and the journey will take you three hours.

Travel notes

Getting there: AirAsia has direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to Chiang Mai, while Malaysia Airlines and Batik Air offer flights with one stop. Alternatively, you can also fly to Bangkok first, and book a domestic flight from there, or take the overnight train.

Duration: Visitors typically stay between two and three nights in Chiang Mai. If you plan to stay longer, do consider visiting the neighbouring districts or towns like Chiang Rai, Lamphun and Sukhothai.

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