You keep learning, you keep advancing, and you never stop learning, don’t care how great a musician might be, or a singer or artist.
– Dennis Brown
There are so many things to see & do in Chiang Mai. Animal lovers can pose with tigers, bathe with elephants and nature lovers can hike mountains and climb waterfalls. History buffs and those seeking spiritual enlightenment can share the same space while exploring ancient temples, ruins and lost cities.
Chiang Mai is also replete with restaurants, coffee shops, night markets and bars. I lived there for 5 months and visited many of the popular Chiang Mai attractions and found some other hidden gems, some literally hidden, like Wiang Kum Kam, an ancient buried city that was the first capital of the Lanna Kingdom.
Assuming, if you are a tourist or backpacker passing through Chiang Mai, you may have traveled there because you heard by word of mouth that it is a great city and, you must visit if you are in Northern Thailand. Or, maybe you read a blog or advertisement promoting it. Expats and travel bloggers, most likely are there enjoying the low cost of living and the benefits of a metropolitan city with nature right at its back door. Whatever your reason for visiting, once you’ve been there, you finally understand why it is so popular. Yet, it is still hard to put into words why I think this city is so special.
Since most tourists seem to only take a few days to pass through Chiang Mai, they will most likely hit all of the popular tourist spots. Most will be sure to see Wat Phra That on Doi Suthep, and most likely stop at Tiger Kingdom to play with baby tiger cubs and take pictures laying down with the big cats. I never got a chance to go there, but maybe next time.
If you plan to stay in Chiang Mai longer than a week, you should try and visit some of the beautiful lesser known attractions in and around Chiang Mai. If you are an expatriate, living in Chiang Mai, then you should definitely do some research, get out and explore.
5 Most Overlooked Chiang Mai Attractions
I am sharing with you a few that I never heard another backpacker, tourist or even Thai friend mention to me. All of these I accidentally found from a few travel blogs online and one from a local Thai magazine.
#5. Wat Umong – The Tunnel Temple
Wat Umong is a quiet sanctuary tucked in near the base of Doi Suthep. “Umong” translated means tunnel and “Wat” means temple.
I actually read a short snippet about Wat Umong in Fahthai magazine. It recommended that I should check out this temple at the end of Suthep Rd. It was described as an eerie temple with underground tunnels. That was enough to peak my interest and I was eager to find out how to get there.
It took me a few u-turns and some exploring in the neighborhoods near the Chiang Mai University campus but I eventually, came up to the back entrance of the temple grounds. There was no sign where I entered and all I could see was a very lush jungle like area protected from the suburb by a wired fence.
As I was peeking around trying to figure out if I was in the right place, a monk appeared.
I calmly asked, “Wat Umong?” in my best Thai accent and he politely nodded to me and pointed. I smiled and carried on.
I parked my motorbike amongst a few others where a few university students were congregating. The temple grounds were very lush with trees and foliage, so much, that the canopy of trees shaded the entire area from the hot sun.
It was much cooler here in this forest less than a mile south of the university. I saw a few monks walking around, but not many visitors, except the few students, apparently getting ready for an afternoon meal. I followed the signs until I came up to the entrance for the tunnels, there were many other buildings, shrines and a meditation center here and it took me a few minutes to find this underground sanctuary.
While I strolled around taking pictures, there were also many roosters pecking around and some perching on top of the old Buddha statues. I tried to get a picture of that but missed the opportunity every time.
I took some quiet time to pray, light incense and give some offerings, while I was inside the tunnels. I was alone at first, but soon a few people joined me near the larger Buddhas. The tunnels were not exactly what I imagined, because there were only maybe 4 hallways at the most and they were not very long, but it was still worth checking out.
I forgot to mention that Wat Umong is over 600 years old!
It was built in the 13th century by King Mengrai, the first King of the Lanna Kingdom, and founder of Chiang Mai. A monk that the king consulted with used to meditate inside of a tunnel within Chiang Mai’s walls, but at some point, as the city became more crowded it became increasingly difficult for the monk to meditate.
The king had more tunnels built outside of the city where Wat Umong is now, so that the monk would have a more peaceful place to meditate. The temple was abandoned in the 15th century and later restored in 1948. The temple remains active to this day and is another historical landmark for Chiang Mai as well as a peaceful respite from the crowds of the other more famous temples in the city.
#4. Mon Tha Thon Falls
I really wanted to go to a place called Mae Sa Falls, but I got a little confused with the directions and headed towards Doi Suthep. Tyson was following me this time and he assumed I did my research before heading out late this afternoon, because I told him about a beautiful waterfall nearby that I heard about.
As we got about halfway up Doi Suthep, I realized we were nowhere near Mae Sa Falls, I had gotten the names confused in my head and thought it was close by, but it was actually Mon Tha Thon falls. Luckily for us, there are many, many options. We actually stopped at Huay Kaew Falls too, but it was very crowded. So we kept riding up the mountain.
What we found at Mon Tha Thon, was another quiet little getaway with only a handful of tourists. People were laying out with blankets on the lawn and relaxing in the afternoon sun. There are actually bungalows here for rent too! I didn’t check the cost but I am sure it wasn’t expensive. There was hardly anyone here and I doubt many people even know about it. Only a few minutes outside and above the city.
#3. Lake Huay Tueng Thao
I wrote another post specifically about my experience at Huay Tueng Thao. In short, there is a lot more here to be explored. I’ve since found out there are long hiking trails that go around the mountain and waterfalls along the way. I will definitely return and explore some more. It makes a great day trip to get out of Chiang Mai for a little while.
#2. Wiang Kum Kam – The Underground Ancient City
This ancient underground city was discovered in 1984 after some ancient tablets were found under Wat Chang Kam, Just 5km outside the city of Chiang Mai. This discovery led to the uncovering of more remains left from the city of Wiang Kum Kam.
At the end of the 13th century King Mengrai had moved the capital of the Lanna kingdom from Chiang Rai to Wiang Kum Kam but because of frequent flooding from the Ping River they moved the capital to Chiang Mai. There is evidence that the history of the city goes back even further to the 8th century. Over time, after the move to higher ground in Chiang Mai, the course of the Ping River covered over much of the ancient city with water and mud and was totally forgotten or just remembered as an old legend.
If you are interested in history and archaeology, I would definitely recommend a trip out here to see it. Take a tuk-tuk or song thaew out to the main area which is just on the outside of Chiang Mai southwestern side. Then there are two main areas where you can catch a pony carriage. I think you can get one from Chedi Liem temple grounds, one of the temples that was never affected by the flooding.
I rode my motorbike out to the area, and wasn’t exactly sure where to go but I found an area further inside the neighborhood about 1km away from Chedi Liem. Sorry, I cannot give a better description. I followed a trolley into the neighborhood and when it stopped at another modern temple, I decided to park my bike and go with the pony carriage ride there. It was very inexpensive and worth the ride. My driver had a folder with pictures of when they began excavating and she gave me a little history for each of the ruins in the area.
We stopped several times so I could take pictures. It took probably a little over an hour for this tour of the ancient city intertwined with a suburban neighborhood just on the outskirts of town. They took a picture of me before I left on my carriage ride and when I returned they offered me two different picture frames with my pic inside. I bought both of them for less than $10 and one of them is in a very nice wooden frame.
#1. Wat Pha Lat – Cliffside Temple alongside a waterfall in the jungle at the end of a hiking trail!
This by far was my favorite hidden gem. It is about halfway up Doi Suthep and there wasn’t any sign that I could read that highlighted it. I saw a road on the left hand side and as you enter, there is what looks like a small temple and two small roads, one dirt and one paved. If you make another left down the very steep paved road and keep traveling maybe a half a kilometer you will find the entrance to Wat Pha Lat.
The temple grounds are really unique in the way it is blended in with the natural surroundings. It is cliffside and set alongside a waterfall. You can cross over the waterfall to the other side at different tiers. When I arrived I immediately took a left down the stairwell with the white dragons.
I went on the King’s Birthday, Dec. 5th. It was a beautiful day to get out of the city and find some peace and quiet on Doi Suthep. I was still getting over a cold, so a little fresh air made me feel a lot better.
I climbed up the face of the waterfall and followed a path that led to some gardens and more shrines and decorative statues, passing a few other locals and tourists along the way.
I was still surprised that I hadn’t heard about this temple sooner, since this was my last week in Chiang Mai.
When I was leaving the temple on my motorbike and headed up the steep road out, a rambunctious, young foreigner came aggressively flying down the hill and almost ran into a car going up. He stopped on the roadside, then immediately turned around in front of me and rode back up to the top. When he got back up to the top of the road, he had a group of about six friends all on motorbikes waiting for him. I heard him yell to them, “No, there is nothing down there!” I thought for a moment… should I tell them what’s down there? Nah! Not this time. I just grinned turned and drove out onto the main road.
I guess now, I am making up for withholding that information. I feel like I am giving away a little secret, by sharing this hidden gem. However, I am hopeful that this one little blog post will not spoil it.
In reality, this is not a comprehensive list. These are just a few of the attractions that I was able to visit while I was there.
I’ve learned about many more nearby attractions that I missed since I have left! I cannot wait to go back and explore even further.
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