By Francesca Fletcher
Chiang Mai is an incredibly visually diverse place. Stylish cafes, lush greenery, chic cocktail bars, and ancient temples are at every corner, so wandering round the city for a day will give you enough material for the ‘gram for weeks. But if you’re pushed for time and need some pointers, here are ten spots for really gorgeous shots.
1) Ancient Walls
The old city of Chiang Mai was built in a near perfect square, with a defensive wall that took 90,000 men four months to complete. Six fort-like gates were added:
They were always guarded and were only open from sunrise to sunset. Outside each gate was a bamboo bridge spanning the moat and in times of war these bridges were taken away and the gates firmly closed. Throughout their history the walls and the gates have survived the ravages of time and the onslaught of invading armies through a continuous process of decay and repair. The city gates were restored in 1801, during the reign of Phra Chao Kawila. It was the Japanese in the 1940's, during their occupation of Thailand, who ended an era when they used the bricks from the walls to build a road up to Pai.
Thapae is the most well known of the gates, and was restored to its former glory with pristine and glowing red bricks in 1975. Today it is always busy, providing the backdrop for lots of community events but also playing host to the hundreds of tourists that come to see this memento of Chiang Mai’s powerful history.
It might be a challenge to get a shot like the one below with the amount of traffic and tourists passing by and through the gate, but it’s worth the effort. Beat the crowds by arriving early in the morning.
2) Artist’s Village
Baan Kang Wat
Baan Kang Wat, at the foot of Doi Suthep, is the photogenic result of local artists gathering together to create a space where they could live, work and run their own small businesses. The sense of peace and community is palpable. It’s full of green spaces and its architecture is somehow simultaneously industrial and rustic - it even has its own little amphitheatre. It’s the perfect place to chill for an afternoon or buy something handmade after you’ve taken enough selfies to satisfy you. There’s a lovely market on Sundays, too.
3) Urban Glam
The Iron Bridge that crosses the Ping at the end of Loi Kroh road looks like a WWII construction, with its industrial steel girders and narrow road. In fact, it was built very recently as an homage to the old Nawarat Bridge which was demolished in the 1970s.
Head here at night to see the bridge illuminated in cool jewel tones. Lit up, it’s reminiscent of a nightclub, and maybe that’s why it attracts the trendy young people of Chiang Mai. Even if you don’t plan on taking photos there, it’s still fun to watch the Instagram crowd taking slightly hair-raising risks (near misses with oncoming traffic, leaning perilously far over the rails) as they compete to get the trendiest image.
4) Sacred space
Wat Suan Dok
There are so many incredible temples in Chiang Mai. Some are entirely silver, some have crumbling stupas, some glitter all over. But Wat Suan Dok is special.
It was built in the 14th Century for a famous monk to spend the rainy season, and to house a sacred Buddha relic that the monk had found. According to myth,
When the monk arrived in Chiang Mai, the bone had magically split into two pieces, one being of the original size, the other one smaller. The smaller relic was enshrined in the Wat Suan Dok.
The King ordered the larger part to be put on the back of a white elephant that was set free to go where it wanted. The elephant climbed up Doi Suthep mountain, West of Chiang Mai. It trumpeted three times and died close to the top. At that spot the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was built in the year 1383.
The temple has a magnificent golden Chedi built in the Sri Lankan style and a field of whitewashed mausoleums which contain the remains of the ruling family of Chiang Mai. Once you have enjoyed the visual splendour of the temple, you are able to learn about Buddhist life from the temple’s monks at daily monk chats and meditation lectures.
Top tip: Please respect this sacred place and dress modestly. Make sure your insta-worthy outfit covers shoulders and knees.
5) Breakfast with elephants
Chai Lai Orchid
We couldn’t really miss ourselves off the list, could we?
Our home, the Chai Lai Orchid, is a haven for animal-loving instagrammers. Every moment presents a new opportunity to photograph elephants enjoying the grounds and the river at the hotel.
Guests say that their most unique pictures are taken during elephant morning call, where they are woken up, not by a shrieking alarm clock, but an elephant reaching through their bedroom window.
How to book: Elephant morning call is 1500THB per room. You can book on arrival with our reception staff.
6) Mountain vista
Mon Long and Mon Chaem
Escape the city and flee to the mountains where the air is cooler and the pace of life slows down. About an hour’s drive outside Chiang Mai city, Mon Chaem (or Mon Cham, or Mon Jam, depending on who you ask) has become a magnet for Thais and tourists who are hoping for some rest and relaxation away from the city smog.
Mon Chaem itself is part of Nong Hoi Royal Project. Thailand’s beloved last King, Rama IX, started the Royal Projects as a way to provide Hilltribe farmers with high-income crops: this successfully discouraged opium farming and logging and improved the lives of many vulnerable communities in more remote mountainous areas.
Most visitors head to Mon Chaem’s ridge-top restaurant and viewpoint where spectacular fields of lavender, strawberries and herbs roll into the distance. It can get extremely busy in the middle of the day - so it’s best to drive out there in the early morning or late afternoon.
Alternatively, go a little further to Mon Long viewpoint, where you’re more likely to get unhindered views over the Thai landscape.
Bonus shot: Stay overnight in a cute cabin or luxury tent to see the mountains immersed in morning mist.
7) Modern art
Maiiam Art museum
Contemporary art museums have always been achingly cool, and Maiiam is no exception. Even its name is smart:
The name of the museum is a play on words, as “Mai” in Chiang Mai means “new city”, and is also a tribute to Eric Bunnag Booth’s great grand aunt “Chao Chom Iam”, a royal consort to King Rama V, who lived during a time when Thailand came into modernity. The double entendre extends to the meaning of MAI IAM, which means “brand new”.
- Maiiam Museum
They have intriguing and thoughtful exhibitions like 2019’s “DIASPORA: Exit, Exile, Exodus of Southeast Asia”, as well as a permanent collection which, they say, “includes seminal works from the masters of Thai Contemporary art as well as the discoveries they have made amongst the young and emerging artists of Thailand and the region.” Where better to celebrate the notable talent of Thailand’s modern art scene?
The architectural team behind Maiiam’s clean industrial interior and glittering facade aimed to create a stage for the works inside the museum, rather than highlight the architecture itself as an attraction. Whether or not they have achieved this goal is up for dispute, though. Not many photographers can resist that mirror-like wall.
8) Rooftop cocktail hour
This is one for the luxury traveller: Rise Rooftop Bar, on the roof of Akyra Manor hotel, is absolute #travelgoals. Visitors can enjoy a cocktail while they look out at the city below, or swim in the glass sided swimming pool. Akyra’s website describes their cocktail hour as “an essential ritual and a religious experience”. Whether that’s true or not, you will certainly be able to get a taste of the high life and snap some very pretty photos.
9) Local Life
Kad Luang Market
Kad Luang, meaning Great Market in the Lanna dialect, is actually comprised of two markets close to the Ping river, Warorot and Talad Ton Lam Yai. They are both vast, connected by a network of little roads and alleys overflowing with stalls selling shoes, clothes, food, and gold.
Kad Luang was opened in 1910, when a royal consort moved to the Suan Dok area and created a space for locals to buy and sell their produce. Over time it became a melting pot of cultures as Indian and Chinese traders came to sell their wares alongside local Thais.
Despite a devastating fire in 1968, Kad Luang has continued to be a vital part of the Chiang Mai community, bringing together people from all walks of life at a common meeting point. For tourists, if you can move past the sensory overwhelm, it offers an opportunity to sample delicious Thai food on a budget and enjoy the hustle and bustle of this vibrant heart of city life.
Kad Luang is a chaotic, colourful place. Spending an hour or two wandering its narrow lanes will reward you with photographs that epitomise the intersection of Thai tradition and modern life. If you need a breather afterwards, you can head to one of the quiet cafes on the opposite bank of the Ping to watch the river flowing by.
10) still waters
Huay tung tao
Make like a local and spend a lazy Sunday morning at Huay Tung Tao. Reached by a short 15 minute motorbike or song thaew ride from the old city, the reservoir is the ideal place to while away a couple of peaceful hours.
It was built by the legenday Rama IX to solve a water shortage problem, but quickly became a popular local spot to relax. It costs 20THB to enter, and there are lots of additional activities available, but most choose to spend their time chilling with friends and eating together in the cute bamboo huts that flank the lake.
It’s still not too well known amongst tourists, so posting from Huay Tung Tao will show the world that you have legitimate traveller credentials.
Top tip: If you’re planning on sticking around in Chiang Mai for a while, Huay Tung Tao is a great place to exercise. It’s got some lovely trails for walking and biking.