Dozens of Buddhist Temples (Wats) are found in both the old and new cities and are the main tourist draw in Chiang Mai.
The famous Wat Phrathat, 3500 feet high on the slopes of Doi Suthep, is eleven miles from town but its large gold-plated chedi can be seen from the city on a clear day. Legend has it that the temple was built in 1383 after the site was chosen by an elephant sent to roam the mountainside to select a spot. When it found the site, it trumpeted, circled three times, knelt down, and died. The temple has remarkable views over the city and plateau. Visitors can either climb more than 300 stairs to the top or take a cable car. The International Buddhist Centre offers residential courses on Vipassana meditation here in English for tourists.
Inside the old city walls, visit the Wat Chiang Mun, which was built the same year the city was founded (1296) and is the oldest temple in the city. Its two Buddha images are said to be 1800 and 2500 years old and reflect the fine work of ancient craftsmen. Wat Phra Singh dates to the late 14th century and features beautiful temple murals and intricate gold patterning in the detail work. There are dozens more temples to visit as well, so consider seeing some of the ones off the beaten tourist track to get a better sense of daily religious life.
Asian elephants are one of the most familiar symbols of Thailand and several parks, camps, and reserves offer vastly differing elephant experiences to visitors. The Elephant Nature Park allows you see rescued elephants living in a natural protected sanctuary. Visitors will get to feed and bathe the elephants and can even arrange week-long volunteering opportunities. The showier Maesa Elephant Camp has elephants perform shows and offering half-hour rides to visitors. The Baanchang Elephant Park splits the difference, with and extremely caring natural environment for the elephants and traditional Thai food and performances for overnight visitors.
Muay Thai Boxing is Thailand’s incredibly popular (and violent) national sport. If you like boxing or ultimate wrestling, you must catch a Muay Thai fight. The Loi Kroh Boxing Stadium is a good bet, as fights are held 3-4 nights per week. Nights feature around eight fights with Thai and foreign boxers, with ladyboy performances from dancing to the occasionally strip, in between the boxing bouts.
If you really get into it, several schools offer Muay Thai training to turn you into that ultimate warrior. The Chai Yai Gym in Nong Hoi offers fight training in one-day, one-week, or one-month courses and can arrange accommodation for vacationing foreigners.
The blistering summer heat makes a dip in pool sound inviting, but why not trek out to one of the many beautiful waterfalls and natural pools dotting the landscape around Chian Mai? One of the best is located about a ten minute walk from the foot of Doi (Mount) Suthep. Walk up the hill behind the Buddhist Shrine next to the entrance of the Chiang Mai Zoo. The shallow pools aren’t great for diving, but they are great to cool off in on a hot day. Friendly local university students are often relaxing there.
After a long day hiking through mountains, meeting elephants, or having your butt handed to you in a Muay Thai training session, you deserve a relaxing, traditional Thai massage. Thai massage therapy is an ancient practice that combines full body massage with relaxing oils, scents, and skin treatments. Ask your hotel to recommend a good spa – there are dozens to choose from.