Verdant, forest-clad mountains topped with wisps of cloud. Proud, soaring temples, golden spires, fluttering flags and monks in saffron. Energetic night markets and scenes of food, merchants and passers-by wreathed in light and shadow. Jungles and canyons, traditional villages, and landscapes that fill your camera viewfinder from left to right with near-mystical scenery. A mid-sized city in the north of Thailand, Chiang Mai offers photographers a plethora of inspiration and fascinating photo opportunities among its many parks, streets, religious sites and markets.
So start your journey in northern Thailand here and keep reading to discover some of the best views and best photo spots in Chiang Mai. Note that while I try to focus on free and public sites, many of these attractions will require a (reasonable?) entrance fee.
Baan Tong Luang village
A collection of ethnic communities that have settled together now in the Mae Sa area, just northwest of Chiang Mai. The tribes here originally came from far and wide across northern Thailand, Myanmar, Tibet and China. There is an entrance tax, and at first the place may seem like a tourist trap. But the entrance fee is what affords the people the opportunity to continue their way of life. Here you’ll get to see many colorful arts, traditional clothing and jewelry, rice fields and houses. The highlight of your visit will probably be the Kayan long neck village, which originated in the Kayah state in Myanmar.
Don’t be shy about using your camera here. (it’s why you paid to go in, after all) But if in doubt, just point to your camera and smile, to double check if it’s OK to take a photo. You can get to the village by tuk tuk, motorbike or by organized tour.
Recommended for: Colorful handicrafts, people and village views
Doi Suthep temple
The Doi Suthep temple and national park overlooks Chiang Mai from the west from altitudes of 1,500 meters and above. From vantage points at the temple and on the road, you’ll be able to see across the city and over the Mae Ping River valley of northern Thailand. You might be able to grab a nice sunrise shot from here… But these views aren’t anything special, in my opinion. The real reason to drive up is to visit to the sacred theravada Doi Suthep temple (Wat Phra That Doi Suthep).
Here you can ready your camera and compose any number of shots amongst rambling worshippers, monks, gleaming bells and copper-plated (gold-plated?) monuments, Buddha statues and Naga serpents. Towards the end of day and especially at night, the temple, shrines and surrounding grounds will seem to bathe in mystery, with nearly everything cast in a golden light. Best way to get here is on a motorbike or in a red songthaew from the city center.
Recommended for: Temple scenes, architecture and people
Huay Tung Tao reservoir
Perfect for golden hour and a relaxing afternoon. Here you can stroll on wooden walkways among rice paddies and watch the sun set over the lake. There are also a number of huts and restaurants by the water where you can sit for a while to watch the light and see what scenes develop. (look for the water buffalo grazing!) Think heaps of nature and peaceful landscapes, right outside of Chiang Mai city.
Recommended for: Nature and landscape, especially during afternoon and golden hour
Grand Pavilion and Royal Park
Opened to the public in 2008, the Royal Park Rajapruek was built to celebrate the 60th year of the Thai king. Here you can explore expansive tropical gardens and enjoy many photo opportunities in and around the manicured landscapes, fountains, reflecting pools and flowers beds. And don’t forget to visit the orchid garden!
The main highlight, the Lanna-style royal pavilion, stands at the center of the park grounds. The Royal Park is an easy bike or bus ride from the city center.
Recommended for: Nature, flowers and architecture
Khun Chang Khian village
From around November to January, this is one of the few places in the world you can experience the cherry blossom season. Khun Chang Khian village, also known as the Highland Agriculture Research Center, is home to transplanted cherry trees, which will flower in many beautiful and bright shades of pink.
During these winter months, the area is a wonderful island of rose, fuschia, blush and hot pink, a mere twenty kilometers from Chiang Mai. Best time to visit for photographers will be during midday, as the colors will be most vivid in bright sunlight. You can also stay the night here, or combine this with a trip to Doi Suthep and Doi Pui.
Recommended for: Nature and flowers, mainly in winter
Mae Kam Pong
Head east from Chiang Mai and you’ll find Mae Kam Pong, a tiny, peaceful village retreat at the foot of the mountains. You can take your pick of what to see, including waterfalls, hot springs, wooden houses, a riverside temple, tea-tree forests and a couple decent viewpoints. (the viewpoints at the cafe and at the top of the mountain are probably best visited during afternoon or sunset)
Recommended for: Village life and landscape views; nature photography
Elephant Sanctuary at Mae Rim
Asian elephants are normally smaller than their African relatives, but nonetheless, these are truly spectacular beasts. So you wouldn’t come to Thailand without visiting an elephant sanctuary. At the sanctuaries in Mae Rim, you can get good opportunities to see the animals with a natural background and setting (i.e. lots of surrounding forest, grasses and river). And if you explain to the handler and/or guide that you are a photographer and looking for good photo ops, they will work with you to get some nice shots with natural background.
Just make sure you guard your camera from any splashing water or mud! Before you go, check in town to find a reputable sanctuary. At the one I visited, Mae Rim Elephant Care north of Chiang Mai, the handlers really seemed to value and take care of the elephants.
Recommended for: Elephants!
Mon Chaem is a scenic farming area, up in the mountainous region west of the city. Perched at the top of the ridge, there are a few huts where you can set up to enjoy the view. And on a clear day, you’ll get nice mountain views to the north (probably best at sunrise and early morning).
Also take a photowalk around the farming and garden areas for a slice and taste of Thai village life. If you arrived on scooter or private car, there are many viewpoints where you can stop if the light is right.
Recommended for: Landscapes and scenery
Chiang Mai night market
The night market at Chiang Mai was one of my favorite things in the city. Saturday and Sunday nights, the two main streets of the old city will be closed to vehicle traffic to make space for the pedestrian-only market. The streets will be jam packed with merchants and vendors, food stalls, musicians and of course visitors from far and wide.
If you like urban and street photography, you’ll be in your element here. On weekends, the market runs from Wat Phra Singh temple, along Rachadamnoen street to the gate at the other side of old town.
Recommended for: Night photography, people and street photos
During the day, the Ping River doesn’t look like anything special. But try visiting the east bank during late afternoon and golden hour. There will be plenty of activity, with locals out fishing and boating or just relaxing in the sun. This is also a good spot to watch the sunset over the mountain.
Recommended for: Golden hour and sunset
I happened upon Wat Jedlin completely by accident, just walking down the street. Here you’ll find a smaller, more tranquil temple in the Chiang Mai old town center. Prepare your camera, for you’ll have plenty to shoot. Ancient stonework, carvings, multi-colored flags and banners, golden Buddhas and friendly monks. The highlight is the large goldfish pond and bamboo walkway, with its colorful lanterns and banners.
Recommended for: Architecture and urban compositions
Wat Phan Tao temple
Enveloped in constellations of yellow-gold dharmachakra flags, Wat Phan Tao is another smaller Buddhist temple and monastery in the old town. Compared to the crowds at the larger temple / ruins of nearby Wat Chedi Luang, the ambiance here at Wat Phan Tao is much more low key. The structure is mostly teakwood and is one of the few remaining wooden buildings in Chiang Mai.
Recommended for: Architecture and flags, colorful compositions
Wat Phra Singh temple
Complete with massive gleaming monument, golden elephant statues and the Lanna-style (northern-Thai) construction of the two main halls, the Wat Phra Singh temple complex will beckon and beguile.
As a photographer, here can you enjoy so many opportunities for creative compositions. Look for shots among the smoldering incense, golden bells, intricate carvings and Buddha statues. In the morning and late afternoon, the main chedi and its soaring spire will nearly blind you with reflecting golden light.
Recommended for: Temple architecture, people and detail shots
If you have time and feel like venturing further from Chiang Mai, Doi Inthanon National Park is about a two hour drive from the city. This is the so-called “roof of Thailand”. From waterfalls and villages, to the rainforest, to the Royal Pagodas and the highest point in Thailand, there’s no shortage of exciting photo opportunities.
I recommend you focus your visit on the Royal Pagodas, but be aware that you won’t be able to take the famous shot you see at all the tourist offices (officials have closed that hillside for some reason, and also prohibited drones!)
Recommended for: Landscapes and nature, mountain views
Additional Creative Commons photos from Flickr:
Other sites, free / public domain:
Skilled photographers know that good photography is about subject, lighting and composition. The Photographer’s Guide series on DailyPhotoBlog aims to give you the best chance to create shots you love, by bringing you to the most photogenic places and the most beautiful viewpoints (i.e. the subjects). The composition and lighting are up to you!