CHIANG MAI is Thailand's second city, famous for it easy-going ambience and an old quarter that's retained many of its traditional wooden houses and quiet, leafy gardens. Elegant temples are the primary tourist sights, but these are no pre-packaged museum pieces – they're living community centres, where you're quite likely to be approached by monks keen to practise their English. Inviting craft shops, good-value accommodation, rich cuisine and a tempting number of courses, in everything from Thai cookery to traditional massage, further enhance the city's allure, making Chiang Mai a place that detains many travellers longer than they expected.
Several festivals attract throngs of visitors here too: Chiang Mai is considered one of the best places in Thailand to see in the Thai New Year – Songkhran – in mid-April, and to celebrate Loy Krathong at the full moon in November, when thousands of candles are floated down the Ping River in lotus-leaf boats.
The most famous and fascinating temples in the city – Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Chiang Man – are clustered conveniently close to each other in the old town, though the main local place of pilgrimage, for Buddhists and tourists alike, is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which glitters in the sun from its perch some 1300 metres up the neighbouring mountain. The city is also well-endowed with museums: the Arts and Cultural Centre in the old town for high-quality displays on Chiang Mai and Lanna culture, the National Museum to the north for the best of the region's historical artefacts, and, further north again, the Tribal Museum for a useful introduction to the hill-tribes of northern Thailand.
Beyond the city limits, a number of other day-trips can be made, such as to the ancient temples of Lamphun or to the orchid farms and elephant shows of the Mae Sa valley – and, of course, Chiang Mai is the main centre for hill-tribe trekking.
In recent years, the population of Chiang Mai has grown very quickly, and the city is now one of Thailand's largest, with a population of more than 1,500,000. Growth has brought with it concerns about air pollution and rush-hour traffic, though these are not nearly as bad as in Bangkok. Other problems have occurred as a result of the influx of tourists. These include deforestation and the displacement of tribal people in nearby hills and valleys to make way for resorts and roads. Despite all this, Chiang Mai retains a magical charm. It is an exciting city with a rich cultural heritage offering numerous sights and activities for the visitor.
Some major attractions include historical and religious buildings, bustling markets, nature parks, and stores selling an incredible variety of handcrafted products. Chiang Mai is much smaller than Bangkok and, even if you are unfamiliar with maps, it is fairly easy to find your way around. Perhaps the best place to start is the old city. This central part of Chiang Mai is contained within four walls and a moat, originally built for defense. The walls date back to the city's founding in the 13th Century but were rebuilt in the 19th Century. Several of the original gates in the wall have also been restored and serve as useful reference points to help you find your way around. Particularly interesting is the busy Tha Pae Gate . Around this area lies a plethora of restaurants including The Easy Diner, JJ's Restaurant and Bakery and Ratana's Kitchen. Several small hotels also dot the vicinity (for example Lai-Thai Guesthouse , Roong Ruang Hotel and Gap's House . Within the old city runs a maze of roads. Taking a walk around some of these quiet lanes can be a pleasure in itself. You will come across Chiang Mai's most interesting temples, starting with Wat Pan On , which stands close to Tha Pae Gate. Farther into the old city you will find others, including Wat Chedi Luang , Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chiang Man .
To the east, between Tha Pae Gate and the Mae Ping River, lie the main business and shopping areas. Perhaps the most popular of these is Chang Klan Road, home to the increasingly popular Night Bazaar . Here you can find a variety of crafts and other local products. On the same street is Kalare Food and Shopping Center , along with banks and moneychangers. If shopping makes you weary, take a respite in one of the restaurants. For German food, try German Hofbrauhaus , which offers a selection of Western dishes. Or try the Red Lion English Pub and Restaurant or White Lotus Restaurant and Bar . There are some good hotels in the area, too. Among the more popular are Chiang Inn Hotel and Lodge , Royal Princess , Downtown Inn , Suriwongse Zenith , Imperial Mae Ping and Porn Ping Hotel , with its popular discotheque, Space Bubble. East of Chang Klan Road, at the corner of Nawarat Bridge along the Mae Ping River, is the Municipal Tourist Information Center . A little further up river are a major post office and Warorot Market , a bustling market selling a diversity of northern food as well as cheap clothing. As you cross Narawat Bridge, Tha Pae Road becomes Charoen Muang Road. From here you can catch a bus south to the historic old city of Lamphun .
The western side of the old city reaches out toward Doi Suthep Mountain and the beautiful white chedis (spires) of Wat Suan Dok . Further on is another beautiful temple, Wat Umong . From the northwest of the city, Huay Keaw Road leads to the top of Doi Suthep mountain. Along this road are Kad Suan Keaw , a popular shopping mall and the sprawling Chiang Mai Zoo . If you come here, be prepared to do a lot of walking, or hire a driver to take you round, as the grounds are very large. Further out is Huay Keaw Waterfall and, at the end of the road, proudly sitting on top of the mountain, is the revered Wat Phra Tat Doi Suthep , an elegant temple looking down over the city of Chiang Mai.
A few kilometers further up Doi Suthep lies Phu Phing Palace , a popular retreat for the royal family. Several quality hotels, such as Chiang Mai Orchid , Amari Rincome and Holiday Garden Hotel , are also located on the west side of town.
Along the road to San Kampaeng (Route 101), handicraft stores line the road. Bor Sang Umbrella Village provides a great place to buy locally produced souvenirs, particularly umbrellas. Beyond Bor Sang lies San Kampaeng, a small market town, and San Kampaeng Hot Springs a great place for a soak. The countryside around here is beautiful and unspoiled, so do bring a camera!
Northward from the city (along Route 107), you can find Mae Sa Elephant Training Center and Chiang Dao Cave , a place of great natural beauty. If you prefer to stay in this area rather than journey out from Chiang Mai, there are many beautiful resorts to choose from. Green View International Resort and Country Club , Pong Yang Garden Resort and Regent Resort are a few possibilities.
Outside the City
Other attractions beyond the city limits include hiking and white water rafting as well as incredible natural scenery, such as the awesome Doi Inthanon , the highest peak in Thailand. Many trips outside Chiang Mai can be arranged independently as plenty of buses serve the provinces. Alternatively, book yourself an organized tour. These range from one-day trips around the city to longer excursions incorporating activities such as rafting, hiking or exploring hill tribe villages. 3rd Eye Travel , Trekking Collective Company and Chiang Mai in Action are just three tour agencies that can help you plan your itinerary. An exciting way to get an alternative perspective is from the air. This expensive yet unforgettable option can be arranged by Chiang Mai Sky Adventure .
Northern Thailand is the home to one of the world's finest cuisines, as can be seen by the number of Thai restaurants that have sprung up around the world in the last few years. One of the best ways to experience Chiang Mai's culinary delights is to sample some of the many different dishes that can be found in this 'Rose of the North'. Even the most fastidious of gastronomes will find satisfaction here!
The Thai people's imagination shines through in their preparation and presentation of food, and tourists soon discover that dining in Chiang Mai is a special delight. As is often the case in Thailand, some of the tastiest meals prove to be some of the most affordable and these can be found in the city's many food stalls. However, for service, decor and topnotch cuisine, Chiang Mai also offers a variety to choose from.
One of the best ways to experience the region's culture and cuisine is to attend a khantoke dinner, a traditional northern Thai way of extending hospitality. The name originates from the small round table made of lacquered wood or bamboo that is used on these occasions. Guests are garlanded with flowers called phuang mali and are entertained with dance performances during the meal. Traditional dishes normally served at these events include kaeng haeng le, a delicious curried pork, Burmese style; nam phrik ong, a spicy dip of ground pork and tomatoes; kaeng khae kai, a chicken and vegetable curry; and khao niao, glutinous rice, the staple cereal of Chiang Mai. You can experience a khantoke dinner at the following places—Nakorn Lanna 1296, The Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center and Kantoke Palace .
Chiang Mai abounds in vegetarian food. If you are in the old city, try AUM Vegetarian Restaurant , where the specialty is khao soy, a coconut curry with crisp noodles and a north Thailand favorite. Equally recommended is the very inexpensive Chiang Mai Vegetarian Society, which is open for breakfast and lunch and serves some tasty cuisine, buffet style. Quite near to the Night Bazaar, and a bit more upscale, is the Whole Earth Restaurant which provides a relaxed ambience in a beautiful garden setting.
Mae Ping River
For some wonderful traditional Thai food, try Kanjana, The Wok, Huen Phen , Ratana's Kitchen or Antique House . For the more adventurous gourmet, Aroon Rai stocks three kinds of fried insect dishes, all northern delicacies: Rot duan, a kind of caterpillar; meng muan, a woodborer; and ging gong, a type of cricket. For something unusual, experience dining amidst the rice paddies at The Rain Forest, about 10 kilometers south of the city. However, If you find yourself near the Night Bazaar , check out White Lotus or the Kalare Food and Shopping Center , which also provides live entertainment.
Many restaurants serve a mixture of Western food and traditional Thai fare, and some along the river also offer live music. Popular venues are The Riverside Bar and Restaurant , The Good View and La Brasserie . For a quiet, more romantic meal on the river, check out Tha Nam , or dine on the river by taking the Mae Ping River Cruise .
For topnotch European cuisine, Chiang Mai is a great place. Classic Italian fare is served at da Stefano , Art Cafe , Pum Pui and Piccola Roma Palace . French favorites can be found at Chez John Restaurant and Chez Daniel . For a highly stimulating grande buffe, try Le Coq d'Or , which has been serving haute cuisine for more than 30 years. For German fare, make your way to Le Garage or German Hofbrauhaus . Sitting Bull offers a good steak in an American Old West setting. If you crave a pizza, head to La Villa , which boasts Chiang Mai's only authentic wood-fired oven for baking delicious pizzas and homemade focaccio. If it is a pint of beer you are after, you could do no better than go to the Red Lion English Pub and Restaurant or The Irish Pub , crowded on Thursday nights for the local pub quiz. Some of the best coffee can be found at JJ's Restaurant and Bakery , Fish 'n' Chip Shop, Cafe Chic and Libernard Cafe.
To experience many different foods all in one sitting, try some of the good-quality buffet-style luncheons, including Nang Nual Seafood, famous for fresh seafood, and two others located in hotels— Suriwongse Zenith and the Amari Rincome Hotel . For sushi, there is Irasshai Japanese Restaurant or Yamato .
Another way to experience Thai cuisine is to cook it yourself! Traditional cooking courses are popular. They include an introduction to Thai ingredients, paste making and a tour of a local market. Most courses are offered for one to three days and include an easy-to-follow recipe book. You can learn to enjoy Thai cuisine through cooking with the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School, Thai Kitchen Cookery School or Sompet Travel & Thai Cooking School. Whether you cook it yourself, dine by the river or have a drink in a pub, something enjoyable awaits you when you go dining and drinking in the 'Rose of the North'. Chok-dee, kab!
Chiang Mai is an exotic city rich in cultural heritage. There are many things to see in the area. You might want to take an organized tour through a travel agent, such as Chiangmai Jasmine Travel or North Pearl Travel , or you could opt to do the sights on your own using a taxi (si-lor), bus or a rented vehicle from companies like Journey Co. Ltd. and North Wheels. Whichever you choose, here are five recommended itineraries you might want to consider. The Old Walled City and Temple Trail.
Scores of temples (wat) lie within the old walled city, most of them built during ancient times by the Lanna dynasty. Some of these reflect Burmese, Sri Lankan and Mon influences in their design. Wat Chedi Luang in the city center, on Prapoklao Road, is a good starting point. An earthquake partially destroyed the stupa here in 1545, but it still retains a certain charm. Legend has it that it was here that King Mengrai was struck by lightning! On Ratchdamnoen-Singharaj Road stands Wat Phra Singh , where devotees flock during Songkran (Thai New Year) to bathe the Phra Sihing Buddha image in water. Nearby is Wat Chiang Man , the oldest temple in Chiang Mai and home to the Crystal Buddha. Your route can continue either along Suthep Road or Huay Kaew Road. Suthep Road leads to Wat Suan Dok in the gardens of the Lanna royal residence. Further down is a zoo that also serves as the Observation Studies Center on Animals and the Natural Environment. Nearby lies Wat Umong , an interesting temple in a forest park, and itself a center of meditation. The trail from Huay Kaew Road leads toward the Superhighway, which takes you to Wat Jed Yod , a fifteenth century temple with seven spires and an Indian-inspired architecture. Alongside is the National Museum .
The Suthep Mountain Route. Chiang Mai's most prominent natural landmark, Suthep Mountain, is easily accessed by Huay Kaew Road. On the way, drop by Chiang Mai Zoo or Huay Kaew Waterfall. At the foot of the moutain lies Khruba Srivichai Monument , built in memory of one of Thailand's most revered monks. Devotees seek blessings here before driving up to the holy temple, Wat Phra Tat Doi Suthep , famous for its artworks depicting the life of the Buddha and its golden spire. Opposite is the Orchid Jade Factory , with its selection of jade and other precious stones. A few minutes' drive takes you to Phu Phing Palace , the enchanting residence of the royal family. Top off the day by visiting the Meo Tribal Village . San Kampaeng and Bor Sang Handicraft Village . Handicrafts from northern Thailand are famous throughout the world for their delicate designs and excellent quality. To view these beautiful creations, take the Superhighway to San Kampaeng Road. Check out Jolie Femme Thai Silk for garments and accessories. Antiques and decorative items may be viewed at Iyara Art and Arts & Crafts , ceramics at Prempracha's Collection , and blue and green celadon at Baan Celadon and Siam Celadon. For woodcarvings, try Eungkum Woodcarving and Chiang Mai Tusnaporn Co. Ltd. The Umbrella Making Centre makes typical northern Thai-style umbrellas, while local silver products can be purchased at Lanna Thai and Chiang Mai Silverware Patanaanunwong Co. Ltd. Other interesting venues nclude Bronze House for bronze, Meo Jaidee Studio for candles and Hill Tribe Resins & Dolls for traditional creations.
A day trip to the south should be on every visitor's itinerary. Start on Route 108 or the Chiang Mai-Hang Dong Road, which is lined with beautiful temples and handicraft outlets such as Ban Chang Kham . As you drive toward Samerng, you will discover a beautiful hideaway amongst nature at Belle Villa Resort . From Samerng, take Mae-Rim Road back to Chiang Mai. This offers many interesting places to see. Visit the lush green Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden or the Mae Sa Elephant Training Camp , where shows are scheduled daily. Soon you will come to the refreshing Mae Sa Waterfall, Sai Nam Phung Orchid Nursery and Butterfly Farm , Mae Sa Butterfly and Orchid Farm and the Snake Farm. There is also Tita Gallery , which hosts regular exhibitions. Before continuing, enjoy a meal at Regent Resort and pamper yourself at the Lanna Spa. On the way back to the city, you will pass the Thai Buffalo Training Camp , the historical Dara Pirom Museum and the enchanting Tribal Museum located in the beautiful Rama IX Park .
Chiang Rai & Surrounding Areas
Approximately three hours from Chiang Mai lies another exotic city, Chiang Rai , dotted with several ancient monuments and temples. From here, take the route to Chiang Khong , a farming and fishing community on the banks of the Mekong River. North is the old fortress town of Chiang Saen , the first northern capital of Thailand. A twenty-minute drive takes you to the infamous Golden Triangle , poppy country, where Burma, Laos and Thailand all meet. Near here is Mae Sai , a bustling gem trading border town. You can cross to Tachilek on the Burmese side, but first check with the authorities that you are allowed to do so. An alternative route is to drive from Chiang Mai to Ban Tha Ton and then take a boat ( Mae Kok River Boat Service ) to Chiang Rai. This wonderful three-hour cruise down the river passes various hill tribe settlements, the most popular one being the elephant town of Ruammitr Village .