The ancient Lanna city of Chiang Mai is a perfect blend of history, modern living and bohemian style. The city has long been on the well-treaded tourist track thanks to its surrounding natural beauty and the abundance of tours, activities and daytrips available. Whether you are just soaking up the culture within the moat walls, riding elephants in the jungle, trekking up a mountain to meet traditional hilltribes or picking up bargains in trendy boutiques, Chiang Mai provides a little bit of everything that makes it notoriously hard to leave.
Chiang Mai is packed to bursting point with temples but, if you only visit one, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep should be it. Overlooking Chiang Mai on the Doi Suthep/Pui Mountain, this majestic spot offers breathtaking views of the city on a clear day. There is also a stunning golden chedi here and, astonishingly, an escalator for those no able or willing to brave the many steps leading up to the temple. Farther on up the hill is the less-visited Phuping, the royal family’s summerhouse, and former opium and coffee farms at hilltribe villages.
Other temples of note are Wat Chiang Man, which is the oldest in the city, and Wat Pra Singh, which sits at the other end of the scale having recently been renovated. Wat Suan Dok also boasts a novel daily ‘Monk Chat’ facility where you can learn more about the Buddhist religion and the life of monastic orders while the holy men practice their English.
There are plenty of good shopping opportunities in Chiang Mai, whether you’re looking for contemporary fashion and electronics, vintage clothing or traditional market fair. Warorot Marketin the Chinese quarter is home to an amazing myriad of clothes, trinkets, homeware and food stuffs, all at super-low prices. The Night Bazaarnear the river is the best spot for touristy souvenirs and crafts, although haggling is essential here as many items are vastly overpriced.
For a more modern shopping experience, head to Pantip Plaza for cheap electronics, and Airport Plaza or Kad Suan Kaew for typical American-style malls. Nimmanhaemin Road has a great selection of vintage and boutique stalls, whereas the Student Market by CMU serves the thrifty but trendy students.
An easy way to get your bearings, as well as a real feel for Chiang Mai’s Old City, is to take a stroll around the crumbling moat wall, which dates from 1296 when the city was founded. Thapae Gate is surrounded by tour group companies, motorbike rental shops and other tourist amenities and hosts the Sunday Walking Market from around 5pm every week, with arts, crafts and souvenirs similar to those sold at the Night Bazaar. Chiang Mai Gate and Chiang Puak Gate both boast lively and colourful local markets, although the latter is only open in the early morning.
Nightlife in Chiang Mai is particularly fun and varied, with everything from swanky Thai discos to bohemian live music bars to choose from. North Gate Jazz Bar at Chiang Puak Gate is absolutely heaving with hippy-types from 20:00 at its open mic nights on Tuesdays, while Warm Up bar on Nimmanhaemin Road is the place to see and been seen for both high-society Thais and trendy expats. A lively alley, commonly known as the ‘Reggae Soi’, on Ratchadamneon is the main party spot for young, hedonistic tourists, although the bars here are often closed early by police.
One of the best things about Chiang Mai is the wide range of natural attractions right on the city’s doorstep. There are therefore plenty of daytrips that are not to be missed if you want to get the most out of your stay. Waterfalls, hot springs, caves, elephant farms and tiger sanctuaries are just some of the attractions easily reached on organised tours. Hiring a car or a motorbike will, however, allow you much more freedom and will usually work out cheaper.
Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s highest mountain (2,565 metres) and is well worth half a day, while the moated city of Lamphun, which pre-dates Chiang Mai, is only 30 minutes away. Those who want to cuddle docile, apparently drug-free, tigers should head for Tiger Kingdom, though you’re better off heading another 10 minutes up the road to Mae Rim Elephant Camp.
Chiang Mai also offers a host of courses and tours for those looking to expand their horizons. Whether you want to partake on a three-day trek to visit the hilltribes, look after an elephant for the weekend, or simply learn how to cook authentic Thai food, there is something to suit all tastes here.