Chiang Mai

Introducing Chiang Mai

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Thailand's northern capital, Chiang Mai is the country's second most-visited city, yet in terms of size it does not remotely compare to Bangkok. With its smaller size and population, Chiang Mai has a lot in its favour for tourists and travellers alike, with the centre of town packed with glittering wats, excellent restaurants and expansive shopping markets all of which are easily taken in on foot.

Cosmopolitan Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second city, is regarded by many as its rightful, historic capital. It’s a fascinating and successful mix of old and new, where 1,000-year-old temples and quiet pagoda gardens exist side by side with glittering new hotels and shopping malls. Simple restaurants serving local fare rub shoulders with sophisticated restaurants that would merit notice in any western metropolis.

Although rapid economic progress in recent years has brought problems such as pollution and traffic jams, CHIANG MAI still manages to preserve some of the atmosphere of an ancient village alongside its modern urban sophistication. It’s the kingdom’s second city, with a youthful population of about 400,000 (over 60,000 of them are students), and the contrast with the maelstrom of Bangkok is pronounced: the people here are famously easy-going and even speak more slowly than their cousins in the capital, a lilting dialect known as kham muang. Chiang Mai’s moated old quarter, where new buildings are limited to a height of four storeys, has retained many of its traditional wooden houses and quiet, leafy gardens, as well as the most famous and interesting temples in the city – Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Chiang Man – clustered conveniently close to each other. These elegant wats may be Chiang Mai’s primary tourist sights, but they’re no pre-packaged museum pieces – they’re living community centres, where you’re quite likely to be approached by monks keen to chat and practise their English. Inviting handicraft shops, a couple of fascinating museums, good-value accommodation, rich cuisine and riverside bars further enhance the city’s allure, making Chiang Mai a place that detains many travellers longer than they expected. These days, increasing numbers of travellers are also taking advantage of the city’s relaxed feel to indulge in a burst of self-improvement, enrolling for courses in cookery, massage and the like (see Courses in Chiang Mai).

Many colourful festivals attract throngs of visitors here too: Chiang Mai is one of the most popular 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. And a pilgrimage to Doi Suthep, the mountain to the west of town, should not be missed, to see the sacred, glittering temple and the towering views over the valley of the Ping River, when weather permits. Beyond the city limits, a number of other day-trips can be made, such as to the ancient temples of Lamphun – and, of course, Chiang Mai is the main centre for hill-tribe trekking, as well as all sorts of other outdoor activities. Orientation is simple in central Chiang Mai, which divides roughly into two main parts: the old town, surrounded by the well-maintained moat and occasional remains of the city wall, where you’ll find most of the temples, and the new town centre, between the moat and the Ping River to the east, the main market and shopping area. The biggest concentration of guesthouses and restaurants hangs between the two, centred on the landmark of Tha Pae Gate (Pratu Tha Pae) in the middle of the east moat. On the outskirts, the town is bounded to the north, east and south by the Superhighway and two further huge but incomplete ring roads, with Thanon Chon Prathan (Canal Road) providing a western bypass.

First impressions of modern Chiang Mai can be disappointing. The immaculately maintained railroad station and the chaotic bus terminal are in so-so areas, and the drive into the city center is not all that scenic. First-time visitors ask why they can't see the mountains that figure so prominently in the travel brochures. But once you cross the Ping River, Chiang Mai begins to take shape. Enter the Old City, and Chiang Mai's brooding mountain, Doi Suthep, is now in view—except when shrouded in the month of March, when heavy air pollution is caused by farmers burning their fields for the planting season.

Whenever you visit, there's bound to be a festival in progress, and with guesthouses and restaurants in the Old City vying with each other for the most florid decoration, it feels like a party year-round. In the heart of the Old City, buildings more than three stories high have been banned, and many of the streets and sois have been paved with flat, red cobblestones. Strolling these narrow lanes, lingering in the quiet cloisters of a temple, sipping hill tribe coffee at a wayside stall, and fingering local fabrics in one of the many boutiques are among the chief pleasures of a visit to Chiang Mai.

Top Things to See and Do in Chiang Mai

Visit Wat Doi Suthep and its 304 Steps – Wat Prathat Doi Suthep, perched high on the flank of Suthep Mountain, is Chiang Mai’s most famous temple. The pagoda in its center supposedly contains some of the relics of the Lord Buddha. The temple is visited throughout the year by thousands of tourists and Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world. It offers great views of the surrounding area and city and at 6 pm each day, you can watch the monks chant. The temple can be reached by climbing a steep staircase comprising 304 steps (however, you can also ascend by funicular railway).

Tour all the temples – Located within the old area of the city and around the wall are many beautiful Buddhist temples. The city is filled with temples, some dating as far back as the 13th century. The main ones worth seeing are Wat Chiang Man, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Suan Dok, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Jet Yot.

Bargain at the night bazaar – Chiang Mai is the main handicraft center of Thailand and the night bazaar is the largest center for the selling of all sorts of crafts in Chiang Mai. Everything is sold at non-fixed prices, and you can bargain battle to your death. If you plan to do some shopping in Thailand, this night bazaar will be where you’ll find the best deals.

Take a cooking class – Chiang Mai is the most popular place in Thailand for cooking classes, offering a great variety of classes and amazing deals. You begin your class by going to the market and learning about Thai produce before heading back to the kitchen to cook a few dishes and eat a lot of food.

Go jungle trekking – This town is a main starting point for all sorts of jungle trekking tours. I like the three-day ones the best but the longer the tour, the more interesting and secluded places you visit. Be careful with whom you sign up, as many guides simply walk with you and don’t tell you much about the land or wildlife. Moreover, if you visit a tribal village, make sure the money stays with the villagers, and that they aren’t being exploited, which happens a lot up here!

Visit the Elephant Nature Park – Located an hour outside Chiang Mai, the Elephant Nature Park rescues abused and injured elephants from around the country. It’s a sanctuary for them (and a bunch of dogs and cats). You can come visit for a day or spend a week volunteering and taking care of elephants. It’s a phenomenal day trip, gives back to the community, and let’s you help these beautiful animals. After coming here, you will know why you should NEVER ride an elephant in Thailand.

Go zip lining – If you are looking for an adrenaline rush, go zip lining. Chiang Mai has many operators offering beginner and advanced zip lining courses. The two biggest operators are Flight of the Gibbon and Eagle Trekkers.

Eat a kantoke dinner – Experience both the Northern Thai food and culture at the same time. At this event, visitors are seated in the floor around a circular tray laden with Northern dishes, and eat while watching traditional Thai and Northern dances and hill tribe culture shows.

Cruise down the river – Cruise down rural Mae Ping on a two-hour journey that will take you past beautiful scenery in the heart of Chiang Mai. Enjoy the pleasant pace of the boat. Stop to visit a local farm and its herb and fruit gardens – or relax and have a Thai dinner on board.

Chat with monks – Monk chats are a chance for visitors to learn about the country’s religion and culture and for monks a chance to practice English. It’s a popular cultural activity that occurs on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at Wat Dok Suthep in the city.

Celebrate the Yi Peng Festival – This annual festival takes place in November. Citizens release thousands of paper lanterns into the air, which symbolically carry dreams and wishes towards the heavens. The festival lights is a beautiful, memorable experience.

Go whitewater rafting – It’s possible to go whitewater rafting on the Maeteng River. Rapids range from levels two to four, and are at their most intense during the rainy season, August-October.

Shop at Warorot Market – If your nights are already fully-booked, consider visiting this popular market during the day. Located near the river, it’s open daily until 6pm. This is a great place to shop for clothes and get some really cheap food.

Head to the Chiang Mai Zoo and Aquarium – In the 1950 Harold Mason Young, son of American missionaries, started rescuing and caring for injured animals, and his collection started getting visitors. Hence the birth of the zoo, when the Chiang Mai government donated 24 acres to aid in his efforts. The zoo has grown to over 200 acres now, and houses a large variety of animals, and boasts two aquariums. The marine aquarium is the largest in Asia, and they also have one of the very rare giant pandas every born in captivity.

Visit the Tribal Museum – Highlighting Thailand’s minority hill tribes, this ethnographic museum offers exhibits ranging from tribal clothing and jewelry items, videos on tribal life, and outdoor gardens modeling reconstructed tribal huts. Once a month, there is also a tribal market with people selling handmade goods.

Take in an exhibition at Documentary Arts Asia – This gallery space usually brings in exhibits highlighting humanitarian and activist materials, focusing on the plight of the Burma refugees and the minority hill tribes. If you are looking to inform yourself more about these efforts, the space usually is showing documentaries and artwork, and also offers a library. It’s a great resource to find out more about the historical and political contexts of the region.

Climb up the Bua Thong Sticky Waterfalls – While a little outside of the city, this makes for a great day trip. The falls, due to the type of limestone lining the waterfall, produces an almost stickiness- allowing you to climb up the cascading water! You feel a bit like Spiderman- not gonna lie. The rocks themselves are interesting, looking a bit like fluffy clouds. Not only is it a neat experience, it’s also a great workout! Pack a picnic, find a spot, and “stick” around for lunch.

Eat, eat, eat! – This city is the best place for eating in the country. The night markets and street stalls here are (in my opinion) even better than Bangkok.

Food & drink

As one of the top tourist destinations in Thailand its not surprising that there is a wide range of authentic international restaurants run by both Thais and foreign expats. Most guesthouses also feature menus that include both Thai and foreign dishes. However, Chiang Mai also features many foods that are part of its own distinctive cuisine, including both those handed down over the generations from the Lanna kingdom and those influenced by its neighbors, especially Myanmar (Burma). Chiang Mai specialties include spicy sausage, khao soy (a type of noodle soup), and the ultimate in northern cuisine, a khan toke dinner; khan toke dinners usually consist of several small dishes, such as curries, crispy fried pork skin, and northern style chili sauces, served with sticky rice on a small round table, usually in front of a traditional dancing show, especially if you are a foreign visitor.

Shopping

Shopping is one of the premier activities in Chiang Mai, where nearly every souvenir product found elsewhere in Thailand is available for sale. The advantage of shopping in Chiang Mai is that visitors may learn about handicrafts production by watching artisans making the products firsthand. Both in the city itself and in several outlying villages, particularly along the Bo Sang-San Kamphaeng road, there are establishments where visitors can purchase handicrafts and works of art directly from the people who produced them. In addition to other goods, Chiang Mai produces parasols, silk and cotton textiles, jewelry, woodcarvings, silverware, celadon, and lacquerware.

For the more casual shopper, the Chiang Mai night market features numerous street stalls and shops, the Sunday Market offers more unique, independently created souvenirs and products, and the indoor, air conditioned Central department store shopping complex on Huay Kaeo Road sells international brand name products.

Orientation

Here’s a bit about what makes Chiang Mai a special city and the lay of the land so you can orientate yourself during a visit.

Chiang Mai — “New City” in Thai — is actually more than 700 years old but was new when King Mengrai moved his capital down to the banks of the Ping River from Chiang Rai. There were probably Mon settlements in the area before this, such as the nearby 11th century site of Wiang Khum Kham, but Chiang Mai city as it appears today started to take shape with Mengrai at the end of the 13th century.

The city is located in the north/south orientated Ping Valley (initially being established close to the west bank), with the Doi Suthep/Pui mountains to the immediate west and the Doi Saket hills a few kilometres off to the east: an excellent location with good transport routes and fertile surrounding farmland.

Today Chiang Mai’s downtown area is relatively small, with an estimated 150,000 people, the urban area and suburbs nowadays probably account for at least a million. The population is traditionally northern Thai with scatterings of minorities such as Shan, but being a relatively wealthy city it’s now attracting workers from across the kingdom, and being an attractive place to live means it also sees a steady flow of more affluent Thais from Bangkok and elsewhere. Chiang Mai’s also very popular with expats and increasingly Thai tourists as much as foreign visitors.

The geographical centre has now moved from the old walled, moated city slightly to the east to include the area between the ancient walls and the Ping River, including the bustling night bazaar area, the bar and restaurants street of Loi Kroh and the commercial district of Worarot and Chinatown. The old city contains most of the town’s famous temples and is relatively undeveloped consisting of a maze of narrow streets lined with private houses and small businesses. This area, particularly around Somphet Market and the northeastern quadrant, is where most of Chiang Mai’s places to stay are located — it used to be just cheap guesthouses but the price range on offer now extends well upwards.

Further east the riverside area is developing fast with plenty of chic cafes, hotels and guesthouses along the banks, and further east you’ll find the main, Arcade bus station, the train station and some of the embassies. The northern, inner suburb — Chang Puak district — is home to the local bus station, also named Chang Puak. There’s Kamthieng Market but little else in the district to hold your interest. (Though on the outside of the moat road is the useful Computer Plaza and a block back the excellent Den Chai trading — electronics and camera equipment store.)

The sprawling and not particularly attractive southern suburbs contain little of interest to the average visitor, with the exception of the excellent Saturday walking market. Numerous large chain hotels catering mainly to local and Asian visitors call this area home.

When you reach Suthep district, the northern ‘burbs, things do start to get more interesting though. Once past the huge Central Shopping Mall you reach the town’s upmarket area of Nimmanhemin. This is the nightlife area for young chic Chiang Mai-ites and contains loads of bars, restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques (separate post to come).

Continuing west we reach Chiang Mai University and the vast Chiang Mai zoo lying at the foot of Doi Suthep. Apart from passing through on the way to the national park or Wat Doi Suthep, this sector also contains Wat Umong and Wat Jet Yot as well as the National Museum and great little local market, Don Phayam.

Surrounding the entire downtown and inner suburbs is the superhighway, an eight-lane circular expressway. (Well except for the section between the airport and Huey Keo Road which results in Nimmanhemin being the most congested road in the city.) Along the superhighway are all the huge shopping malls and home improvement and furniture centres: Tesco/Lotus, Airport Plaza, (the city’s largest mall), Big C, Homepro and so on. CNX, Chiang Mai International Airport, is just to the southwest of the road behind Airport Plaza and Chiang Mai immigration office.

From the superhighway, main roads head off to all points: Chiang Rai, Chiang Dao, Lamphun, Lampang and so on via some of the outer suburbs, which were formerly separate villages and are still interesting in their own right: there’s the Hang Dong/Ban Thawai handicraft and wood product market and Sankhamphaeng and Borsang umbrella and paper making villages, for starters.

Read more Chiang Mai travel guide at here.

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