Chiang Mai Overview
With its balmy climate, unique culture, friendly people, tantalising cuisine and wealth of activities, it's little wonder that the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai touches so many hearts.
Not long ago, Chiang Mai was just a pleasant stopover for travellers heading to the Golden Triangle at the very top of the country. Now it's fully assumed the mantle of Thailand's second city with a cultural and social scene that almost matches that of the capital which it predates by centuries.
The word Chiang Mai actually means "New City" which it was when King Mengrai established it as the seat of the Lanna kingdom back in 1296. Long separated by jungle from the rest of Thailand, it still preserves its own unique and gentle northern culture while remaining quintessentially Thai at heart.
The city can be roughly divided into three sections: the riverside area with its Night Bazaar, the moated old city that's home to a legion of funky guesthouses and the parvenu Nimman area, which is a trendy part of town that's popular with students and arty types.
One of the joys of visiting this northern gem is the sheer abundance and variety of things to do. You can hang out in the cafés and galleries of Nimman, feast on pancakes in a leafy garden restaurant and marvel at ancient temples in the old city, or you can browse the crafts in the markets. Another big pull is the spa scene. Few visitors leave without enjoying a massage or two.
Another treat is to rent a motorcycle or charter a red truck for a foray into the surrounding countryside. Here, you can relax or get active in serene rainforests, explore quiet villages, take a dip in the hot springs and visit botanical gardens or elephant camps.
Chiang Mai's many festivals bring an extra layer of magic to the city. They range from raunchy Songkran, with its frenetic water fights held each April, to the serene and dignified Loi Krathong held to mark the end of the rains.
Things to Do
From browsing ancient temples to learning Thai cuisine to riding elephants to getting a great foot massage -- Chiang Mai offers an experience to satisfy every soul.
Touring the temples
Chiang Mai is home to around 300 Thai temples or wats, and you're rarely out of sight of one of these serene and exquisite structures. Many feature the northern style, which displays a striking Burmese influence. With so much to explore, it's best just to wander around and enter any compound that catches your eye. However, the following temples are not to be missed:
To visit the jewel in the crown and to get the big picture of the city at the same time, take a trip up to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. Perched 5,498 feet up on a hilltop, its golden stupa is visible from miles around. A walk up the naga-lined staircase will be richly rewarded with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside.
In the city proper, the most venerable temple is Wat Phra Singh. Its Phra Singh Buddha image draws worshippers from afar and its altar is always crowded.
Wat Suan Dok, home to a Buddhist University, offers 'monk chat sessions' most days. Spend an evening learning about life in cloister while helping young monks improve their English.
Here's the rub
Are your feet sore after all that walking? Don't worry, help is at hand in the form of cheap and cheerful foot massages. Most streets in the tourist areas sport rows of recliners. Just lay back and let masseuses knead your feet back to health for a small price. To reinvigorate yourself after a day's sightseeing, a two-hour traditional Thai massage works wonders.
Hit the classroom
People flock here from all over the world to study in a serene environment. Popular are Thai cuisine courses, which include visits to the markets to pick up fresh ingredients. The other biggie is Thai massage with many accredited schools offering everything from one-day foot massage quickies to month-long advanced courses in therapeutic Thai bodywork.
The craft of shopping
Chiang Mai is a great place to pick up local handicrafts and spa products. The Night Bazaar offers an all-in-one slightly kitschy experience with higher prices. A better choice is one of the street markets.
Don't miss the Sunday Walking Street market on Rachadamnoen Road in the old city. The road is blocked off for the late afternoon as vendors lay herbal soaps, massage sticks, silks, jewellery and other crafts along with a tempting range of snacks. Temples open their grounds to food vendors for pleasurable feasting in a serene atmosphere. Another magnet for shoppers is held each Saturday evening on Wualai Street in the Silversmith's quarter.
No mention of Chiang Mai would be complete without mentioning these majestic creatures that are so important to Thai culture. Pachyderm fans can head out into the surrounding countryside to view lumbering elephants hard at work and can also saddle up to take a ride through the jungle.
Festive Chiang Mai
Along with celebrating all of Thailand's enchanting festivals in its own unique way, Chiang Mai also has a few of its own.
Chiang Mai Flower Festival. As befitting a city nicknamed 'Rose of the North, Chiang Mai holds a flower festival each February at Buak Haad Park. Browse displays of exotic orchids and elaborate arrangement of blooms and enjoy a procession of flower floats wending its way through the city from Nawarat Bridge.
Songkran. Should you arrive in April, be prepared for a soaking as the Thai New Year festival, known as Songkran, transforms the city into a huge water fight arena. Other than the ubiquitous aquatic skirmishes, the three-day event features concerts, parades and general merriment.
Visakha Bucha Day. Held on a full-moon day in the 5th lunar month, this holiest of Buddhist holidays celebrated the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha. Chiang Mai residents mark the event with a ten-kilometre candlelit pilgrimage up to the Doi Suthep temple. The winding road up the hill is lined with food stalls, which make it into a really festive occasion.
Loi Krathong (Yi Peng). November witnesses the picturesque and dignified Loi Krathong festival that marks the end of the rainy season. Celebrants launch lovely floating shrines called Krathongs from the sides of all rivers which then drift along lighting up the waterways with their flickering candles. Another custom unique to the north is to release floating lanterns into the air, where they illuminate the sky magically.