Thailand’s second largest city, the city of Chiang Mai is also Thailand’s most popular tourist destination up north and nicknamed the Northern Rose primarily because of the beauty Mother Nature has blessed the province with. All of it easily accessible from the city: mountains, jungles, waterfalls, and fields of sunflowers, national parks and more. The city itself has a lot of history attached: it was established by King Mengrai in 1296 as a successor to Chiang Rai (further north and also established by King Mengrai). Chiang Mai is all about cultural treasures, heritage sites and an unhurried pace of life.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, Chiang Mai became a part of the Lanna Thai kingdom (the kingdom of a million rice fields) but in 1556, the Burmese captured the city for the second time. The first assault was in the 11th century during the reign of King Aniruddha of Pagan. The history of the mountain kingdom has been turbulent, given that it went back and forth between the opposing powers of Siam and Burma. In 1775, Siam recaptured Chiang Mai under King Taksin. But effects of the various occupations have remained: the architecture and cuisine are both heavily influenced by the Burmese. Because of its isolation, Chiang Mai has acquired a completely different character from the rest of Thailand and today those differences are celebrated. Adding to Chiang Mai’s charms are the many tribal cultures – Meo, Lisu, Yao, Akha, Lawa and Karen hill tribes – that have enriched it.
Chiang Mai nestles in a ring of mountains forming a natural basin making the climate refreshingly different from the rest of Thailand. But this also means that the wet season is wetter than many other places too. Dominating the city is Doi Suthep one of the tallest mountains in Thailand, and at its peak is one of the country’s most important temples, Wat Prathat Doi Suthep. Today the city is also adding to its gourmet quotient with a number of eateries that would appeal to even the most jaded palate from traditional Thai to French. Its proximity to nature makes it a unique setting for weddings that want to stand out. Its five-star resort hotels take full advantage of the setting Mother Nature has provided them with, though even the city hotels offer a unique experience.
This city is also a convenient jumping-off point for treks, hill resorts, river rafting and scenic nature trails. The best time to visit Chiang Mai is from November to February, the cool season. The hottest month is April and the wettest September.
Chiang Mai offers a wide range of activities that are suitable for all ages. Ramble around the Old City, the most interesting and historic part of Chiang Mai and where many important temples are located. The remnants of the fortifications still remain along with city gates and the old moat, which was restored in 1800. The best place to start your adventure is at Tapae Gate, traditionally considered the main entrance to the ancient city. Restored to its former glory, the gate forms the entrance to an area that houses handicraft boutiques, antique shops, restaurants, bars and used bookstores.
The city has some impressive Buddhist temples and royal palaces of which Wat Chedi Luang a beautiful temple that dates back to the 14th century, is a must see. Wat Phra Singh is a more modern temple with an ornate interior and intricately painted murals. Wat Mahawan, is peaceful, shaded by leafy trees and guarded by the fearsome naga. The Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre offers the history of the area in a nutshell through multimedia.
For a bird’s eye view of the city, Doi Suthep is the place to go. Rising 1,668 m above sea level, it is one of the highest points in the country. A road with 157 bends snakes up through the Doi Suthep National Park up to the top, where Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, one of the region’s most revered temples and a place of pilgrimage for many Thais, sits. Some 290 steps flanked on each side by a balustrade of impressive nagas lead up to temple, but view is worth it.
Chiang Mai is also shopper’s paradise. For clothes and souvenirs, the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar on Chang Klan Road is the place to be, but don’t miss out on the local colour at Warorot Market, biggest daily fruit and vegetable market, located in the middle of town. It’s a great place for photos, and to sample the local cuisine. To buy handmade umbrellas and a wide variety of products made from saa paper, head over to the village of Bo Sang just outside Chiang Mai on Sankampaeng road.
For those with a spirit of adventure, there are plenty of trekking trips, safari tours, river rafting, as well as the Flight of the Gibbons, a zipline adventure that takes you deep inside the real Thai rainforest and soaring through the jungle canopy with the endangered and high flying gibbons. To interact with elephants and marvel at their beauty up, close and personal, visit the Elephant Nature Park, a renowned rescue and conservation organisation near Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai’s diners now have a bewildering range of dining options, from Belgium to Lebanese, Burmese to Italian, as well as the ubiquitous roadside stalls, unassuming eateries and upscale restaurants serving heavenly Thai fare. While some of the finest local food can be tasted at humble street and market stalls, there are several upscale Thai venues, where you can enjoy the country’s fragrant and spicy cuisine in chic setting. At Dalaabaa, guests can savour traditional dishes as well as contemporary Thai fusion creations in the restaurant’s sophisticated interior or romantic garden terrace. While The Gallery, on the Ping River, offers fine Thai food and beautiful views from its waterfront balcony. For a different set of Asian flavours, try Tsunami, a busy Japanese sushi bar where you can watch the chef expertly whip up rice rolls. Girasole, in the heart of the old city, serves a mouth-watering selection of Italian and Mediterranean dishes, including melt-in-the-mouth asparagus crepes and a classic, creamy lasagna. At the higher end Chiang Mai’s five-star hotels, with their sumptuous restaurants, take the culinary scene to a new level. The Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi encompasses several options for decadent dining, including an inimitably elegant French restaurant, Farang Ses, the Fujian Chinese restaurant and Akaligo, serving Mediterranean cuisine. The Four Seasons has both Thai and international restaurants and on Sundays, offers a lunch spread second to none. The Restaurant at The Chedi, is elegantly minimalist, with an array of superb gastronomic offerings to complement its stylish design, while the dusitD2 offers fine fusion food in an incomparably trendy environment.
The bars and pubs set in the old city and around the Night Bazaar are a good place to meet up with locals and tourists alike. With its luminous murals and live music, the Rasta Art Bar draws a steady late night following, while the UN Irish Pub and Tuskers are popular with the sporty crowd for their big screen coverage of most major games. Chiang Mai has a burgeoning but vibrant jazz culture and has some superb venues. On Sriphum Road, an intimate, low key venue called The North Gate features live jazz shows by a selection of different bands, seven nights a week. A few shops down the same strip, Khan-Asa also caters for jazz fans, with regular performances and jamming on Thursday nights. Wine connoisseurs should head to The Glass Onion and Darling Wine, both located in the trendy Nimmanhaemin area with great selections from the Old and New Worlds. The House bang in the city centre, serves up a delightful selection of quirky cocktails and mouth watering tapas snacks in a lavish Moroccan lounge setting.
Chiang Mai has international links with major cities throughout the region. Domestically, Thai Airways flies from Bangkok to Chiang Mai at least a dozen times daily (flight time is 70 mins). Bangkok Airways flies at least twice daily from Bangkok. For rock-bottom prices, check out budget carriers such as Air Asia or Nok Air
There are plenty of buses from Bangkok to Chiang Mai including Chiang Mai Bangkok those with fully reclining VIP buses, and the trip takes about 8 to 10 hours. Buses leave from Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal, close to the Mo Chit BTS.
There are six daily trains from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, and the trains take between 13 and 15 hours; but for overnight trips, second-class sleeper berths are a good choice. Private sleeper cabins are also available, which cost 1,353B. Purchase tickets at Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Railway Station up to 90 days in advance