Travellers know it well, the colorful land of lanterns and more that is located 700 km north of Bangkok. It was the former seat of the Lanna Kingdom, hence the name (Chiang Mai means “new city”) when it succeeded Chiang Rai as the capital. Now it is a paradise for adventurers, epicures and the soul-seeker. Chiang Mai is the fourth largest city in Thailand and once you stand in the midst of it all—where past meets the present, city meets forest, you’ll inevitably fall in love with the “Rose of the North”.
Chiang Mai was founded in 1296, on the banks of the Ping River and it has flourished to be one of the most livable places in all of Southeast Asia. It’s a great place to really immerse into the culture of Thailand side by side with the breathtaking landscape of Northern Thailand. Most of the action happens inside the Old City, where you’ll find plenty of guest houses, restaurants, the most famous temples as well as the popular Sunday Market. Downtown is actually pretty small and easy to navigate, while just outside the city walls, the Night Bazar and Loi Kroh headlines as another popular hangout.
As is much of Thailand, Chiang Mai is home to over 300 Buddhist temples. The most famous is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which stands on Doi Suthep to the north-west of the city. The temple dates from 1383 and is cherished as an embodiment of Lanna architecture. The journey up the winding mountain road is an experience in itself. You can rent a scooter, a car or take a songthaew to get to the bustling market at the foot of the temple but you still have 309 steps to climb before you reach the revered temple. The mountain, on which the temple stands, overlooks the city from the northwest, providing commanding views from its summit. On a clear day, the chedi (stupa) is illuminated by the sun, its golden exterior blazing over the city. Visitors to the park can also pay a visit to the small hilltribe villages on the park grounds, which offer a glimpse into a way of life that has changed very little in hundreds of years.
In the city itself, Wat Phra Singh is the most popular and the second most venerated temple in Chiang Mai after Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Dating back to 1345, the temple houses the city’s most important Buddha image, the Lion Buddha. Another classic epitome of Lanna architecture, the temple complex is located on the west side of the Old City—a perfect starting point for walking through the remainder of Chiang Mai’s temples such as Wat Chedi Luang which once housed the jade Emerald Buddha. Or the Wat Phan Tao which is right next door to War Chedi Luang. The humble temple’s assembly hall is almost entirely made of teak wood and was once a throne hall for the king of Chiang Mai. One stop you definitely must make is at Wat Chiang Man, the oldest temple in Chiang Mai. It is believed that Wat Chiang Man was established by the city’s founder, Phaya Mengrai, in 1297, a year after the city was founded. The original chedi, which has a square-shaped stone base and golden upper half, is surrounded by 15 elephants, giving it the nickname “Elephant Temple”. A little known fact about the temple is that it’s actually not the oldest—Wat Phra That Doi Kham predates Wat Chiang Man by several hundred years.
One of the chedis dates to the year 687. Located south of Doi Suthep on a hilltop southwest of the city, its main attraction is a 17-meter Buddha wearing a golden robe. On the same end of the city is Wat U Mong—a mystical forest temple with tunnels. Legend tells of a spiritually gifted but eccentric monk who often wandered into the forest in a state of revery, sometimes getting lost for days. The King, being very fond of the monk, ordered a maze of tunnels constructed so that the monk could safely wander there unsupervised. First built in the 14th century, the temple was abandoned then restored in the 1940s. It includes a collection of tunnels leading to underground shrines below a large platform where the main chedi sits. Outside, you can feed the fish and turtles or walk around the “talking trees” that offer words of advice (in Thai and English). It’s a tradition at Wat Umong for its resident monks to paint dharma sayings on wooden placards and nail them to trees around the monastery.
South of U Mong lies one of Chiang Mai’s coolest up and coming neighborhoods. Nearby you’ll find the picturesque Chiang Mai University which has recently been ranked as one of the top 100 universities in Asia. Chiang Mai has long been known as the artists’ hub, evidenced in the stunning architecture, woodwork and textiles that date back to the ancient Lanna years. With one foot in the past and the other in the present, it is no wonder that art has set its eyes on the new digital age. Most of the fledgling artists here are either students or recent alumni of the university, and many of the more established figures still teach there. The university also hosts Kad Na Mor, the CMU Night Market. Opposite the campus, the stalls sell mainly everything fashion for pretty good prices. You can still bargain though. Chiang Mai embodies Thailand’s title as the Land of Smiles and you can witness it yourself as you stroll through any of the unnumbered soi’s to chat with the artists and locals.
While you may enjoy freshly brewed coffee or any of the freshly baked delicacies in the numerous cafes dotted throughout the city, stuff yourself full with khao soi (egg noodles in a coconut curry broth), a well-known (and much loved) Northern Thai curry. The dish can be found in many places all over town and each restaurant has its own recipe and its own take on the combination of ingredients, consistency and spiciness. Another favorite is khao kha moo (succulent stewed pork leg served over rice) or khanom krok (coconut rice pancakes) which are eaten as a dessert. Northern Thai Cuisine is heavily influenced by the neighboring countries of Burma, Laos and China. The distinct flavors are a world away from coconut milk, palm sugar and fish sauce that is so prevalent in central and southern Thailand. Here, the cuisine is spicy, sour and pungent like laab (mincemeat, offal and blood salad) and nam prik (tomato pork dip) and kaeng khanun (jackfruit curry).
If you don’t know what to do in Chiang Mai, the food will lead the way. Follow it to the Wui Lai Market by the Old City. The market is open every Saturday and while it is dedicated to arts and crafts, you’ll find the square bursting with food vendors whilst surrounded by tourists and locals alike sitting together and enjoying the food. You can also take a cooking class allowing you to recreate the food back home. There are schools inside the Old City while others offer the course in a beautiful Thai farm setting outside of town. You can choose from half day to full or multiple day classes, from beginners to masters and with some schools being fancier than others. Additionally, there are many spas to relax and unwind after all the action and adventuring. A rather interesting massage can be found at the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution which offers a program that trains inmates on Thai Massage in order to help the women gain employment and integrate them back into society.
Cooler than Bangkok or the south, Chiang Mai is most popular from December to February. Chiang Mai’s famous flower festival is held in February and features a procession of elaborately decorated floats each made from various flowers. A huge variety of street foods is one of the main draws of this particular festival. Traditional dance and costumes are also widely on display, combining with the other factors for a cultural experience that is unique and authentic. There is also a pageant in which girls from all over compete for the title of “Flower Festival Queen.” It gets unbearably hot in March, referred to as the “burning season” when farmers burn their fields to clear them for recultivation. The rain comes in heavy downpours from May to November but those only last for an hour or so. Even then, come prepared with a jacket or a light sweater for when you ride up to the mountains. However, don’t miss the Loi Krathong holiday in November. The festival is celebrated throughout Thailand to honor Buddha but in the north, it coincides with the Lanna festival of Yi Peng. As Chiang Mai was the former capital of the Lanna kingdom, it holds the largest Yi Peng festival.
To celebrate, there is a beautiful display of colorful floating lanterns in the river, fireworks, parades and people in elaborate, traditional attire. Just a day before is the release of the sky lanterns. Sky lanterns when released are said to end a person’s bad luck or misfortune, especially if it disappears from view before the fire goes out. It is a magical sight—hundreds of floating fire lanterns lighting up the sky as small banana leaf boats with flowers, incense and candles drift down the rivers. And as Loi Krathong is Thailand’s most beautiful holiday, Songkran is the wildest. In celebration of Thai New Year in April, Songkran is essentially the world’s biggest water fight and no one is spared.
Since Chiang Mai is a popular tourist destination in Thailand, you can reach the city by airplane, bus, train or minivan. You can even take international flights directly to Chiang Mai from Hong Kong, China, Malaysia, Singapore and Korea or fly domestic from Bangkok, Phuket, Krabi, Samui and so on. Furthermore, there is a train connection from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, but it usually takes 12 hours or more to arrive. Bus and minivans also drive from many different cities to Chiang Mai such as Pai, Chiang Rai, from the Issan, Bangkok and more.
Chiang Mai is no less a gateway to paradise, an intricate maze filled with a thousand hidden treasures. While there is a lot to do and see, Chiang Mai’s greatest charm is in taking it slow and seeing how the day unfolds. Instead of cramming your schedule with cooking classes and day trips to see the elephants, begin with a leisurely breakfast, then pick a direction and wander, stopping in at temples, markets and cafes that catch your eye. There will always be a thousand things to do and more but that is Chiang Mai’s main charm—the promise of coming back again and again.