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 favor for tourists and travelers alike, with the center of town packed with glittering wats, excellent restaurants and expansive shopping markets all of which are easily taken in on foot.
If Thai temples are your thing, then Chiang Mai has a lot to offer — the hill-top Wat Doi Suthep is the crown jewels, but the old city is packed with a vivid collection of traditional Thai temples, with Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Chiang Man being three of the true standouts — there’s even a developing “monk chat” scene. The city’s temples and Lanna architecture are so popular in fact that one of Chiang Mai’s most luxurious hotels (with some controversy) modelled itself on one.
The city is also home to some excellent museums, with both a museum district developing within the heart of the Old City and the long-running National Museum sitting outside the center of town. Chiang Mai is also as much a living museum with sleepy back lanes lined with attractive traditional houses and plenty of markets to explore.
Home to the prestigious Chiang Mai University, the city has quite a cosmopolitan feel when compared to other northern Thai provinces and it has a lively entertainment scene accompanied by some of the best eating in northern Thailand — this is not a town you’ll go hungry in.
Most famous for its khao soi, Chiang Mai also delivers solid Northern Thai cuisine both at a street and market level and in its burgeoning selection of more upmarket restaurants. Thanks to its proximity to both Burma and Laos there are even more foods to try.
Accommodation-wise, Chiang Mai has an outstanding selection of options, from friendly budget guesthouses through to luxurious hotels and resorts. In the Old City area along you can barely throw a plate of somtam without hitting a guesthouse.
By northern Thai standards, Chiang Mai has a pretty comprehensive light-life scene, with everything from trendy riverside bars with live music through to grungy student bars and expat pubs. There’s also a lively scene primarily aimed at helping backpackers meet more backpackers — not quite mini Khao San Road, but not far off either.
But most foreign holiday-makers find themselves in Chiang Mai not for the temples nor the food, nor even the entertainment scene, but rather for the hill-tribe trekking. For decades Chiang Mai has formed the trekking base of northern Thailand — and while there are some excellent tour companies in the city, there remain a number of shoddy operators — be sure to do your research before heading into the hinterland.
Many travelers are now opting to commence their treks further afield in Mae Hong Son, Pai or Soppong (amongst others) where the tourist numbers are lower and the perceived experience more “authentic”.
For those who choose to stay in the city, other popular activities include taking a Thai cooking course, a river cruise, learning a bit of Thai or maybe flying through the jungle.
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 kilometers 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 center 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-sites 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 centers: 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 papermaking villages, for starters.