The most chilled out city in Thailand, Chiang Mai thrives with the artistic traditions of craftsmen. Savour its legendary food too.
There’s a relaxed, arty charm about Chiang Mai. It has a centuries-old tradition of artisans that gives the city a sizzle of creative energy. People still live inside the Old City walls, still visit the 14th-century temples, and still make the silverware, lacquerware, ceramics and textiles that made Chiang Mai so famous. And some of the oldest markets in Thailand still sell them.
This whole northern region, once called Lanna, has a different atmosphere to the rest of the country. It’s partly because Chiang Mai was an important trading post on ancient caravan routes between China and the seaports of Burma; but partly, too, because the mountains and thick jungle kept it isolated until early last century.
Outside the city you can visit hill tribe communities, tour the ancient towns of Lamphun and Lampang, or climb the country’s highest mountain, where you’ll need a sweater against the cooler climate.
But Chiang Mai is no backwater. It’s a tourist magnet of luxury rooms, as well as cheap guesthouses. It’s a place where you can drink in cool bars and eat foods from around the world in a host of restaurants and streetside stalls. Chiang Mai’s own food is legendary. Try the local curries khao soi and hang ley or tribal specialities like Tai Yai herbal soup.
Whatever you do, you’ll find a different pace of life. Chiang Mai is the most chilled out city in Thailand.
The best time is November to February, for sunny skies, low humidity and little rain.
Nationals from most countries are granted a visa on arrival which is valid for 15-90 days. Details can be found at the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Singapore nationals are entitled to 30 days. All foreign nationals need six months' validity on their passports. Sixty-day tourist visas are available from Thai embassies before leaving. All can be extended by 30 days at the immigration office. Tourists can stay in Thailand for up to 90 days within 6 months from the date of first entry.
The baht is the principal Thai monetary unit.
Chiang Mai International Airport is about 4km southwest of town. The public green-and-yellow metered taxis available outside will cost around B100 to city centre locations. Alternatively, bus No. 4 outside the airport costs B15 and takes around 30 minutes.
Songthaew (small red pick-up trucks) stop for passengers who flag them down. The fare runs from B20 per person, depending on the distance. Three-wheeled tuk-tuks cost B30 to B150. Green-and-yellow metered taxis can be booked by telephone (tel: (66) 5320 1307 or (66) 5326 2878). Rates start at B30 for the first 2km. Car rentals start around B700. Most of the city is easily accessible by bicycle, which kiosks and guesthouses rent from B50 per day.
No vaccinations are required to enter Thailand. Hospitals are good, but there are no reciprocal agreements with other countries, so arrange health insurance. Tap water is not safe to drink, but ice is generally fine in reputable restaurants.
Thais tend to be non-confrontational, and the country is generally safe. Scam artists are the main risk. Take care when buying 'antiques', which are common in Chiang Mai.
|How are you?||Bpehn yahng-ngi?|
|Fine, thanks||Sah-bie dee korp-kuhn|
|Excuse-me! (to get attention, to get past)||Kor-toet|
|What's your name?||Kuhn chuee ah-ri?|
|My name is…||Pom/chahn chuee…|
|Nice to meet you||Yihn dee tee die roo-jahk|
|Are you on Facebook/Twitter?||Kuhn l`ehn fes-buhk/tah-wiht-ter mi?|
|Where’s an internet café?||Ihn-dter-neht kar-fe yoo tee-ni?|
|Where can I get a taxi?||Pom/chahn jah reark tak-see die tee-ni?|
|Where is the bus/train station?||Sah-tar-nee kon-song/rot-fi yoo tee-ni?|
|A one-way/return ticket to…||Dtoar teaw deaw/bpi glahp bpi…|
|Do you have a room for one/two?||Kuhn mee hohng sahm-rahp kon deaw/sorng kon mi?|
|When's check out?||Dtorng chehk-ou gee moeng?|
|Can you recommend a good restaurant/bar?||Kuhn choary na-nahm rarn ar-harn/bar dee dee hi nohy di mi?|
|A table for two, please||Kor dto sahm-rahp sorng kon|
|A menu, please||Kor me-noo nohy|
|The bill, please||Chehk bihn doary|
|Where's the toilet?||Hohng-narm bpi tarng ni?|
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Chiang Mai Zoo and Arboretum
A 20-minute taxi ride to the northwest corner of the city brings you to Chiang Mai Zoo and Arboretum. There’s a charge to get in and an extra fee for some attractions, including panda-viewing. Koalas, camels, lions and tigers are among the animals on display, plus reptiles, a large aquarium, and over 5,000 birds representing 150 species. To save your tired legs, there’s even a tram service and a monorail to get round the enclosures.
Peaceful Lamphun was a centre of Mon culture until King Mengrai overran the city in 1281 and its historic temples are among the most famous in Thailand. The riverside Wat Phra That Hariphunchai has buildings dating to the 11th century, including an open-air pavilion with one of the world’s largest bronze gongs, and a museum of old Buddhist art. Opposite, the Hariphunchai National Museum has artefacts from the kingdoms of Hariphunchai, Dvaravati and Lanna. From here you can take pedal taxi to Wat Chama Thewi, originally an 8th or 9th century Dvaravati Mon site, rebuilt by the Hariphunchai Mon in 1218.
After the gentle hairpin curves up Doi Suthep mountain there are 290 stairs to reach Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. A cable car is an option if you’re unfit. One of the features of the temple grounds is a 24-metre gilded chedi; another is the great views over Chiang Mai. The temple is just 15km northwest of town, so easily achievable as a morning visit. A road from the temple parking area ascends to Phu Phing Palace, a royal winter residence. The palace gardens are open on Saturdays and Sundays, unless the royal family is staying.
Chiang Mai Night Safari
Chiang Mai Night Safari is open all day, but the night safari is more exciting than the day safari. A good option is to arrive an hour before sunset, look around the zoo attractions, and then head to the night safari (extra fee). It starts at 7.45pm and has English-speaking guides. The tram takes you through open land where animals such as giraffes and zebras run free. Tigers, lions and other dangerous creatures are located behind a ditch. You can pet, feed and hold some of the animals. The complex also has restaurants, a cabaret and laser shows.
Doi Inthanon National Park
If you follow Route 108 south of Chiang Mai you reach the entrance to Doi Inthanon National Park, home to Thailand’s highest mountain, at 2,596 metres. Hmong and Karen hilltribe communities live in the reserve. There’s a charge to enter the park and you can visit by car for the day. If you want to go trekking, the park authorities allow by prior arrangement three- to five-day treks up the mountain on foot or by pony. Several campsites and bungalows provide simple accommodation (tel: 66 5328 6730).
An Old City morning tour reveals Chiang Mai’s ethnic diversity, which is born of ancient trade routes. Later, skilled artisans settled here when Burma ruled the region for 200 years from 1556. The 13th-century Wat Chiang Man, on Thanon Ratchaphakinai, is the city’s oldest temple and contains the Phra Satang Man, a small crystal Buddha which is paraded through the streets during the Songkran festival in April. Also here is the stone Phra Sila Buddha, believed to be from 8th-century India.
A short walk south west, the Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre (Thanon Phra Pokklao) has permanent and temporary exhibitions. To the southwest, Wat Phra Singh (Thanon Ratchadamnoen) is Chiang Mai’s most important temple. Founded in 1345, it contains an elaborate wooden Buddhist library, on a brick-and-stucco base with bas-relief deities. The beautiful Phra Viharn Lai Kham, fronted by gold leaf flowers on red lacquer, has intricately carved door frames that lead to an interior with Burmese-influenced murals.
In the afternoon, leave the old city from the northern gate along Thanon Chang Puak. Turning left at the Superhighway leads to Chiang Mai National Museum, which has a collection of almost one million artifacts. These mainly cover the Lanna period of the last 700 years.
Chiang Mai is a major centre for Thai crafts, and there are many workshops a short drive east of the city. You can watch artisans at work before you buy. The most well known community is at Bo Sang, or Umbrella Village, famous for its painted parasols made of bamboo and cotton, silk or saa paper, produced from mulberry trees. Courtyards along the street provide splashes of bright colour where umbrellas lie displayed in the sun. Some have intricate natural scenes that hint at a Japanese influence. A good place to shop is the Umbrella Making Centre (111/2 Bo Sang, tel: 66 5333 8324). In workshops nearby you’ll also find hand-beaten serving bowls, wood crafts, ceramic jars and ornaments.
In the afternoon, head for Hang Dong village, for ceramics, antiques, wooden furniture and crafts made from woven bamboo, cane and rattan. It’s 15km south of Chiang Mai on Route 108. Just east are Ban Wan, with a selection of antique and furniture shops, and Ban Thawai, for woodcarvings and made-to-order furniture.
An alternative for weekend shopping is the Sunday Walking Street market which displays handicrafts, clothing and souvenirs along Thanon Ratchadamnoen and adjacent roads. It’s open Saturdays, too (Dec–Mar).
Later, go to Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, on Thanon Chang Khlan. Steel carts here offer gifts made in Thailand, but also imports from China, Nepal, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar Building has three floors of shops with antiques, furniture, textiles, jewellery, ceramics and inexpensive clothes.