Known as the “Jewel of the North”, the ancient city of Chiang Mai is located around 700km north of the capital but is easily reached by remarkably cheap air tickets from one of the low-cost carriers. Steeped in history and culture, the city is cooler, quieter and more laid back than the chaotic capital of Bangkok and has been a popular destination with tourists for decades. The central portion of the city (known as Old Town) is surrounded by a square moat, and the remnants of the ancient city walls (built to repel Burmese and Mongol attacks) are still visible, particularly at Tha Phae Gate. One for culture vultures and nature enthusiasts, the city offers better value than more popular destinations such as Phuket, but still has plenty to see and do and even has some pretty decent nightlife, most notably around the Loi Kroh Road area. There are numerous nature reserves and national parks within a stone’s throw of the city, including Thailand’s highest peak of Doi Inthanon, and you can still get your shopping fix at one of the city’s many malls and markets. Here are the 5 top things to see and do during your visit.
Wat Doi Suthep
Chiang Mai is home to one of the country’s most stunning temples, known as Wat Doi Suthep. It sits perched atop a steep hill (known as Doi Suthep), and on a clear day, the golden chedi of the temple can be seen from the city despite being around 17km away by road. It was built in 1383 during the Lanna period and offers stunning views of the city and surrounding area. To get up to the temple you will need to catch a taxi or songthaew or use the cable car which costs 10 baht ($0.33), then entrance to the temple itself is 30 baht ($1) for foreigners and free for locals. The temple complex is vast and beautifully ornate and is considered to be one of the most sacred pilgrimage spots in all of Thailand, attracting up to 120,000 visitors per month. In addition to the temple complex, a short distance further along the main road is Bhuping Royal Palace Gardens and a hill tribe village where you can buy all manner of handicrafts and souvenirs and get some great photos.
Visit Doi Inthanon National Park
There are numerous national parks and nature reserves in the surrounding areas of the city, with many beautiful, untouched regions awaiting the intrepid traveller. However, Doi Inthanon National Park is home to Thailand’s highest peak (at 8415ft) with some breathtaking views and photo opportunities for those willing to make the climb. At the peak are two elaborate chedis set in beautifully manicured gardens but the rest of the park is also dotted with rivers, waterfalls and attractions (including a huge variety of flora and fauna for nature enthusiasts), and several hill tribe villages. Around 70km southwest of the city centre, it is one of the more spectacular national parks in the country, but be warned; distances between points of interest can be significant, therefore you’ll need a car, motorbike or to make use of a private guided tour. There are campsites, bungalows and restaurants around the park if you decide to stay overnight, which is highly recommended.
Take a Class
Chiang Mai offers a huge range of classes and workshops, from the ubiquitous Thai cooking classes to yoga workshops and Muay Thai training, the list is almost endless. For an amazing Thai cookery class, head to Smile Organic Farm, which is 45 minutes drive from the city near San Kamphaeng hot springs, you’ll be able to pick your own vegetables and herbs and learn to cook incredible Thai dishes to wow your friends when you get home. If you are interested in learning some Thai language, there are three schools inside the Pantip mall on Changklan Road where you can have one to one tuition for which you can pay by the hour. For Muay Thai training, head to the Chiang Mai Muay Thai gym on Wiang Kaew Road in the old town (inside the moat). Also, there are dozens of yoga studios, massage schools and art classes available in the city, and even a hill tribe weaving class if you fancy something a bit different.
Visit the Museums
There are many fascinating museums in the city where you can find out more about Chiang Mai’s history and get an insight into Lanna culture; you can easily spend a whole day or even more and not see everything. If you’re interested to find out more about the region’s hill tribes (including Hmong, Akha and Yao), head to the Tribal Museum of Chiang Mai where you can see traditional costumes, artwork, tools and handicrafts. The Arts and Cultural Centre is dedicated to preserving the city’s history and here you can learn more about the fascinating history and culture of the city itself, as well as about the inhabitant’s daily lives, agriculture, and Buddhist practices. Then there is Chiang Mai National Museum with an interesting collection of artefacts from the region, various art museums (including the 3D Art Museum and Contemporary Art Museum), the Museum of Insects and Natural Wonders and an Airforce Museum (with a rare collection of WW2 planes), to name but a few. If museums are your thing, you’re going to love Chiang Mai.
Taste the Northern Cuisine
Northern Thai cuisine is delicious and every visitor to Chiang Mai should take the opportunity to give it a try. The most famous dish is called “khao soi” which is crispy, deep-fried noodles in a deliciously fragrant broth with meat which is a bit like massaman curry. You’ll most commonly find it with chicken, and it’s sold all around the city with prices around 40 baht ($1.30) per bowl. You can’t leave Chiang Mai without trying this one, it’s rich, moreish and simply delicious. The next thing you must try is called “sai ua” which is a grilled pork sausage packed with fresh herbs and spices and a bit of red curry paste. It is often served sliced with some sticky rice and dipping sauce, it’s extremely fragrant and delicious. Another delicious northern dish is called “gaeng hung lay” which has a very strong Burmese influence. It’s a slow-cooked, pork belly curry with lots of delicious spices and sometimes even pineapple, and the pork becomes so tender that it just dissolves in your mouth. There are dozens more to try but leaving Chiang Mai without trying these three would be a disaster.