By Dave Stamboulis
Chiang Mai is the cool, cultural capital of the north of Thailand, long famed for its lovely winter weather, surrounding mountain scenery, and thriving arts scene. Recent years have seen a renaissance of chic hit the city, in its bars, restaurants, shopping, and hangout spots, making the once sleepy town not only a base for the great outdoor attractions, but a long-stay destination in its own right.
While the cool season climes are a top draw, Chiang Mai is a hit year round, as it hosts one of Thailand’s top Songkran water festival parties during the hot weather, with plenty of opportunities to cool down as the old city moat becomes one giant water party.
Chiang Mai is renowned for its climate and natural attractions, not to mention the great culture within the old city. Festivals are a big draw in Chiang Mai, and if you are around for the Yi Peng Lantern Festival (November), the Flower Festival (February), or the aforementioned Songkran New Year (April), you are in for a treat. The beautiful national parks of Doi Inthanon, Huay Nam Daeng, and Chiang Dao are all within an hour of town, and if going high doesn’t strike your fancy, you can appreciate the mountains without much effort from a vantage point along the Ping River, which flows through Chiang Mai and the north.
What to See
Chiang Mai’s historical and atmospheric temples are a big draw. The top one is Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, located right on top of Doi Suthep mountain, looking down on all Chiang Mai. Within the moat and old city walls, Wat Phra Singh is the city’s most visited, featuring the Phra Singh Buddha image. Nearby Wat Chedi Luang is home to the City Pillar and some magnificent Lanna temple architecture. The Chiang Mai Zoo and Aquarium (100 Huay Kaew Road, 053 210 374, www.chiangmaizoo.com) is very popular, worth the long queues to spend some time with the cute resident pandas. Chiang Mai’s Walking Street Sunday Night Market (Ratchadamnoen Rd, Sundays 4–11 p.m.) is the top evening tourist attraction, and is a showcase for young artists and other entrepreneurs and a perfect place for souvenir shopping. One of Chiang Mai’s most authentic and colorful attractions is Bo Sang, a small village famed for its traditional umbrella-making techniques. The cottage industry is elaborate here, with almost all the family shops engaged in making parasols and umbrellas from silk, cotton, and mulberry paper. Bo Sang is just nine kilometers from downtown, and hosts a yearly festival with plenty of cultural performances that are well worth attending.
What to Do
Outdoor adventure is a big draw in Chiang Mai, but one city attraction not to be missed is the cutting-edge new Art in Paradise Gallery (199/9 Changklan Road, 053 274 100), the biggest 3-D art gallery in the world, where visitors get the opportunity to interact with all of the paintings and displays, using their imaginations and creativity. Further afield, the Chiang Mai area is home to some of Thailand’s best whitewater rafting, with thrilling raft and kayak trips along the Mae Ting River. Siam Rivers (089 515 1917, www.siamrivers.com) can outfit all your needs. Even more exciting, Flight of the Gibbon (053 010 660, www.treetopasia.com) offers wild jungle zip line adventures featuring sky bridges, abseils, and more, high above the forest canopy near picturesque Mae Kampong village within an hour of Chiang Mai. To really chill out, pay a visit to the Sankamphaeng Hot Springs (Moo 7, Tambon Ban Sahakorn, 053 929077) in nearby Mae On, which feature 40-degree mineral pools to relax in.
Eating and Drinking
Northern cuisine is a specialty of Chiang Mai, with favorites like Burmese “haeng lay” curry done best at Huen Muan Jai (Ratchapruek Road, Tel 053 404 998), run by a former sous chef who has competed on the prestigious “Iron Chef Thailand” show. Chiang Mai’s most famous dish, the curried noodles “khao soi,” can best be sampled at the long-running Khao Soi Lam Duan Fah Ham (352/22 Charoen Rat Road, Tel 053 243 519), which has done a thriving trade for more than 70 years. For a night in a Chiang Mai institution, The Riverside Bar and Grill (9–11 Charoenrat Road, 053 243239, www.theriversidechiangmai.com) is renowned for its laid-back atmosphere, excellent live tunes, and fantastic food and drink, all dished up in a gorgeous 80-year-old traditional Thai mansion that features two open-air decks with waterfalls and lush gardens. The Riverside’s floating boat offers nightly dinner cruises on the Ping as well, an excellent warm-up for the party-filled night ahead. For partying, the bohemian North Gate Jazz Coop (95/1-2 Prapokklao Rd, Sriphum, 081 7655246, www.facebook.com/northgate.jazzcoop) is cheap, unpretentious, and has plenty of top-notch live jazz performances by both local and international artists.
The Dhara Devi Chiang Mai (51/4 Sankampaeng Road Moo 1, 053 888 888, www.mandarinoriental.com/chiangmai) offers some of Thailand’s most pampering and novel lodging, with gorgeous luxury villas set in a 60-acre hideaway just minutes from downtown Chiang Mai, re-creating an entire ancient Lanna kingdom which ruled from the 13th to the 18th centuries, complete with Burmese chedis, teak villas, and an unprecedented amount of tropical greenery. Suites, plunge pools, luxurious swimming pools, and a magnificent spa are spread out among working rice paddies (including resident buffaloes!). Another gem worth the splurge is the Ratchamankha (6 Rachamankha 9, Phra Singh, 053 904 111, www.rachamankha.com), a Relais & Château property that has been voted Thailand’s best boutique hotel for its architecture and outstanding feeling of Lanna culture. The Tamarind Village (50/1 Rajdamnoen Road, 053 418 896, www.tamarindvillage.com) is a great sanctuary, a charming boutique hotel set around gardens and courtyards. If you are a family or group, it’s highly worth it to rent out an entire Lanna-style restored house with swimming pool and garden at X2 Chiang Mai Villa (1/10 Soi 2, Manee Nopparat Rd, Tel: 091 808 4257, www.X2LOBBY.com).
How to Get There
Chiang Mai can be reached by all of Thailand’s airlines, with plenty of daily departures. There is also day and overnight sleeper train service (around 10 hours) from Bangkok’s Hualamphong Station, as well as plenty of long-distance buses, the best of which is Nakhon Chai Air (www.nca.co.th).