Chiang Mai is bursting with new attractions and hotspots that celebrate not only its vibrant and fun energy but also its robust artistic and cultural spirit.
Consistently voted as one of the top five destination cities in the world by prestigious international travel organizations, Chiang Mai has a charm that grows on you with each and every visit. It is a place that easily tugs at the heartstrings. This could be because of its astounding beauty and delightful year-round relatively temperate weather, its amazing breadth of cultural wealth and time-honored traditions, its rich and multi-checkered history, the diversity and range of activities and attractions on offer, the unique and delicious cuisine, its genuinely graceful and friendly people – or all of it. Whatever, it is a place that you easily fall in love with from the first time you visit. What’s even more astounding is that the destination continues to evolve and grow – although that can actually be also said about the entire country. It continues to find fresh stimulating activities to attract visitors and make you say “Well, I haven’t seen this before” or “Why, I didn’t know Chiang Mai has this” or something like that.
New Face of Lanna
No Chiang Mai trip is complete without experiencing the local style of eating known as khantoke, and sampling the well-loved local delicacies such as khao soy and gaeng hang le among the many, or exploring the hundreds of temples (in the old city alone), or enjoying some time at the Night Bazaar and Walking Streets. However, there’s a face of Chiang Mai that proves how it is also attuned with the times: the proliferation of newer, hipster hotspots where locals congregate and foreigners chill out to sample fun and entertainment with a local touch.
Here are some manifestations of the new, younger face of Lanna:
Coolest Spot in Town
Nimmanhaeminda Road is one of the oldest streets in the city, but in the last decade or so, it has become the “must-go-to lane” in Chiang Mai. The road can be described as a microcosm of Chiang Mai and all it takes is a leisurely walk through it.
The beautiful shops that house Lanna handicrafts, exquisite jewelry and exotic carvings that made Chiang Mai famous can all be found here; and fashionable contemporary food and drinks created by celebrity chefs as well as some of the most creative mixologists. Originally a street of noodle shops and humble homes, Nimman – named after one of Chiang Mai’s oldest families – is now teeming with boutique hotels, restaurants, bars, art galleries, fashion and décor shops (Soi 1), and cafés, which has given it the monicker, “Coffee Street,” though the cafes are actually concentrated on Soi 9.
Visit Wawee Coffee Shop, 94 Coffee, and even Starbucks – among the about 90 or so cafés that line the street – and you will agree. A big highlight here is the Nimman Promenade, at the intersection of main street and soi 4. How did it become so trendy? No one really knows the answer, except that the street just took off after a few enterprising celebrities took a liking to the street and built shops and businesses there. Voila: the “Thonglor” of Chiang Mai was born.
Whoa Over Cuppa
As mentioned earlier, coffee shops are definitely the in thing, mushrooming not only at Nimman but also in other highly populated and touristic areas such as Changklan Road. It is often said that there are now more coffee shops in Chiang Mai than restaurants or bars. Apparently, a new coffee shop opens in Chiang Mai on average every 48 hours, with some doubling as art galleries too (another hot trend). One popular new coffee house is Café de Oasis (202/9 Moo1 Route 4307, Changpuak, Muang, Chiang Mai // Tel: 053 414 190).
Love the Nightlife
Chiang Mai is not Bangkok, but there are numerous exciting places in the city to hang out and bring your friends for a drink or chat. There’s probably one ideally suited to your preference. A place that might be considered a well-guarded secret is BKK Bar (Chaiyapoom Rod). If you want to go where the locals go, this place is it. There is also the Chai Blues House and Tiger Bar (Charoenrat Raj Road). At NImmanhaeminda Road, Blar Blar Bar (Nimmanhaemin Road, Soi 7) is well recommended. JJ Market Zone (Assadathon Road) is one of the most popular in the area. Try also Warm Up Café (Tel: 053 400 676) on Nimman Road; Infinity Club on Nimman Soi 6; Zoe in Yellow on Rajvithi Road (Tel: 081 951 8286); Monkey Club, also on Nimman (Tel: 053 226 997), and Fabrique (Tel: 053 256 028) at Chiang Mai President Club. Of course, there are more.
Music and All That Jazz
Music has always been a part of local lifestyle in Chiang Mai, and today, the pubs of Chiang Mai are playhouses of various musical genres, and bands can be easily found for some live musical entertainment, and especially in the riverside restaurants. OK, riverside restaurants are nothing new in Chiang Mai, or elsewhere in Thailand for that matter. Oh, by the way, The Good View Restaurant (Tel: 053 241 866// email@example.com) and The Riverside (Tel: 053 243 239) continue to be major hotspots for visitors who prefer to have some live music while enjoying dinner in an al fresco setting.
Much Ado About Eating and Drinking
Two of the most popular hotspots – not necessarily new by the way – are Le Coq d’Or Restaurant (Tel: 053 141 555), which serves excellent French food and wine in a lovely antique teak-built house. There’s also Le Crystal (Tel: 053 872 890), which is in a beautiful garden setting beside the Ping River, making it a dining destination for the location itself. There’s also a place called Giorgio (Tel: 053 818 236), located near the Night Market, which has built up a sterling reputation as a favorite of VIPs when they are in Chiang Mai. Of course, the five-star hotels and resorts are dependable venues for this kind of sortie. Oh, there’s a place called Sireeampan Resort, which might surprise you with its bespoke F&B offerings!
Among the first restaurants we’ve visited here as tourists were: Antique House (081 724 6332), a beautiful 100-year-old teak-built house with good service and Thai food perfect for Western palates. If you are the health-conscious type, then The Whole Earth (Tel: 053 282 463) is for you. These are just a few, of course.
For Art’s Sake
Chiang Mai has recently emerged as an art hotspot of Thailand, and art shows are being featured in galleries exhibiting works of contemporary Thai painters, sculptors, photographers, and talented graffiti artists in neighborhood streets.
To Spa or Not to Spa
Spas as hotspots? Well, why not! With Chiang Mai as simply the spa capital of the North, spas are veritable hotspots of relaxation and pampering. Wellness and spa centers have mushroomed in Chiang Mai and one must the experience the Lanna variations. There are more than 40 legitimate spas in Chiang Mai to choose from for your own kind of pampering. There are also a number of massage schools for those who are interested in learning ancient healing and therapy. And while on it, try to experience a traditional Lanna massage and healing therapy at Thai Lanna Spa Association (Tel: 053 298 220; www.thailanaspa.org).
“I think Chiang Mai is the most special place in Thailand not only because of its culture,” says Toby Allen, CEO of Tap Technology, which is based in Chiang Mai. “This city has perfect size. It is big enough to have everything you want yet small enough to be able to find it. Also, I like the ease of getting here, with hourly flights you can come and go whenever you like and the value of what you receive for your money is great. I think it’s the best in Asia.”
How to get there:
By rail: Express and rapid trains leave from Hualumpong Station (Tel: 02 220 4334) several times daily. Trip takes about 12-15 hours.
By air: Several domestic airlines fly to Chiang Mai such as Thai Airways (Tel: 02 280 0060; www.thaiairways.com); Bangkok Airways (Tel: 02 265 555; www.bangkokair.com); Air Asia (Tel: 02 515-999; www.airasia.com); and Nok Air (Tel: 02 900 9955; www.nokair.co.th). All operate several daily flights. One-way flight takes about 55 minutes to one hour.
By bus: Several ordinary air-conditioned buses leave daily from the Bangkok Bus Terminal in Chatuchak (Tel: 02 936 2841). Trip takes about 10 hours or so.