The jewel amid northern Thailand’s mountains
Nestled amongst mountains and surrounded by lush rainforests, Chiang Mai is northern Thailand's most popular destination, and for good reason. A traditional mountain town with a relaxed vibe, Chiang Mai provides a home away from home for its many backpacking visitors while retaining its authentic Thai atmosphere. It's known for its abundance of temples, many of which date back to the 13th and 14th centuries, including Wat Chiang Man, built by King Mengrai in 1296 and Chiang Mai’s most famous temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. For nature lovers, the surrounding area holds waterfalls, elephant sanctuaries and an array of hiking trails.
Founded by King Mengrai in 1296, Chiang Mai was once the seat of the Lanna Kingdom and is still the largest city in northern Thailand. Its varied history continued into the 16th century when the Lanna Kingdom was overtaken by Burma in 1556: Chiang Mai did not formally become part of Thailand (then Siam) until 1775.
Things to do
For those wanting to try some of Thailand’s famous street food, you can’t go past the Chiang Mai Gate Market, which offers an array of traditional Thai dishes at very cheap prices. Open every day, vendors start setting up around 5pm, with everything on offer from fresh sticky mango rice to papaya salad to deep-fried insects.
Paradise outside the city
About two hours outside of the city, Doi Inthanon is an excellent day trip if you’re feeling dazed by Chiang Mai’s stunning temples or fancy a breath of fresh air. Surrounding the highest peak in Thailand, the national park includes a hill tribe village, two pagodas and several waterfalls, as well as trekking options around the mountain.
All that glitters
One of northern Thailand’s most sacred temples, Wat Phra That Doi sits perched atop a 306-step staircase, overlooking Chiang Mai. Doi Suthep is particularly famous for its history: the temple was built in 1383 by King Keu Naone to enshrine a piece of bone said to have come from Buddha. This relic can still be viewed today, where it is enshrined in a golden chedi (or stupa) taking pride of place in the inner terrace.
The Elephant Nature Park, an hour from Chiang Mai, allows tourists to visit elephants without compromising the animals’ welfare. The sanctuary acts as a research centre for elephants that have been mistreated through the logging and tourism trades, with admission charges going towards their ongoing rehabilitation. Visitors can help feed and bathe the elephants, and join them in a rainforest walk.
Wat Phra Singh is considered Chiang Mai’s most honoured temple, with pilgrims gathering at the sacred site to visit the famous Buddha image known as the Lion Buddha, which can be found in the sumptuously decorated chapel, complete with golden serpent gables. The temple also contains a series of beautiful monastic buildings, as well as a large, inner sanctuary covered in mosaics.
Distance to city centre 4km
Taxi There’s a fixed-fare taxi counter in the arrivals hall. You’ll pay THB ฿160 to get to the Old Town and the trip takes about 6 minutes.
Shuttle There is a shuttle minibus opens in new window costing THB ฿40-60, however it runs infrequently and you may have to wait.
Shared taxi You’ll find red songthaews just outside the arrivals hall. The fare is THB ฿40 to the Old Town, but some drivers may try to charge you a higher fee for ‘private rental’.Back to top
When to go
Thailand has two distinct seasons: a wet season, which runs from May to October, and a dry season from November to April. With its location in the country's north, Chiang Mai does not experience the same extreme hot weather or humidity as other parts of Thailand, making it an ideal destination to visit year round.
Chiang Mai holds many festivities throughout the year, including Songkram, the water festival celebrating Thai New Year, and Loi Kratong, Thailand’s most colourful festival held each November to honour the dead.Back to top
The easiest way to get around Chiang Mai is in the plentiful red songthaews (also called rot daang, ‘red trucks’) which operate as shared taxis, and the variously coloured songthaews running different routes. Songthaews should cost THB ฿20-40 per trip. Often you can hire out the whole truck for a charter trip – negotiate the price beforehand. Tuk tuks start at THB ฿60 per trip, but they offer more direct services and most drivers speak English.Back to top
Retracing Chiang Mai through an artist's map
A journey through the streets of Chiang Mai in Thailand, guided by an artist's colourful hand-drawn map, proves to be as beguiling as it is immersive.