Chiang Mai: Explore the Jewel in Northern Thailand's Crown
If you venture away from the bustle of Bangkok, and the lure of the beaches in the south you can find culture and excitement in the northern city of Chiang Mai. Hordes of tourists pass through en-route to the mountains, Laos or Myanmar but there is so much to see and do that a flying visit wouldn’t do it justice.
Chiang Mai is known as a culture capital because of the many places to visit in this historic city. Set within the confines of an ancient walled moat, the old city is home to loads of temples, markets, and bars. This is a backpacker’s paradise with accommodation to suit every budget and buzz-inducing adventure sports of all kinds in the beautiful surrounding hills and jungles.
Culture junkies can wander round exploring the hundreds of temples in town or rent a moped and go up Doi Suthep, the mountain that overlooks the city to the north. Here you can find Chiang Mai’s most famous temple, Wat Phratet, with the gold chedi (pointed roof) that can be seen for miles looking down on the city. The views from the top are amazing. A cable car goes up to the temple which is handy in the hotter months when the 309 steps can seem daunting. The temple itself is beautiful and surrounded by bells which you can ring to bring luck and prosperity. Don’t miss the fortune-telling sticks which can be found tucked away in one of the side buildings. Simply pick up the container with the sticks and shake it until one falls out. The number indicates which fortune paper you should collect and the predictions are eerily real. There are plenty of souvenir shops around the temple but beware that prices are slightly higher here.
What is special about this wat is that it is set in a forest and the temple is a cave. Set in the foothills in the east of the city, near the university, this is a great place to come to relax. You can join in meditation with the monks, or feed the hundreds of huge catfish in the lake to get good karma.
Chiang Mai offers some of the best zip lining experiences in the world and there are plenty of companies offering various routes and types of obstacles. The trail usually lasts a few hours with varying degrees of adrenalin rushes, depending on the height and gradient of the runs. They usually range from really high to really, really high and absolutely vertical!
There will be times when you might just have to close your eyes and do it. You have been warned.
For those who get their rocks off in the kitchen and want to impress their friends back home with a mean Thai green curry, there are hundreds of cookery schools and courses to choose from. Most schools will take you on a trip to the local market first to buy ingredients and some will take you on a tour of their garden to show you the herbs and spices growing. Then you will be given measured ingredients and cook along with the teacher to create various dishes. Most schools offer a choice of dishes to prepare, which is good because you will eat what you make.
The city comes alive in the evening and the best place to head is the night bazaar, here you'll find cheap clothes, designer copy sunglasses, bags and shoes as well as unusual souvenirs to take home. There are also plenty of stalls selling typical Northern Thai food at very reasonable prices.
Saturday and Sunday night have their own market known as the walking street, which runs down the streets leading from Thapae Gate. The streets are closed to traffic and become crowded with tourists looking for artisan goods, paintings, clothes and jewellery.
Some of the best restaurants in the city are located by the Peng River. Try Good View, or Riverside, both of which offer the best of Thai and western food to a mixed clientele. You can find all kinds of restaurants in the trendy Nimmanhemmin in the north of the city. From Mexican to Italian and Spanish, all tastes are catered for.
Trendy Thai students and the beautiful people usually start their evenings in Nimmanhemmin, the fashionable, upmarket area to the west of the city. The bars to be seen in are Warm Up or Monkey Bar which have live music, DJs and dancing until well into the night. If you want to continue the party head to nearby Infinity night club for a fully Thai experience laced with dance music. The Thai clubs stay open until around 6.
Everyone usually starts heading out to clubs at around midnight. Most of the western clubs are in the old city near Thaphae Gate at Zoe's in Yellow where many bars are situated in a square and things can get pretty wild. All musical tastes are catered for and you can find house, reggae, hip-hop and pop being played on crowded dance floors in the various bars. Because the bars tend to spill out into the open air they generally close earlier than other clubs but there’s always somewhere else to go. Chili’s a short walk away is usually a popular late night/early morning choice.
The best way to get around Chiang Mai is by motorbike if you can already drive one and it is easy to rent them by the day, week or month with a deposit and copy of your passport. If not you can easily flag down tuk tuks in the street and it can be a fun experience to whizz around in them at night, when drivers often race each other in the quiet streets. The cheapest mode of travel is by songthaews, the little red shared cars. You can flag them down anywhere and they will take you if they are going that way. You might need to stop a couple if they already have passengers.
Where to stay
The best area to find backpackers accommodation is around Thapae gate. This is pretty central to everything in the city and just a short stroll to all of the markets and bars.
Best time to go
The best and most temperate weather is between November and February, though this is also peak season so hotels can be more expensive. At the end of February local farmers burn their fields and this can cause heavy air pollution and be uncomfortable.
The weather is at its hottest from March to June, though it is easy to escape the heat by heading up into the hills around the city or going to air conditioned places. The heat is rarely stifling.
Rainy season lasts from July to November and it can pour down all day sometimes or at other times it may be a short shower.
Songkran, Thai New Year, celebrated with huge water fights all over the city. The moat area especially turns into a huge wet party, and there’s music and dancing in the Loi Kroh Road. Revellers come from all over Thailand to take part in the celebrations which are said to be one of the best in the country.
If you go to Thailand, don't miss Chiang Mai. You can find everything here that Bangkok has to offer, if not more and without the pollution, crowds and chaos you find in the capital.