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Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand, and is very firmly on the tourist trail. It’s long been a hit with budget travellers and even has a reputation as a hippy hideout, but in fact the city has plenty to offer to travellers seeking history, culture, nature and more.
A big reason for Chiang Mai’s popularity is that the city’s Old Town has retained much of its historical charm, the result of being relatively inaccessible; until about 100 years ago, it could only be reached by a long river journey or trek. Today, it’s well connected by air and road.
Chiang Mai’s Fascinating History
Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 CE on the site of an older city, and has at various times been in the control of local kingdom states, Burmese dynasties and the Thonburi Kingdom, succeeded by the Rattanakosin Kingdom that is modern-day Thailand.
At its centre is the Old Town, built in the square style common to Chinese capital cities of the era, and exactly a mile long on each side. Only the entrance gates, and short stretches of crumbling walls remain, but the entire square mile is still surrounded by a moat and a modern-day road.
Chiang Mai Temples
We loved visiting some of the many temples in Chiang Mai, both inside and outside the old city, especially those dating from the city’s founding era in the 13th and 14th centuries.
There are plenty of temples to choose from in a variety of different styles; some are bright, shiny and modern, having been refurbished or completely rebuilt in recent years where others are historical, time-worn structures that, to my eyes, are even more beautiful. One of the pleasures of walking around the city is stumbling across many temples and remnants, and pausing to explore.
- Wat Chiang Man, where you will find an aged but well-preserved “elephant chedi” featuring a square base on which 15 life size elephants appear to support the upper level of the stupa on their backs. The grounds are expansive and peaceful, and the prayer hall buildings are beautifully ornate.
- Wat Lok Molee, one of the older temples of Chiang Mai, located just outside the old city boundary. It’s visited and therefore more peaceful than some of the others, and has a beautiful old brick chedi decorated with prayer flags, two life size elephants infront of the ornate prayer hall and trees of golden prayer leaves rustling in the breeze.
- Wat Phan Tao, a stunning wooden temple in the old city just next door to Wat Chedi Luang, the teak wood exterior is just beautiful.
- Wat Sri Suphan, known as the “Silver Temple” for it’s ornate hand-crafted silver decorations, it is located just south of the old city in the Wualai neighbourhood, famous for its silver-making industry. As well as the ornate temple, there are golden and silver Buddha statues, and smaller prayer halls. Note that women are not permitted to enter inside the temple buildings here.
Chiang Mai Markets
Chiang Mai offers several well-known markets, some that run during the daytime and a number of “night markets” (which open during the evenings). Here are the ones we recommend checking out:
- The Chiang Mai Saturday Walking Street Market (Wualai) and Sunday Walking Street Market (Tha Pae) are both hugely popular, and in high season, an absolute crush of visitors! They open late afternoon / early evening and finish between 10 and 11 pm. Browse and buy hand-crafted (and some mass-produced) souvenirs, clothes and food to eat on the move. If you go to Wualai Market, make time to stop in and admire Wat Sri Suphan as it looks quite spectacular lit up with colourful lights after dark.
- Visitors can also head to the Night Bazaar on Chang Klan Road, which has a great choice of food stalls as well as the usual souvenirs also on sale. The newer open-air food court is more spacious, but also more expensive. Indoors are the more crowded, less expensive, and more exciting options.
- If you stay at or near our recommended hotel (see below), then you may also want to check out a small street food night market nearby called the Chang Phueak Market, just by Chang Phueak Gate. It’s not huge but has a good selection of stalls selling hot food, snacks, desserts, drinks and fresh fruit, and is busy enough that turnover is brisk and food is cooked to order, but not so crowded that you can’t move in the crush or find a spot at a table to eat.
- Of the day time markets, we found Warorot Market (Kad Luang) fascinating; it’s very much a local shopping venue so you’ll find all kinds of fresh and preserved food, plus hot foot to eat on site or takeaway; there are many clothes vendors – though most of these sell regular fashion (to the local taste) rather than the Thai-fabric clothing that tourists tend to look for – plus all the usual things someone might be looking for their home: cookware, cleaning products, herbal medicines, toys, items of worship for a home shrine. There are jewellery stores too and a large array of fabric shops. We didn’t buy much here but loved exploring.
- On the opposite side of Wichayanon Rd to Wararot is Tom Lam Yai Market, offering more of the same, and behind that, on the river bank, a bustling flower market.
- For fresh produce within the Old Town, try Sompet Market, a short distance north of Tha Pae Gate.
Chiang Mai National Parks, Mountains and Forests
Geographically part of the foothills of the Himalayas, Chiang Mai is the perfect hop-off area for visits to nearby national parks including Doi Suthep-Pui and Doi Inthanon, amongst several others. Thailand’s national parks do a great job of preserving the beautiful natural landscapes of the region, and give a wonderful glimpse of native wildlife and flora. You can tour the parks yourself in a rental car, or book an organised excursion with a driver and guide.
For those looking for adventure sports, there are plenty of opportunities for biking, caving, climbing, hiking, rafting, swimming, and more.
Hot Springs in Chiang Mai Province
The area around Chiang Mai also features natural hot springs, with several locations where you can see the spectacle of natural geysers, bathe in the hot waters or cook eggs in them! San Kamphaeng is one of the most popular with visitors, and less than an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai. We stopped briefly at Mae Khachan, as it’s on the main road between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai.
The Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand
Northern Thailand is home to a number of different hill tribes, ethnic minority communities that have their own cultures, cuisines, traditions and lifestyles, quite distinct from the more prevalent Buddhist population of the country.
The term comes from the mountainous regions in which such communities have made their homes, most making their living as farmers, and in more recent years, through tourism. The seven largest hill tribe groups in Thailand are Akha, Lahu, Karen, Hmong, Mien/Yao, Lisu and Palaung.
There are many, many tour operators offering excursions to visit hill tribes. Some take large groups to villages created solely for tourism where visitors can photograph tribe members in traditional costume and buy traditional craft souvenirs. Some feature heavy-duty trekking to reach the most remote villages, not well-connected by road. And there are those in between that take small groups to villages that, while they are open to visitors, continue to focus on a traditional agricultural lifestyle, with tourism a small part of their income stream.
When researching tour operators for a hill tribe visit, we recommend that you seek out ethical operators that work with hill tribes to create a sustainable tourism industry that benefits local communities and supports them in keeping their traditions and lifestyle alive, without restricting or criticising the modernisation and progress that any individual and community has the right to strive for.
Read about our visit to the Akha hill tribe of Doi Pha Mee.
Taking a Chiang Mai Cooking Class
One of the most popular activities here is to attend a Thai cooking class, and indeed many schools have sprung up in Chiang Mai to cater to the demand.
Things to consider when you are assessing the many schools and classes:
- Location of the class
- Is pick up is included or you need to make your own way there?
- Group size
- How long does the class run? (many schools offer half day, full day and evening options but the actual durations of their full days vary quite a bit)
- What dishes are on the menu to learn? (some schools offer different menus on different days)
- Is the class hands on, with everyone cooking each dish, or is some of the learning demo based, or cooking a dish between the whole group? (Schools where each student cooks dishes individually is the best for learning)
- Is a market visit or farm tour included?
We attended a class by Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School which was held in a domestic garden farm setting about half an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai city centre (transfers included). They also offer half day classes and classes based in Chiang Mai centre.
We visited a local fresh produce market on the way, giving us an introduction to key ingredients of Thai cooking and the class also included a tour of the garden farm before we started cooking.
There were several categories on the menu and before we started cooking, we each chose which soup, salad, curry, stir fry and dessert we wanted to cook. Pete and I made sure to make different choices in each category, so that we could maximise the dishes we learned between us! As well as being lots of fun, the class gave us the confidence to recreate several dishes ourselves when we returned back home.
Chiang Mai Elephant Park
For those looking for an ethical way to visit and interact with Asian elephants, Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park is an excellent choice, one of the longest established sanctuaries of its kind and with a very strong reputation for welfare and conservation.
As well as Asian elephants, the sanctuary also cares for cats, dogs, buffalo and other rescued animals and offers them a place to live out their lives in comfort. They also focus on preservation of local habitat and on educating visitors about elephants, other wildlife and the environment.
Elephant Nature Park do not allow riding or performance entertainment; unlike horses elephant backs are not suitable for carrying much weight, let alone the heavy riding platforms and multiple passengers at a time. The training process that enables elephants to be ridden, perform tricks, or do heavy labour, is pretty horrific.
Many “sanctuaries” have sprung up to take advantage of tourist interest, and will claim they are ethical but if they allow riding, performance, or breeding, this is definitely not the case. Elephant Nature Park encourage and help other local elephant tourism organisations to switch to an ethical model, where elephants are no longer ridden and tourists can interact with them in a positive way.
Chiang Mai Hotels
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
- Many tourists choose to stay within the Old Town, inside the boundaries of the square – within reach of many of the old temples and ruins of Chiang Mai plus lots of cafes, casual restaurants and street food options. The area used to be considered as best for backpackers but many boutique hotels have sprung up recently offering accommodation of a higher standard.
- Just to the east is the Old City, clustered around Tha Phae Gate, good for both shopping and eating.
- Further to the east is the Night Bazaar area which is busy and buzzy and best for night life. There is a good mix of hotels to suit different budgets.
- Farther out along the Riverside you’ll find many more spacious and luxurious resorts, though there are some less expensive options too. It’s great for a quieter, more peaceful stay.
- Also worth considering is the large area collectively referred to as “mountainside” – to the west of the Old City, in the direction of Doi Inthanon National Park, one of the neighbourhoods here is Nimman Road, where Chiang Mai university is located and popular for student digs.
Suggested Chiang Mai Hotels
We stayed in and recommend Rich Lanna House which has a great location on the Northern edge of the old city, close to Chang Puak Gate. The spacious and beautifully decorated rooms are good value, and the hotel has a small but lovely pool in which to cool off on a hot day.
We also considered:
- Rachamankha (Secret Retreats) is in the old town, not far from the Western boundary and offers luxurious rooms, beautiful public spaces, a pool and pool spa, and an onsite restaurant serving both Asian and western cuisine.
- Pingviman Hotel is also in the old town, just by Saen Pung Gate along the Southern boundary, a short walk to the Saturday Walking Market. Rooms are decorated in an attractive Northern-Thai style with polished wooden floors and ornately carved wooden furniture, and all have jacuzzi spa bathtubs. There’s a pool and onsite restaurant.
- Nidhra Lanna is on the Western boundary of old town, not far from Tha Pae Gate. It’s a well-priced boutique hotel with huge rooms featuring roll-top baths.
- Rachamankha Thai Villa gives you the freedom of a spacious villa at a great value price. It’s well-located within the western boundary of the old town, and offers complimentary airport pick up.
A Three Week Itinerary For Touring Thailand
We visited Chiang Mai as part of an independent holiday, which we organised and booked ourselves. Check out our comprehensive three week Thailand itinerary, including tips on sightseeing, hotels, food and transport.
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