Thailand’s second-largest city is a great place to really get under the skin of the country, and has long attracted those wanting to really experience Thailand by studying language, meditation or cooking.
Chiang Mai is a very manageable place for a short visit as most of its important sites are situated within the 2km square bordered by its moat. It’s filled with temples, museums and other cultural attractions, and there’s also a thriving spa and wellness industry to help restore your weary bones after endless hours of sightseeing.
The city is a great base for exploring all that northern Thailand has to offer, particularly the hill tribes that the region is so famous for. Notable tribes include the Padaung subset of the Karen tribe, famous for their neck ring-wearing women, and the Hmong, distinguishable by their embroidered outfits and ornate silver jewellery.
What to do
As well as exploring the many temples in the city itself, a visit to the famous temple at Doi Suthep, about 15km north-west of the city, is a must. You’ll learn the legends and tales of the temple, and the views afforded by the terrace on a clear day are truly spectacular.
Chiang Mai is an adventure lover’s paradise, with trekking, mountain biking, quad biking and ziplining all on offer. One of the most popular daytrips in Chiang Mai is the combined elephant riding/bamboo rafting trip run by numerous operators, most of which will pick you up from your hotel.
Where to stay
Chiang Mai has plenty of luxury hotels, with the five-star Dhara Dhevi a lux option and the all-suite akyra Manor Hotel located in the heart of the vibrant Nimmanhaemin art district. A collaboration between AKARYN Hotel Group and Singaporean design house Manor Studio, the 30 guest suites provide an urban sanctuary with a ‘courtyard-within-a-room’ design offering covered outdoor bath as the focal point. T
Where to eat
The food scene in Chiang Mai has a healthy vibe, with vegetarianism a popular theme in eateries. Taste From Heaven is a good choice if you’re after a veggie feast, while Food 4 Thought is popular with those aiming to eat healthy but not wanting to forgo their chicken.
For fine dining, there are good options available in the city’s five-star hotels – Italian restaurant Favola at Le Meridien is a good choice.
The markets are great for fruit and sticky rice in the morning, and the weekend walking street markets are a particularly good place to sample northern specialties.
If you’re staying within the city itself, it’s perfectly possible to walk most places, with bikes and motorbikes easy to rent if you want a quicker way to get around.
Songthaew (shared taxis) ply the streets picking up passengers, and tuk-tuks are easy to flag down.
When to go
The best time to go is during the cool season, from November to February, when the daily average high is around 29-30 degrees. It can be unpleasantly hot from March to June, then rainy season hits in July, running through to October. It isn’t unbearable during these times, but you might want to choose a hotel with a swimming pool in the hot season, and be prepared for disruption during the rainy season.
Three things we like
Something we don’t like
After dark, the Loh Kroy area turns into a seedy red-light district where prostitutes hang out of bars and grab on to Western men as they walk past, even those who are clearly travelling with a partner. The area is fairly harmless during the daytime but avoid it if possible in the evening.
You can take a ‘mahout’ (otherwise known as elephant trainer) course or just make a visit and support abused and abandoned elephants at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre just outside town.
Songkran Festival in Chiang Mai. Despite taking place in April, traditionally a very hot month in Chiang Mai, time your visit to coincide with the popular water-throwing festival and you’ll see why this city is famous for its water fight.
Khao Soi. This delicious curry-flavoured noodle soup is widely available in Chiang Mai but much harder to find elsewhere in Thailand so grab it while you can.
High50 insider tips
Travelling with family
It would be hard for children to get bored in Chiang Mai with so many activities on offer, many of which offer adapted equipment and rates for children. There are a zoo and aquarium, as well as numerous butterfly farms in the region.
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