Chiang Mai: city guide. Spas, temples, Thai culture, luxury hotels and hill treks in scenic countryside
December 4, 2015 | By: High50
Chiang Mai. Wat Chiang Man. Buddhist temple

Wat Chiang Man, a beautiful Buddhist temple inside Chiang Mai’s city walls

Why go

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. Wat Chedi Luang. Flickr deepgoswami

Wat Chedi Luang

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.

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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. Dhara Dhevi main lobby

Of Chiang Mai’s luxury hotels, Dhara Dhevi is one of the most impressive

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

Akyra pool view at night

Akyra pool view at night

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.

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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.

Chiang Mai. Dhara Dhevi North_Rice_Fields_(Villa_Zone)

Villas set among rice fields at the five-star Dhara Dhevi hotel

Getting around

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.

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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

  1. Being able to wander through the markets without worrying about being hit by errant motorbikes – the streets are closed to traffic when the weekend markets are on (aka Sunday Walking Street and the smaller Saturday Walking Street).
  2. The smiling locals. Thailand is known as the land of smiles, but Chiang Mai locals are particularly lovely.
  3. You’re able to learn Thai cooking even if you’re a vegetarian at the Chiang Mai branch of the May Kaydee vegetarian restaurant chain.

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.

Chiang Mai. Songkran Parade. Flickr CC kimtetsu

Friendly locals at the famous Songkran water-throwing festival in April

Don’t miss

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

  • If you have time, try to fit in a multi-day trek to see the hill tribe communities. Day trips usually only take you to the closest and most touristy communities, and visits can feel staged.
  • Chiang Mai is a very popular destination and in recent years it has attracted a big increase in visitors, particularly from China. It’s a good idea to book your accommodation well in advance, especially during peak periods.
  • Do your research carefully before visiting any elephant attractions in Chiang Mai. Many tour operators have attracted criticism in recent years for mistreatment of animals and tourists have been unhappy with their experiences. The Elephant Nature Park is one reputable organisation, and it has a sales office in Chiang Mai to book tours through.
Chiang Mai. Fang_Hot_Spring_Tourism Authority of Thailand

Fang Hot Springs, in the beautiful surrounding countryside

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.

Need to know

  • Flying time is about 14 hours, depending on connections. Because there are no direct flights from the UK to Chiang Mai, you’ll have to make at least one connection to get there.
  • Don’t go from May to October (the rainy season).
  • Most British nationals can stay for 30 days in Thailand without needing a visa.
  • The airport is just a few kilometres from the city. A taxi will take ten to 15 minutes and cost about £5.
  • Thailand is not uniform when it comes to electrical outlets, with both two-pin flat and two-pin round sockets in use, so take adapters for both.
  • It’s seven hours ahead (GMT +7) all year round.
  • The currency is the Thai baht.
  • You don’t need a visa to visit Thailand if you’re a British national and your trip is less than 30 days.
  • Be careful not to say anything that could be seen as an insult to the royal family in Thailand. It is forbidden by law and there are strict penalties, including prison.