Considered Thailand’s ‘second city’, Chiang Mai (also spelt Chieng Mai), the unofficial capital of Northern Thailand, maintains its reputation as the ultimate city destination for travelers seeking cultural, historical, and natural beauty. Year round, Chiang Mai features renowned attractions, shopping, dining, accommodations, excursions, events, and festivals which characterize the city and region as a unique and ideal place to travel, live, work, and study. Though the bustling city of today, serviced by an international airport and high-standard health and educational facilities, has grown far beyond the ‘quiet little hippy hideaway’ of the 1990’s, Chiang Mai has not lost its zeal, charm, and authenticity and continues to top world top lists.
At a Glance
Chiang Mai, which literally means ‘the new city’ was founded in 1296 by King Mengrai, the legendary ruler of the once glorious, Anajak Lannathai, or the kingdom of a million rice fields. Mengrai chose a pristine spot in the heart of the fertile Ping river valley, declaring the newly fortified city ‘Nop Buri Sri Nakorn Ping Chiang Mai’ as his kingdom’s new capital (proceding from the former capital, Chiang Rai).
Over the centuries, Chiang Mai has served as a key and strategic center of trade, commerce, man power, religion, arts, and culture under its own autonomy, and as a vassal state to powerful Burmese, Lao and Thai states, officially becoming a province of Thailand (then Siam) after the bloodless revolution of 1932 when Thailand became a constitutional monarchy.
Today, the city of Chiang Mai covers some 4500 square kilometers (1737 sq. miles) with an official population rapidly approaching 200,000. The sprawling urban reach of Chiang Mai extends into nine neighboring districts forming a scattered yet modern metropolitan area of 700,000 inhabitants, about half of Chiang Mai province’s population.
Amidst mountainous, jungle tropics, Chiang Mai is mostly hot and dry during the months of March and April, and humid and rainy from May to October, with September being the wettest month. The cool season is from November to February. With temperatures ranging between 15 to 25 degrees Celsius, most travelers tend to flock to Chiang Mai during these months, Thailand’s peak season for tourism.
Accommodation in Chiang Mai
The problem with Chiang Mai accommodations is not in finding a place to stay, but in choosing among all the many hostels, guesthouses, hotels, and luxury resorts on offer in and around the historical city center, along the picturesque Ping River, and scattered about the scenic outskirts of town. With hundreds of hotels supplying some 10,000 rooms, Chiang Mai has somewhere for everyone – whether planning to spend 200 up to 4,000 baht per night, both business and leisure travelers have a vast selection.
For hotel listings in Chiang Mai see: Chiang Mai hotels
What to See and Do
- Elephant Trekking
Chiang Mai is popular not only for its natural and cultural, peaceful yet lively setting, but also for the wide range of activities and attractions on offer; Travelers on a short holiday or long term visitors and expats will find it hard to get bored, or run out of new things to do. There’s everything from sight-seeing, shopping, museum hopping, and spa-lounging to mountain-jungle trekking, hiking, white water rafting, kayaking, elephant-horse back riding, go-karting, bungee jumping, golf, bowling, cinema, tennis, swimming, fitness, dirt-biking, and rock climbing.
Within the city, tourists enjoy exploring and walking in/around the moat-surrounded historical center, learning about the regions rich past and heritage at the many temples and museums. The old center and vicinity is abundant in local shops–a magnet for craft and souvenir minded shoppers. Most famous is the Night Bazaar located on Chang Klan road open daily from evenings till late. Aside from the traditional goods markets, modern luxuries and goods can be acquired in one of a few plazas and malls – namely the New Panthip IT plaza near the night bizarre, Kad Suan Kaew (also called Central) mall on the Northwest part of town, and the large and modern Airport plaza near the airport.
For nature and thrill enthusiasts, guided half-full day tours and overnighters can easily and cheaply be arranged from most hotels’ tour desk or one of the many tour guide offices throughout town, who are end enthusiastic to send you off with a memorable piece of the Chiang Mai pie, no matter what it is you decide to do.
- Khantoke Dinner Performance
Chiang Mai’s hotels, restaurants, coffee shops and street stalls offer scrumptious and reasonable local, regional, and international favorites catering to vegetarians, carnivores, families, on-the-go, and fine diners alike. Dominating the scene is local Northern Thai or Lanna and Northeastern Thai or Isaan venues, stalls, and eateries, specializing in spicy soups and salads prepared with various degrees of local and fused flavors. That’s not to say that the international food scene is lacking, in fact you’re bound to find something palatable from all corners of the world – steaks, burgers, potatoes, casseroles, sushi, burritos, and garden salads is a small example of what’s on the menu in Chiang Mai.
While certainly no Bangkok, Chiang Mai’s lively night scene is popular among locals, expats, and tourists alike. Throughout the city, there are plenty of beer and pool bars, live and loud music pubs playing favorite local and international covers, family friendly karaoke lounges, disco techs with live DJs pumping pounding sound systems, and even a tamed go-go bar scene at Loi Kroh and Tapae roads – labeled Chiang Mai’s pink light district. While in the past Chiang Mai was famous for its all-nighters, recent government clampdowns have seen many of the night establishments closing between 12 am and 2am.
Chiang Mai can be assessed by Air and Train, as well as public and private booked buses, vans, and cars.
The quickest and most convenient way is to fly into Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX), which is located 10 minutes by car-taxi to the Southwest of the city center. Being an international airport, Chiang Mai is connected with regular scheduled routes to/from Bangkok, Phuket, Singapore, Taipei, Rangoon, Mandalay, Luang Prabang, and Chittakong, as well as a several more domestic flights. Due to high competition among budget carriers, dirt-cheap flights are bringing more and more passengers to the city by plane.
Traditionally, the preferred way to get to Chiang Mai was/is on an overnight sleeper train from Bangkok, offering comfortable 2nd class bunks and 1st class cabins for a fraction of the western equivalent. Though longer than bus or plane, the sleeper train is popular for its remarkable morning view dissecting the pristine northern country side after sunrise. Within Thailand, trains can be booked in person up to two months in advance which is recommended if traveling during peak seasons. Between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, there are 8 trains a day varying in class and speed, but expect a commute of around 11 hours.
Check http://www.railway.co.th/ for latest train schedules.
By Bus / Car
Quicker than train, though much less comfortable and adventurous are public and private buses servicing several daily commutes to/from Bangkok some 700 kilometers or 10 hours to the south, ranging from 400-600 baht for comfortable air-con, toileted buses. Regional buses departing the city’s main bus terminal east of the city center connect Chiangmai with major cities in Northern and Northeastern Thailand. Another slightly more expensive option for getting to Chiangmai is to rent a car in Bangkok and drive up at leisure, checking out the many sites and attractions along the way, cruising through the heart of Thailand.
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