Chiang Mai, the unofficial capital of northern Thailand, has been on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 2015, on the basis of its monuments, sites and cultural landscape. In recent years, the city's local economy has thrived and its popularity with travellers has significantly increased. People come for its laid-back atmosphere, huge variety of activities on offer and its vicinity to some natural and cultural gems. There's so many things to do in Chiang Mai, from learning to be a masseur to trying the local street food. Here are nine unique features of Chiang Mai that merit the city’s formal inclusion on this prestigious list.
Chiang Mai's old city, with its crumbling brick walls and protective moat, gates facing the cardinal directions and red brick bastions in each corner, has a medieval feel. Although the first city walls were built here in the late 13th century, the bastions that remain today date from the late 18th century have been extensively rebuilt over the years. Grassy banks and shady trees border the moat, and within the walls a hushed atmosphere prevails. Take an improvised stroll along the old city's narrow lanes and see what surprises await.
Since it was founded in 1296, Chiang Mai (which, ironically, means ‘new city’) has had a turbulent history. It was once the capital of a vast kingdom called Lan Na (meaning ‘a million rice fields’). It was then ruled by the Burmese before being completely abandoned and was eventually merged into the Kingdom of Siam. To find out more, visit the Arts & Cultural Museum, the Historical Centre and the Lanna Folklife Museum, which are conveniently located next to each other in the heart of the old city.
The city’s fresh markets are the best place to feel the pulse of life in Chiang Mai. Take a stroll around Muang Mai, the wholesale fruit and veg market, and breathe in the pungent air. Snack on dried wild strawberries, sweet Thai tea or the infamous durian fruit. Local markets spring up at daybreak – a popular one can be found at Chiang Mai gate – and you can sample local delicacies like such as sai oua (Chiang Mai sausage) or nam phrik num (chilli and aubergine dip). Come nightfall, markets are a great place to sample some of the best streetfood in Chiang Mai. One of the most famous dishes is kow kah moo, or slow-cooked pork with rice, served at Chiang Phuak night market by the backpacker's favourite chef, 'Cowboy Hat Lady'.
While we’re on the subject, Northern Thai cuisine deserves a special mention. Most visitors love the city’s signature dish of khao soi, a bowl of soft and crispy noodles in a mild curry broth with chicken or pork that is a favourite lunchtime meal. Another delicious option is the slow-cooked kaeng hang lay, a melt-in-your-mouth pork curry with ginger. And look out for miang kham, a do-it-yourself dish of green mango, shallots, peanuts and ginger rolled into a cha plum leaf – yum!
North Thailand is a hotbed of traditional crafts, so finding a unique reminder of your visit (or gifts for friends) is easy. This is the place to buy hand-woven silk or cotton, along with lacquerware, silverware, ceramics, and even umbrellas. Good hunting grounds include the weekend 'walking streets' (Saturday on Wualai Road, Sunday on Ratchadamnoen Road). To see how these crafts are made, head out to the workshops along the Handicraft Highway, the road heading east to San Kamphaeng.
There are around 300 temples in and around Chiang Mai, so finding one you want to visit shouldn’t be difficult. Northern Thai temples typically have multi-tiered roofs and low-slung eaves that make them very photogenic, and their carvings and murals reveal much about local Buddhist culture. Wat Phra Singh in the old city is the most visited – here, the Viharn Lai Kham (a small assembly hall) and the Hor Trai (scripture library) are superb examples of Lan Na architecture. Atmospheric Wat Chedi Luang with its crumbling brick stupa is well worth the visit too, while exploring the city's smaller and lesser-known temples is sure to throw up unexpected wonders.
The Thais love having fun – the concept of sanuk, or finding enjoyment in what you do, is a way of life here. It comes as no surprise then that there’s a festival in Chiang Mai almost every week of the year. It’s the best place in the country to celebrate Songkran (the water-throwing festival held for Thai New Year in April) and Loy Krathong (November's lantern festival). Though the big festival get the most attention, it’s also worth timing a visit to witness a purely local event such as the Flower Festival in February or the Inthakin Festival, where locals worship the City Pillar, in May or June.
If combining new experiences with learning new skills is your idea of a holiday, then Chiang Mai is your spot. The city has an enviable reputation for providing affordable and well-planned courses in Thai cuisine, Thai massage, insight meditation and Thai boxing to name a few. There are also plenty of options for visitors dreaming of becoming a jeweller, a weaver, or a yoga or t’ai chi instructor.
Spirits are everywhere in Thailand – in folklore, in tiny spirit houses that adorn the gardens of most houses, and in the wilderness. Doi Suthep, the mountain that rises over 1,000 metres to the west of town, is believed to house the guardian spirits of Chiang Mai, and is home to the city’s most sacred temple – Wat Doi Suthep. This temple is a great place to look out over the city and the Ping Valley below. For a more in-depth look at these sacred surroundings, you can overnight in a national park bungalow and explore the mountain’s leafy trails.
Top image: Inthanon temple in Chiang Mai Province © Arkkarapol Wongkitikhun/Shutterstock