Although rapid economic progress in recent years has brought problems such as pollution and traffic jams, CHIANG MAI still manages to preserve some of the atmosphere of an ancient village alongside its modern urban sophistication. It’s the kingdom’s second city, with a youthful population of about 400,000 (over 60,000 of them are students), and the contrast with the maelstrom of Bangkok is pronounced: the people here are famously easy-going and even speak more slowly than their cousins in the capital, a lilting dialect known as kham muang. Chiang Mai’s moated old quarter, where new buildings are limited to a height of four storeys, has retained many of its traditional wooden houses and quiet, leafy gardens, as well as the most famous and interesting temples in the city – Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Chiang Man – clustered conveniently close to each other. These elegant wats may be Chiang Mai’s primary tourist sights, but they’re no pre-packaged museum pieces – they’re living community centres, where you’re quite likely to be approached by monks keen to chat and practise their English. Inviting handicraft shops, a couple of fascinating museums, good-value accommodation, rich cuisine and riverside bars further enhance the city’s allure, making Chiang Mai a place that detains many travellers longer than they expected. These days, increasing numbers of travellers are also taking advantage of the city’s relaxed feel to indulge in a burst of self-improvement, enrolling for courses in cookery, massage and the like (see Courses in Chiang Mai).
Many colourful festivals attract throngs of visitors here too: Chiang Mai is one of the most popular places in Thailand to see in the Thai New Year – Songkhran – in mid-April, and to celebrate Loy Krathong at the full moon in November, when thousands of candles are floated down the Ping River in lotus-leaf boats. And a pilgrimage to Doi Suthep, the mountain to the west of town, should not be missed, to see the sacred, glittering temple and the towering views over the valley of the Ping River, when weather permits. Beyond the city limits (see Around Chiang Mai), a number of other day-trips can be made, such as to the ancient temples of Lamphun – and, of course, Chiang Mai is the main centre for hill-tribe trekking, as well as all sorts of other outdoor activities. Orientation is simple in central Chiang Mai, which divides roughly into two main parts: the old town, surrounded by the well-maintained moat and occasional remains of the city wall, where you’ll find most of the temples, and the new town centre, between the moat and the Ping River to the east, the main market and shopping area. The biggest concentration of guesthouses and restaurants hangs between the two, centred on the landmark of Tha Pae Gate (Pratu Tha Pae) in the middle of the east moat. On the outskirts, the town is bounded to the north, east and south by the Superhighway and two further huge but incomplete ring roads, with Thanon Chon Prathan (Canal Road) providing a western bypass.
Founded as the capital of Lanna in 1296, on a site indicated by the miraculous presence of deer and white mice, Chiang Mai – “New City” – has remained the north’s most important settlement ever since. Lanna’s golden age under the Mengrai dynasty, when most of the city’s notable temples were founded, lasted until the Burmese captured the city in 1558. Two hundred years passed before the Thais pushed the Burmese back beyond Chiang Mai to roughly where they are now, and the Burmese influence is still strong – not just in art and architecture, but also in the rich curries and soups served here. After the recapture of the city, the chao (princes) of Chiang Mai remained nominal rulers of the north until 1939, but, with communications rapidly improving from the beginning of the last century, Chiang Mai was brought firmly into Thailand’s mainstream as the region’s administrative and service centre.
The trekking industry in Chiang Mai offers an impressive variety of itineraries, with over two hundred agencies covering nearly all trekkable areas of the north. Most treks include a ride on an elephant and a bamboo-raft excursion, though the amount of actual walking included can vary greatly. A few operators offer something a little different. Eagle House runs the standard type of trek, with elephants and rafting, but to carefully chosen quiet areas and with an educational bent, and passes on a proportion of costs towards funding projects in hill-tribe villages. Moving upmarket, the Trekking Collective can arrange pricey but high-quality customized treks from one to five days and can cater for specific interests such as bird-watching; it too is involved in community programmes to help tribal people.
Meanwhile, Chiangmai Green Alternative Tours, an eco-friendly and culturally sensitive operation 100m north of TAT at 31 Thanon Chiangmai–Lamphun, offers a fascinating diversity of worthwhile nature field trips. Sharing the proceeds with knowledgeable local guides, they can take you up Doi Suthep, Doi Inthanon or Doi Chiang Dao on one-day or multi-day trips, including bird-watching specialities.
For a wide range of adventure tours, including whitewater rafting on the Pai River, trekking, cycling and kayaking, a long-standing, general agency is Contact Travel, based at Tasala to the east of town.
If you just fancy a gentle paddle up and down the Ping River in town, kayaks can be rented from Wat Faham on Thanon Fa Ham (B100). For those with a head for heights, Flight of the Gibbon offers full-day rainforest canopy tours on zip lines and sky bridges in the hills to the east of town.
A pleasant way to get a feel for the city and its layout is to take a boat trip on the Ping River. Frequent two-hour cruises operated by Mae Ping River Cruises depart from Wat Chaimongkol on Thanon Charoen Prathet, sailing 8km upstream through lush countryside to a riverside farmhouse for a look around the fruit, herb and flower gardens, plus refreshments and fruit-tasting. Mae Ping River Cruises also offer trips to Wiang Kum Kam and dinner cruises. Another alternative is to take a trip on a scorpion-tailed boat, a reconstruction of vessels that plied the river a century ago. This cruise heads downriver from a pier on Thanon Charoenrat, north of Nakhon Ping Bridge, and includes a commentary (in English) on historic places beside the river.
The spirit of King Mengrai, the heroic founder of the Lanna kingdom, is still worshipped at dozens of shrines in Chiang Mai and the north eight hundred years after his death, but three in the old city stand out. About halfway between Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Kawt Kala was the second temple founded by the king in Chiang Mai (after Wat Chiang Man) and had its name changed to Wat Phra Chao Mengrai (or just Wat Mengrai) in the 1950s. The standing Buddha in its own sala just to the right of the main viharn here is said to replicate exactly King Mengrai’s dimensions – and no wonder he was capable of such heroic deeds, as the image is 4m tall. By the beautiful, stately bo tree at the back of the compound stands a more plausible life-size modern statue of the king himself holding an elephant hook, where people leave all kinds of offerings, including swords.
Between Wat Chedi Luang and Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre stand two further monument-shrines to the great king. The site where he was killed by lightning, aged 80, is marked by a glittering, much-venerated shrine in its own small piazza on the corner of Thanon Ratchdamnoen and Thanon Phra Pokklao. A few minutes on up Thanon Phra Pokklao, Mengrai features again in the bronze Three Kings Monument in front of the arts and cultural centre, showing him discussing the auspicious layout of his “new city”, Chiang Mai, with his allies, Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai and Ngam Muang of Phayao. The three kings had studied together under a religious teacher in Lopburi, but when they met up again, things were actually rather different from the harmonious picture portrayed by the monument: on a visit to Phayao, Ramkhamhaeng had an affair with Ngam Muang’s wife, and Mengrai had to step in and mediate.
The most popular course on offer is how to cook Thai food (especially at the cluster of small schools on and around Soi 5, Thanon Ratchdamnoen), followed by Thai massage. Chiang Mai is also a popular place for meditation retreats, while other skills to be tackled, besides rock-climbing, include: t’ai chi, on an eight-day introductory programme at Naisuan House, off Thanon Doi Saket Kao; yoga at the Yoga Tree, 65/1 Thanon Arak; Thai boxing at Lanna Muay Thai, 161 Soi Changkhian, Thanon Huai Kaeo; Thai dance at the Thai Dance Institute, 53 Thanon Kohklong; one- to five-day workshops in jewellery-making through Nova, 179 Thanon Tha Pae; and Lanna arts and culture with Origin Asia.
Chiang Mai is the best and busiest place in the country to see in the Thai New Year, Songkhran, which takes over the city roughly between April 12 and 15. The most obvious role of the festival is as an extended “rain dance” in the driest part of the year, when huge volumes of canal water are thrown about in a communal water-fight that spares no one a drenching. The other elements of this complex festival are not as well known but no less important. In the temple compounds, communities get together to build sandcastles in the shape of chedis, which they cover with coloured flags – this bestows merit on any ancestors who happen to find themselves in hell and may eventually release them from their torments, and also shows an intent to help renovate the wat in the year to come. Houses are given a thorough spring-clean to see out the old year, while Buddha images from the city’s main temples are cleaned, polished and sprinkled with lustral water, before being ceremonially carried through the middle of the water-fight to give everyone the chance to throw water on them and receive the blessing of renewal. Finally, younger family members formally visit their elders during the festival to ask for their blessings, while pouring scented water over their hands.
Loy Krathong, on and around the night of the full moon in November, has its most showy celebration at Sukhothai, but Chiang Mai – where it is also known as Yipeng – is not far behind. While a spectacular but unnerving firework fiesta rages on the banks, thousands of candles are gently floated down the Ping River in beautiful lotus-leaf boats. As well as floating krathongs, people release khom loy, paper hot-air balloons that create a magical spectacle as they float heavenward, sometimes with firecrackers trailing behind. As with krathongs, they are released to carry away sins and bad luck, as well as to honour the Buddha’s topknot, which he cut off when he became an ascetic (according to legend, the topknot is looked after by the Buddha’s mother in heaven).
Chiang Mai’s brilliantly colourful flower festival, centred on Buak Hat Park at the southwest corner of the old town usually on the first weekend of February, also attracts huge crowds. The highlight is a procession of floats, modelled into animals, chedis and even scenes from the Ramayana, and covered in flowers. In early April, the Poy Sang Long festival, centred around Wat Pa Pao near the northeast corner of the old city, is an ordination ritual for young Shan men, who are paraded round town on the shoulders of relatives. The boys are dressed in extravagant, colourful clothing with huge floral headdresses, which they symbolically cast off at the end of the festival to don a saffron robe – its most elaborate manifestation in Thailand is in Mae Hong Son. In late May or early June, the Inthakin Festival, a life-prolonging ceremony for the city of Chiang Mai, using holy water from Doi Luang Chiang Dao, is focused around the city foundation pillar at Wat Chedi Luang, which throngs with locals making offerings.
For an introduction to the city’s gay scene, check out the small bars on Soi 1, Thanon Tha Pae, behind D2 Hotel, or the roads off the west side of Thanon Chotana, where there’s a clutch of bars around the gay-owned Lotus Hotel. In the latter area, the long-running Adam’s Apple has go-go dancers all evening and a popular show at 10pm.
Many of Chiang Mai’s top hotels now have full-service spas, and there are several upmarket stand-alones. However, the best traditional massages in town – no frills but highly skilled and good value – are likely to be had at the massage schools: the Old Medicine Hospital offers consistently good Thai, herbal and foot massages; on the opposite side of town, the offshoot of Wat Pho, Chetawan, charges B360 per hour for traditional massage; while out in the countryside at Baan Hom Samunprai, two-hour massages cost B600.
In the mornings, Elliebum Guesthouse offers fascinating guided food walks around the old town. With plenty of insights about Thai cuisine and culture along the way, they take in Chiang Mai Gate Market and the city’s best street restaurants and dessert stalls. Every evening.
The Riverside runs a dinner cruise, charging B110 per person on top of whatever you order from their very good menu; get there by 7.15pm to put your orders in (boat departs at 8pm). Mae Ping River Cruises also runs dinner cruises at 7.30pm for B550 per person for a Thai set menu.
If you’re in Chiang Mai at the weekend it’s worth heading down to Thanon Wualai, just south of the old city, on a Saturday between about 5pm and 11pm, or to the larger affair on Thanon Ratchdamnoen and part of Thanon Phra Pokklao in the old city on a Sunday at the same time. Closed to traffic for the duration, these “walking streets” become crowded with vendors selling typical northern Thai items such as clothes, musical instruments and snacks, as musicians busk to the throngs of people. The walking streets have become almost as popular as the night bazaar, as they are ideal places to pick up a souvenir and mingle with a very mixed crowd of Thais and farangs.
Chiang Mai is the best place in Thailand to buy handicrafts, a hotbed of traditional cottage industries offering generally high standards of workmanship at low prices.
The city has a long tradition of woodcarving, which expresses itself in everything from salad bowls to half-size elephants. In the past the industry relied on the cutting of Thailand’s precious teak, but manufacturers are now beginning to use other imported hardwoods, while bemoaning their inferior quality.
Wooden objects are sold all over the city, but the most famous place for carving is Ban Tawai, a large village of shops and factories where prices are low and where you can watch the woodworkers in action. One of Thailand’s most important woodcarving centres, Ban Tawai relied on rice farming until thirty years ago, but today virtually every home here has carvings for sale outside and each backyard hosts its own cottage industry. To get there, you’ll need your own transport: follow Highway 108 south from Chiang Mai 13km to Hang Dong, then head east for 2km. A regularly updated, free map of Ban Tawai’s outlets, which now include all manner of antiques and interior decor shops, is available around town.
Lacquerware can be seen in nearly every museum in Thailand, most commonly in the form of betel sets, which used to be carried ceremonially by the slaves of grandees as an insignia of rank and wealth (see Betel). Betel sets are still produced in Chiang Mai according to the traditional technique, whereby a woven bamboo frame is covered with layers of rich red lacquer and decorated with black details. A variety of other objects, such as trays and jewellery boxes, are also produced, some decorated with gold leaf on black gloss. Lacquerware makes an ideal choice for gifts, as it is both light to carry, and at the same time typically Thai, and is available in just about every other shop in town.
Celadon, sometimes known as greenware, is a delicate variety of stoneware which was first made in China over two thousand years ago, and later produced in Thailand, most famously at Sukhothai and Sawankhalok.
Mengrai Kilns at 79/2 Soi 6, Thanon Samlarn, is the best of several kilns in Chiang Mai that have revived the art of celadon. Sticking to the traditional methods, Mengrai produces beautiful and reasonably priced vases, crockery and larger items, thrown in elegant shapes and covered with transparent green, blue and purple glazes.
The village of Bo Sang bases its fame on souvenir umbrellas – made of silk, cotton or mulberry (sa) paper and decorated with bold, painted colours – and celebrates its craft with a colourful umbrella fair every January. The artists who work here can paint a small motif on your bag or camera in two minutes flat.
The grainy mulberry paper, which makes beautiful writing or sketching pads, is sold almost as an afterthought in many of Bo Sang’s shops. The best place to buy it is HQ, down a small soi opposite Wat Phra Singh at 3/31 Thanon Samlarn, which sells sheets of beautifully coloured mulberry paper, along with a huge range of other specialist papers.
Chiang Mai’s traditional silversmiths’ area is on Thanon Wualai, on the south side of the old town, though the actual smithing is now done elsewhere. If you’re serious about buying silver, however, this is still the place to come, with dozens of small shops on Wualai itself and on Soi 3 selling repoussé plates, bowls and cups, and attractive, chunky jewellery. For sterling silver, check the stamp that shows the item is 92.5 percent pure; some items on sale in Chiang Mai are only eighty percent pure and sell much more cheaply.
A good general jewellery store is Nova Collection at 179 Thanon Tha Pae, which has some lovely rings and necklaces blending gold, silver and precious stones in striking and original designs.
You’ll never feel cooped up in Chiang Mai, as the surrounding countryside is dotted with day-trip options in all directions. Dominating the skyline to the west, Doi Suthep and its eagle’s-nest temple are hard to ignore, and a wander around the pastoral ruins of Wiang Kum Kam on the southern periphery has the feel of fresh exploration. Much further south, the quiet town of Lamphun offers classic sightseeing in the form of historically and religiously significant temples and a museum. To the north, the Mae Sa valley may be full of tour buses, but its highlight, the Queen Sirikit Botanic Gardens, as well as the nearby lake of Huay Tung Tao and Darapirom Palace, merit an independent jaunt. Distinctly missable, however, is the recently opened Chiang Mai Night Safari to the southwest of the city, which has encroached on land belonging to Doi Suthep National Park, and even announced as an opening promotion that the meat of all the animals on display would also be available in its restaurant (though the offer has now been withdrawn) – much better to spend your money at Chiang Mai Zoo. All the excursions described here can be done in half a day; not all of them are covered by public transport, but a car with driver arranged through a Chiang Mai guesthouse should cost you around B600 for a half-day local trip. There are also some good options for longer jaunts, notably to Doi Inthanon National Park, to Lampang and the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre and to the Elephant Nature Park.
Betel-chewing today is popular only among elderly Thais, particularly country women, but it used to be a much more widespread social custom, and a person’s betel tray set was once a Thai’s most prized possession and an indication of rank: royalty would have sets made in gold, the nobility’s would be in silver or nielloware, and poorer folk wove theirs from rattan or carved them from wood. A set comprises at least three small covered receptacles, and sometimes a tray to hold these boxes and the knife or nutcracker used to split the fruit.
The three essential ingredients for a good chew are betel leaf, limestone ash and areca palm fruit. You chew the coarse red flesh of the narcotic fruit (best picked when small and green-skinned) first, before adding a large heart-shaped betel leaf, spread with limestone-ash paste and folded into manageable size; for a stronger kick, you can include tobacco and/or marijuana at this point. An acquired and bitter taste, betel numbs the mouth and generates a warm feeling around the ears. Less pleasantly, constant spitting is necessary – which is why you’ll often see spittoons in old-fashioned hotels in Thailand, re-used as waste baskets. It doesn’t do much for your looks either: betel-chewers are easily spotted by their rotten teeth and lips stained scarlet from the habit.