Nestled between verdant mountains and the lazy Ping River, Chiang Mai is one of Asia's most chilled-out cities, managing somehow to maintain a balance between relaxed and active, old and new, healthy and decadent.
Chiang Mai, which literally means "new city", was established as capital of the Lanna kingdom by King Mengrai in 1296. A moat was dug around the city and a defensive wall was built to keep enemies – primarily armies from Burma – from taking the city. The moat and remnants of the wall remain today, and give the city a kind of charm rarely found in Asia's modern cities.
Chiang Mai is a low-lying city with around 250,000 residents in the city's central area and a total population of around one million in its greater metropolitan area. The portion of Chiang Mai contained within the moat and city wall is referred to as the "old town" and is where most of the one million international visitors passing through the city every year spend the bulk of their stay.
Chiang Mai's old town is roughly one square mile in size, with roads generally following a grid pattern. The dominant feature of this area is the large number of wats (temples) within the city walls. There are more than 30 wats in Chiang Mai's old town, and dozens throughout the rest of the city, most of which are centuries old. These beautiful and tranquil compounds display characteristics of not only Lanna architecture, but also Burmese, Mon and even Sri Lankan styles.
Within two or three days of strolling around, one can get a good grasp on the general layout. We highly recommend picking up a copy of Nancy Chandler's map of Chiang Mai, which is both attractive and full of local insider knowledge of the old town and beyond. It can be found in most bookstores around Chiang Mai.
In general, anywhere you go in the old town you will be a stone's throw from authentic Thai food, quality international cuisine, a travel agency, a 7-11, an internet café, motorcycle rental, a massage parlor or two and maybe even a coffee stand where you can get a massive iced coffee for just 20 baht (4.3 yuan). In other words, you don't have to go far to find almost anything within the old town, unless it's open space and country air.
After a couple days of bumming around the old town and drinking countless fresh tropical fruit juice shakes and slurping up a rainbow of different curries, we decided to set our sights beyond the moat. We rented a mountain bike and decided to ride up to Chiang Mai's most famous wat (temple), Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, located 13km away, atop the mountain nearest to Chiang Mai, Doi Suthep.
Doi Suthep is part of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, which is easily accessible from Chiang Mai. Huay Kaew Road connects the northwest corner of the old town directly with Doi Suthep. After a few kilometers we had entered the park and stopped off at Huay Kaew Waterfall, which was running low as winter is the dry season, but was still a nice diversion and a good place for a cold drink.
Continuing on up the hill, the hot sun's effects became noticeable. Luckily there were vendors selling cold beverages and snacks at various points along the road, while views of the city below were getting better and better.
After a grueling final stretch, we arrived at Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, which is one of the most beautiful and scenic wats we've seen in Thailand. We paid the 30 baht entry fee for foreigners (locals enter for free) and checked out the temple compound, without entering any of the temple buildings, as we were wearing shorts, which is not allowed. The ride took about 90 minutes going up and made for a pleasant afternoon escape from the city.
Back down below, the old town had already become old hat and we decided to head east from the old town to Kad Luang, on the other side of a big Chinese-style gate. Kad Luang is the local Lanna dialect name for the Warorot Day Market, a bustling merchant area that is chock full of local character and loads of things to buy. Kad Luang is considered the most important market in northern Thailand.
Once a royal funerary site on the banks of the Ping River, Kad Luang was established after the funerary site was relocated in 1910 by Prince Intrawarorot. Today Kad Luang is a buzzing commercial hub with wet and dry food markets, clothing, gold, flowers, rattan mats, fabric, sandals and more all available in an area roughly the size of one city block.
As a regional trade center, Kad Luang is where much of Chiang Mai's Chinese and Indian populations traditionally settled. Today the Guan Yu Temple, Pung Tao Gong Ancestral Temple and the Namdhari Sikh Temple still serve important roles as religious and cultural centers for Chiang Mai's Chinese and Indian inhabitants.
The growing popularity of crafts made by area hill tribes has led to a more recent 'migrant' population in Kad Luang, the Miao, also known here as the Hmong. A small alley within Kad Luang known as Hmong Lane is now home to Miao who sell their traditional crafts, primarily textiles.
If you find yourself interested in the history of Kad Luang and its migrant populations, the Wat Ket Karam Museum may be worth a visit. It is most easily reached by taking the foot bridge from Kad Luang across the Ping River, which will lead you directly to the gate of Wat Ket Karam, whose grounds house the museum.
The museum contains an eclectic exhibition of community history with a display featuring ancient Buddha images, old local Chinese-language newspapers and other daily items plus ceramics and antiques that have been donated by local households who have lived in Kad Luang for generations.
Once on the east side of the river, you may as well visit one of the numerous riverside restaurants south of the foot bridge along Charoen Rat Road that are frequented by locals and foreigners who are looking for something less tourist-oriented. Some of the more notable establishments in this area include The Riverside, The Good View and Regina, all of which have riverside views and are great for food and drinks at night or just sitting in the sun with a book and a fruit shake.
Speaking of restaurants, Chiang Mai is brimming with excellent food options. Khao soi gai, wheat noodles with a coconut-milk curry and chicken, is probably the most famous local dish in Chiang Mai, but most non-Thai travelers tend to hit the perennial favorite dishes such as green curry, pad Thai, green papaya salad, tom yam gong and sticky rice with mango.
Thai food in Chiang Mai tends to range from good to amazing and can be found almost everywhere, anytime. There is no shortage of mid- and high-range dining options worth exploring, but for us one of the best things about good Thai food was how cheap it could be.
If you are willing to forgo an English menu and be a little adventurous, local no-frills restaurants can serve you a feast of three or four dishes plus a pile of rice for the jaw-droppingly low price of 20 to 40 baht.
These restaurants tend to have glass cases with several large stainless steel bowls full of curries, stir-fries and more. Vegetarians will be happy to know that there are all-veg versions of this type of resto – just look for the traditional Chinese character zhai (齋), which is prominently displayed outside most vegetarian restaurants.
After consuming piles of delicious Thai food daily, it's not unusual for some travelers to become hungry for something different, which is not a problem in Chiang Mai. There is plenty of Asian cuisine, including Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Vietnamese and even Burmese. Western food is also well-represented, with the old town alone offering dozens of styles of farang cuisine.
Cheap, tasty Thai cuisine is plentiful at the Chiang Mai Gate Market, a collection of dozens of stalls just outside of the Chiang Mai Gate, the easternmost of the city wall's two gates. Dishes start at 20 baht.
Due to its proximity to Yunnan, there are lots of little things in Chiang Mai that may remind visitors of Yunnan, especially Xishuangbanna. One of the main activities outside of Chiang Mai is trekking in the surrounding hills where ethnic minorities live. The area is home to many ethnic groups that can also be found in Yunnan, including Miao, Lisu, Lahu and Akha (known in Yunnan as Aini).
Traditional papermaking using bark from mulberry trees is but one of the centuries-old handicrafts still practiced in and around Chiang Mai today. The papermaking process is the same as that used by the Dai in Xishuangbanna, but with little extras such as dried flower petals that make the rough paper a nice gift to pick up for friends back home. HQ Papermaker is one of the more prominent stores offering mulberry paper.
Chiang Mai has more than traditional culture, it is a modern city with plenty of live rock and jazz, numerous art galleries and lots of interesting graffiti – whose substantial presence throughout the city suggests tacit approval from the local government.
Shopping opportunities abound in Chiang Mai – you never know what you're going to find when you turn the corner. In addition to the aforementioned Kad Luang area, there is a night bazaar just south of Kad Luang that sells all kinds of goods.
Wua Lai Road, which juts southwest from Chiang Mai Gate, becomes a pedestrianized market every Saturday evening from 5 to 10. Crafts and foods of all kinds are available – you can even get open-air massage on the roadside.
The biggest so-called "walking street" market in Chiang Mai takes place on Sundays from 5pm to 10pm on Ratchadamnoen Road, which runs east-west through the city center. This market, which also includes several side streets, is a shopper's dream with plenty of food and even live music.
Many visitors to Chiang Mai, including us, end up spending more time there than originally planned. An extended stay in Chiang Mai offers visitors a chance to pick up a new skill or two.
One of the most immediately useful skills you can pick up in Thailand is learning the Thai language, which is challenging but far from impossible. Thai cooking can be studied at several restaurants around the city – learning to cook Thai and also picking up some basic Thai massage principles might make it easier to get a date in the future.
If you'd rather kick the crap out of other people than cook for them or give them massages, then your time and money would be better spent on Muay Thai (Thai boxing) classes. If all that bad karma starts to get to you, you can always study meditation and Buddhism studies, which are taught at many of the wats in Chiang Mai.
Guesthouses and boutique hotels abound within the old town's walls but there are also plenty of lodging options elsewhere in the city. Guesthouses are often open to drastically lowering rates for long-term guests – we got our 450 baht-per-night room with TV, fridge and air conditioning for 1,500 per week. A great deal, but if we could have afforded it we'd have rather stayed at the posh Tamarind Village.
China Eastern Airlines is currently the only carrier offering flights from Kunming to Chiang Mai. Flights leave for Chiang Mai thrice weekly on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Chiang Mai generally has pleasant, tropical weather with reasonably clean air for most of the year, but in March and April the air quality drops dramatically due to the burning off of undergrowth in the forests along the Thai-Myanmar border. It is advisable to avoid travel to Chiang Mai during this time of year.