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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrChiang Mai is Thailand's beautiful gem of the North, a hybrid of Burmese and Thai culture, uniquely nestled in the mountains 700 km north of Bangkok. This former capital of the Kingdom of Lanna (1296–1768) contains everything one would desire when trying to understand the culture of a country. Chiang Mai draws in over 5 million visitors each year, proving its beauty and high impact in the tourist industry that spreads throughout Thailand. Within the city it has everything, from ancient temples to modern shopping meccas and a large international airport. Chiang Mai has repeatedly been featured in multiple magazine's top cities of the world. Chiang Mai is known for its specific culture, cuisine, and architecture. The food is generally a mix between Burmese and Thai, due to its close border with Myanmar. There is a large population of Thai and Burmese spread throughout Thailand, but a much higher concentration in the north.
Even in this ancient city, one can find modernism at its finest. Some of Thailand's largest colleges reside in the North, creating a high population of youth. This high concentration of youth has spawned many nightclubs, dance events, bars, and other things associated with Western college life. Yet Chiang Mai did not forget about its cultural history, one can still find beauty throughout this city, to call it a “hidden beauty” would be downright wrong. Chiang Mai is once again, a true gem of Thailand, and won't take long for one to fall in love with its charms.
HistoryChiang Mai's history and city layout is majorly due to the war with the people of Burma. It was settled in 1296, yet the history of this city dates back even further. King Mengrai settled upon the land that was already an existing city by the Lawa people , which goes back multiple generations. A moat and a large defensive wall, some of which is still intact today and can be seen when driving around the city, was created as a defensive mechanism against the approaching war coming from Burma and the Mongols. The Mongols occupied a large chunk of Asia during this time, as did the Burmese, forcing the Lana people to protect their city with a strategically defensive build. However, all the precautions didn't help and in 1556, the city was lost to and over run by the Burmese. In 1775, action was taken against the Burmese by the people of Thailand and the city was abandoned for over 10 years due to the violence.
In 1775, Chiang Mai regained its place as one of Thailand's most important cities, and has remained until this day.
Things to See and DoThose who have chosen to adventure into the North have found no shortage of activities, everything from western shopping to being blessed by monks in the mountain monasteries. Chiang Mai has zoos that are opened day and night, places to lay with tigers, lady-boys, elephant rides, and many extreme sports at your disposal.
Chang Mai ZooChiang Mai Zoo is the oldest zoo in Thailand, built in 1977, and is home to over 400 animal exhibits. This may not be one of the world's top zoos, yet for South East Asian standards, it is very well rated. Animals are well cared for and have plenty of room to roam about, and an abundance of public feeding times allows visitors a more rewarding experience. Feed elephants, watch pandas shred their bamboo sticks and get up, close and not-too-personal with hippos, koalas, penguins, lions and tigers. You'll find two elephants here (as expected) and you'll have the chance to ride on their backs, something animal experts don't recommend you do, as it puts unnatural pressure on the animal's spine. Do note that the zoo is set on very extensive grounds and, although there is a hop-on/hop-off shuttle bus plying the routes, you'll still be required to do lots of walking. Start early in the morning and bring plenty of water. Also keep in mind that certain areas of the zoo require an additional fee, so ask at the front desk upon entry.
Mae Rim Tiger KingdomIn a country renowned for its animal exploitation, the Tiger Kingdom of Mae Rim (about 35kms north of Chiang Mai) is still considered one of the best places where you can get get very close to tigers, both adult and cubs. Whether or not the animals are sedated is still very much in question, but the great majority of visitors find them to be happy and alert. A visit here makes for a long and expensive outing from the city (and you'll get merely 10 minutes with a furry feline) but if this is the only chance you have to see a tiger then it is always an option.
Elephant Nature ParkChinag Mai's Elephant Nature Park is one of the most respected animal welfare centres in all of Thailand, dedicated to the rehabilitation of abused, injured, disabled and exploited elephants. Found about 60kms outside of Chiang Mai, this stunning park covers over 250 hectares of natural, forested landscape. This is a wonderful place to explore, where not only will you get the chance to admire this giant creatures in their natural environment, but you'll also get an enticing glimpse into rural life in Thailand. If you're a lover of animals and prefer to see them in their own habitat, without the need for them to perform for you or have you ride on their backs for fun, then this is a place you don't want to miss visiting.
Night BazaarChiang Mai's Night Bazaar is the city's favoured night time fun spot and suitable for people of all ages. A historic market, where traders from nearby hilltribes used to converge here to sell their wares to passing Chinese and Burmese buyers, it is nowadays filled primarily with tourist-oriented wares. Beset by dedicated shopping malls, which sell everything from homewares to clothing and artefacts, the bazaar also boasts a plethora of food options to suit all tastes. It'll take you hours to meander through the markets, which stretch for quite a few of the city's blocks, but after a while the stalls may start to seem a little repetitive. Plenty of lady-boy cabaret shows to be found here too.
Rock Climbing/CavingNorthern Thailand is a renowned rock-climbing spot and when you visit Chiang Mai you'll find a wide range of agencies who can take you on guided and unguided trips (transport and lunch only) to nearby hotspots, which are near impossible to find on your own. Pick well respected agency, like Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures, and set off on a fantastic adventure of climbing, abseiling and cave exploring. If you're a newbie, we recommend you book a full day intro for the best, and safest, way to learn all about this thoroughly enticing sport.
Mae Sa WaterfallsRenting a scooter and taking the scenic 20-minute ride to Mae Sa Waterfalls is a lovely way to spend an afternoon out of town. The multi-tiered falls, which are within the grounds of the below mentioned national park, are ideal if you fancy a dip in refreshing waters on a hot day. The park offers hiking opportunities and costs ฿100 ($3.10) to enter. Combine it with a visit to Chiang Dao Caves (a further 60km up the road) for a brilliant full-day outing.
TemplesChiang Mai is home to over 300 temples. When visiting please be mindful and respectful of local custom; dress and behave appropriately and you're bound to have a very rewarding experiences.
Wat Phra That Doi SuthepWat Phra That Doi Suthep is northern Thailand's most important temple and the glistening in Chinag Mai's crown. You'll find it sitting proud atop of Mount Suthep, about 15 km from the city centre. The Wat's gilded 15m tall chedi is one of the most iconic sights in Chan Mai and, at over 1000m in altitude, is visible from the city on a crystal clear day. Legend has it that Wat Suthep was built around 1386, after an elephant was sent into the hills to select a suitable spot. Once on this spot, the elephant trumpeted, circled about and then dropped dead. To those in the know, this was a particularly good sign. The temple itself and the views it grants at this elevation are simply extraordinary, although a steep climb of 300 steps is needed to enjoy both. You could always cheat and pay ฿20 ($0.62) for a cable car ride instead. Admire the opulent entrance, with its serpent framed staircase ready to ascend you to the heavens. If you don;t want to splurge on a taxi from town, then simply hop on a songthaew at the front of the Chiang Mai University. Expect to pay around ฿50 ($1.55) per person.
Wat Chedi LuangBuilt around 1400, Wat Chedi Luang may not be as glistening at Wat Suthep, yet it is still one of Chinag Mai's most breathtaking sights, despite the fact that it was badly damaged during a 16th century earthquake. the temple used to house the famous Emerald Buddha and boasts an intricately craved chedi (albeit a crumbling one) which was set to be the tallest structure in the city at the time of its construction. the most atmospheric time to visit is after sunset, when the temple is beautifully lit and blissfully peaceful. You'll find this temple right in the heart of town, within the city's walls.
Wat UmongBuilt in the 14th century and located at the base of Doi Suthep, in an isolated forest on the outskirts of Chinag Mai. Wat Umong is a unique temple that is half underground and features unconventional styles of architecture including caves and tunnels. Wall paintings and frescos are well maintained and you'll find innumerable shaded spots where you can take a moment's rest and enjoy the serene atmosphere. Book a spot in one of the weekly meditation classes held here, or bring a packed lunch to enjoy by the shores of the fish and turtle filled ponds. A striking stupa and splendid giant Buddha statue are this wat's most defining features.
Little known fact, it was once abandoned for six centuries!
Wat Chiang ManWat Chiang Man was built in 1296 and is the city's oldest regal temple. It houses two rare Buddhist statues - the marble and crystal Buddhas-and boasts some of the most diving gardens in town, brimming with innumerable elephant statues. This may not be the most outstanding temple in town, architecturally speaking, but its historical importance and numerous priceless relics may it perhaps the most prized. You'll see the two shrines containing the crystal Buddhas as soon as you enter the grounds, and you'll find the beautiful elephant chedi just behind them.
You'll find Wat Chiang Man in the north-west corner of the walled city centre.
Wat Phra SinghBuilt in 1345, Wat Phra Singh houses the famous Phra Singh Buddha statue, although at least two other wats in Thailand lay much the same claim. Nowadays this is one of the most prolific wats in the city, and a modest fee is payable on entry. the complex boasts several temples and pagodas, as well as an eerily realistic wax figurine of a monk. You'll find statues, carvings, paintings and murals, and wonderful gardens to top it off. Most of the complex was beautifully restored 10 years ago, making Wat Phra Singh one of the best preserved in the whole city.
The FoodEver seen a Thai restaurant with 'Lanna' written in the name? This signifies that it's from the North, which is also where some of the best food from Thailand originated from. One can live in Chiang Mai for months, eating various different meals every day, and still not have tried everything this city has to offer. Chiang Mai is world-renowned for its food. It has a long history of a mix between Burmese and Thai food, below is a list of some of the dishes created in the North, the most famous and favorite:
- Khao Soi: A Burmese-influenced dish of curry and egg or rice noodles.
- Gaeng Hang Lay: A yellow tamarind based curry.
- Tam Khanun: Jackfruit salad.
- Sai Oua: Grilled sausage.
Cooking classesCooking schools are advertised all over the city center, inside the large walls that surround the old city.
FestivalsChiang Mai is the host to many famous festivals, some occurring for more than a week and some are just early morning celebrations.
Songkran (April)Thailand's most famous festival, the water-festival. Chiang Mai is chaotic at this time as the local people and tourists arrive to celebrate this popular festival. Prepare to get wet, you will get hit by water-balloons, water-guns, and any other water expelling object.
Loi Krathong (November)The festival of lanterns. The classic image of thousands of lanterns being released into the sky at once. A truly incredible experience.
Early morning almsOne can offer the monks donations as they finish their fasting and many other popular events take place during the year.
Getting AroundWhile in Thailand, it is better to barter your way through a situation when it comes to transportation.
The Red TrucksSometimes referred to as “Songthaew”, these are red pick-up trucks with seats in the back and a covered top that will take you almost everywhere. They will take you around the city center and usually cost around ฿20 ($0.62), if you are staying within the city center. You can also negotiate to go outside this region which will result in higher fees. These trucks are also available in yellow, depending on which direction you are heading.
Tuk TuksMore trustworthy in the North then in the South, these are vehicles with large seating areas, usually converted from old motorcycles. Prices are always negotiable, so get your poker face on and prepare to barter!
TaxisIt is very rare for one to see a normal pink, green, or yellow taxi in Chiang Mai.
Motorcycles and ScootersEasily rented throughout the city and the price can range anywhere from 100 - ฿300 ($9.30) for a 100 - 150 CC scooter. Tip: take photographs of the vehicle before you drive off for legal reasons.
Get In and Out
The AirportChiang Mai International Airport is situated 3 km southwest of the city center, offering an easy option for any traveler wanting to explore the city. It generally cost around ฿50 ($1.55) - ฿100 ($3.10) to get to the city center, much cheaper than in Bangkok where you would be charged around ฿500 ($16) and more. The airport has over 15 different airlines with an endless list of options to numerous destinations nearby.
The VIP-bus methodThailand is, luckily, connected via a very large mini-VIP bus system and large public transport. One can travel from any point in Thailand to any destination in South East Asia. Prices vary depending on the season, but generally one can reach Chiang Mai from Bangkok for around ฿500 ($16). Government buses will drop you off at the government bus station, while certain VIP buses will drop you off in the city center.
TrainsThailand still rely heavily on train travel with its extensive train track system, much like the bus method, one can go from one destination to another for under ฿1,000 ($31) in Thailand.
Best Time to visitWheather-wise, Chiang Mai is a fantastic place to visit at any time of year, yet external conditions make some months more ideal than others. The incessant and extensive rice field back-burning which occurs from March to June can result in the entire region being besieged by haze and thick smoke, making it unbearable for many. You may also find the last two months of this period humid beyond words, and the tropical heat can be debilitating for most foreigners. Winters here are mild and bearable, with warm to very warm days and pleasantly chilly nights. Pack a thick sweater if visiting between November and February, especially if you're planning on renting a scooter and hitting the high-altitude roads.
Popular Nearby Destinations
- Pai is a paradise for backpackers and hippies, located 135 km from Chiang Mai. Mountain views, waterfalls, circus schools, it's a sure delight. Accessible by bus, motorcycle which is quite dangerous, and taxi. For backpackers, this location is a must.
- Chiang Dao is a stop-off for many mountain treks, which Chiang Mai is known for.
- Chiang Rai is a large city in the North, approximately 3 hours from Chiang Mai, known for its famous White Temple.
- Laos is easily accessible via Chiang Kong from Chiang Mai. Costing as little as ฿700 ($22) for a trip to the border, though embassies generally advice against travelling near Thailand's borders.
- Mae Hong Son is a picturesque mountain city located 235 km from Chiang Mai.
- Bangkok is easily accessed via train or bus, in approximately 8 hours by these methods, each running around ฿500 ($16) - ฿1,000 ($31). A flight would typically last one and a half hours and prices are roughly ฿1,500 ($47).
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Author: ChaseHunter. Last updated: Feb 17, 2015