Chiang Mai: The Jewel of Northern Thailand
Before going to Thailand for the first time, my ideas about the country mainly revolved around beautiful beaches and the urban bustle of Bangkok. However, when I actually arrived and started exploring, it was not Phuket or the capital that truly caught my fancy – it was the northern city of Chiang Mai.
Being further off the beaten road than the more popular beach destinations, it is only now coming into the limelight. But now, Chiang Mai is getting tons of attention, and for all the right reasons. The city and province show another side of Thailand, one that definitely merits a visit and perhaps even a longer stay.
Where to start with describing Chiang Mai? Being somewhat of an amateur foodie, I have to go with the cuisine. Southern Thailand may get all the love for the fresh seafood, but Chiang Mai is where the country’s true flavors of lemongrass and cilantro come out to play. For lunch, a great place to sample the tastes of the town is at one of the many street food stalls and shops on Inthawororot Road.
Make sure to get there before 1pm or most of the best dishes could already be gone. Upscale restaurants exist for dinner, but keep in mind that the food from smaller spots is just as good and much cheaper to boot.
Chiang Mai by Day
With eating out of the way, it’s time to talk about what Chiang Mai has to offer in terms of activities. The truth about the city is that it’s actually quite small, but the range of things to do is very large. With a metro population of slightly less than 1 million people, new activities are appearing all the time, but these are some of my favorites from past trips.
Sports and Physical Activities
The surrounding province means that there are tons of active sporting opportunities and Chiang Mai tours. Rafting in the Mae Tang River is very cheap and the rainy season can bring grade 4 and 5 rapids. More expensive, but a once-in-a-lifetime chance is the zipline tour of the rainforest canopy, which can also include a visit to the outstanding Mae Kompong waterfall.
One of the most common images associated with Chiang Mai is of the many temples in and near the city. The list includes Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, which is nearly 20 kilometers outside of town, but definitely worth the effort to get there.
The gold-plated temple is one of the best examples of Buddhist architecture. In Chiang Mai proper, the Wat Phra Singh inside the city walls shows a completely different type of temple.
Despite its relatively small size, the city of Chiang Mai is home to a number of impressive museums, many of which deserve a spot in a traveler’s itinerary. The Arts and Cultural Center is a great place to learn about the Thai history in the region. Another interesting choice is the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders. Comparatively expensive at 300 Baht per person, budget visitors may want to save this one for another visit if they are pressed for time.
Chiang Mai by Night
If Chiang Mai is on your list of destinations, then you probably already know a little something about how the city comes alive once the sun goes down. At the same time, there may be some night activities that have slipped past your radar. Here are a couple of the top things to do on balmy Chiang Mai nights.
The Night Safari
The zoo is open during the day, but the time to pay a visit is definitely at night. A guided safari tour starts at around 8-9pm each night and will take you through several different environments. In the dark setting, the savanna feels more real and spotting various beasts can add a touch of excitement to the event. The night safari includes animals like African hunting dogs, Asian black bears, and white tigers, just to name a few.
The Night Market
Temperatures in the daytime can get pretty high, so the Thai solution in Chiang Mai has been to hold a massive market at night. When the sun starts going down, the shopping action starts heating up. Most vendors will have their wares on display no later than 6pm and some stay open as late as midnight. In short, everything is for sale here, from beautiful silk clothes and custom jewelry to art and cheap souvenirs.
Drinking in Chiang Mai
When the night market begins to shut down, many travelers opt for a drink or two at one of the city’s many watering holes. While there are plenty of options in the same area as the night market, there are also some other places to go. On the banks of the Ping River is the spot for live music.
Moon Muang Road is another common choice, with plenty of clubs and dancing opportunities. For a strange experience, taking in a show at the Simon or Blue Moon Cabaret may give a glimpse of the “ladyboy” scene in the city.
Where to Stay
One of the great things about Chiang Mai is that lodging is both cheap and high quality. Here are some ideas for accommodation options:
- 20 Best Guest Houses in Chiang Mai
- Top 10 Customer Rated Resorts in Chiang Mai, Thailand
- Top 20 Highest Rated Hotels in Chiang Mai
In my own personal experience, there are several places that I have enjoyed tremendously. One such place is the Red Hibiscus Guesthouse, which had my favorite massage in Chiang Mai as well as bike rental for getting around the city.
A more luxury experience that still had that small guesthouse Chiang Mai feeling was at the Amata Lanna Chiangmai. The hotel was incredibly comfortable and had I not wanted to explore the city, I could have spent a week on the premises.
Once you’ve spent some time in Chiang Mai, it can start to feel like a second home. It’s for this exact reason that there is a quickly growing expat community and more people are visiting every year. The combination of a vibrant city life with a relaxed village feel is what makes Chiang Mai city one of the most welcoming places in Thailand and in the whole of Southeast Asia.