Welcome to Chiang Mai
A sprawling modern city has grown up around ancient Chiang Mai (เชียงใหม่), ringed by a tangle of superhighways. Despite this, the historic centre of Chiang Mai still feels overwhelmingly residential, more like a sleepy country town than a bustling capital. If you drive in a straight line in any direction, you’ll soon find yourself in the lush green countryside and pristine rainforests dotted with churning waterfalls, serene wát and peaceful country villages – as well as a host of markets and elephant sanctuaries.
Table of Contents
- 1. On the ground
- 2. Understand
- 3. Practical information
East of the Old City & Riverside
Beyond Pratu Tha Phae is Chiang Mai’s traditional commercial quarter, with sprawling bazaars and old-fashioned shophouses running down to the riverbank.
Before the construction of the roads and railways, Mae Ping was the main route of transit for goods coming into Chiang Mai. The markets along the riverbank are where the Lanna kingdom came to trade with the rest of Thailand, and via the Silk Route, with the rest of Asia. The river was used to transport everything from fruit and vegetables to the giant trunks of teak trees, but trade on the river slowly died after the arrival of the railways in 1922.
Mae Ping still traces a lazy passage through the middle of Chiang Mai, but few vessels ply its waters today, with the exception of tour boats, which provide an excellent vantage point from which to view the city. The longest-established operator is Scorpion Tailed River Cruise, which runs river tours in covered long-tailed boats from a pier by Wat Srikhong (just north of the Nakhon Ping bridge). Tours pass through peaceful countryside en route to a country farm, where passengers get a snack of mango and sticky rice. Mae Ping River Cruise offers similar trips starting from Wat Chaimongkhon, south of the centre on Th Charoen Prathet, as well as longer cruises to Wiang Kum Kam.
If you don’t mind paddling yourself, Chiang Mai Mountain Biking & Kayaking offers guided kayak tours along Mae Ping, visiting forested stretches north of the city.
Teak-Era Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai was never colonised by European powers, but the city has many of the hallmarks of European influence, dating back to the time when teak concessionaires from Britain and the US built fortunes on the timber being hauled from the surrounding forests.
One of the most striking colonial relics is the weatherboard First Church, just south of Nawarat Bridge on the east bank, founded by the Laos Mission from North Carolina in 1868. Just south of here, the Iron Bridge was built as a homage to the demolished Nawarat Bridge, whose steel beams were fabricated by engineers from Cleveland in England. Local folklore states that the famous memorial bridge in Pai is not a WWII relic but a 1970s fake, built using reclaimed beams from Chiang Mai’s Nawarat Bridge.
If you head in the other direction along the west bank, you’ll pass the colonial-style former Main Post Office, which now houses a small philatelic museum. Similar Thai-Colonial administrative buildings spread out around the junction of Th Ratwithi and Th Phra Pokklao in the old city, where the former Provincial Hall, now the Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre, and Provincial Courthouse, now the Lanna Folklife Museum, show the clear influence of the British ‘gentlemen foresters’ who controlled 60% of Chiang Mai’s teak industry in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Many of the teak concessionaires’ mansions have fallen into disrepair, but the colonial style of architecture was adopted by the Lanna royal family. One of the most impressive surviving teak-era mansions is the Lanna Architecture Center, formerly owned by prince Jao Maha In, built between 1889 and 1893; it displays some interesting models showing the changing face of Lanna architecture through the centuries. The former British Consulate, now the Service 1921 restaurant at the Anantara Resort, the central building at 137 Pillars, and the Dara Pirom Palace in Mae Rim are also fine examples of this hybrid style.
North of the Old City
From Pratu Chang Pheuak (White Elephant Gate), it’s a short walk north to the Elephant Monument, whose twin elephant statues in stucco pavilions are said to have been erected by King Chao Kavila in 1800.
The life story of Princess Dara Rasmee (1873–1933) is rich with political intrigue, surprise twists and even a happily ever after. The daughter of the last Lanna king, Phra Chao Inthawichayanon, Dara Rasmee was born in Chiang Mai, but her father dispatched her to the royal palace in Bangkok at the age of 13 to cement ties between the two dynasties. Adopted into the royal household, the princess was taken as a consort by King Chulalongkorn at the age of 14. The engagement united the two royal houses, providing a warning shot to the British Empire, which was increasing its power in the teak-rich north of the country.
Dara Rasmee was famously beautiful, and she became one of the king’s favourite consorts (he had more than 100). Unlike other female residents in the royal compound, the princess continued to follow Lanna traditions, wearing her hair in a bun, dressing in northern costume, and speaking the northern dialect. The princess and King Chulalongkorn had a daughter together in 1889 but the child died before her third birthday and Dara Rasmee entered a state of mourning.
Shortly before his own death in 1910, the king gave Dara Rasmee the honorific title of Phra Raj Jaya, which elevated her to the status of an official royal wife, the only royal consort to receive such an honour. The widowed princess returned to Chiang Mai in 1914 and lived out her days at Darapirom Palace, cultivating roses, promoting Lanna culture and establishing the cultivation of longans to provide income for Northern Thai farmers. Dara Rasmee died of consumption at the age of 60, but she is still greatly loved by Thais, who regard her as a bridge linking the culture and peoples of central and northern Thailand.
Freshers’ Week, Thai-style
At the start of every academic year in July, the entire first-year class from Chiang Mai University embarks on a pilgrimage on foot to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, to introduce new students to the spirit of the city, believed to reside in the mountain. More ambitious students make the ascent via a muddy footpath, which starts close to the TV tower near the back entrance to Chiang Mai Zoo and continues through the grounds of Wat Phalad. To get to the start of the path, go to the end of the university perimeter wall on Th Suthep and then follow the signposted road on the right towards Palaad Tawanron to reach the back entrance to the zoo; bear left at this fork and you’ll reach the TV tower and a brown sign showing the start of the trail.
Within the old city, temples dominate the skyline, orange-robed monks weave in and out of the tourist crowds and the atmosphere is more like a country town than a heaving modern city. However, the residential feel of the old city is changing as government offices move out, residents sell up and developers move in.
Wat To See Around Town
If you still have a taste for more Thai religious architecture, there are dozens more historic wát scattered around the old city and the surrounding streets. Here are some good places to start your explorations.
Wat Inthakhin Saduemuang Marooned in the middle of Th Inthawarorot, this was the original location of the làk meuang (city pillar), and the gilded teak wí·hăhn (sanctuary) is one of the most perfectly proportioned buildings in the city.
Wat Phan On Set with gilded Buddhas in alcoves decorated with lai·krahm (gold-pattern stencilling), the gold chedi (stupa) at this prosperous wát is visited by scores of devotees after dark. The courtyard becomes a food court during the Sunday Walking Street market.
Wat Jet Lin This friendly wát was used for the coronation of Lanna kings in the 16th century; today you can see a collection of giant gongs, a big old mon·dòp-style chedi and a large gilded Buddha with particularly graceful proportions.
Wat Lokmoli An elegant wooden complex dotted with terracotta sculptures. The wí·hăhn is topped by a dramatic sweeping three-tiered roof and the tall, barrel-shaped chedi still has some of its original stucco.
Wat Chomphu Just north of Th Tha Phae, this calm monastery has a gorgeous gilded stupa with gold elephants, restored as a tribute to the king in 1999.
Wat Ou Sai Kham This friendly neighbourhood wát has an impressive collection of jade Buddhas and jade and nephrite boulders in its main wí·hăhn.
Wat Mahawan A handsome, whitewashed wát that shows the obvious influence of the Burmese teak traders who used to worship here. The chedi and Burmese-style gateways are decorated with a stucco menagerie of angels and mythical beasts.
Wat & Religious Sites
The highlight of any visit to the old city is exploring the temples that burst out on almost every street corner, attracting hordes of pilgrims, tourists and local worshippers. For a calmer experience, visit late in the afternoon, when the tourist crowds are replaced by monks attending evening prayers. Visitors are welcome but follow the standard rules of Buddhist etiquette: stay quiet during prayers, keep your feet pointed away from Buddha images and monks, and dress modestly (covering shoulders and knees).
The old city has three excellent historical museums – the Lanna Folklife Museum, the Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre and the Chiang Mai Historical Centre – located in a series of Thai-colonial-style buildings that used to house the city administration. You can buy a single ticket covering all three, valid for a week, for 180/80B (adult/child).
South of the Old City
The main highway running southwest from the old city, Th Wualai is famous for its silver shops and the entire street reverberates to the sound of smiths hammering intricate religious designs and ornamental patterns into bowls, jewellery boxes and decorative plaques made from silver, or, more often, aluminium. This is also the location for the energetic Saturday Walking Street market.
West of the Old City
Modern Chiang Mai has sprawled west from the old city towards Doi Suthep and the Chiang Mai University, but there are a few historic sites dotted around the streets. The main attraction here is the Neimmanhaemin area with its trendy restaurants and shops.
Chiang Mai for Children
Chiang Mai is very popular with families, both for its easygoing vibe and for the massive range of activities on offer. As a sensible first step, pick a hotel with a pool and plan out your days to avoid overload; chartering a rót daang (literally ‘red truck’) or túk-túk (motorised three-wheel taxi; pronounced dúk dúk) will give you the independence to come and go as you please. Suan Buak Hat has the most convenient playground in the old city. At meal times you can find familiar Western food in the old city and shopping centres.
Set aside one day for an elephant interaction – Patara Elephant Farmgets the balance of conservation and interaction just right – and another day for a paddle, swim and picnic at the Mae Sa waterfalls. Kids six and up will adore ziplining with the very well run Flight of the Gibbon. Wát trips are popular with kids and the compounds are green, calm and mostly traffic free; Phra That Doi Suthep, Suan Dok, U Mong Thera Jan, Chedi Luang and Phra Singh have the most going on to keep small sightseers entertained. The three old-city museums have plenty of modern, kid-friendly displays, and zoo-style wildlife encounters are possible at the Chiang Mai Zoo and Chiang Mai Night Safari.
For days when the temperature rises to unbearable levels, all the big shopping centres have icy air-con, multi-screen cinemas and kids’ activities; Central Festival has the Sub-Zero ice-rink, complete with ‘walkers’ for first-time skaters. Grand Canyon Water Park is another great escape especially for older kids and teens who like adrenalin-charged water fun.
Outdoor escapes are easy in Chiang Mai, with tropical rainforests, looming mountains, rushing rivers, hill-tribe villages, and sanctuaries and camps full of elephants all within an hour’s drive of the city. Dozens of operators offer adventure tours, exploring the forested mountains and waterways on foot, or by bike, raft, all-terrain-vehicle and even zipline.
If you’re curious about Buddhism, many Chiang Mai temples offer popular Monk Chat sessions, where novice monks get to practise their English and tourists get to find out about the inner workings of monastery life. It’s a fascinating opportunity to discover a little more about the rituals and customs that most Thai men undertake for at least a small portion of their lives. Remember to dress modestly as a sign of respect: cover your shoulders and knees. Because of ritual taboos, women should take care not to touch the monks or their belongings, or to pass anything directly to them.
Wat Suan Dok Has a dedicated room for Monk Chats from 5pm to 7pm Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Wat Srisuphan Holds its sessions from 5.30pm to 7pm just before a meditation course.
Wat Chedi Luang Has a table under a shady tree where monks chat from 9am to 6pm daily.
Wat Pha Khao Holds a low-key session from 5pm to 9pm on Saturday and Sunday.
Pampering & Pummelling
Once upon a time in Chiang Mai, massage parlours offered little more than a mattress and a vigorous pummelling for a modest fee, but these days the focus has shifted to lavish spas, which strive to re-create the elegant lifestyle of Lanna royalty, with massage tables set in lush gardens full of birdsong and the sound of trickling water.
If you fancy a massage in Chiang Mai, we recommend going to one end of the spectrum or the other. If you don’t fancy a lavish pampering at a posh spa, head instead to the very inexpensive, informal massage pavilions inside some of Chiang Mai’s wát or the massage services run as rehabilitation schemes for the blind and for former prison inmates.
Ethical Elephant Interactions
Elephants have been used as beasts of burden in Thailand for thousands of years, hauling logs from the teak forests and transporting the carriages of Thai royalty. The elephant-headed deities Erawan and Ganesha are revered by Buddhists and Hindus alike, and even the outline of Thailand resembles an elephant’s head, with its trunk extending down into the isthmus.
With the nationwide ban on logging in 1989, thousands of working elephants suddenly found themselves out of a job, and herders and mahouts (elephant drivers) looked for new ways to generate revenue from their animals. So were born Chiang Mai’s elephant camps, where former logging herds now entertain visiting tourists with circus-style displays and rides through the forest. However, growing awareness of animal welfare issues is shining a new spotlight on this industry and its practices.
Elephant rides are particularly problematic, with just one of the many issues including the fact that the howdahs (carriages) used to carry tourists place severe strain on elephants’ spines and can cause debilitating damage over time. Circus-like performances also put elephants at risk of injury, many camps keep their elephants chained and segregated, and traditional ankus and similar types of metal hooks are used to control the animals. Government regulations offer little to no oversight, as they still classify elephants as modes of transport, and many animals show clear signs of psychological damage, which has manifested itself in attacks on humans.
There are alternatives. Ideally, activist groups state, elephants should be left unchained and allowed to form their own social groups in sprawling compounds (although there is rarely enough land for this). In place of rides, visitors walk around the grounds with elephants and their mahouts, feeding the animals by hand with fruit and vegetables and helping out at bath-time in the creek.
Increasingly, you can contribute to elephant conservation without the uncomfortable feeling that you are contributing to the problem. The reality is that most elephants cannot be returned to the wild and tourist dollars are often the only way to finance their ongoing care. The scientific community stresses that the best camps should have a dedicated veterinary station where the animals can be treated for injuries and medical conditions. If rides are offered, bareback riding, where the rider sits on the elephants’ shoulders, is less harmful than rides in wooden howdahs, though many animal welfare experts insist that rides should be avoided altogether because elephants undergo brutal abuse to ‘learn’ how to accept riders. Groups such as the ACEWG (Asian Captive Elephant Working Group) are working with communities to encourage kinder training techniques and insight into how humans and elephants can better work together.
Trekking in Chiang Mai
Thousands of visitors trek into the hills of northern Thailand each year hoping to see fantastic mountain scenery, interact with traditional tribespeople and meet elephants. A huge industry has grown up to cater to this demand, but the experience is very commercial and may not live up to everyone’s notion of adventure.
The standard package involves a one-hour minibus ride to Mae Taeng or Mae Wang, a brief hike to an elephant camp, bamboo rafting and, for multiday tours, an overnight stay in or near a hill-tribe village. Many budget guesthouses pressure their guests to take these trips because of the commissions paid, and may ask guests to stay elsewhere if they decline. Note that they also arrange elephant rides, though these are not recommended as rides can be detrimental to the health of the animals.
While these packages are undeniably popular, they may visit elephant camps that have a questionable record on elephant welfare. Hill-tribe trips can also disappoint, as many of the villages now house a mix of tribal people and Chinese and Burmese migrants and have abandoned many aspects of the traditional way of life. Rafting can also be a tame drift on a creek, rather than an adrenalin-charged rush over white water.
If you crave real adventure, you’ll have to be a bit more hands-on about organising things yourself. To get deep into the jungle, rent a motorcycle and explore the national parks north and south of Chiang Mai; Chiang Dao is an excellent place to base yourself for jungle exploration. To see elephants in natural conditions, spend a day at Elephant Nature Park, then raft real white water with Siam River Adventures. To encounter traditional hill-tribe culture, you’ll need to travel to more remote areas than you can reach on a day trip from Chiang Mai; your best bet is to travel to Tha Ton and book a multiday trek from there.
Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s most famous destinations for elephant encounters, with more elephant camps opening by the day it seems, though many still offer packages of non-bareback elephant rides, circus-like sideshows and buffalo cart rides or bamboo rafting on the nearest river. Better camps offer interaction in place of exploitation: visitors walk with, feed and wash the elephant herds, but avoid activities that are harmful to the animals’ welfare.
Forested mountains rise up around Chiang Mai like green giants, starting right at the city limits. Just 15km from the old city, Doi Suthep National Park is watered by crashing cascades and criss-crossed by hiking and mountain-biking trails that are regarded as some of the finest in the country. For a taste of the jungle, consider taking a rented motorcycle to the top of Doi Suthep, or around the Mae Sa–Samoeng Loop, which winds across the lower slopes of the mountain. Rock climbers head to Crazy Horse Buttress, an impressive set of limestone cliffs behind the Tham Meuang On cave, 35km east of Chiang Mai, off Rte 1317 between San Kamphaeng and Ban Huai Kaew.
The closest rushing river for white-water rafting and kayaking is the wild and frothy Mae Taeng, which carves a path through the mountains near Chiang Dao. The long white-water season runs from July to March, and operators follow a 10km stretch of the river with rapids from grade II to grade V. Note that the river is prone to flash-flooding after heavy monsoon rain and can be dangerous at this time; when choosing a white-water operator take a careful look at its safety equipment and procedures.
Make reservations far in advance if visiting during Chinese New Year, Songkran and other holiday periods.
Accommodation prices in the city are slowly creeping up, but you can still find a respectable air-con room from 650B.
East of the Old City
While it isn’t as quaint as the old city, Th Tha Phae is just as convenient for sightseeing and nightlife and is even closer to the Night Bazaar.
There are literally hundreds of places to stay in the old city. Go for the quieter ones dotted around the tiny lanes linking the main streets.
The neighbourhoods on either bank of the riverside are less touristy, but are handy for the night market and the riverside eateries on the east bank.
San Pa Thong
For those who find downtown Chiang Mai too hectic, there are many scenic country resorts just beyond the superhighways where you can surround yourself with misty mountains, green fields and tropical forests. The following are less than two hours’ drive from Chiang Mai.
West of the Old City
Staying west of the old city puts you close to Chiang Mai University and trendy Th Nimmanhaemin’s bars and restaurants.
The city’s fabulous night markets, which sprawl around the main city gates and several other locations, offer the best food.
The Chinese-influenced love for pork is exemplified by the northern Thai speciality of sâi òo·a (pork sausage). A good-quality sâi òo·a should be zesty and spicy with subtle flavours of lemongrass, ginger and turmeric. Sample them at any food market.
East of the Old City
In the early morning, vendors sell nám đow·hôo (soy milk) and baton-shaped youtiao (Chinese-style doughnuts) from stalls in Chiang Mai’s small Chinatown. For the very best sâi òo·a (pork sausage) seek out the stall known as Dom Rong inside the dried goods hall at Talat Warorot.
Everyone knows that the best food in Chiang Mai is served on the street, and the city’s night markets are fragrant, frenetic and fabulous. Every evening from around 5pm, hawker stalls set up in key locations around the old city, alongside smoothie stalls and beer and soft-drink vendors. Each stall has a speciality: you’ll find everything from grilled river fish and pàt gà prow (chicken or meat fried with chilli and holy basil) to Western-style steaks, grilled prawns, and ‘Tornado potato’ (a whole potato, corkscrew sliced and deep fried).
The city’s day markets are also thronged by food stalls and wholesale vendors, who prepare gàp kôw (pre-made stews and curries served with rice) and other take-home meals for busy city workers. And, of course, the Saturday and Sunday Walking Street markets are mobbed by food hawkers. Here’s a guide to Chiang Mai’s best market eats:
Talat Pratu Chiang Mai This heaving market sells foodstuffs and ready-made packed lunches by day and night-market treats after dark. It’s mobbed nightly, particularly during Th Wualai’s Saturday Walking Street.
Talat Pratu Chang Pheuak Sprawling west from the city’s northern gate, this is one of Chiang Mai’s most popular night markets, serving all the usual suspects, alongside the city’s finest kôw kăh mŏo (slow-cooked pork leg with rice), prepared with a flourish by the ‘Cowboy Hat Lady’ – you can’t miss her stall.
Talat Somphet A small local food market north of Pratu Tha Phae that transforms into a night market after hours. Many of the cooking schools do their market tours here.
Talat Ton Phayom This local market off Th Suthep is a popular stop for visiting Thais who come to pick up authentic northern foodstuffs such as kâap mŏo (pork rinds).
Talat Warorot The grandmother of Chiang Mai markets has northern Thai food stalls (mains from 30B) tucked in all sorts of corners.
Talat Thanin North of the old city off Th Chotana (Th Chang Pheuak), this public market specialises in takeaway meals, with vendors serving fish stews, curries, stir-fries and spicy condiments from huge pans, vats and platters.
Talat Na Mor A cheerful night market for the college set, with low prices and lots of choice; the student restaurants nearby on Th Huay Kaew are also worth investigating.
The old city is crammed with traveller cafes but standards vary widely, and there are limited options for an upmarket dinner.
The east side of Mae Ping is a good hunting ground for upscale choices.
West of the Old City
Th Nimmanhaemin and the surrounding soi excel in international cuisine, but restaurants and cafes appear and vanish overnight.
Out-of-town spots are favourites for Thais celebrating a special occassion.
Kôw Soy Sampler
Chiang Mai’s unofficial city dish is kôw soy (khao soi), wheat-and-egg noodles in a curry broth, served with pickled vegetables and sliced shallots, and garnished with deep-fried crispy noodles. The dish is thought to have its origins with the Yunnanese traders who came to Chiang Mai along the Silk Road, and the vendors along Halal Street (Soi 1, Th Charoen Prathet) near the Night Bazaar still serve some of the best in town. For our baht, Kao Soi Fueng Fah has the edge over other vendors, with its particularly flavourful bowls, but the more simple and salty broth at Khao Soi Islam is more popular with locals.
Another great place to try kôw soy is around Wat Faham on Th Charoenrat (also known as Th Faham), north of the Th Ratanakosin bridge on the eastern bank of Mae Ping. Our top pick is Khao Soi Lam Duan Fah Ham, a modest-looking place that is packed to the rafters at lunchtime with hordes of locals slurping down bowls of deliciously rich kôw soy. Nearby Khao Soi Samoe Jai also cooks up a tasty soup.
1.5 Drinking & Nightlife
Chiang Mai has three primary areas for watering holes: the old city, the riverside and Th Nimmanhaemin. Almost everyone ends up at either Riverside or Good View on the east bank of Mae Ping at some point in their stay.
Chiang Mai’s Coffee Buzz
If you closed your eyes and started randomly walking in central Chiang Mai, chances are high you’d walk into a cafe – there are that many. While global chains are present, most places are local, selling coffee sourced from the hill tribes and forest communities around the city. The high-quality arabica beans grown here were introduced as a replacement crop for opium. Some cafes have started taking coffee culture even further by roasting their own beans and brewing cups that would fit right in in Melbourne or San Francisco.
Here are our picks for the most snob-worthy coffees in Chiang Mai:
Akha Ama Cafe A cute local coffeshop founded by an enterprising Akha who was the first in his village to graduate from college.
Ristr8to Inspired by Australian coffee culture with roasting skills learned in the US; drinks come with a caffeine rating and are often topped with award-winning latte art. There are two banches in the Nimmanhaemin area.
Khagee A Japanese-style place that’s insanely popular. Pair basic but near-perfect brews with its fresh breads and pastries.
Wawee Coffee It’s hard to go more than a few blocks in Chiang Mai without stumbling across an air-conditioned Wawee Coffee branch. If you’re in a bind, this will do.
West of the Old City
Th Nimmanhaemin is popular with CMU students and hi-so (high society) Thais, and bars open and close here faster than you can order a cold bottle of Chang. Find the latest hot spots by cruising the soi and stopping wherever you find a crowd.
The old city has a handful of backpacker party bars, and a larger number of more genteel, pub-style watering holes.
There are several dedicated music venues, plus cinemas and moo·ay tai stadiums.
Chiang Mai has three moo·ay tai stadiums – Thapae Boxing Stadium, Loi Kroh Boxing Stadium and Kalare Boxing Stadium – showcasing a mixture of Thai and international fighters, but purists may find the scene a bit contrived compared to the real deal down south.
All the big shopping centres have flashy multiplex cinemas, screening the latest Thai and Hollywood blockbusters, with tickets from 100B up to 350B for deluxe seats with waitress service. Try the Maya Lifestyle Shopping Center, Central Airport Plaza, Central Festival, or the less flashy but cheaper Kad Suan Kaew Shopping Center.
As well as the dedicated music venues, the Riverside and Good Viewbars host bands nightly.
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s handicraft centre, and an incredible volume and variety of crafts are produced and sold here, from handwoven hill-tribe textiles to woodcarving, basketry and reproduction antiques (frequently sold without that disclaimer). The Saturday and Sunday Walking Street markets are Chiang Mai’s most entertaining shopping experiences.
East of the Old City
Th Tha Phae is lined with small shops selling antiques of sometimes questionable lineage, and lots of bijou emporiums selling jewellery, accessories, clothes and handicrafts.
For reed hats and basketware bits and bobs, try the specialist basket shops lined up along Th Chang Moi, just east of the city walls.
Lifestyle in a Box
Chiang Mai is becoming an impressive alternative to Bangkok when it comes to global brand names and shopping centres, helped of course by the explosion of travellers on shopping city breaks from China. The airport has the usual VAT refund scheme and there are megamalls scattered around the city fringes selling everything from Gucci pumps to the latest consumer electronics.
Night Time Shopping
At times, it can feel like the whole of Chiang Mai is an engine built to sell souvenirs, and nowhere is this feeling stronger than in the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, between the river and the old-city walls. As the afternoon wears on, hundreds of hawkers fill the pavement on both sides of the street, selling silk boxer shorts, ‘I Love Chiang Mai’ T-shirts, miniature wooden spirit houses, hill-tribe silver, dried mango, carved soaps, wooden elephants, wire models of túk-túk, Buddha paintings, fabrics, teddy-bear dioramas and selfie sticks. This slightly frenetic shopping experience is the modern legacy of the Yunnanese trading caravans that stopped here along the ancient Silk Road, and you’ll still need to haggle hard today.
Within the Night Bazaar are two large covered markets, signposted as Night Bazaar and Kalare Night Bazaar, selling more of the same, with an emphasis on wooden carvings, paintings and other handicrafts. The Kalare Night Bazaar is the more raucous of the two, with a blues bar on a raised podium in the centre.
South of Th Loi Kroh on Th Chang Khlan is the less claustrophobic Anusarn Night Bazaar, a semi-covered market filled with tables of vendors selling hill-tribe trinkets, wooden elephants, carved soap flowers and other cottage-industry goods. It’s also good for dried mango and other local preserves. Fringing the market are numerous massage and fish-nibbling-your-feet places, and there’s a tacky gà·teu·i (also spelt kàthoey) cabaret, which features cross-dresser or transgender performers.
For food, there are abundant fast-food joints, some excellent kôw soycanteens along Halal St (Soi 1, Th Charoen Prathet) and some touristy seafood places inside the Anusarn Food Center. There’s also a noisy open-air night market just north of Halal St on Th Chang Khlan, serving a good range of hawker favourites.
Túk-túk and rót daang loiter around the junction of Th Loi Kroh and Th Chang Khlan to transport you and your purchases home for a slightly elevated fare.
Shopping For A Cause
Chiang Mai is often described as Thailand’s conscience, with dozens of nongovernmental organisations working to alleviate the plight of impoverished villagers in the surrounding mountains. You can do your bit by shopping at the craft emporiums set up to provide a sustainable living for neglected people. Here are some good places to start
West of the Old City
Around affluent Th Nimmanhaemin, trendy and cosmopolitan boutiques pop up like mushrooms after rain (and vanish just as quickly).
Weekends are for Shopping!
As Bangkok has Chatuchak Weekend Market, so Chiang Mai has its weekend ‘walking streets’ – carnival-like street markets that close off main thoroughfares in the city on Saturday and Sunday for a riot of souvenir shopping, street performances and hawker food.
As the sun starts to dip on Saturday afternoon, the Saturday Walking Street takes over Th Wualai, running southwest from Pratu Chiang Mai. There is barely space to move as locals and tourists from across the world haggle vigorously for carved soaps, novelty dog collars, woodcarvings, Buddha paintings, hill-tribe trinkets, Thai musical instruments, T-shirts, paper lanterns and umbrellas, silver jewellery, herbal remedies, you name it.
An eclectic soundtrack is provided by wandering street performers – blind guitar players, husband-and-wife crooners, precocious school children with headset microphones – and food vendors fill every courtyard and alleyway. There are more stellar street-food offerings at nearby Talat Pratu Chiang Mai. To escape the crowds, duck into Wat Srisuphan, whose silver ubosot is illuminated in rainbow colours after dark.
On Sunday afternoon, the whole shebang moves across the city to Th Ratchadamnoen for the equally boisterous Sunday Walking Street, which feels even more animated because of the energetic food markets that open up in wát courtyards along the route. If you went to Th Wualai on Saturday, you’ll recognise many of the same sellers and buskers that you spotted the night before. The markets are a major source of income for local families and many traders spend the whole week hand-making merchandise to sell on Saturday and Sunday.
Woven bamboo, banana fibre and reed hats are the must-have souvenir from Southeast Asia, and you’ll find them in all of Chiang Mai’s street markets. However, Thais use basketry for an incredible range of purposes, from pillows and footstools to fish-traps and lampshades. You’ll find all sorts of basketry bits and bobs in the specialist basket shops lined up along Th Chang Moi, just east of the city walls. Basketry dinner trays and rice boxes make fantastic souvenirs that won’t make a big dent in your baggage weight allowance.
When travelling in and beyond the old city, directions are often given in relationship to the old city’s four cardinal gates.
Pratu Tha Phae (east) Head east from here along Th Tha Phae to reach the riverside, Talat Warorot and the Night Bazaar.
Pratu Chang Pheuak (north) Head north from here along Th Chotana (Th Chang Pheuak) to reach the Chang Pheuak Bus Terminal and Rte 107 to northern Chiang Mai Province.
Pratu Suan Dok (west) Head west from here along Th Suthep to reach Chiang Mai University, Doi Suthep, and the entertainment district of Th Nimmanhaemin.
Pratu Chiang Mai (south) Head southwest from here along Th Wualai for the Saturday Walking Street market and Rte 108 to southern Chiang Mai Province.
1.9 Self-guided Tours
Old City Temple Tour
- Start Wat Phra Singh
- End Talat Pratu Chang Pheuak
- Length 2.5km; five hours
No visit to Chiang Mai is complete without a temple tour. Start with the best, Wat Phra Singh, home to the city’s most revered Buddha image, the Lion Buddha, then stroll down Th Ratchadamnoen and turn right onto Th Phra Pokklao. In swift succession, you’ll get to the gorgeous teak wí·hăhn of Wat Phan Tao, which deserves a good wander, and the looming mass of Wat Chedi Luang, the largest and grandest Lanna chedi in the city. Perform a ceremonial circumambulation clockwise around the stupa, then duck into the Làk Meuang (if you’re a man – Buddhist rules dictate that women are not allowed to enter) to view the revered city pillar.
Turn on your heels now and follow Th Phra Pokklao north to the junction with Th Inthawarorot, where you’ll see the postcard-perfect wí·hăhn of Wat Inthakhin Saduemuang, which enshrined the city pillar in medieval times, perched surreally in the middle of the road. This is a good time to pause for lunch at the ever-popular Kiat Ocha for some kôw man gài (Hainanese-style boiled chicken). Suitably refreshed, walk another block north on Th Phra Pokklao to the Anusawari Sam Kasat, and pay your respects to the three Lanna kings who founded Chiang Mai.
You are now in the perfect location to take in Chiang Mai’s trinity of excellent city museums, the airy, Lanna-style Chiang Mai Historical Centre, the large Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre in a 1927 colonial building, and the Lanna Folklife Museum, which is arguably the best museum in town (all accessible on a combination ticket). If you can drag yourself away from the icy air-conditioning, continue north along Th Ratchaphakhinai to reach atmospheric and ancient Wat Chiang Man, the oldest wát in a city awash with ancient temples. To finish, walk on to the moat and enjoy the Cowboy Hat Lady’s fabulous kôw kăh mŏo (slow-cooked pork leg with rice) at Talat Pratu Chang Pheuak.
Thais are generally very understanding and hospitable, but there are some important taboos and social conventions.
- Monarchy It is a criminal offence to disrespect the royal family; treat objects depicting the king (like money) with respect.
- Temples Wear clothing that covers to your knees and elbows. Remove all footwear before entering. Sit with your feet tucked behind you, so they are not facing the Buddha image. Women should never touch a monk or a monk’s belongings; step out of the way on footpaths and don’t sit next to them on public transport.
- Modesty At the beach, avoid public nudity or topless sunbathing. Cover-up going to and from the beach.
- Body language Avoid touching anyone on the head and be careful where you point your feet; they’re the lowest part of the body literally and metaphorically.
- Saving face The best way to win over the Thais is to smile – visible anger or arguing is embarrassing.
King Phaya Mengrai (also spelt Mangrai) is credited for founding the kingdom of Lanna in the 13th century from his seat at Chiang Saen, but his first attempt at building a new capital on the banks of Mae Ping at Wiang Kum Kam lasted only a few years: the city was eventually abandoned due to flooding.
In 1296 King Mengrai relocated his capital to a more picturesque spot between the river and Doi Suthep mountain and named the auspicious city Nopburi Si Nakhon Ping Chiang Mai (shortened to Chiang Mai, meaning ‘New Walled City’). In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Lanna kingdom expanded as far south as Kamphaeng Phet and as far north as Luang Prabang in Laos, but it fell to Burmese invaders in 1556, starting an occupation that lasted 200 years.
After the fall of Ayuthaya in 1767 to the Burmese, the defeated Thai army regrouped under Phraya Taksin in present-day Bangkok and began a campaign to push out the occupying Burmese forces. Chao Kavila (also spelt Kawila), a chieftain from nearby Lampang principality, helped ‘liberate’ northern Thailand from Burmese control, and was appointed king of the northern states, placing Chiang Mai under the authority of the kingdom of Siam.
Under Kavila, Chiang Mai became an important trading centre, aided by its abundant supplies of teak, and monumental brick walls were built around the inner city. Many of the later Burmese-style temples were built by wealthy teak merchants who emigrated from Burma during this period. In their wake came missionaries and British teak concessionaires who built colonial-style villas around the old city.
The demise of the semi-autonomous Lanna state was only a matter of time. Bangkok designated Chiang Mai as an administrative unit in 1892 in the face of expanding colonial rule in neighbouring Burma and Laos, and the Lanna princess Dara Rasmi was sent to Bangkok to become one of the official consorts of King Rama V, cementing the ties between the two royal families.
The completion of the northern railway to Chiang Mai in 1922 finally linked the north with central Thailand and in 1933 Chiang Mai officially became a province of Siam. Even so, Chiang Mai remained relatively undeveloped until 2001, when prime minister and Chiang Mai native Thaksin Shinawatra sought to modernise the city by expanding the airport and building superhighways.
A high-speed rail link to Bangkok that will reduce travel time to 3½ hours is in planning stages but the date of construction has still not been set.
3.3 Other Features
Million Rice Fields
Once upon a time, northern Thailand was as separate and foreign to Bangkok as Cambodia or Laos is today. The northern kingdom of Lanna (meaning ‘one million rice fields’) had its own dialect, writing system, religious and social customs and tribal ethnicity. A concerted effort to create a unified ‘Thai’ identity began after WWII, and Lanna traditions declined in the face of massive influence from the south. Nevertheless, if you scratch the surface, you can still find traces of Lanna identity and even glimmers of Lanna national pride.
Carved crossed gables known as kalae (a legacy of animist tribal cults) still adorn buildings across Chiang Mai, and the northern Thai dialect continues to be spoken by millions of kun meu·ang (people of the north). Religious festivals in Chiang Mai erupt in a riot of noise and colour, as piphat bands strike up traditional tunes and devotees perform Lanna dances in outrageously colourful costumes. Songkran, a festival introduced to Thailand from the north, is celebrated with particular aplomb in Chiang Mai.
More tantalising glimpses of old Lanna can be seen at Anusawari Singh, just beyond Hwy 11 in the north of the city, where Chao Kavila built two stucco lions on an artificial island to scare off would-be Burmese invaders. The lions are the focus of boisterous celebrations as part of the Suep Jata Muang festival in June, when older residents of Chiang Mai dance and make offerings to Chiang Mai’s guardian spirits. Chao Kavila is also credited with building the stucco guardian elephants in the Elephant Monument by the bus station on Th Chotana (Th Chang Pheuak).
The animist origins of the Lanna kingdom are even more tangible at the Pu Sae Ya Sae festival, held 10 days after Suep Jata Muang at Mae Hia in the forest below Wat Phra That Doi Kham. According to legend, Doi Kham mountain was once the domain of two evil giants known as Pu Sae and Ya Sae, but Buddha appeared to the giants and convinced them to pursue a life of dharma, saving the people of Mae Hia. To invoke blessings from the giants, a water buffalo is sacrificed and skinned by a village shaman, who becomes possessed by the spirit of Pu Sae.
Soi Ban Haw
In ancient times, Chiang Mai straddled one of Asia’s famous crossroads: the southern spur of the Silk Road. Chinese-Muslim traders from Yunnan Province (China) drove their horse-drawn caravans south through the mountains to the Indian Ocean to trade with the merchant ships of seafaring powers. To the Thais of Chiang Mai, these caravans were a strange sight and the traders were nicknamed jeen hor (galloping Chinese), a reference to their strange beasts of burden.
The focus for this horse-trading was the market district known as Ban Haw, near the present Night Bazaar, where you’ll still find a thriving Yunnanese Muslim community. Traders worship at the 100-year-old Matsayit Ban Haw, founded by later arrivals from China. Along Halal St are a number of simple restaurants selling Thai-Muslim-style food, including excellent kôw soy (curried chicken and noodles), kôw mòk gài(chicken biryani) and néu·a òp hŏrm (‘fragrant’ dried beef).
The Plight of Chiang Mai’s Migrant Workers
Over the past three decades, an estimated 200,000 people have fled from Myanmar to Chiang Mai Province, escaping political violence, economic hardship and oppression in bordering Shan state. While some of these migrants have found sanctuary and opportunity in Thailand, others have found exploitation, working in almost slave-like conditions with little security or protection from abuse. Many of the ‘long-necked’ Padaung tribespeople put on display in tourist camps around Chiang Mai are actually indentured workers, working off fees charged by people-smugglers to bring them across the border.
Facing growing international and domestic pressure, the Thai government is taking steps to reduce the influx, tightening border controls, raiding people-smuggling camps, and introducing a nationality verification process, which qualifies migrants for legal status and a minimum wage. However, allegations that the police turn a blind eye to and even participate in exploitation are widespread.
In response to this situation, a number of nongovernmental organisations are working with the Burmese migrant community in Chiang Mai, providing health care, education and legal support for displaced people. If you are interested in contributing or volunteering, contact Chiang Mai’s Burma Study Center, an umbrella for projects working with the Burmese refugee community.
3.1 Getting Around
Cycling is a good way to get around Chiang Mai but be cautious on the ring roads circling the old city. Rickety sit-up-and-beg bikes can be rented for around 50B a day or 300B per week from guesthouses and shops around the old city. Check the bike carefully before you hire – brakes in particular can be very iffy.
If you want a superior bike, you can rent good-quality foreign-made road bikes (100B to 400B per day) and mountain bikes (250B to 1000B) from Chiang Mai Mountain Biking & Kayaking and Spice Roads. Spare parts for foreign bikes are available at Chaitawat Bikeshop.
Chiang Mai also has an under-utilised shared bike scheme, Bike@Chiangmai, with five stations in the old city – at Wat Phra Singh, in front of the Lanna Folklife Museum, at Pratu Tha Phae, at Pratu Chiang Mai and at Suan Buak Hat – and more across the city. Registration fees are 320B, and there’s a minimum 100B credit on the card you use to access the bikes; rental fees start at 20B for an hour.
Car & Truck
Cars and pick-up trucks can be hired from rental agencies throughout the city, particularly along Th Moon Muang, but stick to companies that offer full insurance (liability) coverage and breakdown cover, and check the terms so you’re clear on what is and isn’t included. Most companies ask for a cash deposit of 5000B to 10,000B.
Standard rental rates for small 1.5L cars start at 1000B per day; prices include unlimited kilometres but not petrol. Well-regarded agencies include the following:
North Wheels Offers hotel pick-up and delivery, 24-hour emergency road service and comprehensive insurance.
Thai Rent a Car
Budget Car Rental Across from Central Airport Plaza.
When renting a motorcycle, scooter or car in Chiang Mai, check the insurance small print carefully. Some companies hire out vehicles with only the most basic compulsory insurance, which gives limited cover if you harm somebody else in an accident, but provides no medical cover for you and no cover for damage to the vehicle you are hiring or to any other vehicle you might collide with. If your vehicle is stolen, you could be fully liable. Play it smart and use a company that offers full insurance and breakdown cover, with the level of cover clearly spelt out in the contract.
Renting a motorcycle or scooter is an extremely popular option in Chiang Mai. Agencies and guesthouses rent out everything from 100cc automatic scooters (from 150B per day) to larger Honda Dream bikes (from 350B) and full-sized road and off-road bikes up to 650cc (700B to 2000B). Smaller bikes are fine for city touring but if you plan to attempt any of the mountain roads around Chiang Mai, pick a machine with an engine size of 200cc or more.
Mr Mechanic is probably the best operator in town in terms of insurance and support, with a new, well-maintained fleet and comprehensive insurance. There are two other branches at 33 Th Ratchaphakhinai and 135/1 Th Ratchaphakhinai. Tony’s Big Bikes rents well-maintained 125cc to 400cc motorbikes, and also offers riding lessons, gives touring advice and repairs motorcycles; rates are negotiable.
By law, you must wear a helmet, and police frequently set up checkpoints to enforce this. You should also carry photo ID and an International Driving Permit (IDP) to present at police checkposts. In practice, police are usually happy with foreign drivers’ licences, but if you can’t present a licence, you’ll be fined.
Saving a few baht by renting without proper insurance could cost you dearly; stick to companies offering breakdown cover and full insurance. Most policies have a 1500B excess in case of accident and a 10,000B excess if the motorbike is stolen; use the chain and padlock provided!
Most bike-hire places will ask for your passport as a security deposit. While there are rarely any problems with this, better agencies will accept a cash deposit of 5000B to 10,000B as an alternative. This cannot be paid by credit card.
For tips on touring the countryside around Chiang Mai, check out the advice at Golden Triangle Rider (www.gt-rider.com).
Rót daang (literally ‘red trucks’) operate as shared taxis, and they roam the streets picking up passengers who are heading in the direction they are travelling. There are no fixed routes so the easiest thing to do is to ask if the driver will take you where you want to go. Journeys start from 20B for a short trip of a few blocks and 40B for a longer trip (eg from the old city to Th Nimmanhaemin).
Drivers are also happy to hire out the whole vehicle for charter trips for a higher price, including day trips out into the countryside. If the vehicle is parked by the roadside instead of moving along the street, the driver is normally looking for a charter fare. Either way, there’s little hassle involved; indeed, many rót daang are family businesses, with husbands driving and wives sitting alongside dealing with the money and route planning.
Túk-túk work only on a charter basis and are more expensive than rót daang, but they offer that energising wind-through-your-hair feeling and are faster in traffic. Rates start at 60B for short trips and creep up to 100B at night, although you’ll probably have to bargain hard for these rates. Some drivers can be pushy and may try to steer you towards attractions that pay commissions.
Chiang Mai still has a few săhm·lór, which offer short transfers around Talat Warorot for 20B or so.
Túk-túk Versus Sŏrng·tăa·ou
Túk-túk are more expensive and their drivers are likely to rip you off, but they do offer a direct service and most drivers speak English. Sŏrng·tăa·ou drivers are cheaper and less inclined to rip off passengers (because many Thais use them too), but English can be a problem and routes are not always direct. Riding in a sŏrng·tăa·ou is an excellent way to meet local Thais.
It is very rare to see a metered taxi to flag down in Chiang Mai, but you can call for a pick-up from Taxi Meter – fares within Chiang Mai are unlikely to top 160B.
3.2 Flights & getting there
Domestic and international flights arrive and depart from Chiang Mai International Airport, 3km southwest of the old city.
Schedules vary with the seasons and tourist demand. Tickets to Bangkok start at around 1200B. Heading south, expect to pay from 2400B to Phuket, 1650B to Surat Thani. The bulk of the domestic routes are handled by the following airlines:
Thai Airways International.
Direct flights linking Chiang Mai to neighbouring nations are also expanding fast, with regular flights to Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Yangon (Myanmar) and destinations around China. Lao Airlines has direct flights to Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Less frequent services include Dong Hoi (Vietnam, transfer to Ho Chi Minh City). To reach Cambodia, you’ll have to go via Bangkok.
The airport has luggage storage (7am to 9pm, 200B per day), a post-office branch (8.30am to 8pm), banks, souvenir shops and a tourist assistance centre. If you have time to kill, you could just stroll back down the highway to the large Central Airport Plaza.
SM Travel in the old city is a good place to book flights.
Chiang Mai has two bus stations, and sŏrng·tăa·ou (passenger pick-up trucks) run from fixed stops to towns close to Chiang Mai.
Chang Pheuak Bus Terminal
Just north of the old city on Th Chotana (Th Chang Pheuak), the Chang Pheuak Bus Terminal is the main departure point for journeys to the north of Chiang Mai Province. Government buses leave regularly to the following destinations:
Chiang Dao 40B, 1½ hours, every 30 minutes
Hot 50B, two hours, every 20 minutes
Samoeng 90B, two hours, six daily
Tha Ton 90B, four hours, seven daily
Local blue sŏrng·tăa·ou run to Lamphun (25B, one hour, every 20 minutes). Air-con minibuses to Chiang Dao (150B, two hours, hourly) leave from Soi Sanam Gila, behind the bus terminal.
Arcade Bus Terminal
About 3km northeast of the city centre, near the junction of Th Kaew Nawarat and Rte 11, Chiang Mai’s main long-distance station handles all services, except for buses to northern Chiang Mai Province. This is the place to come to travel on to Bangkok or any other major city in Thailand. A chartered rót daang from the centre to the bus stand will cost about 60B; a túk-túk will cost 80B to 100B. There are also two bus routes between the bus terminals and town: B1 makes stops at Chiang Mai’s train station and Tha Phae Gate (15B, every 40 minutes from 6am to 6pm), and B2 makes stops at Tha Phae Gate and Chiang Mai International Airport (15B, every 40 minutes from 6am to 6pm).
There are two terminal buildings, with ticket booths for dozens of private and government bus companies. Nominally, Building 2 is for towns north of Chiang Mai and Building 3 is for towns south of Chiang Mai, but in practice buses leave from both terminals to most destinations. There is also a third depot behind Building 2 used exclusively by the private bus company Nakornchai Air, which has luxury buses to Bangkok and almost everywhere else in Thailand.
Facilities for travellers are a little lacklustre; there’s a parade of local-style restaurants beside the two terminal buildings, and a left-luggage office (3am to 9pm, 20B per item). If you have time to burn, head over to the Star Avenue Lifestyle Mall by Building 3, which has air-conditioned coffee shops and restaurants.
There is a regular international bus service linking Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, via Bokeo, Luang Namtha and Udom Xai. You can also travel by bus across to Nong Khai (for Vientiane).
Run by the State Railway of Thailand, Chiang Mai Train Station is about 2.5km east of the old city. Trains run five times daily on the main line between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The government has promised more investment in the railways in future, including the creation of a new high-speed rail link between Chiang Mai and Bangkok. The train station has an ATM, a left-luggage room (5am to 8.45pm, 20B per item) and an advance-booking counter (you’ll need your passport to book a ticket).
There are four classes of train running between Chiang Mai and Bangkok’s Hualamphong station: rapid, sprinter, express and special express. Most comfortable are the overnight special express services leaving Chiang Mai at 5pm and 6pm, arriving in Bangkok at 6.15am and 6.50am. In the opposite direction, trains leave Hualamphong at 6.10pm and 7.35pm. However, schedules change regularly, so see the State Railway of Thailand website (www.railway.co.th) for the latest information.
At the time of research, fares to Bangkok were as follows:
3rd class (bench seat) 231B to 271B
2nd class (reclining seat) 391B to 641B
2nd-class sleeper berth (fan cooled) 601B to 671B
2nd-class sleeper berth (air-con) 1071B to 1131B
1st-class sleeper berth (air-con) 1453B to 1903B
Sorng taa ou
There are several stops for sŏrng·tăa·ou running to towns close to Chiang Mai. Fares range from 20B to 30B and services run frequently throughout the day.
Talat Warorot Sŏrng·tăa·ou Stop Serves Lamphun, Bo Sang, San Kamphaeng and Mae Rim.
Saphan Lek Sŏrng·tăa·ou Stop Serves Lamphun and Lampang.
Pratu Chiang Mai Sŏrng·tăa·ou Stop Serves Hang Dong, Ban Tawai and points south.
Sǒrng·tǎa·ou to San Kamphaeng also depart from Th Khang Mehn.