Chiang Mai lies in the Himalayan foothills, some 435 miles- and a world away-from Bangkok. It was capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom for nearly half a millennium. Today, it’s known as the “Rose of the North,” a key historic, cultural and spiritual center. Chiang Mai is especially important to the Thai identity. In many ways, its roots are here, born after centuries of influence by the Khmer and Mon cultures. The well-preserved temples and historic city walls are testament to that story. Though it is one of the largest cities in Thailand, Chiang Mai has retained its small town appeal. It offers a glimpse back to an ancient and unique dialect, cuisine, and way of life. Overshadowed in some ways by Thailand’s glitzier destinations, Chiang Mai has come of age. Increasingly, it’s appearing at the top of prestigious traveler’s surveys and “best of” lists.
More than 700 years ago, a bold fighter and a savvy diplomat, Mengrai conquered the area of Chiang Mai by first infiltrating the inner circle of the present king with a mole who worked to undermine the king’s authority. Mengrai then easily conquered the weakened kingdom. Mengrai built Chiang Mai as a new capital for the Lanna Kingdom. The name “Chiang Mai” means “new city.” Even after Mengrai’s death in 1311, reputedly by a lightning strike, Chiang Mai remained the spiritual heart of the kingdom.
The annual Songkran Festival or the Thai new year, also known as the water festival is also celebrated with fervor in Chiang Mai town, which turns into a massive street water fight for a few days during mid-April.
Arguably one of the most enjoyable ways to learn about a new culture if through food. Reflecting the social nature of meals, traditional khantoke dinners are served family-style, where diners are seated on the floor and varying dishes are served onto a central circular low table. Many high end resorts will offer this dining experience which is accompanied by a traditional dance performance; if not, popular khantoke restaurants in Chiang Mai include Khum Kantoke and Old Chiangmai Cultural Center.
The nation-wide Loy Kratong festival in November (which coincides with the Lanna Yi Peng festival) is one of the most picturesque celebrations in Chiang Mai, where thousands of paper lanterns flicker in the night sky and thousands more candle-lit lotus-shaped vessels sparkle in waterways.
Wat Chiang Man lies within the old city walls, and dates back to the founding of Chiang Mai. Wat Chedi Luang formerly housed the iconic Emerald Buddha now in the Grand Palace in Bangkok
Temples in Bangkok and Nakhon Si Thammarat have nearly identical statues, however, so it’s unclear which, if any, is the real thing.
The main entrance to the temple is guarded by lion statues. The main sanctuary, located near the entrance, features a larger Buddha statue called Thong Thip, cast in 1477 from an alloy of copper and gold. The Phra Singh statue is housed within Wihaan Lai Kham, a chapel with a three-tiered roof located behind the temple’s main chedi. The chapel’s interior black walls are adored with gold stencils.
There’s also a scripture repository on a stucco-covered stone base designed to protect mulberry paper scriptures and records.
Visitors can also take a ride on long-tail boat for an adrenaline-pumping 3 1/2-hour trip to Chiang Rai.
Explore all the wide variety of tour options on this link. There are private guided tours, exciting tours for the adventurous minded and cultural tours of the more relaxing kind.
There is a vast selection of places to dine around town, and most restaurants often offer a friendly environment. Many restaurants and larger hotels have great international cuisine options. However, thanks to Thailand’s great street food culture, if you want to taste some dishes unique to the north, be sure to pop into a local restaurant or roadside stall.
In contrast, visit the historic 137 Pillars House Hotel for dinner. You'll be transported back in time to the British colonial era.
Tuk-tuk's are also a popular way to get around. The three-wheeled motorized trishaws operate on the same wherever-you-want-to-go basis as the songtaew's (albeit a bit more more expensive). Generally speaking, those hovering around transportation hubs will ask for a higher price than a passing one.
If you are traveling with a larger group, or wish to customize your own itineraries pottering around town or out on an excursion, hiring a mini-van might not be a bad idea. A chauffeured 10-seater air-conditioned vehicle will traditionally cost from THB 1,500 (~US$46.40) for an 8- to 10-hour day, including the driver's fee but excluding petrol and entrance fees to attractions.
To get to the the outskirt regions within Chiang Mai (Hang Dong, Doi inthanon, Mae Chaem, etc.), yellow-colored songtaew's can be hired from Chang Puak bus station. You can also catch a bus to Mae Rim, Samoeng, Chiang Dao, Mae Taeng, and other provincial spots.
If you wish to self drive, Chiang Mai has plenty of car rental shops – all the usual suspects (Avis, Hertz, Sixt, etc.) are present at the airport. Rental prices are about the same as hiring a van plus driver for the day, so unless you know the roads well, or are on an extended holiday, perhaps it is advisable to take the chauffeured van option for convenience's sake.
Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX) is the region's main air access point, located about 10-15 minutes from the city center.
The airport is served by numerous daily flights from Bangkok via Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways, Air Asia, and Nok Air, a quick flight that takes just over an hour. Thai Airways and Air Asia also offer direct flights from Chiang Mai to Phuket, about a two-hour flight.
Nok Mini and Kan Air connects Chiang Mai with secondary domestic destinations of Mae Hong Son, Phisanulok, Pai, Nan, Mae Sot, and Udon Thani.
Chiang Mai is also reached by several direct international flights, including from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei, Seoul, Macau, Luang Prabang, and Shanghai.
For overnight journeys, book a second class air-conditioned sleeper train for more comfort – the lower bunk may be slightly more expensive, but you'll appreciate the additional wiggle room.
Numerous bus company options offer Bangkok-bound journeys. The day or overnight trip to the capital's Mo Chit bus terminal takes approximately 9 to 10 hours, with tickets costing not more than THB 900 (~US$28.50) for a one way ticket on a VIP bus with reclining sofa-like seats.
There are also bus connections to closer destinations including Chiang Rai, Mae Sai, and Prao.
"The Hmong of Ban Mae Sa Mai tour was wonderful. We had a wonderful time, really enjoyed our time in the village. The guides were very knowledgable and interesting people"
Jamie, Ohio, USA
"Northern Thailand is even more beautiful than I expected! "