Chiang Mai is the cultural capital of the North
Chiang Mai is considered Thailand’s second city, and the capital of Thailand’s Northern Region.
Chiang Mai is very different to Bangkok. Chiang Mai has a relatively small population 0f 170,000 people compared to a huge population of 6.5 million people in Bangkok. Chiang Mai also has a very different feel to it. The city centre of Chiang Mai if full of historic buildings, and is surrounded by ancient city walls and a moat. The newer developments of industry is all located out of the centre. For this reason Chiang Mai is a much more accessible destination than Bangkok for tourists and a more relaxed place to stay long-term: there is a large ex-pat community of North Americans and Europeans living in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai has a very long and rich history and plays an important part in the story of the birth of the Thai nation. Founded in 1296 near the banks of the Ping river, this city became the capital of the Lanna kingdom. The independent Lanna Kingdom survived until 1892 when it formerly became part of the Kingdom of Thailand. The remnants of the Lanna Kingdom carry on today in the regions distinctive language, food, architecture and attitude to life. The friendliness of the people and the laid-back atmosphere make a Chiang Mai an appealing and unique part of Thailand.
Chiang Mai is a City of New and Old
Chiang Mai has its new and old parts. The old part is the historic walled city centre. The city walls form a square with gates on all four sides. The most famous of these gates is the Tha Phae gate on the east side of the Chiang Mai old town. There is a large pedestrianised area in front of the Tha Phae gaate where market stalls congrate for the the famous Sunday night walking market. From the Tha Phae gate the main street, Rachadamneon Road, run from East to West three quarters of the length of City. Within the City walls there many Temple to visit most notable of which are Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang.
There are two other areas of Chiang Mai which are very popular with tourists. The first of these is the riverside area to the East of the city walls a kilometre or so from the Tha Phae gate. This area has many of Chaing Mai’s best hotels and the most lively nightlife, including a covered night market. The two main roads in this area are the Loi Kroh road with lots of bars of all varieties, and the Chan Klang Road which has many family friendly bars, restaurants and market areas in the evening time.
The third area of Chiang Mai where tourists often stay is on the Nimmanahaeminda Road to the North East of the city walls on the way out to the university. This up and coming area is ‘hip’ part of town which is popular with the fashionable young people of Chiang Mai and is beginning to be discovered by foreign visitors. This area is full of modern restaurants, and boutique hotels and shops. If you are after a newer and more ‘hip’ take on Chiang Mai this is the place to go.
Things to Do in Chiang Mai
There is a lot going on in Chiang Mai, both within the city itself as well is in the surrounding countryside.
Wat Doi Suthep: Chiang Mai’s top attraction is Wat Doi Suthep. This is a temple about 30 minutes drive from Chaing Mai located near the top of Doi Sutheo mountain which overlooks Chiang Mai. An interesting and beautiful temple in its own right, many people come here specifically for the views over the City which are stunning.
Chiang Mai Zoo: the way to Wat Doi Suthep you pass Chiang Mai zoo. This is Thailand’s oldest zoo and it is well worth a visit. The zoo is set over a large area and features a wide variety of animals many of which are native to Thailand. The zoo is being slowly updated and the conditions in which the animals are kept is largely very good. They are working hard to update some of the old style animal enclosures and many species are kept in large humane enclosures where they have the space to roam freely. Of particular note is the Panda breeding programme. The zoo has had a number of successful births and the Panda enclosure often features young Panda.
Tiger Kingdom: Tiger Kingdom is more controversial. Here you can pay to go inside the cage with tigers of different ages from cubs to fully grown adults. There is controversy around the well-being of the tigers. Many people accuse the owners of drugging the tigers to make them docile. The operators claim otherwise and when we visited the tigers appeared to be in good health and running around the cages and playing normally when not in with customers.
Maesa Elephant Camp: Located about 40 minutes drive outside of Chiang Mai, this jungle camp has around 70 elephants at any one time. You can see the elephants bathe and take a elephant ride to hill tribe village, however, the main attraction is thrice daily elephant show at 08.00, 09.40 and 13.30. The entrance fee is 200 THB.
Walking Market: Every Sunday night in Chiang Mai the area around the Tha Phae gate and along the Rachadamneon Road is closed to vehicles and becomes a night market. This is the biggest event of the week in Chiang mai and everyone goes. The shopping is secondary, its one big party. The City comes alive with food stalls and street entertainers. Many of the temples in the City open their grounds to the night market and feature lots of food stalls with seating areas provided. the best one is in Wat Chedi Luang near the Tha Phae gate where there are literally hundreds of stall featuring every cuisine of the world. Two of the most popular are the Indian food stall and the famous steak and mash shop, where you can get beef or chicken steak with vegetables and gravy for around 50 THB. Walking Market is a must do in Chiang Mai.
Where to Eat and Drink in Chiang Mai
There are many great places in Chiang Mai to eat and drink. Here are just a couple of recommendations.
Riverside Bar and Restaurant: Located on the Chareonrat Road, which is on the other side of Ping River about 500 metres walk from the Night Bazaar, the Riverside Bar and Restaurant is one of the most lively places in Chiang Mai. Situated at the riverside this venue combines an excellent restaurant with a great music bar. The restaurant serves Thai and other cuisines. Everything on the menu is great. From 7pm the house band starts and then from 9pm onwards there are local bands who perform a combination of Western and Thai music to a very high standard. Arrive early to get a seat in the bar.
Jok Somphet: Located on the Sri Poom Road near the Chang Phueak gate on the North side of the old city. This is a Chaing Mai dining institution (perhaps Chiang Mai’s most famous restaurant) which is open 24 hours a day. This is the place to come for cheap eats. They serve rice porridge dishes, but they also serve a good reange of ready cooked dim sum and various rice and meat dishes. The most poplular ones are Khao Op Gai (roast chicken with rice and vegetables in gravy) and Khao Op Moo (roast chicken and vegetables in gravy). Expect to pay 50 to 60 THB a dish.
Recommended Places to Stay in Chiang Mai
Porn Ping Tower
- Located in Chiang Mai Riverside Area
Very nice mid range hotel near the river and the lively Night Bazaar area. This is Chiang Mai’s oldest luxury hotel and it has lots of character and is independently run. The Porn Ping Tower has lots of facilities in the hotel including bar, nightclub, gym and swimming pool. The hotels two nightclubs are popular places with non residents and they become lively at the weekend, as does the roof top bar from which has great views across Chiang Mai. The buffet breakfast is good and well worth booking in with the room price.
Galare Guest House
- Located in Chiang Mai Riverside Area
Located directly on the riverside, this is a wonderful small hotel in an old wooden Thai building. This place is very popular with people who come to Chiang Mai often. Its cheap, the service is friendly, and the rooms are nice. The rooms are equipped with air-conditioning, free WiFi and satellite TV. The restaurant and garden on the river are very pleasant and it is near to the bars and restaurants of the Night Bazaar area without being on a busy road. This is a lovely relaxed small hotel on a side off the main road. Its a short walk to the busy night bazaar area and plenty of bars and restaurants.
Next read about How to Get from Chiang Mai to Bangkok by Train