The former capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom, Chiang Mai has kept its traditional roots. From its temples to its cuisine, you can still experience the old ways of the northern kingdom. For the more adventurous traveler, Chiang Mai presents a variety of activities, from training as a mahout (elephant keeper) to swinging through the trees. After wearing yourself out by exploring the region's many curiosities, you can reward yourself with wonderful Thai food and relaxing massages.
Although Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, it’s very walkable—especially the Old City, surrounded by the moat and remains of the defensive wall. Take advantage of the cooler morning temperatures to wander around the small streets and visit ancient Buddhist temples and small markets. Ride up the mountain to the Doi Suthep temple, which had its location chosen by a sacred white elephant, and enjoy the view of the city during sunset. Don’t forget to grab a plastic stool and order a spicy Thai dish from the street vendors around the gate, Pratu Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai offers a variety of cuisine, ranging from French gastronomy to Tex-Mex. But the real culinary experience is in the street, with numerous food carts offering fresh food cooked on the spot. Ask for any kind of popular dish and make sure you specify your spice level if you want to keep your taste buds intact. Dishes like pad krapow gai (fried basil with chicken and rice), som tam (papaya salad), and khao soi (noodles in a coconut curry soup) are popular. For a milder experience, enjoy pad thai (stir-fried noodles) or khao pad (fried rice) in smaller restaurants. Vegetarians can order the same dishes and replace the meat with tofu.
Founded in 1296 by King Mengrai, Chiang Mai has a long and distinguished history and takes pride in being the cultural capital of Thailand. As the ancient capital of the Lan Na Kingdom, Chiang Mai served as a meeting point for Chinese merchants from the north and other merchants coming from rival kingdoms to the south. The mix of cultures is still evident today on Wua Lai Street, which is the old Chinese silversmith hub. Chiang Mai has also been occupied by Burmese armies, which is reflected in the different architectural styles of the city’s temples.
Whether you are looking for clothing, simple souvenirs, or high-end merchandise, Chiang Mai has a variety of shopping options ranging from local markets to modern malls. If you’re seeking souvenirs or simple crafts, stroll down the Night Bazaar or one of the weekend walking streets. In the Old City, there is a great selection of tailors who will prepare custom-made suits and dresses for a reasonable price. If outdoor shopping is getting you hot and flustered, take a stroll through one of Chiang Mai’s malls, which also feature cinemas and other indoor activities for the whole family.
Chiang Mai has a tropical climate with warm weather year-round and—thanks to its higher elevation—cooler nights. The best time to travel is between December and February, when the rainy season is over. You can travel to Chiang Mai by bus or train but the most reliable and fastest way is by plane. Chiang Mai International Airport is well connected to many Asian countries. A visa-on-arrival is delivered at the airport for 30 days, depending on your nationality. The language is Thai but most people speak some English. The currency is the Thai baht. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and the King is revered. Avoid discussing the royal family and be respectful when entering temples. Electricity is 220 volts, so plan accordingly.