Chiang Mai for First Timers

What to Expect in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is a land of misty mountains and colourful hill tribes, a playground for seasoned travellers, a paradise for shoppers and a delight for adventurers and Songkran revellers. Located 700km north of Bangkok in a verdant valley on the banks of the Ping River, Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 as the capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom. Today it is a place where the past and present seamlessly merge with modern buildings standing side by side with temples.

Here the curious can expand their horizons with Thai massage and cooking courses; the aesthete will be bowled over by the variety of handicrafts; the wild child will find plenty of lively nightlife; and the epicure can indulge in wonderful cuisine.

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Where is it?

Chiang Mai is situated approximately 700 kilometres northwest of Bangkok, amid mountain ranges and fantastic displays of fauna and flora. The province is one Thailand’s largest, covering 20,107 square kilometers.

How to get there

To reach Chiang Mai via bus go to the Northern Bus terminal, more commonly known as Mo Chit. From here air-conditioned buses run throughout the day (the last departs at 21:30), taking approximately 10 hours and costing between 500 and 800 baht. Trains leave daily to Chiang Mai from Hua Lamphong Station between 08:00 to 22:00.

The Bangkok-to-Chiang Mai route is well catered for, with numerous airlines running flights throughout the day. The flight takes approximately one hour.

When to go

The best time to venture out up to Chiang Mai is between the months of November to April. Songkran (Thai New Year) falls in April and is a national holiday; this month usually sees tourists and natives flock to Chiang Mai.

What’s it like?

Chiang Mai is something of a guidebook author’s dream, with imposing high mountain ranges, historic architecture, over 300 temples and countless skilled craftsmen, creating unique goods. It caters for a variety of travellers – particularly those of a curious nature.

Thailand’s second-largest city encompasses fertile regions of mountains, rivers and valleys and throughout history has been on one of the most celebrated trade routes in Southeast Asia, with people from Burma, Laos, China and Thailand trading goods and cultural ideas in and around this region.

Mixing aspects of the ancient world with the modern, here we have an endearing blend of ideas and goods, ranging from creeds and cultures to textiles and architecture.

What to see

  • Doi Suthep - Home to some of the most revered symbols of the kingdom and the ancient Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Other than the prolific man-made structures there is a profusion of remarkable natural beauty, both equally charming and an inherent part Thailand’s alluring character.

  • Night Bazaar - One of the city’s biggest attractions takes place nightly between 18:00 - 24:00 when the area becomes a bustling scene, with goods to be found from as far afield as India and China. Other than crafts, clothes and furniture you can get your teeth into a variety of world cuisine and pretty much whatever you can think of, they will have.

  • Wat Chedi Luang - Built in 1391, this temple has the biggest chedi in the Old City, thus being one of the easiest to find.

  • San Kamphaeng - The handicraft quarter (basically just one very long street) should be visited by anyone with an interest in jewellery, umbrellas, lacquerware or furniture. Here you can see how they are produced and most factories/showrooms have museums, for added insight. Venturing out here not only to extends your choice of goods but allows you to buy direct and secure a lower price.

What to do

  • Thai Cooking Class - Learn the exotic and enticing flavours of Thailand, with a cooking class taught by the experts. Classes usually begin with a trip to the market to buy ingredients before the cooking.

  • Trekking - Enjoy the scenic aspects of northern Thailand, with a trek through the virginal forest where you can experience the enigmatic hill tribe people and some on-and-off-land adventures.

  • Get to know an Elephant - For many this will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get better acquainted with this gentle animal. Essentially, the tour seeks to inform the group of the dynamics involved in earning the respect of an elephant. This includes learning about their dietary requirements, bathing and brushing them as well as understanding the body language of these wonderful animals.

  • Blind Massage - Massage was the traditional way for the blind to earn their money in Southeast Asia. Situated around the corner from Wat Chedi Luang, these massages are performed by those with enhanced senses so can be more intense than what you might have previously experienced. They are nonetheless well done and inexpensive.

What not to miss

  • The Weekend Market - Every weekend this evening market sees stalls open up and line the street, the perfect place to pick up some stunning crafts, furniture or clothes.

  • Wat Suan Dok - Established in 1371, this temple, situated just west of the Old City walls, is well worth a look in as it has many features unique not just in Chiang Mai but Thailand, as well.

  • Kao Soi - A Burmese-influenced dish that is considered the principle food of northern Thailand. The soup-based meal consists of deep fried crispy egg noodles, pickled cabbage, shallots, lime, chicken or pork in a curry sauce. You shouldn’t pay more than 40 baht for a bowl of delicious Kao Soi.

Don’t go if you are

  • In search of a beach-and-book holiday, Chiang Mai is 300 metres above sea level and surrounded by mountain ranges.

  • A hedonistic traveller. Chiang Mai has a quaint bar scene but that’s about it. For all-night parties, Koh Phangan or Samui would be more apt choices.

  • In all truth, we can’t think of a good reason why anyone shouldn’t visit Chiang Mai at least once in their lives.

Go if you are

  • A ‘mountain’ as opposed to a ‘beach’ person.

  • Interested in architecture, history and the arts.

  • Eager to embark on some strenuous recreational pursuits e.g bike riding, hiking or canoeing

  • Wanting to get better acquainted with Thai culture.

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