Located in the northern part of Thailand about a twelve-hour train ride from Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a cultural center with a different vibe than the tropical islands in the south of the country. Less expensive and a bit rougher, Chiang Mai is an authentic Thai city offering a wide variety of fun activities and spicy sights.
While tourist activities in Southern Thailand focus on beach, booze and parties, here in the north you are more likely to visit an elephant conservation center, soak in some mineral pools or attend a cooking class where you learn how to make green coconut curry and spring rolls. Chiang Mai is a hot, bustling city and most people chill out and relax during the sunshine-filled afternoon hours, passing the time with a banana shake or perhaps a foot massage. As the day cools into evening the city comes alive for the busy night bazaar, a large market that stretches across central Chiang Mai where you can find purple silk robes, carved teak boxes, pink bikinis and a plethora of street snacks from fresh tangerine juice to cinnamon crepes.
Many people on holiday use Chiang Mai as a jumping-off point for treks through the surrounding hill tribes, and others just visit for the city itself. The tourist infrastructure is well established, and it is easy and quick to book tours or vacation packages at travel agencies right off the street. Also home to intricate temples, ancient buildings, luxury spas and techno clubs, Chiang Mai is the metropolis of northern Thailand, and getting around is as easy as flagging down the nearest tuk-tuk and jumping on- after you haggle over the price, of course.
Things to do in
The night bazaar is a fantastic experience that will stimulate every sense. It's open almost every night and features a huge three-story building full of shops, a giant food court area and several arms of booths stretching out from the main building in every direction. Slick salespeople hawk woven baskets, live birds, LED key chains, fake brand-name sneakers, colorful embroidered blankets, pineapple prawn fried rice, DVDs, hippie pants, dank incense and eight zillion other items.
During the day many travelers choose to pamper themselves at a spa with a massage and then take a dip on the hotel pool. However Chiang Mai has plenty of attractions that are easy to explore on your own, although a rental bike is highly recommended. There are over 300 highly embellished Buddhist temples in the city, the most famous of which is at the top of Doi Suithep and has fantastic views over the entire valley. Other temples boast grand golden Buddhas, intricate teak carvings, brightly colored murals and crumbling stones from centuries ago.
More active adventures are also easy to find; trekking in the nearby jungle is extremely popular as are day trips to the nearby Elephant Conservation Center and hospital. Adventure sports companies provide inexpensive bungy jumping, paintball, zorbing and go-karts, and will pick you up from and deliver you back to your hotel. Chiang Mai is also known for its Thai cooking courses and the nightlife options are second only to Bangkok in the country for the variety of music and entertainment.
Vanilla Place Guest House: excellent value and location, very friendly owners
The Field Village Hotel: outside of city center, huge pool, perfect for unwinding
Studio99 Serviced Apartments: small but very clean apartment-style with housekeeping
Sira Boutique Hotel: cute with character, a gem in a fantastic location
Montrara Happy House: clean modern rooms with AC, TV, and good price
Bodhi Serene Hotel: happy and friendly staff, close to everything, good for families
Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi: luxury hotel, impeccable service and beautiful rooms
Secret Garden Chiang Mai: an oasis of peace and quiet outside of city, charming grounds