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.
Tom JittiponThailand Travel Specialist
Doi Suthep is a constant part of life in Chiang Mai. A Thai saying goes, "If you haven't tasted Khao Soi or seen the view from Doi Suthep, you haven't been to Chiang Mai." This regal mountain overlooks the city from the northwest, providing commanding views from its summit. Aside from its dominating presence on the horizon, Doi Suthep is the home of some of the most deeply loved symbols in the Kingdom.
In 1981 Doi Suthep, Doi Pui and Doi Buakha, along with the 161 square kilometres (62 square miles) of forest in which they are located, became Thailand's 24th national park. A year later a 100 square kilometre (38 square mile) annex was added, bringing the park's total area up to 261 square kilometres (100 square miles). Dense forests hang from the mountain's shoulders like a cloak; deciduous at lower elevations and evergreen near the peaks of the mountains.
Wat Chedi Luang's massive chedi (pagoda) was built sometime between 1385 and 1402, during the reign of King Saen Muang Ma, 7th ruler of the Mengrai dynasty and is a distinctive feature of the Chiang Mai skyline. At its peak, the chedi measured 60 metres across at the square base and 80 metres tall and was once the home of the Emerald Buddha, Thailand's most sacred religious relic.
Damaged during an earthquake in 1545, the chedi’s height is reduced to nearly half of its original size yet it is still an impressive structure. In 1992, the Fine Arts Department finished restoration work around the chedi, bringing back the naga (water serpent) staircase on each of its faces and wonderful statues of elephants adorning the base. The actual work on the chedi itself, however, was never quite complete, leaving it in its present state.
Explore Wat Umong, or the “Temple of Tunnels,” located in a forested, rural area a few miles outside Chiang Mai. Learn about the fascinating and mysterious history of this temple, which is believed to date from the late 14th century and was used by the Japanese as a base during World War II. The temple complex also has a monastery so there are always monks walking around, often circling the stupa in prayer.
The tunnels are rarely used for meditation anymore due to the amount of visitors that come each day. When entering you should take your shoes off and remain silent as this is a place of worship. There are a few enclaves with Buddha statues and if you look on the ceiling of the tunnels you may be able to see some old drawings of elephants and temples, thought to date back to the 13th or 14th Century.
Far more peaceful than the well-preserved ancient capitals of Ayutthaya or Sukhothai, the ruins of Wiang Kum Kam remained hidden underground until recent excavations. The 13th-century capital of Lanna was abandoned due to flooding. Located 5 km (3 miles) south of Chiang Mai, the ruins lie in a sleepy rural setting along the banks of the Mae Ping River.
The lanes that meander through the ruins are ideal for cycling along — and you’re unlikely to see anyone else. The full history of the site is still uncertain, but the huge plinths and stupas that remain give an idea of its importance. More than 1,300 artefacts were found during its unearthing, some of which are on show in a small visitor centre nearby.
Chiang Mai began as a market town, a convenient stopping point on the original trade route from China to Burma. Markets are still an important part of the community, with bazaars scattered across the city. The Chiang Mai night bazaar is the focal point — open seven nights a week until the small hours. Explore the night bazaar, a modern day version of a caravanserai, where you can choose from a vast array of handicrafts and other locally made items – many of which make fine gifts.
Located to the east of the city walls, it’s difficult to miss the bazaar’s bright lights, music and wafts of tod mun (fried fish cakes). Stalls around the outskirts of the market sell plastic sunglasses and questionable designer goods, but stroll further in and you’ll find antiques and swathes of screen-printed fabrics. Hill tribe traders bring traditional goods to sell, including organic coffee and hand-woven baskets.
Spending a day cooking with a local family in a residential area of Chiang Mai, surrounded by their well-tended garden, you’ll start to appreciate the subtle nuances of Thai food. Helped by one of the family, you’ll begin your lesson by picking fresh chillies and basil leaves, and foraging for cilantro root. Meanwhile, the rest of the family — all four generations — begin to prepare the rest of the ingredients.
You’ll then be patiently coached through preparing a number of dishes, pounding the fragrant curry pastes and balancing the delicate salty and sweet tastes. Dishes are eaten around the family dining table, accompanied by fresh watermelon juice or coconut water.
The Chiang Mai Flower Festival is celebrated over the first weekend of February. Intricate chrysanthemum-covered floats are paraded down the streets, accompanied by traditional dancing and music.