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Chiang Mai

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Thailand's northern capital, Chiang Mai is the country's second most-visited city, yet in terms of size it does not remotely compare to Bangkok. With its smaller size and population, Chiang Mai has a lot in its favour for tourists and travellers alike, with the centre of town packed with glittering wats, excellent restaurants and expansive shopping markets all of which are easily taken in on foot.

If Thai temples are your thing, then Chiang Mai has a lot to offer -- the hill-top Wat Doi Suthep is the crown jewels, but the old city is packed with a vivid collection of traditional Thai temples, with Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Chiang Man being three of the true standouts -- there's even a developing "monk chat" scene. The city's temples and Lanna architecture are so popular in fact that one of Chiang Mai's most luxurious hotels (with some controversy) modelled itself on one.

The city is also home to some excellent museums, with both a museum district developing within the heart of the Old City and the long-running National Museum sitting outside the centre of town. Chiang Mai is also as much a living museum with sleepy back lanes lined with attractive traditional houses and plenty of markets to explore.

Home to the prestigious Chiang Mai University, the city has quite a cosmopolitan feel when compared to other northern Thai provinces and it has a lively entertainment scene accompanied by some of the best eating in northern Thailand -- this is not a town you'll go hungry in.

Most famous for its khao soi, Chiang Mai also delivers solid Northern Thai cuisine both at a street and market level and in its burgeoning selection of more upmarket restaurants. Thanks to its proximity to both Burma and Laos there are even more foods to try.

Accommodation-wise, Chiang Mai has an outstanding selection of options, from friendly budget guesthouses through to luxurious hotels and resorts. In the Old City area along you can barely throw a plate of somtam without hitting a guesthouse.

By northern Thai standards, Chiang Mai has a pretty comprehensive light-life scene, with everything from trendy riverside bars with live music through to grungy student bars and expat pubs. There's also a lively scene primarily aimed at helping backpackers meet more backpackers -- not quite mini Khao San Road, but not far off either.

But most foreign holiday-makers find themselves in Chiang Mai not for the temples nor the food, nor even the entertainment scene, but rather for the hill-tribe trekking. For decades Chiang Mai has formed the trekking base of northern Thailand -- and while there are some excellent tour companies in the city, there remain a number of shoddy operators -- be sure to do your research before heading into the hinterland.

Many travellers are now opting to commence their treks further afield in Mae Hong Son, Pai or Soppong (amongst others) where the tourist numbers are lower and the perceived experience more "authentic".

For those who choose to stay in the city, other popular activities include taking a Thai cooking course, a river cruise, learning a bit of Thai or maybe flying through the jungle.

Here’s a bit about what makes Chiang Mai a special city and the lay of the land so you can orientate yourself during a visit.

Chiang Mai — “New City” in Thai — is actually more than 700 years old but was new when King Mengrai moved his capital down to the banks of the Ping River from Chiang Rai. There were probably Mon settlements in the area before this, such as the nearby 11th century site of Wiang Khum Kham, but Chiang Mai city as it appears today started to take shape with Mengrai at the end of the 13th century.

The city is located in the north/south orientated Ping Valley (initially being established close to the west bank), with the Doi Suthep/Pui mountains to the immediate west and the Doi Saket hills a few kilometres off to the east: an excellent location with good transport routes and fertile surrounding farmland.

Today Chiang Mai’s downtown area is relatively small, with an estimated 150,000 people, the urban area and suburbs nowadays probably account for at least a million. The population is traditionally northern Thai with scatterings of minorities such as Shan, but being a relatively wealthy city it’s now attracting workers from across the kingdom, and being an attractive place to live means it also sees a steady flow of more affluent Thais from Bangkok and elsewhere. Chiang Mai’s also very popular with expats and increasingly Thai tourists as much as foreign visitors.

The geographical centre has now moved from the old walled, moated city slightly to the east to include the area between the ancient walls and the Ping River, including the bustling night bazaar area, the bar and restaurants street of Loi Kroh and the commercial district of Worarot and Chinatown. The old city contains most of the town’s famous temples and is relatively undeveloped consisting of a maze of narrow streets lined with private houses and small businesses. This area, particularly around Somphet Market and the northeastern quadrant, is where most of Chiang Mai’s places to stay are located — it used to be just cheap guesthouses but the price range on offer now extends well upwards.

Further east the riverside area is developing fast with plenty of chic cafes, hotels and guesthouses along the banks, and further east you’ll find the main, Arcade bus station, the train station and some of the embassies. The northern, inner suburb — Chang Puak district — is home to the local bus station, also named Chang Puak. There’s Kamthieng Market but little else in the district to hold your interest. (Though on the outside of the moat road is the useful Computer Plaza and a block back the excellent Den Chai trading — electronics and camera equipment store.)

The sprawling and not particularly attractive southern suburbs contain little of interest to the average visitor, with the exception of the excellent Saturday walking market. Numerous large chain hotels catering mainly to local and Asian visitors call this area home.
When you reach Suthep district, the northern ‘burbs, things do start to get more interesting though. Once past the huge Central Shopping Mall you reach the town’s upmarket area of Nimmanhemin. This is the nightlife area for young chic Chiang Mai-ites and contains loads of bars, restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques (separate post to come).

Continuing west we reach Chiang Mai University and the vast Chiang Mai zoo lying at the foot of Doi Suthep. Apart from passing through on the way to the national park or Wat Doi Suthep, this sector also contains Wat Umong and Wat Jet Yot as well as the National Museum and great little local market, Don Phayam.

Surrounding the entire downtown and inner suburbs is the superhighway, an eight-lane circular expressway. (Well except for the section between the airport and Huey Keo Road which results in Nimmanhemin being the most congested road in the city.) Along the superhighway are all the huge shopping malls and home improvement and furniture centres: Tesco/Lotus, Airport Plaza, (the city’s largest mall), Big C, Homepro and so on. CNX, Chiang Mai International Airport, is just to the southwest of the road behind Airport Plaza and Chiang Mai immigration office.

From the superhighway, main roads head off to all points: Chiang Rai, Chiang Dao, Lamphun, Lampang and so on via some of the outer suburbs, which were formerly separate villages and are still interesting in their own right: there’s the Hang Dong/Ban Thawai handicraft and wood product market and Sankhamphaeng and Borsang umbrella and paper making villages, for starters.

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Text and/or map last updated on 26th September, 2015.

Last reviewed by:
Stuart McDonald co-founded with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.

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Chiang Mai - Bangkok, Hua Lamphong ฿591 – ฿2,153 10h 35m – 14h 40m
  •   Train Class II AC 08:50
  •   Train Class II Fan 06:30
  •   Train Class II Ladies Only 18:00
  •   Train Class II Sleeper AC 15:30, 17:00, 18:00
  •   Train VIP Sleeper 18:00
  •   Train VIP Sleeper Deluxe 17:00
  •   Train Class II AC 08:30
  •   Train Class II Fan 22:00
  •   Train Class II Ladies Only 18:10
  •   Train Class II Sleeper AC 18:10, 19:35, 22:00
  •   Train Class II Sleeper Fan 13:45, 22:00
  •   Train VIP Sleeper 18:10
  •   Train VIP Sleeper Deluxe 19:35
Chiang Mai - Bangkok, Morchit ฿551 – ฿857 10h – 10h 25m
  •   Bus Express XL 10:30, 18:35, 20:00
  •   Bus VIP 32 07:00, 19:15, 19:30
  •   Bus VIP24 24 20:00
  •   Bus Express XL 06:00, 18:50, 20:35
  •   Bus VIP 32 08:30, 16:00, 20:02, 20:15, 20:20
  •   Bus VIP24 24 20:00
Chiang Mai, Old City - Bangkok, Khao San Road ฿650 10h
  •   Bus VIP36 36 20:00
  •   Bus VIP36 36 20:00
Chiang Mai, Tha Ton - Bangkok, Morchit ฿679 14h
  •   Bus Express XL 06:00
  •   Bus Express XL 07:00
  •   Bus VIP 32 16:30
Chiang Mai - Bueng Kan ฿851 13h 45m
  •   Bus Express XL 14:30
  •   Bus Express XL 14:00
Chiang Mai - Khon Kaen ฿535 – ฿624 9h 10m – 11h 40m
  •   Bus Express XL 05:00, 07:00, 08:30, 16:00, 19:00, 20:00
  •   Bus Express XL 05:00, 07:00, 12:15, 17:15, 19:00, 20:15, 22:15
  •   Bus VIP24 24 19:00
Chiang Mai - Loei ฿527 8h 45m
  •   Bus Express XL 14:30, 19:30
  •   Bus Express XL 20:30, 23:30
Chiang Mai - Mae Hong Son ฿378 5h 15m
  •   Bus VIP24 24 21:00
  •   Bus VIP24 24 10:30, 17:00, 21:00
Chiang Mai - Mae Hong Son, Khun Yuam ฿319 5h 5m
  •   Bus VIP24 24 07:00, 11:00, 13:00, 14:00, 21:00
  •   Bus VIP24 24 10:30, 21:00
Chiang Mai - Mae Hong Son, Mae La Noi ฿255 3h 55m
  •   Bus VIP24 24 07:00, 11:00, 13:00, 14:00, 21:00
Chiang Mai - Mae Hong Son, Mae Sariang ฿225 3h 35m
  •   Bus VIP24 24 07:00, 09:00, 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, 13:00, 14:00, 15:00, 17:00, 21:00
  •   Bus VIP24 24 07:00, 08:00, 10:30, 11:00, 13:00, 15:30, 17:00, 21:00
Chiang Mai - Mae Hong Son, Pai ฿195 3h
  •   Bus VIP24 24 06:30, 07:30, 08:30, 09:30, 10:30, 11:30, 12:30, 13:30, 14:30, 15:30, 16:30, 17:30
  •   Bus VIP24 24 07:00, 08:00, 09:00, 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, 13:00, 14:00, 15:00, 16:00, 16:30, 17:00
Chiang Mai, Hot - Mae Hong Son ฿378 4h 55m
  •   Bus VIP24 24 21:00
  •   Bus VIP24 24 10:30, 21:00
Chiang Mai, Hot - Mae Hong Son, Khun Yuam ฿319 3h 35m
  •   Bus VIP24 24 07:00, 11:00, 13:00, 14:00, 21:00
  •   Bus VIP24 24 10:30, 21:00
Chiang Mai, Hot - Mae Hong Son, Mae La Noi ฿195 2h 25m
  •   Bus VIP24 24 07:00, 11:00, 13:00, 14:00, 21:00
Chiang Mai, Hot - Mae Hong Son, Mae Sariang ฿187 1h 55m
  •   Bus VIP24 24 07:00, 09:00, 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, 13:00, 14:00, 15:00, 17:00, 21:00
  •   Bus VIP24 24 07:00, 08:00, 10:30, 11:00, 13:00, 15:30, 17:00, 21:00
Chiang Mai - Mahasarakham ฿687 12h 50m
  •   Bus Express XL 08:30, 16:00, 19:00, 20:00
  •   Bus Express XL 10:55, 16:10, 19:10, 21:05
Chiang Mai - Nakhon Phanom ฿868 13h 45m
  •   Bus Express XL 19:30
  •   Bus Express XL 17:00
Chiang Mai - Nong Khai ฿928 11h
  •   Bus VIP24 24 20:30
  •   Bus VIP24 24 19:00
Chiang Mai - Phetchabun, Lom Kao ฿450 7h 40m
  •   Bus Express XL 08:30, 16:00, 19:00, 20:00
  •   Bus Express XL 01:00, 15:55, 20:55, 23:55
Chiang Mai - Roi Et ฿721 13h 30m
  •   Bus Express XL 08:30, 16:00, 19:00, 20:00
  •   Bus Express XL 10:10, 15:25, 18:25, 20:25
Chiang Mai - Sakhon Nakhon, Sakon Nakhon ฿786 12h 35m
  •   Bus Express XL 19:30
  •   Bus Express XL 18:30
Chiang Mai - Ubon Ratchathani ฿868 13h 30m
  •   Bus Express XL 08:30, 16:00, 19:00, 20:00
  •   Bus Express XL 07:30, 12:45, 15:45, 17:45
Chiang Mai - Udonthani, Udon Thani ฿866 10h 10m
  •   Bus VIP24 24 20:30
  •   Bus VIP24 24 20:30
Chiang Mai - Yasothon ฿782 14h 30m
  •   Bus Express XL 08:30, 16:00, 19:00, 20:00
  •   Bus Express XL 09:00, 14:15, 17:15, 19:05

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