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.
10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
Catching a train in Thailand
Chiang Dao getaway
Chiang Mai's temples
Trekking in Thailand
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Where to start? Do the trip up to Doi Suthep. Do the night market, which is touristy, but for a reason: There are some cracking deals to be had. Chiang Mai has hundreds of wats, but to the casual visitor for whom wat fatigue quickly sets in.
Chiang Mai has fabulous eating, but to see why, start your day at the fresh produce market (some of the cooking schools work this into their packages). There's also good nightlife -- you'll find the most farang orientated entertainment around the centre of town and along the Ping River. Locals tend more towards east Chang Mai (Nimmanhaemin Rd area) and to the north of town. Chiang Maians are a friendly lot -- if you want to check out the local scene, ask your guesthouse staff when they knock off and hit the town with them. Chiang Mai can be a lot of fun in the evening (and early morning).
Regarding trekking, if you've got the time, you'll almost certainly have a more "authentic" (whatever that means) experience trekking from a less central location such as Mae Hong Son, Pai, Chiang Rai or Nan. But if you're set on trekking from Chiang Mai, then do so for as many days as you can afford -- three days at a minimum we'd say.
Text and/or map last updated on 30th January, 2015.
Last reviewed by: Stuart McDonald
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org
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.