Photo: Temple town.

Introduction

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Chiang Mai—or 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 during the late 13th century.


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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 thanks to Mengrai at the end of the 13th century. The city is located in the north–south orientated Ping Valley and was initially established close to the west bank. Doi Suthep and the Pui mountains are to the immediate west and the Doi Saket hills are a few kilometres off to the east.

Towering spire at Wiang Khum Khan. Photo taken in or around Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Towering spire at Wiang Khum Khan. Photo: Mark Ord

Today Chiang Mai’s downtown is relatively small, with an estimated 150,000 people calling it home, though the urban surrounds and suburbs probably account for at least a million people in all. 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. Being an attractive place to live means it also sees a steady flow of more affluent Thais relocating from Bangkok and elsewhere.

Chiang Mai is also very popular with expats and increasingly Thai tourists as much as foreign visitors—and it is not difficult to see why.

Glittering Doi Suthep. Photo taken in or around Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Glittering Doi Suthep. Photo: Mark Ord

If Thai temples are your thing, then Chiang Mai has a lot to offer—the hilltop Wat Doi Suthep is the star attraction, 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 three of the true standouts.

The city is also home to some excellent museums, with the relatively new Chiang Mai Historical Centre and Lanna Folklife Museum adding to the attraction of the long-running Chiang Mai National Museum. Chiang Mai is also very much a living museum, with sleepy back lanes lined with pretty 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 towns 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.

Great food is available across the city. Photo taken in or around Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Great food is available across the city. Photo: Mark Ord

Most famous for its khao soi, Chiang Mai delivers plenty of 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 cuisines to sample.

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

By northern Thai standards, Chiang Mai has a comprehensive night life, with everything from trendy riverside bars playing 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.

Settling in at The Lost Hut. Photo taken in or around Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Settling in at The Lost Hut. Photo: Mark Ord

Most foreign holiday-makers find themselves in Chiang Mai not for the temples or food, nor even the entertainment scene, but rather for the hill-tribe trekking. For decades, Chiang Mai has been the trekking base of northern Thailand. Some excellent tour companies are based in the city, though be warned there do remain a number of shoddy operators—be sure to do your research before wandering into the woods.

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

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s trekking hub. Photo taken in or around Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s trekking hub. Photo: Mark Ord

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



Best places to stay in Chiang Mai

A selection of some of our favourite places to stay in Chiang Mai.


Orientation
For a large city, the layout of Chiang Mai is relatively simple mainly thanks to the square, moat-lined and partially walled Old City in the centre. Each approximately two-kilometre side of the square has an old brick city gate orientated according to the cardinal points. The gates or prathu in Thai are: Suan Dok to the west, Chang Puak to the north, Tha Pae to the east and Chiang Mai on the south. Within the old walls is a labyrinth of narrow lanes or sois, and this is where you’ll find most of the city’s older temples as well as many of its present day hotels, guesthouses and cafes. The latter are widely scattered throughout the Old City, though there is a clear concentration in the northeast quadrant around Somphet Market and Tha Pae Gate.

Easy to orientate from a distance... Photo taken in or around Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Easy to orientate from a distance... Photo: Mark Ord

The principal east–west axis is Ratchadamnoen Road, running between Tha Pae and Wat Phra Singh, which is also home to a walking street market on Sunday evenings. Main north–south streets are, from east to west, Ratchaphakhinai, Prapokklao and Samlarn Roads. The Old City’s central police station is on Ratchadamnoen, just down from Wat Phra Singh, while the central post office is on Samlarn south of Phra Singh. Wat Phra Singh, if you haven’t already guessed, along with Wat Chedi Luang, are downtown’s two largest and most important Buddhist temples.

The often narrow lanes in the centre are frequently one-way, though it may not always be obvious, so take care if cycling or motorbiking around, but traffic is generally light. The opposite applies to the outer roads skirting the city wall—these are mainly three lanes and very busy with the inner road (between moat and old city) running anti-clockwise and the outer route, beyond the moat, clockwise. Again, motorcyclists in particular, take care as these roads are favourite spots for Chiang Mai’s finest to hang out. Their favourite targets—particularly towards the end of each month when salaries are running low—are tourists.

Stock up on garlands in Chinatown. Photo taken in or around Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Stock up on garlands in Chinatown. Photo: Mark Ord

Another older section of town, though outside the moated square, is the congested district lying between the east side of the Old City and the Ping River. This area holds many 19th century European buildings; back then, Chiang Mai was an important commercial and trading centre, particularly for teak. It’s also home to the bustling and congested Chinese quarter around Worawot Market, the city’s largest. The winding narrow sois also spread into this section of town and there are several more prestigious old temples as well as another concentration of tourist accommodation and cafes. The main north–south roads here are Chang Klan, home to Chiang Mai’s famous night bazaar, and Charoen Prathet, running parallel to the river. Running east–west is Tha Pae Road between Narawat Bridge and Tha Pae Gate, where you’ll find a good selection of 19th century merchant houses plus Loi Kroh Road—a busy nightlife area—leading from the moat to the river and crossing the night bazaar.

Further east, between the Ping and the ring road (aka the Super Highway), are the railway station and Arcade Bus Station, which is Chiang Mai’s largest. To the south, Chiang Mai heads off to the suburbs of Sankhampaeng and Hang Dong, with its famous handicraft market, and eventually Lamphun. The international airport is a short distance out of town to the southwest.

The west side is restricted by Doi Suthep National Park but is home to the city zoo and university as well as the chic boutiques and trendy cafes of Nimmanhemin Road. The two most important, centrally located hospitals, Suan Dok and Chiang Mai Ram, as well as the most conveniently located mall, Central Huay Kaew, are just to the west of the Old City.

Enjoying a viewpoint in Doi Suthep National Park. Photo taken in or around Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Enjoying a viewpoint in Doi Suthep National Park. Photo: Mark Ord

The northern area of town has Chang Puak local bus station, while beyond the ring road Route 107 heads off past Mae Rim towards Chiang Dao.

Weather in Chiang Mai
Being some distance from the sea, Chiang Mai has more of a continental climate than for instance Bangkok, so summer months are hotter and winter months cooler. Though there are of course variations—seemingly increasingly so in recent years—seasons pan out more or less as follows.

The hot dry season lasts from mid- to late-February through to late April. Temperatures can reach the low 40s (in degrees Celsius) and rain is rare, though the main problem at this time of year is smoke and dust in the air from burning fields.

The rainy season generally kicks in late April and lasts through to late October or even early November certain years. Rainy season does not necessarily mean it rains all day and precipitation is often of a quick, short blast nature. Temperatures are slightly lower than in preceding months but it is seriously humid.

The cool and dry season starts in November and runs through till early February. Rain is rare and temperatures are usually mild in the day time and cool at night. In the city, the mercury may descend under 20 degrees Celsius, though in mountainous areas zero degrees is not unheard of.

When to go to Chiang Mai
In light of our weather rundown, you’ll note that November to February is clearly the best bet weather-wise. Do bear in mind however that this also corresponds to busy season, so prices will be higher, and everywhere more crowded.

Chiang Mai goes off over Songkran. Photo taken in or around Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Chiang Mai goes off over Songkran. Photo: Mark Ord

The only period really worth avoiding is late February to late April, due to bad air quality. Arguments rage as to the causes and though increasing vehicle pollution and natural forest fires contribute, the prime culprit seems to be farmers burning off stubble from rice and corn fields. This burning off is illegal but not always strictly enforced despite air quality through March and April often being well below recommended safety norms. Indeed Chiang Mai International Airport has been forced to close some days, as visibility has dropped below international air safety minimums.

Things can get pretty unpleasant at this time of the year, though you can get lucky if a good storm clears the air for a day or two. Mid-April could be worth a punt, despite a chance of smoke, since it does corresponds to the Thai (Theravada Buddhist) New Year; Songkran celebrations around the 13th make this a fun time to visit and it often signals the first rains. Chiang Mai is a very popular destination for local tourists for New Year though, so again prices go up as availability goes down.

As long as you don’t mind the odd shower (often a good excuse to nip into a bar or coffee shop for 30 minutes), then don’t dismiss the rainy season. This is the best time of year for photographers to come, with dramatic skies and a fine day in the rainy season providing clear and vivid blue skies that you won’t see at any other time of year. This is perfect for mountain scenery but just remember to bring a plastic poncho or umbrella. An added bonus will be fewer fellow tourists around, so you may be in luck with low season accommodation rates and attractions will be far less crowded.

Safety
Firstly, with a bit of common sense, Chiang Mai is a safe city. While locals may complain, traffic is negligible compared to Bangkok, and scams, though not unheard of, are insignificant against Bangkok or even those of Phuket and Samui. Street crime is rare. The worst hassles the vast majority of tourists will encounter are overcharging tuk tuk drivers and trying to cross the moat road during rush hour. Don’t tempt fate by waving expensive cameras around down narrow alleys after dark but we’ll guarantee Chiang Mai is safer than most, if not all, Western cities of a similar size.

Always always wear a helmet. Photo taken in or around Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Always always wear a helmet. Photo: Mark Ord

The few touts you’ll encounter will be around popular temples such as Wat Phra Singh or Chedi Luang, while the greediest tuk tuk and songthaew drivers will be found parked up along busy tourist streets such as Loi Kroh, Tha Pae and Ratchadamnoen. Politely ignore any over-friendly locals offering to take you here or there, and don’t even bother arguing with tuk tuk drivers—just flag down another one.

Here’s the bad news: motorbikes. Rental bikes are widely and cheaply available and a very tempting option for getting around, but bike accidents are by far the number one cause of minor, serious and fatal accidents among foreign visitors to Chiang Mai. The 100 and 125 cc small scooters and bikes—especially the fully automatic ones—are deceptively easy to ride and even experienced riders must avoid getting over confident or casual. The road rules are different—or at least applied differently—in Thailand. Downtown can get congested, with many narrow streets and tricky one-way systems, while rural roads will have their share of suicidal dogs, drunk farmers, pot holes and Red Bull-crazed minivan drivers. Expect the unexpected.

Give it some thought and if you’re not confident, Chiang Mai may not be the easiest place to learn. Always wear a helmet. If you do hire a bike, check the tyres, brakes, lights and horn carefully and read the small print on insurance and damage liability. Above all, do not even consider getting on a bike if you don’t have adequate insurance of your own. If you’re planning on riding without a license, we ask you to read this page on the travel insurance implications of riding a motorbike unlicensed.

Police and immigration
The Old City’s main police station is on Ratchadamnoen Road, just down from Wat Phra Singh. Bike riders may well encounter one of their random checkpoints while driving around though and even with a helmet they will come up with some reason to fine you. (International driving licenses are not accepted unless they’re specifically valid for riding.) Wat Lok Malee and Somphet Market were police faves at the time of writing in mid-2017.

Chiang Mai’s main immigration office dealing with overstays and visa extensions (30 days for 1,900 baht) is located on the ground floor of Promenada Shopping Mall. It can get very crowded so get there early.

Chiang Mai Immigration Office: Promenada Shopping Mall, Superhighway, 192-193 Moo 2, Tha Sala; T: (053) 107 888; open Mo–Fr 08:30–16:30.
Police Station: Ratchadamnoen Rd, Phra Singh; T: (053) 327 191
Tourist Police: 608 Rimping Plaza Building, Charoen Rat Rd, Faham; T: (053) 247 318 (emergency call 1155).

Hospitals
Private hospitals Suan Dok and Chiang Mai Ram are the most convenient and popular with foreigners. Good levels of health care are available with English-speaking staff and prices are reasonable compared to those of private hospitals in most Western countries. However for serious or long-term injuries and illnesses tabs can mount up so again: Make sure you’re insured! In the event you are hospitalised, it is important that you advise your travel insurance company immediately.

Chiang Mai Ram Hospital: 8 Bunreuang Rit Rd, Sri Phum, (northwest corner of the moat); T: (053) 920 300; open 24 hours.
Suan Dok Hospital: 110 Suthep Rd, Suthep; T: (053) 936 150; open 24 hours.

Post Office
Three downtown post offices are probably the ones that will concern you most with locations at Phra Singh, Sri Phum and the Ping riverbank near Worarot.

Central Post Office: Samlarn Rd, Phra Singh (just south of Wat Phra Singh); open Mo-Fr 08:00-16:30, Sa 09:00-12:00.
Mae Ping Post Office: 24 Praisanee Rd, Chianpen; Mo-Fr 08:30-16:00, Sa 09:00-16:00.
Sri Phum Post Office: 153-155 Phrapokklao Rd, Sri Phum; open Mo-Fr 09:00-16:00, Sa 09:00-12:00.

Consulates
Below is a list of foreign consulates in Chiang Mai as of mid-2017. For most countries it is necessary to visit the respective embassy in Bangkok to get a visa.

Australia: 195/262 Moo Baan Sansaran 2, Soi 2/7 Banwaen, Hang Dong; T: (091) 857 6996; open Mo–Fr 09:00-12:00 by appointment only.
Austria: 810/1 Moo 1, Rimtai, Mae Rim; T: (053) 863 144; open Mo–Fr 09:00-12:00.
Bangladesh: 95 Huay Kaew Rd, Suthep; T: (053) 212 373-4.; open Mo–Fr 13:00-16:00.
Myanmar: 9/4 Manee Nopparat Soi 3, Chang Puak; T: (052) 004 211.
Canada: c/o Raming Tea, 151 Moo 3, Superhighway, Tha Sala; T: (053) 850 147; open Mo–Fr 09:00-15:00.
China: 111 Changlor Rd, Hai Ya; T: (053) 280 380; open Mo–Fr 09:00-11:30.
Finland: 3 Rattanakosin Rd, Sri Phum; T: (053) 231 133.
France: 138 Charoen Prathet Rd; T: (053) 281 466, 275 277; open Mo–Fr 10:00-12:00.
Germany: 199/163 Moo 3, Baan Nai Fun 2, Kan Klong Chonpratan Rd; T: (053) 838 735.
India: 33/1, Thung Hotel Road, Wat Ket; T: (053) 243 066.
Italy: 19 Sirimangka Rd Soi 9, Suthep; T: (053) 212 925; open Mo–Fr 09:00-12:00, 13:00-16:00.
Japan: 104/7 Airport Business Centre, Mahidol Rd, Hai Ya.
Korea: V Group Building 3rd Floor, 50 Huay Kaew Rd, Chang Puak; T: (053) 223 120.
Philippines: 176, M. 3, San Phranet, San Sai; T: (053) 351 278; open Mo–Fr 10:00-14:30.
South Africa: 32 Huay Kaew Rd, Chang Puak; T: (053) 711 800; open Mo–Fr 09:00-12:00.
Switzerland: Frangipani Serviced Residences, 11/1 Soi 13/1 Phrapokklao Rd, Sri Phum; T: (053) 225 000.
United Kingdom: 198 Bumrungrad Rd; T: (053) 263 015; open Mo–Fr 09:00-11:30.
United States: 387 Wichayanon Rd; T: (053) 107 700.

What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Chiang Mai.
 Check prices, availability & reviews on Agoda or Booking
 Read up on where to eat on Chiang Mai.
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Chiang Mai.
 Read up on how to get to Chiang Mai, or book your transport online with 12Go Asia.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
 Planning on riding a scooter in Chiang Mai? Please read this.





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