Take a stroll through the lanes of the Old City
With its labyrinth of lanes, a stunning ancient temple and tempting fresh coffee shops seemingly around every corner, Chiang Mai's Old City lends itself perfectly to a walking tour. Here's how we'd do it.
Wandering in any direction through the area between the Ping River and the moated Old City is sure to be both fun and fascinating, but we have a couple of suggested itineraries to optimise your foot work versus sites ratio. Starting reasonably early, you could cover either one in a half-day or join them together for a leisurely and varied full day tour.
Starting at Tha Pae Gate, as it’s central and easy to find, head a short distance along the inner moat road, Moonmuang, until reaching Somphet Market on the left. One of the Old City’s few remaining local-style markets, Somphet is well worth a peek and if you haven’t already had a coffee or juice, then this is a great opportunity to do so. Follow the red brick lane, Moonmuang Soi 6, for five minutes or so until you reach Ratchaphakhinai Road, where you’ll need to hang a left. Keep straight across the intersection with Ratchawithi Road and look out for a temple, Wat Umong Mahathera Chan, on the right just after Archers Pub.
Walk through this attractive old Buddhist temple and continue along the leafy lane which emerges shortly onto Phrapokklao Road next to the well restored old court house—now home to the Lanna Folk Museum. You’re now in Chiang Mai’s museum district. The impressive old city hall, opposite and behind the Three King’s Monument, is currently home to the Chiang Mai Arts and Culture Museum. At the rear of the building is the new, purpose-built Historical Centre. The Three Kings incidentally represent King Mengrai, founder of Chiang Mai, with his buddies and allies King Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai and King Ngam Muang of Phayao.
If you ticked all three museums that would obviously fill up your morning (though as of mid-2017 the Arts and Culture Museum was closed for renovation). We would recommend at least sacrificing 45 minutes or so for a peek around the excellent (and air-conditioned) Historical Centre. Well laid out and well explained, it's an ideal opportunity for absorbing a potted history of Chiang Mai and the region. You’ll need to cross over and pass down the right hand (north) side of the large Arts and Culture Museum. Entrance fee is 90 baht and it's closed Mondays.
Exit the museum by the main entrance and if you glance to the left you’ll see the very good Chuam Chom Cafe run by inmates from Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institute. You'll find good coffee, meals and juices in a delightful garden here, and if you have an hour to spare then the massages are also highly recommended. (Further details in our massage section.)
From here, follow Chaban Road south for one block and turn left onto Intraworowot with its row of excellent local-style cafes. We guess these longstanding cafes originally catered for staff from the large city hall opposite, and many have been there for decades serving out khao soi, chicken on rice and other local classics; try here for an early lunch. After this you’ll need to double back slightly and head west, where Intraworowot becomes Arak Soi 5. Continue for two blocks whereupon you’ll see Wat Phra Singh to your left.
You’ll have already passed a number of wats on the walk; some of them on the plain side, others attractive and photogenic, and stops will depend on your personal temple saturation levels. Wat Phra Singh is, along with Chedi Luang, the most prestigious in town. Opposite the temple’s entrance is Ratchadamnoen Road, the old town’s main drag and site of the famous Sunday Walking Street. You’ll need to walk down here for five minutes or so to reach Wat Chedi Luang. If this popular site is too crowded, or you can handle another quick temple, then pop into the much smaller but beautiful Wat Pan Tao next door. (You’ll walk past it anyway.)
Exiting, we’d suggest taking narrow Phrapokklao Soi 8 opposite after which a dog’s leg to the right across Ratchaphakhinai should see you weave your way down some narrow lanes to emerge back on Moonmuang within sight of Tha Pae Gate a short distance to the left.
We’d allow a half-day or so to do this. With a museum admission, 20 baht each at Chedi Luang and Phra Singh, a coffee and a khao soi, you’re looking at a grand total of 200 baht and some change for a morning well spent.
If you’ve still got some energy left, our second walking tour continues on from Tha Pae to Chinatown, Worarot Market and the riverside. Read on!
From Tha Pae Gate, walk east down the road of the same name. (The road is one-way, so don’t try this on a bicycle!) Along this stretch you’ll see some of the city’s best-preserved 19th century architecture, constructed by wealthy Chinese and European merchants exploiting the lucrative teak trade.
Some are restored and some not—check out the plush Celadon Tea Room—and all interspersed with an eclectic mix of cafes, smart boutiques and junk shops. It is a busy but fascinating street for a stroll. Don’t go right to the end; keep your eyes open for a turning on the left named Kuang Men Road. It’s a narrow but busy road leading down to Worarot Market and should be easy to spot even if the road sign isn’t.
This area between Tha Pae and Chiang Moi Roads is Chiang Mai’s Chinatown district. You’ll immediately sense a different feel. Say bye bye to leafy lanes, chic coffee shops and Lanna temples and hello to hectic, noisy streets lined with shophouses and Chinese noodle stalls. Worarot Market itself, or Kad Luang to locals, is housed in two three-storey buildings separated by Wichayanon Road. This is the largest permanent market in the downtown area. It backs onto the river, so make your way through the market and you’ll find yourself, with the flower section behind you, facing the Ping and a conveniently placed footbridge across the river.
The short walk across the bridge also entails another abrupt and radical change in look and atmosphere as you emerge onto Charoen Rat Road. On one side is a series of popular riverside bars and eateries such as the iconic Good View, while the other has a string of wonderful old teak buildings now converted to smart coffee, souvenir and handicraft boutiques, plus a ritzy spa or two.
Walking south along the riverside road, Charoen Rat, we’d take Narawat Bridge on the right which leads you back onto the top end of Tha Pae Road. This first stretch you won’t have seen before as you turned left earlier to reach Worarot, but to avoid repetition we’d also suggest looking out for Kamphaeng Din Road, on your left. This means “earth wall road” and refers to an outer defensive wall constructed as the city expanded towards the Ping River. It's not as impressive as the original city walls and moat, but you can still clearly see the earthen embankment on the river side of the road beyond which is a grubby canal, formerly a second moat.
Lookout for a narrow lane on the right called Kamphaeng Din Soi 7, which takes you into another maze of narrow lanes between here and the moat road. We won’t attempt to guide you through the labyrinth, but just keep bearing west and you should emerge somewhere on Kotchasarn, the eastern moat road. In the worst case you’ll come out on Loi Kroh, where a right turn will also lead you back to the moat. Tha Pae Gate is then a short walk north.
Allow three hours or so including a coffee break or two for this fascinating and highly varied walk.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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