Chiang Mai Travel Guide
Chiang Mai, Thailand’s principal northern city, some 700 kilometers north of Bangkok, was founded in 1296 and is located in a fertile valley 300 metres above sea level.
Chiang Mai was the capital of Lan Na Thai (Kingdom of One Million Ricefields), the first independent Thai kingdom in the fabled Golden Triangle. Chiang Mai flourished as a religious, cultural and trading centre until 1556 when a Burmese invasion were expelled in 1775 and Lan Na Thai once more became part of northern Thailand.
Many lowland Thai regarded the city, and province of the same name, as being a national Shangri-la thanks to beautiful women, distinctive festivals, historic temples dating from the 1300s, arresting scenic beauty, temperate fruits such as apples, peaches and strawberries, and a crisp, invigorating cool season climate.
Mountains surrounding Chiang Mai form lower extremities of Himalayan foothills and host several hill tribes of Tibeto-Burman origin. Forest still worked by elephants, waterfalls, caves, gorges, cultivated orchards and plantations adorn mountains that invite detailed exploration.
Until the late 1920s, Chiang Mai was isolated from Bangkok and could be reached only by an arduous river trip or an elephant-back journey through jungled mountains that took several weeks.
Such isolation accounts for much of Chiang Mai’s present charm. The people of Chiang Mai have their own lilting dialect, their own customs, a wide range of indigenous handicrafts, their own architectural traditions, their own dances and their own cuisine.
As countless travelers have discovered, Chiang Mai’s manifold attractions enthrall, delight, and to visit this northern city merely once is to remain forever enchanted.
CITY ATTRACTIONS TEMPLES
Northern Thai religious architecture is a flamboyant mixture of Mon, Burmese, Sri Lankan and Lan Na Thai styles, and liberal use of accomplished woodcarving, Naga staircases, leonine and angelic guardians, glided umbrellas and pagodas laced with gold filagree.
Major city temples include Wat Chiang Man, Chiang Mai’s oldest temple; Wat Chedi Luang, site of a massive pagoda partially destroyed during a 1545 earthquake;
Wat Phra Sing, founded in 1345, where the lovely Lai Kham chapel houses the reverend Phra Sing Buddha image;
Wat Ku Tao with its porcelain-studded, exotically bulbous pagoda;
Wat Suan Dok, built in a 14th century Lan Na Thai monarch’s pleasure gardens; and the ancient, extensive forest temple of Wat Umong.
Chiang Mai’s most important, and visible, temple is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, (15 kms. from town) a major landmark overlooking the city from its forested mountain backdrop (atop which Thailand’s royal family maintains a winter palace). The temple’s 16th-century golden pagoda contains Buddhist relics and attracts visitors and Buddhist pilgrim throughout the year. A 12-kilometre switchback mountain road trip — which begins beside Chiang Mai’s lovely zoo (6 kilometers from town) — precedes a steep climb up a Naga staircase (the less energetic can by funicular cars) to the temple’s compound from where an exhilarating view of Chiang Mai and surrounding countryside can be enjoyed.
Chiang Mai is, quite simply, Thailand’s major centre for quality handicrafts. The visitor need merely visits the nearest city emporium or night market to purchase an extraordinary variety of antiques, silver jewelry, hilltribe opium pipes and embroidery, Thai silks and cottons, basketry, celadon, silverware, furniture, lacquerware, woodcarving and parasols.
A major advantage of shopping in Chiang Mai is that the visitors can watch artisans within the city and several outlying villages, particularly along the Bo Sang – San Kamphaeng road where, in genuine cottage industries, parasols, silk and cotton weaving, jewelry, woodcarving, silverware, celadon and lacquerware are manufactured and number among popular purchases.
A soothing bonus, particularly after an extended shopping trip, is to visit San Kamphaneg’a Hot Springs (36 kilometers from town) where water with high sulphur content possesses curative and restorative properties.
Chiang Mai celebrates many annual festivals. Three are particularly lively and lovely. These are the Flower Carnival, the first weekend of every February;
Songkran, 13-15 April; and Loi Krathong, on the full moon day of the twelfth lunar month, generally mid-November.
The Flower Carnival celebrates the period when Chiang Mai’s temperate and tropical flowers are in bloom and is characterized by colourful floral floats and parades.
Songkran celebrates the traditional Thai New Year. Chiang Mai celebrates Songkran with special elan in a 3-day carousels of religious merit-making, pilgrimages, beauty parades, dancing and uninhibited, good natured water throwing.
Loi Krathong is Thailand’s loveliest festival when, under the full moon, people float away onto rivers, canals, lakes and streams banana-leaf boats bearing a lighted candle, incense. a flower and small coin to honour water spirits and float away the past year’s sins.
Visitors fortunate enough to be in Chiang Mai during either of these festivals will see the city at its vibrant, joyous best.
Comfortable air-conditioned accommodations are available at first-class and economy class hotels. Budget travelers prefer clean, inexpensive guest houses. Accommodation outside Chiang Mai is largely concentrated in the Mae Sa Valley where guests are housed in hillside resort bungalows and cabins. Comprehensive listings of Chiang Mai’s accommodation are featured in complimentary tourist publications such as Tourist Guide To Chiang Mai, available in major tourism outlets, including the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Chiang Mai office or click here to see a list of hotels with homepages, that allow online reservations.
Dining / Nightlife
Besides excellent Thailand Chinese food, visitors can enjoy Italian, French, German and Muslim food in specialty restaurants. American-style steakhouses, sandwich bars, fast-food outlets, English-style pubs and vegetarian restaurants offer a broad range of cuisine, and international fare is widely available in teahouses and coffee shops. Local culinary specialties include highly spiced Naem sausages and midly curried Khao Soi noodles. Most visitors enjoy a traditional Khantok dinner which is often accompanied by a display of northern dances.
Chiang Mai city is compact enough to explore on foot. Visitors may use an urban bus service, minibuses which average 5 Baht per urban ride, or pedicabs (tricycles) where fares must be bargained in advance. Transportation is included in all guided tours. Automobiles may be hired on a daily or weekly basis for provincial exploration.
How To Get There
Chiang Mai and Bangkok are linked by daily, regular rail, bus and air services. Flying time aboard a Thai Airways Boeing jet is 55 minutes. Bus time, from Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal on Phahonyothin Road, is approximately 12 hours. Rail time from Bangkok’s Hualamphong Station is approximately 14 hours.