Chiang Mai is a land of misty mountains and colourful hill tribes, a playground for seasoned travellers, a paradise for shoppers and a delight for adventurers. Here the curious can expand their horizons with Thai massage and cooking courses. The aesthete will be bowled over by the variety of handicrafts. The wild child will find plenty of lively nightlife, and the epicure can indulge in wonderful cuisine. Chiang Mai truly has it all.
Located 700 km (435 miles) north of Bangkok in a verdant valley on the banks of the Ping River, Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 as the capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom. Today it is a place where past and the present seamlessly merge with modern buildings standing side by side with venerable temples. It has the feel of a small town, and is much easier to get around compared to Bangkok.
• How to get there?
Chiang Mai is well served with it’s own airport just outside town. It’s just a short cab ride into the town centre. There are many airports internally which fly direct to Chiang Mai, most international flights coming via one of Bangkok’s two international hubs, Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang airports.
If you are on a smaller budget or are just not in a hurry, you could consider the train or coach; this will give you more time to take in the Thai countryside.
• Food and Accommodation
Chiang Mai’s dining scene is an eclectic blend of traditional northern Thai cuisine, regional Thai flavours and a wide range of multi-cultural offerings. Besides street-side eateries, many dining establishments also offer a cultural experience, whether through the ambience, interior décor, entertainment, history or food.
There are hotels to suit every budget from cheap dorm rooms and hostels, to 5 star luxury. You can be confident that Travel Loop Adventure will match your budget and requirements to the perfect accommodation.
• Health and Safety
The same applies in Chiang Mai as in Bangkok. Use care and common sense, avoid the sun or cover up, use insect repellants and sun creams.
Chiang Mai also has good healthcare facilities but for specialist treatments then the same advice applies and you should head to Bangkok if possible.
• Where to go
Doi Suthep - Temple and National Park
Gleaming like a northern star from the heights of Doi Suthep (the regal mountain overlooking the city from the northwest) is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It is one of the most historically and spiritually significant places in Thailand and is an impressive embodiment of the Lanna culture, with its origins dating back almost 700 years. As such, large numbers of Thais and foreigners come to experience the special magic of this holy place
Doi Suthep is a constant part of life in Chiang Mai. A Thai saying goes, "If you haven't tasted Khao Soi or seen the view from Doi Suthep, you haven't been to Chiang Mai." This regal mountain overlooks the city from the northwest, providing commanding views from its summit. Aside from its dominating presence on the horizon, Doi Suthep is the home of some of the most deeply loved symbols in the Kingdom.
In 1981 Doi Suthep, Doi Pui and Doi Buakha, along with the 161 square kilometres (62 square miles) of forest in which they are located, became Thailand's 24th national park. A year later a 100 square kilometre (38 square mile) annex was added, bringing the park's total area up to 261 square kilometres (100 square miles). Dense forests hang from the mountain's shoulders like a cloak; deciduous at lower elevations and evergreen near the peaks of the mountains.
Wat Chedi Luang
Built sometime between 1385 and 1402, during the reign of King Saen Muang Ma, 7th ruler of the Mengrai dynasty, Wat Chedi Luang's massive chedi (pagoda) is a distinctive feature of the Chiang Mai skyline. At its peak, the chedi measured 60 metres across at the square base and 80 metres tall and was once the home of the Emerald Buddha, Thailand's most sacred religious relic.
Damaged during an earthquake in 1545, the chedi’s height is reduced to nearly half of its original size yet it is still an impressive structure. In 1992, the Fine Arts Department finished restoration work around the chedi, bringing back the naga (water serpent) staircase on each of its faces and wonderful statues of elephants adorning the base. The actual work on the chedi itself, however, was never quite complete, leaving it in its present state.
Wiang Kum Kam
Located in attractive countryside about five kilometres south of Chiang Mai along the Ping River, Wiang Kum Kam is an ancient city dating back to the eighth-century Haripunchai Kingdom. Expect to see many interesting items and structures such as stone tablets with Mon inscriptions, Buddhist sculptures and architecture, earthenware and pottery. Taking a horse-led carriage is a popular way to enjoy the ruins.
The demise of Wiang Kum Kam as the capital city is slightly different from those of other ancient capitals. Rather than being left in ruin, the city was completely submerged under the Ping River, which suddenly changed its course and swept the whole city under. Had it not been accidentally rediscovered (in 1984), the story of Wiang Kum Kum would just be a legend.
The centrepiece at Wiang Kum Kam is Wat Chedi Liam (or Temple with an Angular-based Chedi). Widely depicted in postcards, the temple features a Burmese-style pavilion (restored in 1908 by a Burmese trader) and a five-tiered chedi set on a square base – the signature style of the early Lanna period. Each corner of the chedi is guarded by an outward-facing lion, an architectural feature that is unique to the Haripunchai style (today’s Lamphun).
Other important structures include Wat Chang Kham, containing the spirit house of King Mengrai (founder of the Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai kingdoms) and the Cultural and Local Wisdom Learning Centre which exhibits Lanna objects and traditional Lanna-style houses. It’s a good idea to drop by Wiang Kum Kam Information Centre, where excavated earthenware pottery and artifacts are displayed in the exhibit rooms.
Doi Inthanon, the highest peak in Thailand, rises 2,565 metres above sea level. Known as a sanctuary for a wide range of animal species and perhaps the best place in Thailand for bird watching, the park has approximately 362 different species, many of which are not found anywhere else in Thailand. Doi Inthanon is a popular destination, not only for its natural beauty, but also for its historical significance.
Doi Inthanon National Park is a true jewel of natural beauty, consisting of rugged mountainous terrain blanketed by lush tropical forests and dotted with mighty rivers and majestic waterfalls. The park's protected status makes it a sanctuary for a wide range of animal species and it is perhaps the best place in Thailand for bird watching. Approximately 362 different species of bird make their home in Doi Inthanon National Park, many of which are not found anywhere else in Thailand.
The diversity of Doi Inthanon does not only extend to plant and animal species, however. The park has long been home to settlements of Northern Hill tribes as well. Recent efforts have been made to allow theses unique villages to maintain their traditional cultures while co-existing with modern developments such as tourism and the Bhumibol Dam, which harnesses the power of the Ping River to provide electricity to thousands of Thai people.
Doi Pui Tribal Village
Doi Pui, at 1,685metres above sea level, is the highest peak in the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. It is famous for its beautiful waterfalls, which are easily reached from the main road. But one of the hottest attractions for Doi Pui must be the Hmong Tribal Village situated less than five kilometres from the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. A visit to this village is an eye-opener into the tribal villagers’ private life.
Here you can witness their simple way of living, their homes, as well as learn about their culture through a collection of objects, such as musical instruments, traditional silver-embroidered costumes and bamboo crafts.
Because of the high elevation, Doi Pui is enshrouded in mist and has a relatively cool climate all year round (average temperatures of 20 - 23 degrees Celsius). The forest cover consists of mixed deciduous and evergreen forests, with bursts of colourful blossoms dotting the entire mountain slopes. Various species of birds and small mammals inhabit the forests, among them red jungle fowl, pheasants, eagles, wild boar and macaque.
Chiang Dao Cave and Karen Long Neck Tribe
Boasting some of the most spectacular stalactite and stalagmite formations in the country, Chiang Dao Cave stretches many kilometres into the mountains. Legend has it that it connects with several other caves, before eventually emerges at the other end somewhere in Shan State across the border. The official figure, though, is 12 kilometres, and you can explore only a small part of it.
The cave is part of the 2,100-metre-high Doi Chiang Dao mountain range, the third highest peak in Thailand formed by pushed up sea floors some 230-250 million years ago. For the most part, the cave is well lit, but as you progress further in, even a powerful flashlight is useless.
Further up from Chiang Dao Cave, a visit to the Padung Village introduces you to the ‘Long Neck Karen’ ethnic hill-tribe. The women wear brass rings around their necks, wrists and ankles as part of their culture. It is a good idea to explore, with respect, the village a little to get a feel of their culture and way of life, before supporting their income by purchasing a few souvenirs.
Bo Sang Handicraft Village
The handcrafting of umbrellas and parasols in Bo Sang Village is known throughout the country and even abroad – so much so that the umbrella has become one of the symbols of Chiang Mai. Here, you'll find plenty of hand-painted umbrellas, tiny cocktail umbrellas, and large parasols for gardens or patios and other handmade products – all made from paper in various designs and at reasonable prices.