In recent years, the population of Chiang Mai has grown very quickly, and the city is now one of Thailand's largest, with a population of more than 1,500,000. Growth has brought with it concerns about air pollution and rush-hour traffic, though these are not nearly as bad as in Bangkok. Other problems have occurred as a result of the influx of tourists. These include deforestation and the displacement of tribal people in nearby hills and valleys to make way for resorts and roads. Despite all this, Chiang Mai retains a magical charm. It is an exciting city with a rich cultural heritage offering numerous sights and activities for the visitor.
Some major attractions include historical and religious buildings, bustling markets, nature parks, and stores selling an incredible variety of handcrafted products. Chiang Mai is much smaller than Bangkok and, even if you are unfamiliar with maps, it is fairly easy to find your way around. Perhaps the best place to start is the old city. This central part of Chiang Mai is contained within four walls and a moat, originally built for defense. The walls date back to the city's founding in the 13th Century but were rebuilt in the 19th Century. Several of the original gates in the wall have also been restored and serve as useful reference points to help you find your way around. Particularly interesting is the busy
To the east, between Tha Pae Gate and the Mae Ping River, lie the main business and shopping areas. Perhaps the most popular of these is Chang Klan Road, home to the increasingly popular
The western side of the old city reaches out toward Doi Suthep Mountain and the beautiful white chedis (spires) of
A few kilometers further up Doi Suthep lies
Along the road to San Kampaeng (Route 101), handicraft stores line the road.
Northward from the city (along Route 107), you can find
Outside the City
Other attractions beyond the city limits include hiking and white water rafting as well as incredible natural scenery, such as the awesome
Northern Thailand is the home to one of the world's finest cuisines, as can be seen by the number of Thai restaurants that have sprung up around the world in the last few years. One of the best ways to experience Chiang Mai's culinary delights is to sample some of the many different dishes that can be found in this 'Rose of the North'. Even the most fastidious of gastronomes will find satisfaction here!
The Thai people's imagination shines through in their preparation and presentation of food, and tourists soon discover that dining in Chiang Mai is a special delight. As is often the case in Thailand, some of the tastiest meals prove to be some of the most affordable and these can be found in the city's many food stalls. However, for service, decor and topnotch cuisine, Chiang Mai also offers a variety to choose from.
One of the best ways to experience the region's culture and cuisine is to attend a khantoke dinner, a traditional northern Thai way of extending hospitality. The name originates from the small round table made of lacquered wood or bamboo that is used on these occasions. Guests are garlanded with flowers called phuang mali and are entertained with dance performances during the meal. Traditional dishes normally served at these events include kaeng haeng le, a delicious curried pork, Burmese style; nam phrik ong, a spicy dip of ground pork and tomatoes; kaeng khae kai, a chicken and vegetable curry; and khao niao, glutinous rice, the staple cereal of Chiang Mai. You can experience a khantoke dinner at the following places—Nakorn Lanna 1296, The Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center and Kantoke Palace.
Chiang Mai abounds in vegetarian food. If you are in the old city, try AUM Vegetarian Restaurant, where the specialty is khao soy, a coconut curry with crisp noodles and a north Thailand favorite. Equally recommended is the very inexpensive Chiang Mai Vegetarian Society, which is open for breakfast and lunch and serves some tasty cuisine, buffet style. Quite near to the Night Bazaar, and a bit more upscale, is the Whole Earth Restaurant which provides a relaxed ambience in a beautiful garden setting.
Mae Ping River
For some wonderful traditional Thai food, try Kanjana, The Wok, Huen Phen, Ratana's Kitchen or Antique House. For the more adventurous gourmet, Aroon Rai stocks three kinds of fried insect dishes, all northern delicacies: Rot duan, a kind of caterpillar; meng muan, a woodborer; and ging gong, a type of cricket. For something unusual, experience dining amidst the rice paddies at The Rain Forest, about 10 kilometers south of the city. However, If you find yourself near the Night Bazaar, check out White Lotus or the Kalare Food and Shopping Center, which also provides live entertainment.
Many restaurants serve a mixture of Western food and traditional Thai fare, and some along the river also offer live music. Popular venues are The Riverside Bar and Restaurant, The Good View and La Brasserie. For a quiet, more romantic meal on the river, check out Tha Nam, or dine on the river by taking the Mae Ping River Cruise.
For topnotch European cuisine, Chiang Mai is a great place. Classic Italian fare is served at da Stefano, Art Café, Pum Pui and Piccola Roma Palace. French favorites can be found at Chez John Restaurant and Chez Daniel. For a highly stimulating grande buffe, try Le Coq d'Or, which has been serving haute cuisine for more than 30 years. For German fare, make your way to Le Garage or German Hofbrauhaus. Sitting Bull offers a good steak in an American Old West setting. If you crave a pizza, head to La Villa, which boasts Chiang Mai's only authentic wood-fired oven for baking delicious pizzas and homemade focaccio. If it is a pint of beer you are after, you could do no better than go to the Red Lion English Pub and Restaurant or The Irish Pub, crowded on Thursday nights for the local pub quiz. Some of the best coffee can be found at JJ's Restaurant and Bakery, Fish 'n' Chip Shop, Cafe Chic and Libernard Café.
To experience many different foods all in one sitting, try some of the good-quality buffet-style luncheons, including Nang Nual Seafood, famous for fresh seafood, and two others located in hotels—Suriwongse Zenith and the Amari Rincome Hotel. For sushi, there is Irasshai Japanese Restaurant or Yamato.
Another way to experience Thai cuisine is to cook it yourself! Traditional cooking courses are popular. They include an introduction to Thai ingredients, paste making and a tour of a local market. Most courses are offered for one to three days and include an easy-to-follow recipe book. You can learn to enjoy Thai cuisine through cooking with the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School, Thai Kitchen Cookery School or Sompet Travel & Thai Cooking School. Whether you cook it yourself, dine by the river or have a drink in a pub, something enjoyable awaits you when you go dining and drinking in the 'Rose of the North'. Chok-dee, kab!
Chiang Mai is an easygoing yet active city. On the one hand, it appears very sophisticated and, to some degree, very Westernized; on the other hand, influences from the surrounding farming communities and hill tribes infuse everyday life. This division between Western and traditional Thai lifestyles characterizes almost everything in Chiang Mai, including entertainment. Visitors can opt for Western-style entertainment or join the local crowd rowdily cheering a muay Thai match, savor a khantoke dinner with Thai dancing, or explore Chiang Mai on a river cruise.
The ancient martial art of muay Thai, or Thai kickboxing, is as popular in Chiang Mai as anywhere else in Thailand. Nowadays, most muay Thai matches are held in Western-style boxing arenas, watched by people from all walks of life rooting for (and betting on) their favorite fighters. A dance-like ritual initiates each fight, with musical accompaniment from a small orchestra. This symbolizes the fighters' gratitude to the spirits and their prayer for strength and courage. The fighting itself looks codified but brutal, involving free-for-all kicks and elbow blows to the body and face (do not be surprised if one boxer knocks another one out—stretchers are a common sight at Thai boxing matches). You can watch muay Thai at Gawila Boxing Stadium, where boxers from all over Thailand compete, usually at 7.30pm on weekend nights. You can also see less compelling exhibitions of Muay Thai at a small stadium on Loi Kroh, near the Night Bazaar.
Khantoke / Dinner / Dance
A traditional khantoke dinner is a sumptuous occasion. Diners sit on cushions while elegantly attired attendants serve them a variety of appetizers, salads, curries and rice dishes. During the meal, traditional Thai dancers entertain the guests with fluid, graceful performances using enormous fans and other props. You can experience this age-old tradition at The Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center, Nakorn Lanna 1296 or Kantoke Palace.
While you can enjoy traditional Thai dance at a khantoke restaurant such as The Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center, you can also check out dancing in the evenings over a simple meal at the Kalare Food and Shopping Center. This is a good place to get your first taste of Thai dancing. At Kalare, diners select their own food from a host of stalls serving northern Thai, Indian, Middle Eastern and Western dishes.
Live guitar is especially popular in Thailand. Dinner with live music is available at La Brasserie, Good View and Huan Suntaree. Other popular venues include Phar Lap, The Gallery, The Good View and Antique House 2 River Terrace. The Riverside Bar and Restaurant is probably the most popular dinner-with-live-music spot in Chiang Mai, among both Thais and farangs (foreigners), with several different bands exuberantly and skillfully playing Western popular music from Metallica to Eric Clapton and the Cranberries. Scene Song Say Pub provides an ultra-hip option for live music on weekends, and Drunken Flower is a popular hang-out for local university students. Just about any bar in Chiang Mai has karaoke. Croon your own favorites at Romantic Restaurant and Pub or check out the numerous karaoke clubs across the street from Kad Suan Kaew. Visitors to any part of Thailand will quickly learn that 'lady boys', young men who dress as women, are as much a part of the culture as khantoke and Muay Thai. For an over-the-top lady-boy performance, stop by Blue Moon Cabaret near Tha Pae Gate (you can't miss the 'ladies' beckoning you to the show!).
Mae Ping River
No visit to Chiang Mai is complete without a leisurely cruise up the Mae Ping River. The Mae Ping River Cruise allows you to sit back and gaze at the passing countryside for a couple of hours, or you may call The Riverside Bar and Restaurant for information on its nightly dinner cruises.
Even the most seasoned traveler needs an occasional dip into familiar Western-style entertainment. For first-release movies, Vista Cinema, which has two locations at Kad Suan Kaew (one on the top floor of the mall and the other across the street), screens about three films a week, each one shown four or five times a day. Call +66 53 262 661 for English language listings and show times. Kad Suan Kaew also offers other forms of entertainment. Bully Sky Ice, an ice-skating rink on the top of the building, commands a panoramic view of the city. Here you can learn to skate, brush up on your triple-toe loops, or just watch the skaters. The well-maintained rink stays open until 1am. Bowling offers yet another entertainment option. Bully Bowl also in Kad Suan Kaew, feels like a cross between a bowling alley and a disco, with dance music throbbing while customers toss back Singha beers between rounds. Bowling is a popular late-night and weekend activity for local teenagers, so it is no wonder Bully Bowl stays open until 2am. The Irish Pub is an extremely popular expatriate hangout, especially on Thursday nights when an occasionally raucous Trivial Pursuit tournament rages on from about 8.30p.
Chiang Mai is an exotic city rich in cultural heritage. There are many things to see in the area. You might want to take an organized tour through a travel agent, such as Chiangmai Jasmine Travel or North Pearl Travel , or you could opt to do the sights on your own using a taxi (si-lor), bus or a rented vehicle from companies like Journey Co. Ltd. and North Wheels. Whichever you choose, here are five recommended itineraries you might want to consider. The Old Walled City and Temple Trail.
Scores of temples (wat) lie within the old walled city, most of them built during ancient times by the Lanna dynasty. Some of these reflect Burmese, Sri Lankan and Mon influences in their design. Wat Chedi Luang in the city center, on Prapoklao Road, is a good starting point. An earthquake partially destroyed the stupa here in 1545, but it still retains a certain charm. Legend has it that it was here that King Mengrai was struck by lightning! On Ratchdamnoen-Singharaj Road stands Wat Phra Singh, where devotees flock during Songkran (Thai New Year) to bathe the Phra Sihing Buddha image in water. Nearby is Wat Chiang Man, the oldest temple in Chiang Mai and home to the Crystal Buddha. Your route can continue either along Suthep Road or Huay Kaew Road. Suthep Road leads to Wat Suan Dok in the gardens of the Lanna royal residence. Further down is a zoo that also serves as the Observation Studies Center on Animals and the Natural Environment. Nearby lies Wat Umong, an interesting temple in a forest park, and itself a center of meditation. The trail from Huay Kaew Road leads toward the Superhighway, which takes you to Wat Jed Yod, a fifteenth century temple with seven spires and an Indian-inspired architecture. Alongside is the National Museum.
The Suthep Mountain Route. Chiang Mai's most prominent natural landmark, Suthep Mountain, is easily accessed by Huay Kaew Road. On the way, drop by Chiang Mai Zoo or Huay Kaew Waterfall. At the foot of the moutain lies Khruba Srivichai Monument, built in memory of one of Thailand's most revered monks. Devotees seek blessings here before driving up to the holy temple, Wat Phra Tat Doi Suthep, famous for its artworks depicting the life of the Buddha and its golden spire. Opposite is the Orchid Jade Factory, with its selection of jade and other precious stones. A few minutes' drive takes you to Phu Phing Palace, the enchanting residence of the royal family. Top off the day by visiting the Meo Tribal Village. San Kampaeng and Bor Sang Handicraft Village. Handicrafts from northern Thailand are famous throughout the world for their delicate designs and excellent quality. To view these beautiful creations, take the Superhighway to San Kampaeng Road. Check out Jolie Femme Thai Silk for garments and accessories. Antiques and decorative items may be viewed at Iyara Art and Arts & Crafts, ceramics at Prempracha's Collection, and blue and green celadon at Baan Celadon and Siam Celadon. For woodcarvings, try Eungkum Woodcarving and Chiang Mai Tusnaporn Co. Ltd. The Umbrella Making Centre makes typical northern Thai-style umbrellas, while local silver products can be purchased at Lanna Thai and Chiang Mai Silverware Patanaanunwong Co. Ltd. Other interesting venues nclude Bronze House for bronze, Meo Jaidee Studio for candles and Hill Tribe Resins & Dolls for traditional creations.
A day trip to the south should be on every visitor's itinerary. Start on Route 108 or the Chiang Mai-Hang Dong Road, which is lined with beautiful temples and handicraft outlets such as Ban Chang Kham. As you drive toward Samerng, you will discover a beautiful hideaway amongst nature at Belle Villa Resort. From Samerng, take Mae-Rim Road back to Chiang Mai. This offers many interesting places to see. Visit the lush green Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden or the Mae Sa Elephant Training Camp, where shows are scheduled daily. Soon you will come to the refreshing Mae Sa Waterfall, Sai Nam Phung Orchid Nursery and Butterfly Farm, Mae Sa Butterfly and Orchid Farm and the Snake Farm. There is also Tita Gallery, which hosts regular exhibitions. Before continuing, enjoy a meal at Regent Resort and pamper yourself at the Lanna Spa. On the way back to the city, you will pass the Thai Buffalo Training Camp, the historical Dara Pirom Museum and the enchanting Tribal Museum located in the beautiful Rama IX Park.
Chiang Rai & Surrounding Areas
Approximately three hours from Chiang Mai lies another exotic city, Chiang Rai, dotted with several ancient monuments and temples. From here, take the route to Chiang Khong, a farming and fishing community on the banks of the Mekong River. North is the old fortress town of Chiang Saen, the first northern capital of Thailand. A twenty-minute drive takes you to the infamous Golden Triangle, poppy country, where Burma, Laos and Thailand all meet. Near here is Mae Sai, a bustling gem trading border town. You can cross to Tachilek on the Burmese side, but first check with the authorities that you are allowed to do so. An alternative route is to drive from Chiang Mai to Ban Tha Ton and then take a boat (Mae Kok River Boat Service) to Chiang Rai. This wonderful three-hour cruise down the river passes various hill tribe settlements, the most popular one being the elephant town of Ruammitr Village.