Chiang Mai: Thailand’s Laid Back Second City

Founded in 1296, and far more laid back than Bangkok, 700km south, Chiang Mai has the ability to lure visitors and keep them here. It is surrounded by beautiful scenery – Thailand’s three highest mountains are all nearby – and the old city itself is just as pleasing on the eye with temples scattered here, there and everywhere. The demands of tourism development could easily have swamped the charms of Chiang Mai but so far the city has eased into ‘today’ gracefully, and the result is a vibrant, lively city that retains its quaint, legendary charm. Chiang Mai is home to some of the friendliest people in the country – and that’s saying something when you remember that Thailand has been dubbed the ‘Land of Smiles’. A bartering session here is likely to be less intense than in Bangkok, and even the tuk-tuk drivers aren’t quite as determined to get their hands on your baht. Many people are genuinely interested in where you’re from and eager to practice their English.

With a population of some 170,000, Chiang Mai is Thailand’s fifth-largest city. Located on a plain at an elevation of 316 m, surrounded by mountains and lush countryside, it is much greener and quieter than the capital, and has a cosmopolitan air and a significant expat population, factors which have led many from Bangkok to settle permanently in this “Rose of the North”.

So slow down a little, enjoy the view, and wander around at leisure as you soak up eight centuries of history– not to mention some of the best dining and shopping in the country.

Did You Know?

  • Chiang Mai means ‘New City’.
  • Founded in 1296 AD, the culturally rich city of Chiang Mai is the longest continuously inhabited settlement from the ancient days of  Siam.
  • Before a film starts in a Thai cinema, the Thai Royal anthem is played, and the audience is expected to stand.
  • When Thai people use a fork, they only use it to move edibles onto a spoon (it is considered bad manners to put a fork in one’s mouth).

How to Get Here  

From Bangkok, it is some 685 kilometers, or about a 10-11 hour drive to Chiang Mai.

There are several ways of getting to Chiang Mai, including bus, train and plane. A bus is the cheapest but least comfortable. Many opt for the overnight sleeper train which takes longer, however, the introduction of very inexpensive one-way flights has gained popularity.

Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX) handles both domestic and regional international flights. The route from Bangkok is one of the busiest in the country (Thai Airways flies daily almost every hour, with additional flights in the peak tourist season).

Chiang Mai International Airport is located less than 10 minutes from the city center. Both taxis and limousines are easily available.

Thai Baht

The currency in Thailand is the Thai Baht. One of the easiest ways to get cash from home in the local currency is to use ABMs in Thailand. You might be charged a small fee by your bank, and you may need a new PIN number, so contact your bank before you travel to make sure you’ll be able to access your funds. There are ABMs in Chiang Mai, but they are few and far between in rural areas.

Traveller’s cheques are accepted in larger establishments in Chiang Mai, and can be changed at hotels and banks, although banks offer the best rates. Take traveller’s cheques in US$.

Credit cards are widely accepted in cities, but not in some small shops and rural areas. Incidences of credit card fraud have been reported, so watch retailers and your card activity closely. Be aware you may be charged a fee to use your credit card abroad. You should let your issuing company know what countries you are traveling to, as credit card fraud departments can sometimes freeze cards used in foreign countries.

What will the seasonal weather be like?

Because Chiang Mai is in the mountainous north of the country, it is less humid and slightly cooler than southern cities like Bangkok.

However, it still has the same three seasons – hot from March to May, rainy from May to October and cool from November to February. Annual temperatures are around 25 C, although it can drop to 10 C on winter nights.

Getting Around

Although it is Thailand’s second city, Chiang Mai is just one tenth the size of Bangkok and getting around is not that difficult. By foot is convenient in the old centre of town, and a bicycle will get you to most places of interest that are slightly further afield.

Red sawngthaew – small trucks with roofed compartments on the back that have benches down either side – are one of the many ways to get around. They are everywhere and you can flag them anywhere. If they’re going in the direction you want to go, they’ll take you.

Saamlaws are also common in Chiang Mai. They are pedicabs – bicycles with a carriage for passengers built into the design or (somehow) attached. They’re a novel way to see the city and really allow you to soak in the sights as they only go as fast as the driver can pedal.

Tuk-tuks are another option. These three-wheeler vehicles have a driver’s seat at the front and two seats behind, where passengers sit. They’re usually quicker than the sawngthaews, although riding in the back can be a hair-raising experience in heavy traffic.

There are taxis in Chiang Mai, but they aren’t as proliferate as sawngthaews. You can flag a taxis in the street if you can find one, but you’re better off asking your hotel to order one.

A few bus routes serve the city, although not to any great extent.

Car and motorcycle hire is possible in Chiang Mai, but be aware that helmets are required by law if you ride a motorcycle. Make sure you have full insurance coverage. Free maps are available from the Tourism Authority of Thailand office. If you do intend to hire a car, it might be a good idea to have a handheld GPS system featuring turn-by-turn voice directions. GPS systems also feature points of interest that are nearby, and many other features that will provide a level of confidence while navigating in a foreign country.

What not to miss 

World Heritage Sites

Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritages are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world. There are currently five World Heritage Sites in the Thailand

With well over four million visitors arriving in Chiang Mai annually, the 700 year old city is without doubt one of Thailand’s most important attractions. The Old City, together with fortified walls, encompasses many historic charming lanes leading to a number of monuments and temples showcasing the millenniums old cultural heritage of Thailand. An important center of Buddhism, Chiang Mai boasts many temples including Wat Chiang Man, the oldest in the city. The exact center of the Old City is where you can see the Three Kings Monument, which is a homage to the three kings who, according to legends, had designed and established the walled city. Other attractions in the city are Wat Phra Singh, Wat Pan Tao, Tapae Gate, Wat Chedi Luang, Sompet Market, and Buan Hart Park. You can also spend time browsing through the small shops which sell artifacts, or you can even savor the local delicacies served at the restaurants.

Chiang Mai’s historical center is the walled city (chiang in Thai, hence Chiang Mai – New Walled City). Sections of the wall remain at the gates and corners, but of the rest only the moat remains. As of March 2008 the moat has been drained and repairs are underway.

Inside Chiang Mai’s remaining city walls are more than 30 temples dating back to the founding of the principality, in a combination of Burmese, Sri Lankan and Lanna Thai styles, decorated with beautiful wood carvings, Naga staircases, leonine and angelic guardians, gilded umbrellas and pagodas laced with gold filigree. The most famous is Doi Suthep, which overlooks the city from a mountainside 13 km away.

The Chiang Mai National Museum is the main museum in northern Thailand. It began life with a humble collection of Buddhas, but now boasts a catalog of some one million historical treasures. Highlights include bronze Buddhas and decorative ceramics from several centuries of the last one thousand years. There is also a large section of religious art, especially local Lanna.

Chiang Mai is surrounded by mountains where hill tribes have lived for centuries, and the Tribal Museum pays homage to these ethnic minorities. Handicrafts, traditional dress, jewelery and exhibits about the different tribes are all exhibited in this modern facility, which sits overlooking a tree-lined lake behind the attractive Ratchamangkla Park.

The Chiang Mai Arts & Cultural Center is housed in an impressive post-colonial building that once served as the city’s Provincial Hall. Today it is divided into two areas – one that showcases permanent exhibitions that detail the region’s history to present day, and an area that serves as a performance stage for cultural activities and shows.

Thai massage is famous and many massage schools can be found in Chiang Mai. All offer massage services as well as courses, and the schools here are the most popular in the country. You’re usually required to change into loose-fitting clothes and lie on a mattress on the floor. You’re then bent and pummelled back into shape – by the hands, elbows and even feet. It can get quite addictive, and at a fraction of the price you’d pay at home.

Chiang Mai has become the center for Thai cooking schools. Learning to prepare and serve a few classic Thai dishes is a good way to spend an evening. It is not likely to turn you into a master of Thai cuisine, but it is fun. The Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School conducts a well-structured class and familiarizes students with local ingredients with a quick tour of a local market before the cooking starts. The Kao Hom Thai Culinary Treasure Cooking School is a few kilometers out of town in Mae Rim. The setting in a beautiful garden is exquisite.

For the kids 

A tribal village visit is a great way for the family to learn more about the people who live in the hills around Chiang Mai – with the added attraction of an elephant ride and a spot of bamboo rafting. Most hotels offer tours that include all three activities, some with an overnight stays in a village. These tours are an ideal way to escape the heat of the city and see some of the region’s beautiful natural charms.  

A hot air balloon ride over the Chiang Mai countryside will be something the kids – and you – will never forget. Your early-morning pick-up might leave you all a little bleary eyed, but it will be worth it for a bird’s-eye view of the world beneath you.


Fans of market madness look no further – Chiang Mai could just be your spiritual home. One of the most popular attractions in the city is the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. This vast market stretches for blocks and blocks along the Chang Khlan Road, and you’ll find far more to buy here than your luggage restrictions will ever allow. Clothes, handicrafts from the surrounding hill tribes, jewelery, hats, wooden wares, Buddhas, spices, photograph albums, toys – all are sold here and bargaining is par for the course. So keep a firm hold on your wallet, steel yourself for the crowds and get stuck in. If you need refueling halfway through, there are plenty of food stalls and restaurants. If you can’t wait for the market to start at 5 PM, try browsing through the stalls on San Kamphaeng Road.

Chiang Mai is famous for its locally produced handicrafts. Some are superior in quality to others, but whether you want intricate wood carvings, decorative paper umbrellas, painted ceramics and lacquerware or unique silver Jewelery, there is plenty of choice in the city’s shops.

Like in Bangkok, if you want tailor-made clothes, you’ll have no problem finding someone to run you up an outfit or two. It’s a novel experience having clothes made especially for you, but shop around as prices and quality vary. If you have time it’s a good idea to get one piece made to check the quality, rather than go ahead and order a whole new wardrobe.

Chiang Mai After Dark

An interesting way to begin, or end an evening is to visit the Night Bazaar. Every evening, a few streets located in the center of town fill with local vendors selling all sorts of goods. Some of the best deals on interesting items can be found here.

Chiang Mai is a university town and there are plenty of lively drinking establishments for students and visitors alike. From the ubiquitous Irish pubs to wine bars, live music venues and even a Blues bar, there’s something to suit any mood. There are a few nightclubs in town too – and you can ask at your hotel where the latest hot spot is.

You may have a difficult time deciding where to dine. Apart from plenty of sumptuous Thai dishes, you can find Chinese, Indian, Italian, Mexican, European and American meals on menus around town. There are also several excellent vegetarian restaurants.

Sports / Outdoor Adventure

Muay Thai – Thai boxing – is the country’s national sport and it’s worth going to see a match if you have time, and inclination. Unlike traditional boxing, which uses fists only, Muay Thai fighters can use their hands, shins, elbows and knees. Fights are often advertised, or ask for information at your hotel. Muay Thai is extremely popular and the person you ask might end up accompanying you to the fight. Even if you don’t like boxing, a Muay Thai fight is an entertaining experience.

Local Customs and Etiquette

Thailand is frequently dubbed the ‘Land of Smiles’. Thais are famously welcoming and hospitable to visitors. However, anyone who doesn’t show sufficient respect for the King will see the smiles quickly disappear. Thais have a deep, traditional reverence for the Royal Family, and criticism of anyone in the Royal Family is a crime. You can be sentenced to prison for defacing images of the King – including those on bank notes.

Religion is also important to many Thais and visitors should dress appropriately when visiting religious shrines. You will not be allowed in wearing shorts or skirts above the knee. Always remove your shoes before entering a chapel where a Buddha is kept. And the same if you enter someone’s home.

All Buddha images are regarded as sacred objects, so never do anything that might indicate a lack of respect. Buddhist monks are forbidden to touch or be touched by a woman – on public transport the back seat is usually reserved for monks.

The usual greeting when Thai people meet is a wai – when they press their palms together in a prayer-like gesture. If someone wais you, it is polite to wai back. Shaking hands is not the norm.

It is vital to remember the importance of ‘Face’ in Thailand. Face relates to prestige, and losing Face is a no-no in Thai culture. This affects visitors by causing locals to become unresponsive and unhelpful if you make a fuss about something. Even if someone has blatantly done ‘something’, the proper way to deal with it is in a firm, friendly manner. If you get angry you will ‘lose face’. Smiling goes a long way, especially when language is a barrier, and your success in dealing with Thais will hinge on the amount of respect you show.

Another useful thing to know about Thai culture is the importance placed on the head.  Symbolically a person’s head is their highest point – so never touch or pat it, and always remove your hat when speaking to someone older than you. Similarly, feet are seen as lowly. Never point the bottom of your feet at anyone as it’s considered rude, and never, ever point your feet towards a sacred Buddhist figure or shrine, whether in someone’s home or in a temple.

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