It is a magical city that delivers a rich mix of mystique and intrigue. Your reward for looking beyond the coastline and into the misty Himalayan foothills is an experience that is intrinsically and authentically Thai, a place of serene Buddhist temples, placid waterways, traditional markets, and epic landscapes. Yet, Chiang Mai is also a city on the move – and just as chic, modern and connected as the best of them. Blessed with a gentle heart and a playful spirit, Thailand’s ‘Eternal New City’ will dazzle.
When we think of Thailand, we often think of its idyllic beaches and the kind of emerald waters that seem dreamlike and otherworldly – like paradise. And while all of this is certainly true, there’s another equally beautiful side to the country, as any trip to Chiang Mai will reveal. Flanked by the commanding Thai Highlands and speckled with foliage, the city's green backdrop further accentuates what is already a majestic historical centre. If you’re looking to experience Thai culture and scenery at its purest, you will not go wrong here.
In many ways, Chiang Mai's bustling markets, overflowing with street food, clothing, ceramics and handcraft vendors, offer a window into many of the enduring traditions of Thailand. If you’re a foodie, mix with the locals at both the multi-storey Warorot Market and the open-air Sompet Market, where wide range of pungent Lanna dishes can be enjoyed. Its Sunday Market, meanwhile, which pans out from the iconic Tha Pae Gate, is great for artisanal goodies, while the atmospheric Night Bazaar is perfect for lazy after-hours browsing.
By casually blurring the lines between food and art, northern Thai cuisine delivers a treat for all the senses. Learn more about how this is accomplished, uncover the secrets behind some of its classic dishes and pick up some impressive techniques at a Thai cooking class – Chiang Mai is teeming with them. Under the tutelage of a professional chef, you’ll discover how to fuse sweet, spicy, salty and bitter flavours in no time, and, with a little prod in the right direction, the perfect khao soi or sai oua will be within your grasp.
Chiang Mai is intimate enough to explore on foot, but a relaxing boat trip on the Ping River allows you to take in both urban and rural attractions. Travelling on a traditional scorpion-tailed vessel, you can navigate grand bridges, look out for wildlife and learn how generations harnessed the working river. Pretty fruit, herb and flower gardens lie in wait among the fertile grasslands and jungle periphery.
Any Chiang Mai itinerary would be incomplete without the Mae Hong Son Loop, a scenic 600km circular road trip that starts and finishes in the city. On this expedition, you experience some of Thailand’s most resplendent natural scenery, including lush forests, verdant valleys and misty mountains, and come across remote villages that feel like they belong to a bygone era.
There’s a certain buzz to Chiang Mai, a rawness of energy that electrifies the city’s centre. What’s different though, in contrast to Bangkok and Phuket – both indefatigable and dynamic cities – is that it’s markedly more relaxed in ambience. The pace of life is slower, and this is how the locals like it. And while the more touristy centre can get busy at times, its vast network of ornate temples and natural wonders provide an oasis of calm, encouraging relaxation and reflection away from rush-hour activity.
Chiang Mai is characterised by its stunning wats, centuries-old places of worship built and preserved out of devotion to the Buddhist faith. Among the most sacred are Wat Chiang Man, which dates back to the city’s 13th-century origins, and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which guards the city from its elevated perch in the mountains. The lavish Wat Phra Singh, home to the Lion Buddha, remains a highly-revered place of pilgrimage in Thailand.
Wildlife abounds in the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden, a green space developed in the 1990s to study and conserve Thailand's precious native flora. Located near the mountains of Doi-Suthep, in the Mae Rim district, the 6,500-acre site harnesses its natural irrigation to provide ideal growing conditions for trees, plants and flowers. Wander around at your own pace, look out for animals and take in awesome views in this comforting sanctuary.
For a similarly unhurried afternoon, head to the magnificent Huay Tung Tao lake, just beyond the northern limits of the city. Once you've rested in a bamboo hut and sampled local cuisine, you can stroll around the 5km perimeter path or take a paddle boat out onto the water, all the while savouring spectacular views of the nearby peaks.
Access to the great outdoors is gifted generously by Chiang Mai, where fascinating hills, forests and caves beckon just beyond the urban sprawl. Trekking to a mountain village offers a unique insight into the tribal way of life, while ziplining, abseiling, climbing and mountain biking provision helps satisfies adrenalin-seekers in this gorgeous region of Thailand.
The alluring Doi Inthanon National Park – named after its centrepiece, the country's tallest peak – offers exploration at altitude. 'The Roof of Thailand' presents a maze of nature trails, breathtaking viewpoints and stunning waterfalls, casually interspersed among the evergreen cloud forest. You won’t find elephants or tigers here anymore, but wild boars, gibbons and serow still roam among the flora.
There's also plenty of activity down in the valley. Dissecting Chiang Mai in two, the long, winding Ping River drifts along peacefully until it's disturbed by aquatic adventurers. Paddle-boarders, rowers and kayakers take their place among the cruise boats, coming into their own in the quieter spots upriver. Walkers, cyclists and birdwatchers are equally well-catered for on the pretty riverbanks.
As much as Chiang Mai celebrates and engages with its amazing past, the destination is constantly evolving and finding new purpose as a contemporary city with a confident future vision. Infrastructure investment, aligned with an increasingly outward view, is allowing the traditional and innovative to comfortably coexist on its bustling streets.
Architecture is an obvious attraction within the compelling Old City, with the extant fortress walls and moat, temples and Bhubing Palace inevitable tourist draws. The four gates to the historic core provide a natural starting point for exploration, with the Three Kings Monument and multitude of religious shrines within easy reach.
Still, history is only part of the story. Though cultural heritage provides the city's heartbeat, wired-up digital connectivity now pumps through its veins. In recent years, Chiang Mai's enviable technology footprint has made it a go-to destination for startups and entrepreneurs, underpinning its recently-awarded status as a Unesco Creative City. Nimmanhaemin Road is a perfect example of this vibrancy. In recent years, it has quietly transformed into a hipster quarter, brimming with fashionable shops, cafes and bars, as well as fashionable boutiques, upmarket restaurants and lively nightspots. Head here for a thoroughly modern experience – all with a Thai twist, of course.
Similarly, Chiang Mai's arts scene is also thriving, with Tita Gallery displaying both contemporary and traditional prints and sculptures, and La Luna showcasing the work of emerging South-East Asian artists. Check out Sangdee, a hybrid bar and gallery space that has a busy programme of events and workshops, and make time for Ne’-na Contemporary Art Space, which provides a green, tranquil environment for cultural exchange.
Here at THAI, we're proud to have provided award-winning long-haul travel from London to Bangkok for over 45 years, flying passengers to Thailand in as little as 12 hours. Our seamless 1hr 10m to 1hr 35m connections from Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) to Chiang Mai (CNX) allow you to maximise your time in the Eternal New City.
You can choose from 10 internal flights a day, five of which are operated by our regional and domestic wing, THAI Smile. Our sister carrier also flies from Chiang Mai to Phuket during high season – November to March – in case you'd like to visit the mountains and the beach on your trip to Thailand.
Our fully-renovated Royal Orchid Lounge at Chiang Mai International Airport recently opened for business, serving delicious meals prepared by leading local restaurateurs. The Lounge is accessible to Royal Silk Class and Smile Plus (THAI Smile) passengers, along with Star Alliance Gold members.
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