WELCOME TO CHIANG MAI
Hidden in the north of Thailand, far away from tourist-thronged beaches, Chiang Mai sits nestled amongst mountains. Part busy chaos, part beautiful calm, it is a city in thrall to its magnificent surroundings, and yet still one with much to offer.
Chiang Mai is a city of contradictions. Golden temples rise above tiny road-side food stalls and 7/11s crowded with locals doing their shopping, while tourists wander wide-eyed through cramped alleyways and baking hot streets, besieged with offers of tuk tuk rides and colourful souvenirs. Waterfalls and elephants can be found just a short drive from the city centre, where locals speed down busy roads on mopeds.
The Old City is the heart of Chiang Mai, and a joy to explore - its crooked streets crammed full of shops, restaurants, cafés and markets waiting to be discovered. Incense floats above the heads of vendors selling jewellery and fresh fruit outside temple gates where young monks walk past, their orange robes bright even in the ever-present sunlight.
This is also a great place for food lovers, with plenty of variations on both Thai and Western food, and lots of vegetarian options as well. If you’re a keen cook, there are classes on offer which will give you a guided tour of the food markets and teach you how to make authentic Thai food.
There is great history in parts of Chiang Mai, particularly in the Old City which is surrounded by a moat dating back to 1296, when the city was founded. Now brought very much up to date, the moat is decorated with fountains and footbridges, and is a pleasant place to walk or run in the cooler parts of the day. The city is also home to over 300 temples, which range from Wat Umong, which houses its Buddhas in caves and tunnels, to Wat Phra Singh, which offers visitors a unique opportunity to speak to young monks studying English, and ask them about their lives.
Outside of the Old City there is much still to explore. There are many elephant sanctuaries and hilltribe villages in the surrounding area, although many are a sad experience rather than an exotic one, as their inhabitants seldom get fair treatment or reward for the part they play in the tourist trade. However, places like the excellent Elephant Nature Park still allow visitors to see the animals in their natural habitat, without tricks or chains.
Chiang Mai is in many ways a small city – the Old City can be comfortably explored on foot, and although many other attractions are further apart, they are not difficult to reach in a taxi (songthaew) or a tuk tuk. Despite this, Chiang Mai has its fair share of majesty as well - courtesy of the mountains that encircle the city, providing a welcome reminder of the wilderness of this beautiful country.
The closest is Doi Suthep, a 1,676 metre tall expanse, populated here and there with waterfalls, temples, botanic gardens and magnificent views. The roads up the mountain are steep and not for the faint of heart, but as the temperature drops and the haze of the city fades into deep green forest, it is well worth the journey. Viewpoints materialise by roadsides, showing elegant, blue-grey mountains rolling into the distance, while spots like the beautiful Mon Jam give you a spectacular view of the city half consumed by the green expanse of Northern Thailand.
Visiting Chiang Mai is at once an adventure and a chance for rest and relaxation. It is a place to discover Thai food and culture, the busy streets of the city and the profound peace of the waterfalls and mountains. It is a place to experience a new culture in comfort, to visit street markets, explore mountains and hot springs and still be home in time for a cup of tea. It is a place that is both small and expansive, rich and poor, Eastern and Western. It is an opportunity to be seized.
Written for a private client.