• Cityscape Moated walls, market stalls
  • City life Crafty and cultural

There’s no place that better embodies Thailand’s cultural heritage and modern aspirations than Chiang Mai. This venerable walled city was once the capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom, filled with splendid stupas, saffron-robed monks and dusty tracks.

Until 1938, Chiang Mai was the sleepy capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom. Today, it is a magnificent contradiction, where life’s pace ranges from glacial to frenetic: tourists crowd Burmese-style temples and ornately carved teak houses; vendors in hilltribe costumes ply souvenirs beside fast-food outlets; and a raft of cool boutiques and youthful design galleries tempt cosmopolitan denizens. Chiang Mai may have lost some of its somnambulant charm, but if you spend some time wandering the sleepy backstreets, you’ll find refreshing remnants of its peaceful past.

Do go/Don’t go

The weather is nice and cool between December and February (well, cool by Thai standards). March through May is unbearably hot. The mid-April Songkran water festival might be fun for some, but it’s boisterously celebrated here and can be a bit much.

Getting thereView map

  • Planes Chiang Mai’s international airport (+66 (0)53 2702 2233) is 90 minutes from Bangkok by plane, and receives domestic and regional flights from Phuket, Singapore, Hong Kong and Luang Prabang, among others.
  • Trains Bangkok to Chiang Mai is the most enticing rail journey in the country (www.railway.co.th). Each day, six trains rattle up this 10- or 12-hour route, providing ever-changing landscape views; the sleeper services are excellent, with private two-berth cabins in first class. Train food is poor, but many hotels in Bangkok and Chiang Mai will happily pack you a picnic.
  • Automobiles Chiang Mai’s compact centre is easily navigated on foot, but if you want to venture further afield, it’s best to rent a car. Book a luxe tour or hire by the day from Limousine Thailand (www.limousinethailand.com). It’s possible to drive from Bangkok, but only the bravest motorists should consider it.
  • Taxis There are few metered taxis in Chiang Mai. Three-wheeled tuk tuks are ubiquitous, but tend to charge farangs (that’s you) double fares. There are also numerous songtaews (covered pick-ups with two bench rows in the back) that can be rented by the hour or for certain trips – negotiate a price beforehand.