- Heritage-meets-modern haven
- Riverside Wat Gate quarter
- Old-fashioned charmer
- Laid-back historic lane
- Heritage homage, contemporary courtyards
- Inside the Old City
- Contemporary meets colonial
- Banks of the Mae Ping
Chiang Mai Overview
- 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.
Completely Chiang Mai
Although it has become commercialised over the last decade, Chiang Mai still offers a more authentic slice of Thai life than Bangkok, particularly during festivals, where age-old traditions are maintained alongside the modern attitude to sanook (fun). If you’re happy to get wet, the city’s central moat area is quite possibly the best place in Thailand to enjoy Songkran (Thai New Year). Here you can enter the spirit of the water fights and bar-hopping, but also sample the more orthodox aspects of the festival, like religious rites, family gatherings and street parades.
- 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.
- Tipping culture
- A 10 per cent service charge is included in most bills although this rarely filters back to staff. Feel free to tip if you are pleased with the service.
- Siesta and fiesta
- Business hours are between 8 or 8.30am and 5.30pm on weekdays; banks usually close by 3.30pm. Many mall-based shops are open between 10am and 9pm. Some stores in nightlife areas open late.
- Packing tips
- Sandals, sunscreen, big sunglasses. Pad for sketching moats, mountains, temples and pandas. Mr Smith might want some long trousers for evenings out.
- Recommended reads
- If you don’t know the legend of Jim Thompson, founder of the eponymous Thai silk business (and possibly a CIA agent), who disappeared on an afternoon stroll in the Malaysian jungle, read William Warren’s Jim Thompson: The Unsolved Mystery. Journeyman Steve Van Beek paddles 1,160km from the province’s river Ping to the sea via the Chao Phraya River in one of Thailand’s best travel books, A River Less Travelled: Slithering South.
- Regional specialities
- Fare here is quite different from what you’d experience down in Bangkok or on the islands – most noticeably in northerners’ preference for ’sticky’ rice (khao niao), which locals roll into small balls and eat with their hands. Curries, which can be deathly hot in central Thailand, are slightly milder here. Everyone goes gaga for pork crackling, typically served with fiery nam prik (chilli dip) and the local pork sausages, sai ua, which are eaten with raw cabbage and chilli sauce.
- Thai baht. £1 is approximately THB50.
- Time zone
- GMT +7 hours
- Dialling codes
- The country code for Thailand is +66. The area code for Chiang Mai is 053. Drop the ‘0’ when calling from overseas.
- 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.
Don't go home without...
a browse, a buy and a bite to eat at Danish designer Hans Andersen’s concept compound the House, at 199 Moonmuang Road (www.thehousethailand.com). As well as super-chic lifestyle store Nomad, the House has a restaurant, a café and a second branch of the fashion boutique Ginger.