Chiang Mai, Thailand

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.

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Areas in Chiang Mai

When to 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.

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Getting there

  • 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 ( 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 ( 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.

Thai temptations

Thai temptations

Criss-crossed with canals, a mighty river and a handy Skytrain, Bangkok is a city of mega-malls, historic royal temples and gold-leafed pagodas. It’s also surprisingly easy going and affordable: indulge in sumptuous day spas, exquisite dining and on-the-hoof street snacks. To the north, Chiang Mai (Burmese-style temples, boho-chic boutiques and lots of elephants) and Chiang Rai (sleepy backstreets, mist-shrouded hills and, yes, elephant-packed too) are gateways to densely packed jungle, glittering waterways and local hill communities. To the south, Thailand’s party beaches, sybaritic islands and crystal-clear waters beckon: hop on a long-tail boat to under-the-radar Koh Kood, carefree Koh Samui or spectacular Phang Nga bay.

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