A popular destination for backpackers and anyone looking for a laid-back vacation, Chiang Mai translates to "new city", the name applied when it was founded in 1296. Chiang Mai is characterized by its ancient walls - of which some remains still stand - that outline the square-shaped layout of the old city, and is surrounded by moats that were once guarded by walls with gates on each side.
The charm of Chiang Mai lies in its mixture of the past and present, with modern boutique hotels sitting next to ancient temples. The city center is compact and a wander around is recommended to get a real feel for this fascinating place. There are around 300 temples in Chiang Mai, including hidden gems in the city and sacred sites atop mountains just outside the center.
Chiang Mai transforms at night into a shopping wonderland, with market stalls and a plethora of small restaurants and bars. The city sprawls out beyond the moat and offers a wide variety of entertainment venues.
Taking just a few steps away from the buzz of traffic and modern life can transport you into another world. Thanks to the serenity of temple grounds, you can't help but relax and feel at peace. The mountain-top temple at Doi Suthep is a must-see sight, beautifully crafted with picturesque views over the city.
The Night Bazaar is a bustling hub of market and food stalls. Here you can grab bargain souvenirs and clothes. There are also various shopping malls with a wide range of stores where you can find everything from small bargain buys to top designer brands.
Whether you spend ฿30 at a roadside stall or over ฿2,000 at a French restaurant, such as Farang Ses, dining is a delight in Chiang Mai. A variety of European and Asian cuisines are served around the city, as well as northern Thai specialties, such as khao soi.
The countryside surrounding the city lends itself perfectly to adventurous days out. Visit Baan Chang Elephant Park where you can help feed and bathe the elephants, or brave the exhilarating Flight of the Gibbon zip-lining experience.
Massage and spas are abundant throughout the city. Try a ฿300 foot massage at night on Loi Kroh Road while you watch the world go by. For a more upscale day of relaxation, hotels and spa resorts, such as the Anantara, offer blissful treatments and facilities, starting at ฿1,000.
The best time to visit Chiang Mai really depends on personal preference for the weather. It is cooler in November to January, but still pleasantly warm during the day, making this the best time to visit. March and April are very hot, and the rainy season is from May to October; this is the low season for tourism.
Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX) is located close to the city center, under three miles to the old city. Taxi is the most convenient way to travel into town, and they are available from outside the terminal and generally cost less than ฿200.
Trains arrive at Chiang Mai Railway Station, which is around three miles east of the city center. Train tickets from Bangkok to Chiang Mai cost between ฿1,000 and ฿2,000, with seats, sleeper cars, and air conditioning available. A taxi or bus can take you onward to your final destination and should cost less than ฿100.
As a hub in the north of Thailand, Chiang Mai is linked by major roads to surrounding towns and cities, as well as to Bangkok to the southeast. Taxis and rental cars are widely available.
A bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is faster than the train, but perhaps not as comfortable. Prices are around ฿500-600, and services are operated through the public bus system or companies such as Siam First or Lignite Tour.
Inside the old city, space is limited, therefore hotels, like the Rim Resort, tend to be be small. In the area just outside the moat, there are larger hotels and guesthouses, such as Amora Tapae and De Chai The Colonial Hotel. Further afield, large hotels, like Cmor Hotel, are dotted around near shopping centers and areas with coffee shops and restaurants.
The Old City - a great base to start from, the Old City is the center from which everything flows. It's brimming with beautiful architecture and sweet little stores.
Ping River - the riverside area is lined with restaurants and is illuminated at night, creating beautiful views from the nearby hotels, including 137 Pillars House and Rimping Village.
Suthep/Chang Phueak - to the west of the Old City, this university area has a fun, young vibe and a plethora of shopping malls, bars, and modern restaurants.
Chiang Mai has a great transport system comprising mainly of songthaews. These converted pickup trucks are not officially public transport, yet work like public buses. They can be flagged down anywhere and you tell the driver where you want to go; they may or may not pick up other passengers on the way. Prices are around ฿50.
Taxis are widely available throughout the city, including metered cars, three-wheeled tuk-tuks, and songthaews, which are a combination of public bus and taxi. Prices usually start at ฿50.
Rental cars are available from the airport from chains such as Budget and Sixt and generally cost around ฿1,800 per day. Public transport, affordable taxi options, and tour buses make renting a car unnecessary. Chiang Mai is a small but busy city, therefore parking is often difficult to find outside of shopping malls and larger restaurants.
Loi Kroh Road and the Night Bazaar are filled with small stores and stalls selling clothes, books, and trinkets. Prices start at around ฿50. The Saturday night "walking street" market on Wua Lai Road is great for finding silver jewelry made by local craftsmen. Robinson Central Airport is a huge shopping mall on the outskirts of the city where prices are a little higher, starting at ฿100 for small items and going up to the thousands for designer goods.
Tops, Rimping, and Big C are the main supermarkets, selling both Thai and foreign food. Prices are around the same as in the US and slightly cheaper for local Thai produce. Fresh fruit can be purchased from many stalls at the side of the road, starting from only ฿20.
Food is everywhere in Chiang Mai, from small stalls selling ฿30 meals to family-owned restaurants, such as Aroon Rai, which cost around ฿100 per person. Stalls usually specialize in one dish, such as pad Thai or massaman curry, while restaurants will serve a variety of curries and rice or noodle dishes. Dining at a high-end hotel restaurant like Chili's at the Amora Tapae Hotel will cost closer to ฿1,000 per person for great-quality Thai and international food.