The City of Thai Culture
Chang Mai, one time capital of the Lanna Kingdom and currently the unofficial capital of Northern Thailand is an essential destination. An overnight bus ride from Bangkok, it’s a vibrant city with plenty on offer for the traveller; cool bars, live music, atmospheric cafes, great restaurants and jam-packed bookstalls! Wonderful market stalls abound in this city along the mighty Ping River which flows on the East side, with the popular night market bizarre and the famous, not-to-be-missed Sunday market at Taipei Gate. After living beach life down South Thailand; it’s a place where many travellers try the varied cultural experiences on offer, take a Thai cooking course, learn massage, practice yoga, visit temples (of which there are over 300!) and lap up a bit of Thai heritage that can be harder to find in the more touristy places. And, not to far outside the city walls; in the countryside beyond an adventure playground awaits discovery!
Places to Stay
The area around Thanon Moon Muang is the backpacker hot spot with tonnes of budget hostels and guest houses. It’s easily located across the road from Tha Pae Gate and there are also some popular digs in the side streets beyond. Chiang Mai is one of the cheapest places to find good quality accommodation in Thailand. Many hostels double up as travel agents, restaurants, bars, the lot.
Things to Do
- Temple going: There are nearly enough temples in Chiang Mai to visit a different one every day of the year! Inside the city walls, you’ll find beautiful examples of 14th and 15th century Lanna style temples with intricate wood carvings and murals. Amongst the oldest and impressive ones are Wat Phra Singh (1345) and Wat Chiang Man (1296, However all of the temples are interesting places to witness everyday Thai life which often revolves around the temple.
- Wat Doi Suthep: The beautiful Wat Doi Suthep, one of Thailand’s most famous temples, dominates the Northerly aspect of Chiang Mai with fine views which are definitely worth the climb up the hundreds of steps. The surrounding countryside is beautiful and alive with agriculture that provides most of Thailand’s groceries.
- Massage: Many people interested in learning the exceptional art of Thai Massage do so in Chiang Mai. 1 day or 10 day courses are available at traditional massage schools where you will discover ancient techniques and practices.
- Thai Cooking: From Tom Yum Gung (Thai Prawn Soup) to Penang Curry; Thailand is home to some of the most delicious and diverse cuisine in the world. There are abundance of cooking schools in Chiang Mai that will teach you the secret recipes to some of your favourite Thai dishes! Most classes include a trip to the local market to buy fresh produce which you will later cook. And the best thing is, you get to eat all the tasty (hopefully!) meals you’ve cooked!
- Elephant parks: These gentle giants are a national symbol of Thailand and yet in some parts of the country they are treated badly. Elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai rescue badly treated elephants and nurture them back to full health. Time spent in an elephant park allows you to see these amazing creatures in a way which many don’t, for lots of backpackers, this can be the highlight of their trip.
- Muay Thai Boxing: Foreigners can train with Muay Thai Experts for a number of weeks in Chiang Mai. By no means easy, for those with stamina, Muay Thai training is great for fitness and there’s a lot of mental strength involved too. If you’re just interested in watching, there are a few stadiums in Chiang Mai.
- Yoga: There are lots of great yoga schools in Chiang Mai which are perfect for beginners or the more advanced. At Namo Yoga, Wild Rose and The Yoga Tree, classes are approximately 200 baht / hour class. The only Yoga Teacher Training Centre in Chiang Mai is Wise Living Yoga, where you can complete a 200-hour course, qualifying you as a fully-trained Yoga Teacher. The course focuses on ‘traditional yoga’, with the study of all aspects of yoga, from reading ancient texts like the Bhagavad Gita, mediation techniques, asanas, pranayama, public speaking and yoga physiology.
- Buddhism and Meditation: Whether you’re simply interested in gaining an insight into meditation or you feel ready to embark upon a 21 day silent retreat; Chiang Mai is one of the most popular places to learn more about Buddhism and meditation in Thailand. There are also regular ‘Monk Chats’ at Wat Suan Dok, where foreigners are invited to learn more about Thai Buddhism and monks can practise their English.
- Trekking: Trekking in Chiang Mai is big business. You can do anything from a 2-day to a 5-day trek, taking you through jungle, mountains and home-stays in hill tribe villages. Many treks also include bamboo rafting and elephant trekking. The scene is pretty touristy and many of the villages are very used to greeting tourists. However, if you hunt around for the right trekking agency – who will take you off the beaten track, teach you some jungle tricks – it can be a great way to experience Northern Thailand.
- Outdoor Adventure: From trekking, mountain biking, rafting experiences and ATV adventures, Chiang Mai is a great base for adventure. Days, weeks and months could be spent taking in all the activities on offer here – there’s even paint balling and bunjy jumping!
- The Weekend Market: The market that literally takes over the city is an unmissable event if you are lucky enough to be in town on Saturday and Sunday. Saturday takes place at Chiang Puak Gate and Sunday (the larger of the markets) takes place all down Rachadamnoen Road surrounding Thapae Gate. The streets line with clothes, jewellery, instruments, souvenirs and many handmade goods from the hill tribes in Northern Thailand and the atmosphere can be carnivalesque, with occasional live music and crowds of travellers, locals and Thai tourists enjoying the market. And, as usual in Thailand, expect a wonderful variety of awesome street food and there’s even a chance to try some cheap fruit wine.
- Tubing! A brand new activity in Chiang Mai that we just discovered! When you hear ‘Tubing’ – don’t worry we’re not talking Vang Vieng here… This tubing experience is a far cry from the drunken revelry of Laos’ Nam Song River… A much more relaxing, leisurely experience – and a whole lot safer too! And who’d have thought there was a beach in Chiang Mai? Located at ‘Chiang Mai Beach Club’ in beautiful Mae Ho Phra, just one-hour north of Chiang Mai city, tubers will discover a beautiful landscape, complete with a sandy beach! There’s snacks and beer, as well as volley-ball, hammocks and bamboo huts where backpackers can chill out and enjoy each other’s company. A fantastic day out and the perfect break from the city in a scenic part of northern Thailand that many people miss! Trips are just 399 baht and include transport.
By Train: An overnight train journey from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Station will take you direct to Chiang Mai, taking around 12 hours. The ticket will set you back around 800 baht. You can book a air-con sleeper, fan sleeper or reclining seat. Book in advance.
By Bus: There are many overnight buses leaving every evening from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Tickets can either be booked directly from the Khao San Road area – in a travel agent or you can head direct to MoChit Bus Station (North Bangkok.)
Fly: Chiang Mai airport is located about a half an hour drive outside the city. It’s a very busy airport that caters for many domestic and international flights.
Where to go next?
- Chiang Rai: (3 hours bus journey North) A smaller, more laid-back Chiang Mai – many regard it as more rewarding place to plan treks into the jungle and to nearby hill tribe villages.
- Pai: (5 hours bus journey West) Laid-back, bohemian town on the river located in a gorgeous valley surrounded by mountains. Live music, cheap bungalows and cool atmosphere.
- Chiang Dao: Just one hour North of Chiang Mai, Chiang Dao is a less visited, less touristy spot, beautiful countryside surrounding. Very peaceful and great for trekking.
- Mae Hong Son: A quiet, remote town on the border of Mae Hong Son set amidst massive mountains and vast countryside. A good 8 hour drive from Chiang Mai.