With its natural beauty and laid-back atmosphere, Chiang Mai is one of the top travel destinations in Asia. Set in the mountainous Northern Thailand region amidst a backdrop of unspoiled forests and a beautiful countryside, Northern Thailand’s capital entices tourists from all over the world who come seeking respite from the heat and chaos of Bangkok.
Once the heart of the ancient Lanna Kingdom, Thailand’s 4th most populous city boasts of many attractions of cultural, religious, and historical significance. Chiang Mai’s rolling hills are home to various tribes, each of them with its own distinct culture and tradition, adding to its unique charm and character.
Now filled with hotels and serviced by numerous flights from destinations far and wide, the former Lanna capital has blossomed into a modern city that gladly opens its doors to welcome first-time, and return visitors who can’t seem to get enough of its many charms.
If you are travelling to Bangkok but have no plans to venture up north, here’s why you should tweak your itinerary to include Chiang Mai in your must-visit list.
1. Chiang Mai has many cultural, religious, and historical attractions.
The former capital of Lanna or the ‘Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields”, Chiang Mai is presently the premier travel destination in Northern Thailand. The city has many cultural, religious, and historical attractions, among them the walled historical center. You won’t see much of the old wall surrounding the fortress city but the bastions are still intact. The original moat is intact as well.
Chiang Mai is also home to quite a number of monasteries and temples. There are more or less 300 Buddhist temples in the city, and a significant number of these religious structures are still functional. If you like visiting temples, not to be missed are Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, Wat Chiang Man, Wat Phra Singh, and Wat Chedi Luang.
If you plan on visiting museums, they have plenty of those in Chiang Mai. Here are a few that might interest you: Chiang Mai National Museum, Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders, and the Chiang Mai University Art Museum.
Chiang Mai is also home to a number of hill tribes. If you and your group are interested in learning about their culture and traditional ways, join tours that will take you to the different ethnic villages around the city.
2. Chiang Mai is popular for its delicious local cuisine.
Thai food is glorious in general but you need to sample traditional Northern Thailand cuisine while in Chiang Mai. Must-trys are khao soi (curry noodles) sai ouia (grilled spicy sausage), miang kham (bite-sized snacks), and larb kua (savoury meat salad). And do not miss the street food as you explore the city for it is just as good as the ones you’ll find in Bangkok.
3. The cost of living in Chiang Mai is affordable.
Most travellers will find Bangkok a cheap destination and the same can be said about Chiang Mai. In fact, the cost of living in Chiang Mai is, in many aspects, cheaper than Bangkok. It is so affordable that it has an ever-growing expat community. If you stay long enough in Chiang Mai, you will befriend many Westerners whose original plan was to stay for a short visit and yet ended up staying in Chiang Mai permanently because the city is so cheap they are able to support a comfortable lifestyle.
4. There are lots of fun things to do in the city.
If you think there’s nothing more to Chiang Mai outside temples, monasteries, and historical structures, think again. The city is packed full with fun and awesome things to do. There’s Muay Thai boxing, and even extreme outdoor sports like rock climbing, kayaking, canoeing, white water rafting, and adrenaline-pumping activities such as ziplining and jungle tours.
Or you can also try something different, like volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park, where you can interact with the gentle creatures by feeding and observing them. You can also take an elephant to a river and give it a cool, refreshing bath.
Shopping also makes for a fun activity in Chiang Mai, especially during the weekend when the walking streets are open. Chiang Mai’s night markets and walking streets are ideal for those who love to eat street food and shop for souvenirs.
5. Chiang Mai is the ideal relaxation getaway.
Despite the sheer number of local and foreign visitors it attracts, Chiang Mai is quieter and absolutely less chaotic than Bangkok. And because it is nestled in the lush mountainous terrain of Northern Thailand, the atmosphere is relaxed and laid-back. In Chiang Mai, with its beautiful mountains, cascading waterfalls, soothing hot springs, and picturesque spots, you never have to wander far to heal your body and rejuvenate your soul.
6. Chiang Mai is the gateway to Northern Thailand.
Chiang Mai is the gateway to Northern Thailand and it plays a vital role in promoting the tourism industry in the region. It is the perfect starting point if you want to see more of Northern Thailand – its beautiful countryside and all. There are beautiful towns and cities that are just a few hours’ ride from Chiang Mai, and these include Nan, Mae Sariang, Chiang Rai, Lampang, Thaton, and Lamphun. Lamphun, dating back to 660 A.D., is one of Thailand’s oldest towns and was once the capital of the ancient Haripunchai Kingdom.
7. It has everything you might need in a modern city.
Due to the burgeoning expat population and the increasing number of tourists the city receives each year, the local government in Chiang Mai has improved the city’s amenities and facilities. You can find competent government and private hospitals in the city as well as medical clinics managed by Western-trained medical practitioners.
Internet connectivity, too, is excellent and affordable. WiFi is available at most, if not all, restaurants and hotels. Finding restaurants serving your favorite international cuisine won’t be a problem in Chiang Mai. The city is peppered with restaurants and eateries offering Asian, Mediterranean, and Western food.
Another good thing about Chiang Mai is that it is very accessible. International and domestic flights arrive at and depart from Chiang Mai at regular intervals daily. It is also accessible via train or bus.
8. The weather in Chiang Mai is agreeable most of the time.
Chiang Mai has a tropical climate. The months March and April are the hottest but since the city is situated in the mountains at an elevation of about 300 metres, the air is much cooler and the heat more bearable compared to Bangkok.
9. Chiang Mai has lively festivals.
Chiang Mai has a few festivals, and the most popular of them are the Songkran and the Yee Ping Lantern Festival. Songkran, which happens every April, is held all over the country to celebrate the Thai New Year but many say that the festival is best experienced in Chiang Mai. Another much-anticipated festival is the lantern festival, also called Loi Krathong. Held in honor of the Goddes of Water, the Yee Ping Festival is a spectacle, with the thousands of lighted krathongs (banana-leaf containers) floating through Chiang Mai’s river, lakes, and canals.
10. Chiang Mai is known for its pristine, beautiful and natural landscapes.
Chiang Mai may not be a beach destination but it overflows in natural beauty – rainforests, majestic mountains, water sources, indigenous flora and fauna, conservation areas, and protected parklands. A beautiful city surrounded and embraced by nature, Chiang Mai is truly a slice of heaven in Thailand.
Ready to explore Northern Thailand? Start your journey with a fun-filled weekend in Chiang Mai!