Chiang Mai is Thailand's crowning glory. Encircled by dense forest, mystic mountain temples and ancient hill tribes, this ancient and spiritual northern city is not to be missed
Surrounded by mist-crested mountain peaks and lush forest, Thailand’s second largest city is undoubtedly its most beautiful.
The ancient northern capital bursts at the seams with culture, old and new. So whether you fancy sipping a Siam Sunrise in one of the city's trendy bars or soaking up the tranquillity of its inspiring temples, you won’t be disappointed.
Chiang Mai once served as a trading post for opium, timber and silks. Today it is a hub for tourism and commerce but retains its rich cultural inheritance, a colourful fusion of south-east Asian influences.
Whether you are a shopaholic or occasional bargain hunter, it’s impossible to resist the lure of Chiang Mai’s famous Sunday Walking Street (open 4pm-midnight Sunday). Selling everything from tribal textiles to high-top trainers, the stalls reflect the city’s vibrant eclecticism.
For a truly unique shopping experience, venture six miles east of the centre to Bo Sang umbrella village, where the streets are lined with hand-painted brollies of infinite hues.
The ‘official’ village shop is located at the entrance to the village and consists of a warehouse and courtyard where you can observe the various stages of this centuries-old art form. The artists don’t just paint umbrellas, they decorate pretty anything you hand them (within reason) for around £1. However, if you want to buy an umbrella or parasol, which come in a variety of sizes and designs, it’s worth shopping around as you’re likely to get better deals further down the street.
Sawngthaews (Thai-style roofed pick-up trucks) leave Chiang Mai frequently throughout the day from the flower market on Praisani Road. The fare is around10B/20p.
Chiang Mai is home to over 300 temples, some more visually stunning than others, but each with their own charming idiosyncrasies. Wat U Mong, a 14th-century forest 'wat' (temple), is cloistered from the outside world by trees. The serene temple grounds are crowned by a huge chedi, adorned with a saffron sash, below which pilgrims can seek refuge and spiritual restoration in a cool network of caved meditation tunnels.
If these ethereal surroundings awaken your own spirituality, there is a small library and museum which stocks English-language books on Buddhism. Alternatively, visit the temple on a Sunday afternoon around 3pm, when you can immerse yourself in the wisdom of a resident monk at the weekly lakeside sermon. Entry is free.
Take a tűk-tűk or sawngthaew from the city centre for around 15B/ 30p. Make sure you ask the driver for Wat U Mong Thera Jan as there is another ‘Wat U Mong’ in the old city.
If you like your temples bigger, bolder and brighter, head to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Located 10 miles north-west of Chiang Mai, near the summit of Doi Suthep, it definitely takes first place for visual impact. Your sensory appetite is whet as you climb past the city’s panorama, beyond the smog to the temple steps, where you’re greeted by vendors selling tasty treats and souvenirs.
Take the opportunity to enjoy some last-minute sustenance, before ascending the 306 steps that lead to the entrance. At the top reward yourself with the sublime view of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. Most visitors are immediately drawn to the temple’s centre-piece, a glorious copper-plated chedi topped by a five-tiered gold umbrella, which is reverently concealed within the beautifully illustrated monastery walls.
There are however, many other wonders to be found within the grounds, so be sure to take your time and absorb every sight, sound and smell this place has to offer. Entry is 30B/60p.
Sawngthaew’s leave regularly from the centre and cost around 120B/£2.40.
Where to Stay
Budget travellers in search of a genuine slice of Thai style, try SK House on Moon Muang road near the river. Complete with teak décor, cosy air-con rooms and a large swimming pool, SK provides the perfect oasis at the end of a long day (rooms 300-600B/£6-£12).
If you’ve got a few more baht to burn, head further down Moon Muang to the trendy Sri Pat Guest House on Soi 7. The 17-room guesthouse, mixes rustic Thai features with a chic modern style. All rooms have their own terrace, cable TV and mini bar. (Rooms 900B/£18).
Push the boat out a few oceans further and you find The Chedi, an unashamedly stylish architectural creation right on the river. Rooms are generously lit by floor to ceiling windows and luxuriously furnished. A pool, spa and fitness centre are the icing on this very extravagant cake. (Rooms 10,400-15,600B/ £185-£280).