Chiang Mai (เชียงใหม่) is the hub of Northern Thailand. With a population of over 170,000 in the city proper (but more than 1 million in the metropolitan area), it is Thailand’s fifth-largest city. Located on a plain at an elevation of 316 m, surrounded by mountains and lush countryside, it is much greener and quieter than the capital, and has a cosmopolitan air and a significant expat population, factors which have led many from Bangkok to settle permanently in this “Rose of the North”.
Chiang Mai Night Safari
Modeled after a similar attraction in Singapore, Chiang Mai Night Safari opened in 2006 and is part of a huge multi-million baht plan to increase the number of visitors to the region. The concept of the park is to provide visitors with a thrilling experience, similar to being out in the wilderness at night. The safari features a few sections including the ‘Savannah Safari’ which consists of herbivores while the ‘Predator Prowl’ takes visitors through an environment populated by lions, tigers and bears. Enjoy the walk around the ‘Jaguar Trail’ and the fountain light show. The park is on 300 acres of natural land and is 12km from the city
Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep
The quintessential image of Chiang Mai with its large gold-plated chedi, visible from the city on a clear day, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (วัดพระธาตุดอยสุเทพ, Huai Kaeo Rd, 30 baht, ) is 18 km from town, sitting at a 1,073 m elevation on the slopes of Doi (Mount) Suthep. Built in 1383 during the Lanna Thai period, legend has it that the temples site was selected by an elephant sent to roam the mountain side, where upon reaching a suitable spot, it trumpeted, circled three times, knelt down and promptly died – which was interpreted as a sign indicating an auspicious site. The temple is and offers grand views over the city, but no reward is without effort as you must accent the 300-plus steps of the Naga lined stairs. The climb may be a strain in high altitudes thin air for the less fit so you may opt to take the cable car for 20 baht. For the Visaka Bucha holiday in June or July each year, it is traditional for people to walk from the zoo to the temple and vast numbers make the pilgrimage to the top, which takes around 4-5 hours.
In the vicinity there are several other attractions you may want to consider visiting. The Bhuping Royal Palace gardens are 4km further along the road from Wat Prathat, with a reasonably easy walk along the meter-wide road shoulder, or you can get a shared Songthaew from Wat Prathat for B30, but you may have to wait until it fills up. Further along the road is a hilltribe village, and although tourist oriented, is really worth the trip! There are many shops for local handicraft etc. These are the people from the far north of the country, many originally from Myanmar.
Chiang Mai Zoo
Although not the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of the city, the Chiang Mai Zoo is surprisingly interesting. Covering 200 acres of land in the foothills of Doi Suthep and providing excellent views of the city in addition to its fascinating wildlife exhibits, Chiang Mai Zoo is certainly worth a visit, especially if you’ve had your fill of temples.
Wat Chedi Luang
Built sometime between 1385 and 1402, during the reign of King Saen Muang Ma, 7th ruler of the Mengrai dynasty, Wat Chedi Luang’s massive chedi (pagoda) is a distinctive feature of the Chiang Mai skyline. At its peak, the chedi measured 60 metres across at the square base and 80 metres tall and was once the home of the Emerald Buddha, Thailand’s most sacred religious relic.
Wiang Kum Kam the Underground Ancient City
Located in attractive countryside about five kilometres south of Chiang Mai along the Ping River, Wiang Kum Kam is an ancient city dating back to the eighth-century Haripunchai Kingdom. Later on it served as a capital of the then Lanna Kingdom for a short while until Chiang Mai was chosen to replace its status in 1296. Expect to see many interesting items and structures such as stone tablets with Mon inscriptions, Buddhist sculptures and architecture, earthenware and pottery. Taking a horse-led carriage is a popular way to enjoy the ruins although some tourists prefer to take their time to appreciate this large site on foot or by rented bicycle.
Mae Sa Elephant Camp
Having secured their names in the Guinness World Record, the elephants at the Mae Sa Elephant Camp are no ordinary beasts. Apart from going about their daily routine of bathing, eating, sleeping and just being domesticated elephants, these extremely intelligent animals have been trained to paint, play football, dance and perform a string of talent shows that will change the way you think about Thai elephants.
Chiang Mai’s restaurants offer a wide range of food, second only to Bangkok. Naturally it’s a good place to sample northern Thai food: in particular, hunt down some khao soi, yellow wheat noodles in curry broth traditionally with chicken (kai) or beef (neua), but available some places as vegetarian or with seafood. Another local speciality is hang ley, Lanna-style pork curry. For those tired of eating rice or noodles there’s also a wide range of excellent international food restaurants, from cheap hamburger stands to elaborate Italian eateries.
When you come to Chiang Mai you should try a Khantoke dinner and show. Although these are just for tourists it is still a nice way to spend an evening. The first Khantoke dinner was held in 1953 by Prof Kraisi Nimanhemin who wanted to host a special event for 2 friends leaving Chiang Mai, 2 others were held both in 1953 and thus “Khantoke” dinners are not “authentic” but a relatively recent invention. Khantoke literally means Small bowl, low table (Khan = small bowl. Tok = low level table) There are also many garden restaurants where you can enjoy an excellent Thai meal in a beautiful setting.
The range and value of western food in Chiang Mai is unsurpassed in Northern Thailand and there is a full range of restaurants from Australian/British/Irish, through French and German to Italian, Spanish, American and Mexican. In fact considering how remote Chiang Mai is from the major centres of population in Asia, it is remarkable how many Western restaurants there are! this is one city where eating Thai is not the only option.