Northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai is an iconic Thai town surrounded by the walls of the Old City, with ornate temples and lush forests just a short drive away. Here you’ll find a charming center easily navigated on foot, where the air is clean and the climate somewhat cooler. The old town, inside its 600-year-old moat, is an extraordinary vision with 30 temple spires, barefoot monks in flame-coloured robes at their ancient monastery, and street vendors selling their wares on the banks of the Ping River. Founded in 1296 as the capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom, today it is a peaceful place where past and present merge with modern buildings, and luxury hotels exist effortlessly alongside sacred wats. Yet Chiang Mai somehow feels more like a rural town than a bustling capital. A place where the people are intrinsically linked to their timeless traditions and ancestors. Just beyond the city’s borders you find lush countryside, pristine rainforests and peaceful Hill Tribe villages.
In the Old City remnants of walls and moats, as well as elaborate Buddhist temples, including the 14th-century Wat Phra Singh and 15th-century Wat Chedi Luang, can be seen. Located on the top of the hill at the end of a 15m winding mountain road and overlooking Chiang Mai is the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep – a part of the city’s daily life. To reach the temple you climb a 309-step staircase with banisters bejewelled with mystical serpents, at the top a gold plated chedi and white elephant shrine to honour the temple’s legend. There are numerous galleries and boutiques in the city to explore and each night street food vendors set up near the Chang Puak Gate. Venturing further afield, consider a visit to the Elephant Nature Park, an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center where dozens of rescues have created a thriving elephant herd. A fun recommendation is a day out touring with The Tuk Tuk Club, who will teach you to drive one, before you head out on your three-wheeled adventure. The Doi Pui Hmong Tribal Village is located on Doi Suthep Mountain about 4 kilometres away from the impressive Doi Suthep, and is home to the Hmong hill tribe, one of six major hill tribes found in Thailand. The villagers here wear Hmong clothing, sell handicrafts, and live in traditional style homes. Found about 60km from Chiang Mai, is Doi Inthanon, one of the most popular national parks in Thailand, famous for its hiking trails, waterfalls and viewpoints, as well as cool climate given the altitude. Known as ‘The Roof of Thailand, it covers an area of almost five hundred km and includes the highest peak in Thailand. Offering a quieter and more authentic look at the Kingdom of Thailand, Chiang Mai has developed a reputation as a spiritual retreat, a place to study meditation and yoga and where you can immerse yourself into Northern Thai culture. Whatever it is you hope to gain from your visit here, you’ll undoubtedly find it.
In the daytime, the main streets are full of interesting shops, quirky cafés, art galleries, hotels and restaurants, and as soon as the sun sets, the square on the outer ring of the moat fills with vendors. Chiang Mai is a buyer's paradise, and the famous Chiang Mai Night Bazar on the east side of the old walled city is open every day of the year regardless of the weather and will appease the most avid shopper. With its Northern Lanna cuisine, Chiang Mai’s tasty delights are considered some of the best in the country and the Thai street food on sale at the Chang Pheuak Gate offers a great range of authentic Thai, Chinese and Japanese cuisine. The city’s bustling Chinatown spreads across a section of town known collectively as Worarot, the centerpiece being a three-story covered market with excellent value shopping. At the market look out for banana spring rolls, lemongrass tea served in a bamboo, sticky rice with mango.
You’re likely to fly into the city but taking the overnight sleeper train between Bangkok to Chiang Mai has always been a popular way of travelling between these two cities, especially since the State Railway of Thailand introduced new train carriages in 2016 to ease the passage. Once arrived, there are several ways to get around Chiang Mai, including the distinctly local red songthaews people carriers, tuk tuks, and private rented vehicles. Grab, South East Asian’s Uber equivalent, is available here. Most day trips from Chaing Mai can be done by hiring a driver or by renting a motorbike. There are also many travel companies offering scheduled and private trips, should you prefer to simply sit back and enjoy, without having to worry about the logistics.
On the banks of the Ping River you’ll find the impressive Anantara Chiang Mai Resort and the X2 Chiang Mai Riverside Resort with its impressive architecture and rooftop pool. The elegant 137 Pillars House with its carefully restored teak wood building, landscaped gardens and opulent suites, reflects the rich history of the East Borneo Trading Company that made its mark in the area. On the outskirts of town, the Oasis Spa Baan Saen Doi has all the charm of the Lanna Kingdom with beautiful gardens and a healing environment to enjoy luxurious wellness in privacy. Whatever your preference and budget, you will find accommodation either in the city or the quieter outskirts, with long terms rentals available to those wanting to set up temporary home in this spiritual Northern Thai city.
Flights to Chiang Mai are widely available and serviced by the Chiang Mai International Airport which is located a 20-minute drive from the city centre. This airport is served by a number of airline companies, including Bangkok Airways, Thai Airways and SilkAir. International connections are available with Singapore Airlines and Qatar Airlines, with connections across South East Asia and into China.
Situated in the heart of old city Chiang Mai, The House by Ginger is a lifestyle destination that is home to two impressive restaurants and a local boutique store that you’ll want to spend all your money in. About 50km outside Chiang Mai at the Buakaw Village you’ll find the gym where Buakaw Banchamek, long standing K-1 Muay Thai World Champion and Thailand title holder, has created an environment where the popular martial art can be learnt. Book in there for anything from 3 days to a month to hone your Muay Thai skill. Talking health, a visit to Cafe Ohkajhu, the Farm to Table Organic Cafe on the outskirts of Chiang Mai where three young local food lovers have started a movement, growing their own produce on a smallholding, and serving inspired organic meals in their ever-popular restaurant, is a must. The area also offers yoga retreats and training schools.
Visas: South African citizens don’t require a tourist visa for stays of up to 30 days.
Currency: Thai Baht. A delicious Pad Thai will set you back about R30.
Language: Thai, but English is widely spoken in the cities.
Weather: The best time to visit Chiang Mai is from March to May, although given the diverse activities that range from wellness to hiking and spiritual retreats, it’s always a good time to visit.