Mention to anyone in the south of Thailand that you’re headed to Chiang Mai, some 700 km north of Bangkok, and they begin rubbing their arms in a theatrical effort to get warm. This cosmopolitan northern capital, surrounded by mountains and lush countryside, might not make an appearance on the average beach bum’s bucket list. But so much the better for discerning types looking for an escape from the tourist traps, for Chiang Mai is a cool and cultured place.
What’s more, if you’re traveling from Myanmar, you’ll find a pleasant temperate climate and something of a home from home, given the many Myanmar nationals who have settled here and the traces of Myanmar in the architecture and food. It couldn’t be more different from Yangon, which is why increasing numbers of Myanmar nationals are looking to make their holiday into something more permanent, joining the many other foreign travelers who have fallen in love with the place and who account for the city’s thriving expat scene. Indeed, it was recently named by achingly hip Monocle magazine as one of the world’s most “loveable” cities.
Chiang Mai’s chief attraction lies in its vibrant contrasts. At its heart is a moated, partially walled city, with centuries-old wats (temples) down every second street, but against this traditional Thai backdrop you’ll find amenities that are resoundingly 21st century, from the rash of trendy new bars and restaurants, to the shiny shopping palaces springing up around town.
If you’re a newcomer to the region, the sights to prioritize are the ones tied up in the city’s past. Founded by King Phaya Mengrai, who created the Lanna kingdom, Chiang Mai, or “new city,” emerged when he moved his capital to its current location in 1296.
One of the best ways to explore the old city is to hop on a bike and let your wheels take you down the many lanes that criss-cross the area within the moat. There are more than 30 ancient temples inside the moat and gilded stupas peek out above the rooftops. The most visited (though it’s still possible to find space for contemplation—or lunch—in the peaceful grounds) is Wat Phra Singh, a blaze of sumptuous gold stenciling and rich colored paintwork. It houses Chiang Mai’s most revered Buddha image (Phra Singh or Lion Buddha). Around the back is a dazzlingly whitewashed chedi, built in 1345. At Wat Ket Karam, over the moat, there’s a quirky museum of local history with dusty old displays, including a glass case given over to antique typewriters.
A must-see for many Myanmar travelers is Wat Sai Moon in the center of town, built by the Myanmar king, Bayinnaung, after he conquered the city in 1558. To see more work by Myanmar artisans, head to Wat Chetawan, Wat Mahawan and Wat Bupparam, three ornate temples that were financed by Myanmar teak merchants who emigrated to Chiang Mai a century or more ago—the influence is apparent in the abundance of peacock motifs and the Mandalay-style standing Buddhas found in wall niches.
The Shan temples of Wat Pa Pao and Wat Ku Tao date from the early 17th century with one chedi reputed to contain the ashes of a son of King Bayinnaung, Tharawadi Min, ruler of Lanna from 1578 to 1607.
For anyone born in the Year of the Dog, Wat Phan Tao is a stunning teak temple, where a canine mosaic over the door represents the astrological year of the former royal resident’s birth.
Traditional markets are a big draw for diehard shoppers, or just anyone interested in a bit of people-watching. Warorot is the great market, housed inside two multi-storey buildings but spreading out into the surrounding lanes. Inside you’ll find pickles, dried herbs, pre-packaged curries, as well as clothes and handicrafts. Nearby, Talat Tonlamyai, the flower market, is a riot of color with roses, asters and orchids, brought down from cooler mountainous climes.
The Night Bazaar on Chang Khlan runs from 7pm to midnight with every kind of stall imaginable, while the Saturday (along Wualai) and Sunday Walking Streets (along Ratchadamnoen) offer the ingenious opportunity to shop as you walk, up one way and back the other, between 4pm and midnight. Crafty creations abound and true to the spirit of Chiang Mai’s new age fringe, there’s even a stall selling hand-crocheted doggy-wear. Temples along the way host food stalls and there are pop-up bars fashioned out of converted VW camper vans. There are rows of locals offering massages for the foot-weary and, if you’re lucky, you’ll see the “singing policeman,” apparently a regular fixture.
For upmarket shopping Huay Kaew road is the upcoming retail hub. An outdoor mall of small, independent boutiques called The Harbour has opened recently and before the year’s end an enormous new indoor mall is set to be launched.
Away from the historic center, the sights become a little more international. Around Chiang Mai University, for example, students keep the ambience youthful and the campus is a lush, tranquil place to meander and check out the modern art dotted around the grounds. The university’s art museum often has interesting exhibitions by Southeast Asian artists, too.
Nearby is Chiang Mai Zoo (Huay Kaew road), where its most celebrated residents, the pandas, can be found, along with the Aquarium boasting Asia’s longest viewing tunnel (at 113m). The zoo also runs a Night Safari in open-sided trams where animals roam free, though real predators—lions, tigers, bears and crocs—are kept on the safer side of some deep trenches.
One sight you shouldn’t leave Chiang Mai without experiencing is the city’s sacred mountain, Doi Suthep. Most people drive or catch a song thaew (local pick-up bus) up the winding road, then climb the 306 naga-lined steps to Wat Phra That, the temple at the top with its bird’s eye view of Chiang Mai. But the energetic can also take the “Long Walk,” which the freshman class of the university do every July, introducing themselves to the spirit of the city and making merit to the Buddhist relic enshrined in Wat Phra That’s gold-plated chedi (topped by a five-tiered umbrella erected in honor of the city’s independence from Myanmar and union with Thailand). Doi Suthep is also home to a number of hill tribes, some 300 bird species, the Bhuping Royal Palace Gardens, and a national park with cosy cabins to rent for overnight stays. Trails in the park lead to scenic waterfalls—some, such as Nam Tok Monthathon, with swimming pools beneath the cascades.
When it comes to refueling after all the sightseeing and shopping exertions you’re in luck, for in Chiang Mai you are never far from a delicious meal. There are plenty of stalls and shopfronts selling regional specialities, such as khao soi, a curried noodle dish with Shan-Yunnanese heritage, usually served with picked veg and chilli sauce or lime. But the big hit around town in recent years has been the burgeoning vegetarian scene. Pun Pun, one of the earliest restaurants, started life in an unpromising hut with a few scattered tables around the back of Wat Suan Dok, and it is still there dishing up spicy papaya salads and delicious yellow curries (though Pun Pun has become something of a chain with a particular favorite being the branch on Suthep Road—for its cooling fans and Wi-Fi).
For haute cuisine veggie-style, try Anchan (Nimmanhaemin, Soi Hillside 3), a smart new place run by a young Belgian chap and his Thai partner. On the menu lately was a melt-in-the-mouth pumpkin yellow curry and Sun Hemp flower tempura.
Cafe culture thrives in Chiang Mai and top of the smoothie pops is the mint, honey and lemon drink served at Blue Diamond (Moon Muang), a cafe shaded by palms, cooled with whirring fans and frequented by expats.
For Italian-style latte and creamy carrot cake there’s Fern Forest (Singharat) a leafy little cafe where you can take respite from the temple trail. The Art Cafe (corner of Tha Phae and Kotchasan) is a fascinating place to while away an hour or two, crammed with books and serving up the likes of lemon soufflé with coffee.
Worth a detour to the north side is The Spirit House (Soi Viangbua, Chang Puak) a maze of dining nooks and crannies, drooping tree fronds and tinkling fountains. The most spiritual time to eat here is on a Wednesday evening when the choir Global Harmonies meets and sings through its repertoire.
In terms of where the youthful action is, Nimmanhaemin is the road to make for, whether it’s to grab an espresso at Chiang Mai’s most happening coffee shop, Ristr8to, or sip a sundowner at one of the many bars along this bustling street. Just keep going until you find the place to suit your mood. Sahara restaurant runs salsa nights in its rooftop bar, while bars like BangRak and Monkey Club throb with music and students.
For the ultimate party, time your trip to coincide with the Flower Festival in February, Songkran in April, or Loi Krathong in November, a full three days of lantern-lit magic.
This story first appeared in the September 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.