Chiang Mai Overview
SightsThe old city center is surrounded by ancient walls, and contains many historic temples and architectural gems. The city sprawls outward from here, and mostly east towards the Ping river and the nearby Night Bazaar with surrounding restaurants, hotels, and shops. While many markets are open during the day as well, the nighttime activity at the market brings in the crowds and a vibe of excitement.
Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is a temple 13km outside of the city, and makes for a great half-day trip. Many visitors rent motorbikes or hire a taxi for the ride up the hill to explore the temple and take in the great views of the city from up high.
For information on elephant parks, see the Activities section below.
If museums interest you, several great finds are available in Chaing Mai. The Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre offers a modern and air-conditioned experience showcasing the history and culture of northern Thailand. The Chiang Mai National Museum also offers a good overview of history. Don't miss the unique Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders, which displays a wide range of butterflies, bugs, wildlife, geologic samples, and other natural science exibits.
The Chiang Mai Zoo and Aquarium also draws in a number of visitors, most of which are Thai. Foreign visitors tend to give the Zoo unfavorable ratings as the animals are kept in small areas and there are more kiosks selling trinkets than the number of animals on display.
Muay Thai Boxing is quite popular in Chaing Mai, just as it is in Bangkok. Various venues around town showcase the sport. But unlike in Bangkok, it is much less expensive in Chaing Mai. The Kalare Boxing Stadium is near the Night Market, and Tha Phae and Loi Kroh are other popular venues.
NeighborhoodsChiang Mai is an interesting mix of old and new. At the city's center is the old historic area enclosed by a mostly square moat that was once a wall (some of which has been restored). Inside the moat and wall sections are the historic temples along with shops and restaurants.
To the east of the old city, along Tha Phae Road and Loi Kroh Road, heading towards the river, is the main section of shops, hotels, restaurants, and other amenities that tourists would be interested in, such as the Night Market and riverside vendors.
The airport lies to the southwest of the old city.
Straight to the west of the old city is the Su Thep area, and beyond is the border of Doi Suthep Pui National Park (which is home to the Wat Phrathap Doi Suthep temple).
ActivitiesIf you want to wrap everything that northern Thailand offers into a few days, then a jungle trek is a convenient, although somewhat touristy option. Many guesthouses, hostels, and hotels run multi-day treks into the surrounding countryside and combine the beautiful scenery with elephant rides, local villages, and a bit of rafting or swimming. Note that many of these trips are not very authentic as you will be with other travelers and in locations that are not far from Chaing Mai. (Many hostels only open rooms up to travelers who agree to go on their organized treks.)
Elephant tours, and visits to elephant parks, are perhaps the most popular activity in northern Thailand, and a number of Elephant parks are in or near the Chiang Mai area. These parks are often very controversial, as many do not take care of their elephants very well, while others are not just for tourists but also act as animal sanctuaries. Do your research first, and ask other tourists what their experiences were like.
Some elephant parks with good reputations include Baanchang Elephant Park (one of the less expensive places), Eddy Elephant Care Chiang Mai (a full day ore more experience), Elephant Nature Park (a sanctuary with day, night, and weekly options), and Friends for Asia Elephant Camp Volunteer Project (two week minimum with lodging options).
Cooking classes are very popular in Chiang Mai, as a number of small cooking schools have opened up to benefit the tourists. These classes are usually a full day, and the students are instructed by local Thai people on how to prepare and cook various Thai dishes. The day usually begins with a trip to the local market where various ingredients are explained (curry, exotic herbs, interesting fruit, etc). Then the students, under instruction and guidance from the teachers, prepare dishes such as salads, curries, meats, and desserts. Many of these classes also involve some entertainment and humor from the teachers, which makes for an enjoyable experience. And, of course, there is much eating.
Tours to hilltribe villages are also quite popular and make for a great cultural experience. The northern jungles of Thailand are home to a dozen or so tribes, each with their own culture and history. Many of the trips to these villages are touristy, and sometimes exploitative of the locals, so do your research first. The further away from civilization, the more authentic your experience will likely be.
Mountain biking is another popular activity, as a number of bike trails have been created in the surrounding hills.
Spas, heath centers, yoga studios, and massage centers are also quite prevalent in Chaing Mai. As always, do your research first to make sure that you are getting what you paid for, not less, and not "more". Many places also offer Thai massage classes.
Food and DiningKhao Soi seems to be Chaing Mai's signature dish, as it can be found in many places around town. This yellow wheat noodle dish has a curry broth and is usually served with chicken or meat.
Restaurants serving not just Thai food, but every type of international food can be found in Chaing Mai. Many Thai restaurants cater to tourists, and therefore are not considered "authentic" by the locals or discerning travelers. Look for restaurants or street vendors without signs in English, or those away from the main tourist drags.
TransportationLocal buses come in the form of songthaews, which are pick-up trucks with covered backs for the passengers. Some act as taxis (the red ones, specifically), while others plow a variety of set routes rather efficiently, so don't be afraid to hop on.
Tuk-Tuks are also common (but not always cheaper than a car taxi). They can be quick and fun, but always negotiate the price.
A samlor is a form of tricycle that acts as a rickshaw taxi. They can be cheap, but are slow. They make a good option for a short trip or a relaxing tour.
Always negotiate prices, or demand the usage of the meter if the vehicle has one.