I have been to Thailand a few times now but never to Chiang Mai until now. I am very sorry to have left the city alone for so long. The city is a little more isolated than other parts of Thailand but still attracts approximately five million visitors per year- 40 per cent of whom are from outside Thailand. I soon discovered why it was placed at 24 on TripAdvisor’s “25 Best Destinations in the World” in 2012.
Chiang Mai is 700 km (420 miles) from Bangkok. Getting there requires a flight of about an hour or a 12 hour train or bus ride from the capital. You can also fly from Laos, Malaysia and Myanmar. We took the train to Chiang Mai from Bangkok (review next Tuesday) and flew back (probably a review the following Tuesday!) One million people live here,
Because of its beauty, many Thai call the city as the “Rose of the North”.
The City was built in 1296 as a walled city approximately 1.5km (1 mile) square surrounded by a moat. While most of the original city wall has fallen down, there are some sections still standing (or rebuilt) including significant parts of the four corners. The original moat is still full of water with many fountains sprouting.
Around the old city are the districts of the new city which has grown in all directions. On the Western side of the old city is Chiang Mai University and the “hip” Nimmanhaemin Rd, which has loads of cafes, restaurants and small shops.
NB If you are visiting Thailand for the beaches, Chiang Mai is not the place to find them. You will need to fly two hours south for Phuket.
Chiang Mai has been voted in the top ten livable cities in Asia. While Thailand is a cheap country to visit, Chiang Mai felt even cheaper for food, souvenirs and accommodation! The internet is excellent, the hospitals good and the traffic (compared to Bangkok) bearable! There is a significant expat community working for many companies and NGOS that are based in the city. I could make it my base!
Chiang Mai has a tropical wet and dry climate but being in the mountains, the weather is much more bearable than other cities in Thailand. The year round average top temperature is 32 celsius (90 F) with the average bottom temperature at 20 degrees celsius (68F). Hot season is from March to June. The rainy season is from July to October.
If you love festivals, this is a brilliant city! I have been told that Songkran, the Thai New Year celebration is better in Chiang Mai than the celebrations in Bangkok!. There is a beautiful Yee Peng lantern festival and even a “Fruit Festival“. There is great cinema in Chiang Mai with tickets costing between $US3 and $US6 a ticket. Basically, There are a huge number of things on in the city all the time.
I could have spend my entire visit exploring the various markets including the famous Walking Street Markets and Night Bazaar. There is a good National Museum, a beautiful Botanic Garden, a tiger zoo, limestone caves, tree top zipline, and food, food, food. Eating here is wonderful. There are inexpensive street food outlets everywhere and the evening markets had a huge range. We also noticed that Chiang Mai has almost fifty vegetarian restaurants! I spotted Japanese, Italian, Mexican, Burmese, Chinese restaurants. There are many cafes.
There are plenty of cooking classes, and treks you can join. Of course, there are the amazing Thai massages which will cost you around eight dollars an hour.
Chiang Mai is also famous for over 300 temples. The most famous temple is Wat Phra That which is located near the top of Doi Suthep (Mount Suthep), the mountain that dominates the Chiang Mai skyline. Built as a Buddhist monastery in 1383, the temple has commanding views of the region. It is an absolute must to visit.To get there, takes some negotiation with the Red songtaew drivers (see transport for more) or taxis. I am still not sure if we got a good price! The good thing was our driver waited for us, didn’t try to sell us trinkets and dropped us to our hotel. On arrival at the temple base, we were faced by 300 step staircase up to the temple. The handrails are carved in the shape of the Naga Serpent. There is also a lift (elevator) but it seemed more fitting to walk up. (We took the lift down).
The temple is topped by a golden spire which is pretty awe inspiring. There were people praying and walking around the temple as well as tourists gawking and taking pictures. We took a fair bit of time to really experience the temple including walking around it three times.
Crime and Safety: 9/10
We went just after the recent coup and the curfew was in place. This has now been lifted. There was a signficant army presence with solders guarding a few sections of the city. The army were also involved in putting on street concerts(see below) and doing community activities to build PR. In fact, I saw more soldiers here than in Bangkok! Chiang Mai is at the heart of “red shirts” (supporters of the deposed government) territory. We were not too concerned about potential political trouble but its best to be aware of whats going on. Sadly, the political situation was keeping tourists away and many taxi drivers, restaurants and hotels were reporting very low numbers of customers. It did mean our hotel gave us an upgrade and an early check in!
Generally, the city is considered a “Low” threat overall for crime, and most travellers feel relatively safe. Pickpocketing, petty theft and purse snatching are a risk at the markets, railway station, and other places with lots of tourists.
As in much of Thailand, traffic accident rates are high and poor driver behaviour is common particularly speeding, running red-lights, unexpected and unsignalled lane changes and driving the wrong way or along footpaths. Take care always!
I found getting around Chian Mai a little frustrating. Transport consists of:
- the ubiquitous Thailand tuk tuk (took took) which combines the opportunity to dodge traffic blockages, see the city and breathe in exhaust fumes. Drivers were more aggressive than I have found in other cities with constant calling out “”hello, tuk tuk” or being tailed by one, hoping we would succumb
- Red songtaews (literally “two rows”), – red “utility” or pickup trucks with a canopy and twin rows of bench seating that act as a bus and taxi service combined. They travel down main roads looking for passengers. For a flat fare of around 30 cents they will take you in the direction they are going. For extra, they will travel wherever you want to go, even if it means going up one way streets and doing u turns in front of traffic
- regular taxis which do not seem to ply the streets for business
- five bus routes
We had to bargain for every fare and I never got a sense of what was a fair price in Chiang Mai. Cash only at all times. I felt I was paying more for transport than I would in other parts of Thailand.
Some tourists hired bikes but combined with the very uneven roads, maniac drivers, heat and pollution, that didn’t appeal. You can also hire small motor cycle scooters.
We enjoyed walking but would love to see cars banned from most of the old city as it would make it much more pleasant atmosphere.
Chiang Mai feels like a holiday place! A a visitor, it is so easy to relax. There is so much on and people seem genuinely interested in involving others in life. If you want to see others who love life in that city, check out the I love Chiang Mai Facebook page!
Overall I rate Chiang Mai 80%. This puts the city at 45 on my top 200 city list! Other cities I rate at around this score include:
- Darwin, Australia – stunning city with slightly better transport than Chiang Mai, culturally not as active or diverse
- Zurich, Switzerland- beautiful city with superb public transport, a high cost of living and a restrained vibe!
- Penang, Malaysia – culture, food and the city vibe resonate strongly, transport way ahead of Chiang Mai