Chiang Mai, sometimes written as “Chiengmai”, is the largest and most culturally significant city in northern Thailand, and is the capital of Chiang Mai Province. It is located some 700 km (435 mi) north of Bangkok, among some of the highest mountains in the country. The city stands on the Ping river, a major tributary of the Chao Phraya river. In recent years, Chiang Mai has become an increasingly modern city, although it lacks the cosmopolitan feel of Bangkok or any other modern cities to be found throughout the world.
The city emblem shows the chedi on top of Doi Suthep in its center, as being the most important place of worship of Chiang Mai. Below are clouds referring to the moderate climate in the hills of northern Thailand. Below is a naga, the mythological snake which is said to be the source of the Ping River. Above the heads of the naga are rice stalks, the major crop referring to the fertility of the area.
Chiang Mai has over 300 Buddhist temples (called “wats” in Thai). These include:
Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep: the most famous temple in the area, standing on a hill to the north-west of the city. This temple dates from 1383. Its builders allegedly chose its site by placing a relic of the Lord Buddha on an elephant’s back and letting the elephant roam until it came across a place where it trumpeted and circled before lying down. The onlookers took this as marking an auspicious place to build the temple. The temple’s location also affords superb views over the city on a clear day.
Wat Chiang Man: the oldest temple in Chiang Mai. King Mengrai lived here while overseeing the construction of the city. This temple houses two very important and venerated Buddha figures – Phra Sila (a marble Buddha) and Phra Satang Man (a crystal Buddha).
Wat Phra Singh: located within the city walls, dates from 1345 and offers an example of classic northern Thai style architecture. It houses the Phra Singh Buddha, a highly venerated figure, transferred here many years ago from Chiang Rai. This temple is one of the most important temples in the city. Visitors can also take part in meditation classes here at set times.
Wat Chedi Luang: founded in 1401 and dominated by the large Lanna style chedi which dates from the same time, but took many years to finish. An earthquake damaged the chedi in the 16th century and now only two-thirds of it remains.
Wat Ched Yot: located on the outskirts of the city, this temple, built in 1455, hosted the Eighth World Buddhist Council in 1977.
Wiang Kum Kam: the site of an old city situated on the southern outskirts of Chiang Mai. King Mengrai used this for ten years before the founding of Chiang Mai. The site has a large number of ruined temples.
Wat U-Mong: a forest and cave wat in the foothills in the west of the city, near Chiang Mai University. Wat U-Mong is known for its grotesque concrete fasting Buddha and hundreds of pithy Buddhist proverbs in English and Thai posted on trees throughout its grounds.
Wat Suan Dok: a 14th century temple located just west of the old city-wall. The temple was built by the King of Lanna for a revered monk visiting from Sukhothai to spend the rains retreat. The name translates as “the field of flowers temple.” There are several unique aspects to this temple. One is the temple’s large ubosot (ordination hall). This is unusual not only for its size, but also that it is open on the sides instead of enclosed. Secondly, there are a large number of chedis housing the ashes of the rulers of Chiang Mai. The temple is also the site of Mahachulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya Buddhist University.
Chiang Mai hosts many Thai festivals, including:
Chiang Mai National Museum highlights the history of the region and the Kingdom of Lanna.
Tribal Museum showcases the history of the local mountain tribes.
Loi Kratong (known locally as Yi Peng): Held on a full-moon night in November. Every year thousands of people assemble floating banana-leaf containers (krathong) decorated with flowers and candles onto the waterways of the city to worship the Goddess of Water. Lanna-style hot-air lanterns (khom fai) are launched into the air. These are believed to help rid the locals of troubles and are also taken to decorate houses and streets.
Songkran: Held in mid-April to celebrate the traditional Thai new year. Chiang Mai has become one of the most popular locations to visit for this festival. A variety of religious and fun-related activities (notably the good-natured city-wide water-fight) take place each year, along with parades and a Miss Songkran beauty competition.
Flower Festival: A three-day festival held during the first weekend in February each year, this event occurs when Chiang Mai’s temperate and tropical flowers are in full bloom. The festivities include floral floats, parades, traditional dancing shows, and a beauty contest.
Chiang Mai has several universities, including Chiang Mai University, Chiangmai Rajabhat University, Rajamangala University of Technology, Payap University, and Maejo University — as well as numerous technical and teacher colleges. Chiang Mai University was the first government university established outside of Bangkok.
Chiang Mai is a regional centre for a number of activities, including: Hill-tribe tourism and trekking: A large number of tour companies offer organised treks among the local hills and forests on foot and on elephant back. Most also involve visits to the various local hill tribes. These include representatives from the Akha, Hmong, Karen, and Lisu tribes.
Elephant Nature Park: Approximately 60 km (37 mi) north of the city or about one hour drive, the Elephant Nature Park is home to approximately 30 rescued elephants. You can visit the park with options ranging from a day trip to volunteering. Other outdoor activities: The varied local terrain offers opportunities for mountain biking, elephant riding, bamboo rafting, and kayaking. The area has several golf courses. The nearby national park that includes Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand, features many hiking trails. Also past San Khanmpaeng, about 45 minutes outside of the cities is the village of Mae Kon Phong. Its home to multiple tea and coffee plantations. And also has a eco-friendly zipline tour , Flight of the Gibbon, that donates profits to gibbon conservation.
Shopping: Chiang Mai has a large and famous nightly bazaar for arts, handicrafts, and counterfeit products of all descriptions, and a number of large, well-appointed modern shopping centres. The night bazaar alone sprawls along several city blocks along sidewalks, inside buildings, and in open squares. In addition a market is held every Sunday evening on Rachadamnoen road (the main street in the historical centre) which is then closed down for motorised traffic, attracting many local residents as well as tourists.
Thai massage: The back streets and main thoroughfares of Chiang Mai have a variety of massage parlours which offer anything from quick, simple, face and foot massages, to month-long courses in the art of Thai massage.
Local museums: These include the Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre, the Hill Tribe Museum, and the Chiang Mai National Museum.
Thai cookery: A number of Thai cooking schools have their home in Chiang Mai
Bus, train and air connections serve Chiang Mai well. A number of bus stations link the city to central and northern Thailand. The Central Chang Pheuak terminal (north of Chiang Puak Gate) provides local services within Chiang Mai province and the Chiang Mai Arcade bus terminal northeast of the city (requires Songthaew or tuk tuk ride, see below) provides services to over 20 other destinations in Thailand including Bangkok, Ayutthaya, and Phitsanulok. There are several services a day from Chiang Mai Arcade terminal to Bangkok (a 10–12 hour journey). The state railway operates 14 trains a day to Chiang Mai Station from Bangkok. Most journeys run overnight and take approximately 12–15 hours. Most trains offer first-class (private cabins) and a second-class (seats fold out to make sleeping berths) service. To get to cities such as Mae Hong Son or Chiang Rai a plane or bus must be used. No trains are available to cities north of Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai International Airport receives up to 28 flights a day from Bangkok (flight time about 1 hour 10 minutes) and also serves as a local hub for services to other northern cities such as Chiang Rai, Phrae and Mae Hong Son. International services also connect Chiang Mai with other regional centres, including Hong Kong (China), Jinghong, (China), Kaohsiung (Taiwan), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Kunming (China), Luang Phrabang (Laos), Mandalay (Myanmar), Manila (Philippines), Seoul (Korea), Siem Reap (Cambodia), Singapore (Singapore), and Taipei (Taiwan).
The local preferred form of transport is personal motorbike and, increasingly, private car. In recent years, the number of private vehicles on the road has begun to result in traffic congestion in major arteries during peak travel times. Motorbikes are available for hire from many places in the city, and tourists take advantage of this service. Local public transport is provided in three forms: tuk tuks, songthaews (the latter known locally as rot daeng, literally “red car”), and the recently re-launched, though infrequent, Chiang Mai Bus service. Local Songthaew fare is usually 20 Thai baht per person for trips in and around the city. Tuktuk fare is usually at least 50 baht per trip (comfortable for two, but some can squeeze in four passengers); fare increases with distance. The fare is negotiable with the driver before boarding. Songthaews and tuktuks normally operate until about 11pm or midnight, and then become scarce and more expensive to ride. Metered taxis are available from the airport with a 50 baht airport fee paid at a counter, plus the metered charge paid to the driver (60 baht on the meter gets you into the moated area). Tipping is not expected. Chiang Mai’s fledgling local bus service was relaunched in 2006. It serves routes in and around the city, although the service itself lacks the frequency and route mass as is available in other major cities. Unlike Bangkok, which has the Bangkok Metro and Bangkok Skytrain, Chiang Mai does not have rapid transit public transport infrastructure.