Thailand doesn’t only need to be about beaches and nightlife; Chiang Mai, the cultural centre of the north of the country, is so much more. Situated on the banks of the Ping river, at the foot of the Doi Pui mountain, Chiang Mai is surrounded by hills and mountains covered in dense teakwood forests, where woodcutters will still use working elephants to move and transport heavy tree trunks.
When approaching the city from the air (there are regular connecting flights from Bangkok at very reasonable rates) the golden roof of the Wat Prathat temple on top of the Doi Suthep holy mountain are among the first things that catch the eye, and a sight that is likely to be remembered for a long time.
However, there are ways of approaching Chiang Mai and see even more - much more in fact, as the journey lasts some eight hours – and that is by train. Using the local buses is not recommended; roads are narrow and traffic unruly. Once safely arrived in the city, you can choose to explore it on foot, as the city centre is quite compact, or to go in local style, either in so-called Tuk-Tuks, a kind of motor-powered rickshaw, or by Songthaew, an open pick-up truck with seats. Seasoned travellers advise giving preference to the Tuk-tuks.
This 700-year old city, which is also called ‘The rose of the north’, is still steeped in traditional Thai ways and customs and offers a wealth of experience to the traveller.
Inhabited by a colourful mixture of northern mountain tribes and the northern Thais, or kon mueang, which consider themselves to be the ‘true’ Thais; it has retained much of their cultural values and traditions across the centuries. The friendliness in this city is legendary, and as a visitor you could not wish for more gentle and polite hosts.
Although Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand after Bangkok, it only has about 5% of Bangkok’s population, making it an ideal escape from the busy hustle and bustle of the capital.
Despite the unavoidable modernisation of recent years, the charming and laidback city provides plenty of tranquil spots and literally hundreds of splendid teakwood temples, a wealth of unspoilt tradition and a multitude of other sights such as a moat and bustling street markets.
As a result, Chiang Mai is not only popular among tourists, but also among the Thai themselves, who in summer seek refuge from the sweltering heat of the south. There are also highly recreational hot springs in San Kampaeng, only 45 minutes from Chiang Mai, which offer a unique bathing experience and recreational huts for the perfect relaxation.
There is also plenty of excellent shopping to engage in: Chiang Mai lives up to its reputation as the Thai centre of traditional handicraft and art and there are high-class silk, wool, silver and pottery products to buy and to admire.
Even the more adventurous tourist will find plenty to keep you busy, from adventure trips to the national parks, waterfalls and elephant riding to river rafting and trekking in the mountains to the north of the city.