Chiang Mai Travel Guide
Chiang Mai is the main city in the region, known as the “rose of the north.” Most that come here do so after spending a few days in Bangkok. And the contrast is incredible. From the buzz and bustle of the capital there is a gentler lifestyle with more greenery, less people, and on a clear day a wondrous mountain backdrop. There is lots of traffic and pollution but you can breathe a lot more easily here. The nights are cooler. It is a city with charm and character. Those items seem to have vanished from Bangkok with the construction of too many giant buildings between the old spires.
And the people here in Thailand’s second city are more laid back. There seems to be more time to enjoy the sights and sounds. It seems totally removed from the kingdom’s capital 700 kilometers to the south.
Its tourist attractions are more focused on tradition and things cultural, and away from the sordid nightlife that is a major part of the capital. There are myriad natural sights awaiting the visitor. There is a river that is not so busy and there are temples, hundreds of them, where the monks take time to talk to inquisitive tourists. There is quality shopping and the endless bargains at the very popular night-market. Somehow things appear to be more organized, and not just one street market emptying onto another.
Size may have something to do with it. Only a fraction of the size of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is growing rapidly as a tourist destination but it remains a major commercial center. Its international airport has direct links to Rangoon, the capital of Myanmar, and there are also flights to Kunming and Yunan in China and Luang Prabang in Laos; the latest addition is direct flights to Singapore. The airport handles more than two million passengers a year, 10 times the population of Chiang Mai.
The city is skirted by the Superhighway – a ring road something akin to London’s M25 or Atlanta’s I-285 – which makes getting around a lot easier and safer despite the numerous intersections. Once you are well outside it you enter incredible countryside.
Much of the modernization of the area goes on beyond the city itself where new homes and suburbs are being created to provide homes for the wealthy who want to escape the hot summers in Bangkok and chill out in the colder higher climes.
Nearby the hill tribes dwell in conditions that haven’t changed in centuries. The hill tribe inhabitants now account for over 13% of the province’s population. They venture down to the city to sell their wares while tourists dare to venture into the jungles to experience the back to nature living of the tribes. Unfortunately much of the jungle is not what it was. Many of the tall trees have been felled and in their place bamboos and underbrush still provide a rough enough terrain to challenge the intrepid trekker.
The city caters to the rich with lavish hotels and spas and to the budget back packers with cheerful guesthouses. There is an adequate supply of luxury rooms at affordable prices and more recently new resorts offer some of the finest and more expensive accommodation in Thailand.
The old city retains its charm and is still surrounded by an ancient moat that was restored in the 19th century, and there are remnants of the original city walls, which were built in a perfect square. Several of the gates have been restored.
From the old city the roads fan out in all directions. To the east the road heads to the Ping River passing the main shopping and business area and the night-market. Farther out is the post office and railway station.
The sacred 5,500-foot mountain of Doi Suthep to the west of town looks down on the Ping River as it flows though the Chiang Mai Valley. Adorning the mountain is north Thailand’s most sacred shrine, the 600-year-old Wat Phra Doi Suthep.
Chiang Mai province is mainly mountainous and covers 20,000 square kilometers; parts of it are within national parks that are crammed with flora and fauna. The north border of Chiang Mai is the Myanmar state of Chiang Tung. The other borders are with the Thai provinces of Lamphun and Tak in the south, Mae Hong Son in the west, and Chiang Rai and Lamphang in the east.
Chiang Mai is noted for its trekking. And that comes in a variety of forms. You can walk, drive, be driven, take a boat, and go on horseback or climb aboard an elephant. The rewards for such excursions can be extremely satisfying, provided you play by the rules, which you’ll find farther along in this chapter under Trekking. Chiang Mai is an adventure whichever way you turn.
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