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One of the most popular places to visit in all of Thailand, Chiang Mai (เชียงใหม่) is a city rich with history and culture. Former capital of the Kingdom of Lanna (อาณาจักรล้านนา), the “New City” was founded by King Mengrai in 1296. Chiang Mai is the capital of the province by the same name, and it’s located on the Ping River (แม่ น้ำปิง), a major tributary of the Chao Phraya River. When it was established, the city was fortified by a moat and a defensive wall, as the Burmese were a constant threat. These days, Chiang Mai is known as the Northern capital of Thailand, and is second in importance only to Bangkok.
There’s so much to do in and around the city that planning a trip there can be a bit intimidating. Don’t worry, because we’re here to help! Here are some ideas and tips for traveling in Chiang Mai:
There are over 300 Buddhist temples scattered throughout Chiang Mai. Around every corner, you’re sure to find a glittery temple with orange-robed monks flowing in and out. Of course, you won’t visit all of them, but here are a few you should definitely check out.
The name, meaning “Monastery of a Thousand Kilns”, is thought to refer to the casting of the many Buddha images for this temple’s bigger neighbor, which we’ll get to in a minute. It is said that the temple was constructed as a royal palace for the former ruler of Chiang Mai, Chao Mahawong, who used the structure from 1846 to 1854.
The “Temple of the Big Stupa” was first constructed in 1391 by King Saen Muang Ma to hold the ashes of his father. Other kings worked on the temple until it reached its final form in 1475. The famous and holy Emerald Buddha (currently held in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok) was once here. Although the main chedi was destroyed hundreds of years ago and never properly repaired, this wat is still an active place of worship amongst local monks. If you’re lucky, you might find yourself in the city on a Buddhist holiday. On our second visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand was celebrating Magha Puja (วันมาฆบูชา), a festival commemorating Buddha’s teaching of Ovada Patimokkha. Hundreds upon hundreds of people were streaming in and out of the temple to worship on this full moon, and it was a very powerful experience being in the middle of it all.
Every evening, you can peruse the Night Bazaar (ไนท์บาซาร์), where hundreds of local vendors set up shop to sell a variety of goods. Beginning at around 6 PM and lasting until 11, this night market has just about anything you could want, including: clothing, handicrafts, paintings, jewelry, antiques, and of course a bunch of knick-knacks and silly stuff. If you happen to be in the city on the weekend, there are also the Saturday and Sunday walking streets. Shopping isn’t really my thing, but I enjoy taking a stroll around the night bazaar. There are plenty of tasty snacks available, you can always find cold beer, and there are often cultural performances going on.
If you’re into museums, then you should definitely spend a day visiting a few of them in Chiang Mai. For just 180 Baht, you can get a pass for three. You don’t need to use them all on the same day, either, but doing so is possible as they are all close together. Spending a few hours exploring these museums is a great way to get out of the midday heat while learning more about the history, people, and culture of the area.
This is probably the best of three museums included in the entrance ticket. Upon entering, you get to watch a short video about the history of Chiang Mai and northern Thailand. There are plenty of rooms covering the history and culture of the region. You can also learn about hill tribe cultures, Buddhism, the royal dynasties, and more.
Located inside of a remodeled courthouse, this excellent museum has plenty of informative dioramas on display that teach you about all aspects of Lanna life. After visiting, you’ll understand more about northern Thailand and the people who call it home.
During construction of this relatively new museum, the remains of an ancient temple were discovered. If you’re willing to spend the time to read all of the captions and look at the displays in detail, you can really learn a lot about the history of Chiang Mai here. That being said, it was probably our least favorite of the three.
As Chiang Mai is the country’s second biggest city and one of the most popular tourist destinations, there’s no shortage of places to stay here. On our most recent trip, we stayed in two different hostels. The Parami Guesthouse was a great place and we would have stayed longer, but they were fully booked. As such, we moved over to the Teeraya Boutique Dormitory. We had to go from private rooms to dorm beds, but the nice pool made up for that.
You can get just about any kind of famous cuisine in Chiang Mai – Italian, Mexican, Chinese, and of course tons of Thai. While staying there, I loved eating a mix of cheap, tasty street food or local market fare for most meals, and then treating ourselves to a nice comfort meal here and there.
There’s plenty to do after the sun goes down in Chiang Mai. From the aforementioned night bazaar, to tons of bars and clubs, to Muay Thai fights, to live music, you won’t lack of things to do at night here. Whether you’re looking to have a pint and watch sports, jam along with a reggae band, play pool with ladyboys, cut a rug in a chic nightclub, or just have a fancy cocktail with good conversation, you can find it in Chiang Mai.
If you’ve already had a good night out and are looking for an interesting night cap, why not visit a fish spa? With a little buzz from Chang beer, it sure feels funny having little tiny fish eat the dead skin off your feet.
While there really is so much to do in the city, there’s even more awaiting you on amazing day trips. Check back to the blog soon for a rundown of some of the awesome activities you can take part in while staying in Chiang Mai.