Thailand's northern capital, Chiang Mai is country's second largest city and a fine escape from chaotic Bangkok with the green and picturesque hill country of northern Thailand offering a welcome relief from the humidity and cacophony of the city. Despite being only an hour’s flight from the national capital, Chiang Mai is a different world, renowned for its bright golden temples, artists and artisans (silver jewelry and ornate woodcarving are local specialties), night markets and for some of the best street food in the world, featuring a famously fiery cuisine. Longtime ethical elephant camps surround the city, a highlight for families.
With its smaller size and population, Chiang Mai has a lot in its favor for tourists and travelers alike, with the center of town packed with glittering wats, excellent restaurants and expansive shopping markets all of which are easily taken in on foot. If Thai temples are your thing, then Chiang Mai has a lot to offer, the hill-top Wat Doi Suthep is the crown jewel of a vivid collection of traditional Thai temples, so popular in fact that one of Chiang Mai's most luxurious hotels (with some controversy) modeled itself on one.
Home to the prestigious Chiang Mai University, the city has quite a cosmopolitan feel to it with a lively entertainment scene and some of the best eating in northern Thailand. Most travelers to Chiang Mai are younger backpackers, drawn to Chiang Mai not for the temples nor the food, but rather for the hill-tribe trekking, and first stop en route to the Golden Triangle. More seasoned travelers come for the elephant camps, cooking schools, golfing, or simply relaxing at resorts (the renowned Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental Dhara Devi resorts are here). For decades Chiang Mai has formed the trekking base of northern Thailand and hilltribes in the area may be visited will more ease than in Laos and Vietnam (although are far more touristy).
Doi Suthep Pagoda, one of the country's most sacred sites, well-preserved old city, and the touristy, sprawling night market where souvenirs abound. If you've come this far, we recommend the scenic half-day drive north to rural Chiang Rai in the heart of the Golden Triangle.
- Lanna cusine. Delicious street food and fine dining, as well as delightful cooking classes
- Elephant sanctuaries—amazing encounters with the gentle animals
- Arts & artisans. Chiang Mai is known as a destination for the country's top artists
- Wat Doi Suthep at sunrise. Breathtaking views over the city and mountain ranges
- Chiang Dao National Park Mountain Biking, cycling the lush jungle mountains of this picturesque area
- Night Bazaar and Weekend Market—delicious food stall dishes and renowned handmade crafts
A highlight of Chiang Mai is the long established elephant camps, care centers, and sanctuaries. Programs offered are half- to full-day, with activities at the elephant centers around learning about the lives and care of the elephants, jungle treks with the animals, and washing or feeding. Lunch is typically included. We can arrange to visit farms in the area after your visit.
Renowned, world-class property on par with the now-closed Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, this enchanting resort oasis lies in a picturesque valley, 20 minutes north of Chiang Mai. Landscaped gardens, water lily ponds, and terraced rice paddies surround the 98 large and distinctive guest pavilions and villas. These feature spacious teak-floored bedrooms, separate dressing areas, oversize baths (garden soaking tubs and shower stalls), and inviting gazebos.
Thai and Continental restaurants are augmented by a casual café and charming Elephant Bar pavilion and excellent cooking school. Amenities include a 65-foot infinity lap pool, tennis, a fitness studio and sophisticated spa. Championship golf is available nearby. Upstairs pavilions offer rice paddy views. Childcare and kid's activities offered daily 9am to 5pm for children ages 4 to 12.
Our take: A spacious setting with abundance of nature throughout. Good for families, with children's activities and one of the best values for a luxury hotel in Southeast Asia. Still, consider one the many charming boutique properties closer to the action in town, which Chiang Mai excels in, or the Shangri-La for younger children (below).
A top choice for families exploring the Lanna Kingdom. A sprawling traditional resort with extensive facilities, amenities, featuring large, comfortable rooms. Kids will enjoy the largest pool in Northern Thailand and kids’ club, a smaller younger children’s pool with water slide. The resort also offers activities for kds including cooking and feeding fish. Children under six stay free and get a free breakfast; those aged between six and 12 receive a 50 per cent discount. Extra beds (free for under-12s), and baby cots as well as babysitters are available, and the resort offers connecting rooms for older children.
Thailand's second largest city is the best place to sample "northern cuisine." The most distinct style of regional cuisine is known as khan toke, consisting of small dishes such as chicken or beef curries, crispy fried pork skin and northern style chili sauces such as the mild red nam prik ong or the fiery nam prik on, all served with sticky rice. A traditional Khan Toke dinner should be part of your culinary exploration, and is typically accompanied by Thai dance and music.
Chiang Mai also has its own style of street food, the most well known of which is khao soi, a dish made with flat egg noodles, resembling linguine, served in a either a chicken or beef soup. A thick black chili paste, lime, shallots and bean sprouts and other vegetables are served with the dish, which allow you to season to your own taste.
While you can find this dish in some Bangkok restaurants, most people agree that there's nothing like the "real thing" found just about anywhere in Chiang Mai. The best bet for sampling khao soi is the Anusarn night market, near the touristy night bazaar. If your committed to tradition, the traditional place to eat khao soi for lunch is a small alley connecting Charoen Prathet and Chang Klan Roads (just before Tapae Road). The street has a small mosque and two or three khao soi stalls. These usually close after lunch, so don't plan on having khao soi for dinner.
Several renowned cooking schools are located here, including the Sunday, outdoors class at the Four Seasons. Contact us for more information on group and private lessons, typically including markets exploration.
There are more than a dozen exceptional restaurants located in Chiang Mai, from the glamorous Farang Ses at the Mandarin Oriental, to the petit and romantic Bann Tazala, which sits only 16 diners. Ask us for recommendations for the perfect dining experience in the Lanna Kingdom.
Chiang Mai remains the long time center of Thailand's handicraft production, with several primary, secondary markets and shopping streets spread around the town (car required). The city is renowned for bamboo and teak furniture, ceramics, silver jewelry, silks, lacquer and antiques from around the region, including Myanmar although fakes abound. Nimanhaemin Road is known for jewelry and home wares, Hang Dong and Charoenrat Road stores are popular for antiques and art, while Sankampaeng and Thaepae Road shops feature ceramics and jewelry to a lesser extent. There are several noteworthy shops in each of these areas, such as Ceramthai which produces custom, one-off ceramics by appointment only. We can suggest quality shops selling specific items you are looking for or organize your itinerary around shopping areas that specialize in these items.
Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, further north, have seen many top artists from the south and Bangkok arrive to set up studios, art spaces and galleries. The Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural center caters to tourists who want to know more about the city's history and is a fully modern building. There are sections of the museum dedicated to educating visitors about the various hill tribes and the region's agricultural history. We can also arrange private studio visits with artist working in a variety of mediums and styles.
Day 1 | Chiang Mai to Lampang
Following breakfast, departing Chiang Mai along a scenic mountain valley to the Lampang area, visiting Wat Phra That Lampang Luang, one of the finest and best preserved examples of Lanna style temple architecture in Thailand and one of the country's most revered. The complex contains a large number of buildings in a very original state, including the oldest surviving wooden viharn in Thailand the Buddha is said to have visited the site.
After Wat Phra That Lampang Luang, we drive on a short distance to the town of Lampang. In Lampang, enjoying a pleasant horse carriage sightseeing ride around the town and to visit Wat Phra Kaew Ton Tao, an important temple that once housed the sacred Emerald Buddha. After lampang, continue to Sukhothai, driving around two and half hours to reach the new town for dinner and accommodation.
A comfortable boutique hotel inspired by the beauty of Sukhothai’s traditional village, The Legendha Sukhothai resort is designed and landscaped in a Thai village concept to deliver a sense of Sukhothai’s authentic ambiance. The Chedi Wat Chang Lom, an ancient temple in Sukhothai age, lies directly at the back of the boutique resort. All rooms feature teakwood furniture and generous in-room amenities are meant to serve you to utmost comfort.
Day 2 | Sukhothai
Immediately apparent to any visitor is that Sukhothai is one of Asia’s most under-rated World Heritage sites. Although not on the scale as Angkor, the historical park filled with striking ruins of royal palaces, Buddhist temples and monuments.
Sukothai means "rising of happiness" and indeed the best time to visit is by the rising sun. We'll arrive by the morning light, when most beautiful and ahead of the tour buses to explore the main attractions, including Wat Traphang Ngoen, the largest and principal temple of the Sukhothai Kingdom, the massive pagoda, Wat Mahathat, Wat Sa Si and its lovely chedi and giant seated Buddha, sublime shimmering lotus pool at Wat Mahathat, the largest and arguably most impressive single site in Sukhothai, and Sukhothai’s single most awe-inspiring monument, Wat Si Chum,
The Ramkamhaeng National Museum located at the entrance will provide a comprehensive overview and significance of the Sukhothai kingdom, where we can pause before or after exploring the park. Following exploration of the main monuments, taking an optional short hike in the park's western zone to Wat Saphan Hin, a hilltop temple that affords views of the central zone ruins and surrounding countryside.
Before returning to Chiang Mai, enjoying lunch at a local cafe in the "new Sukothai" town. In the afternoon, exploring the design and arts section of Chiang Mai located near the university (read more about Chiang Mai). This evening, dining by choice of restaurant (recommendations and reservations provided).
Chiang Mai's Sunday Walking Market
The famous Sunday Walking Street is a muct-see if you are here that day of the week. The market and more takes places from about 4 pm until midnight and should not be missed if you'll be in Chiang Mai. The Walking Street Market sprawls from Thapae Gate and along the length of closed-off Ratchadamnoen Road through the heart of the Old City. More than a market, it is a focal point for locals to meet, browse, socialize, haggle and enjoy themselves.
The market is a showcase for authentic art and craftsmanship of Northern Thailand. Many vendors have personally made the items they sell and the variety of hand-crafted objects are testimony to the design and craft skills of local people. The market is also a great venue to see genuine Thai street entertainment, with pavement artists, traditional musicians, dancers, living statues, puppet shows, and rock-n-roll bands which add to the festive nature of the environment. The market is also fantastic for sampling delicious street foods.
Chiang Mai features a variety of world-class golf courses, including the Chiang Mai Highlands, Royal Chiang Mai Golf Club & Resort, North Hill Golf Club, a signature mint-condition golf course with the panoramic Doi Suthep mountain scenery, stunning valley location at Chiang Mai's finest and most picturesque course, The Alpine Golf Resort (above), and Gassan Khuntan (their "legacy" course is also worthwhile, having been renovated in 2013), located next to Khuntan National Park, that is one of the most beautiful and at the same time most challenging courses in all of Thailand.
This morning, driving due north for about 1.5 hours past small towns and villages into verdant mountain landscapes to bucolic Chiang Dao, a small town of about 15,000 people that lies above the Menam Ping gorge on the green slopes of Doi Chiang Dao mountain range. Chiang Dao mountain is "the last tooth of the Himalayas," rising majestically above others in the area. Chiang Dao is known for its caves and Buddhist sanctuary, and is adjacent to Pha Daeng National Park, which covers over one thousand square kilometers of the stunning craggy mountains. Being fairly high up, it's noticeably cooler and drier than on the plains (and can get downright cold in the winter). There are extensive bamboo forests and a number of mountain streams and waterfalls. In addition to the mountain views, there are many Lisu and Karen hill tribe villages scattered throughout the park.
Our ride will pass through the surrounding jungle and bamboo forests of Mae Taeng Valley, leading to small hill tribe villages where we will pause to visit with Lahu, Lisu, and Akha hilltribes. Continued riding after lunch through the valley until mid-afternoon. There is an opportunity to shower and freshen up in Chiang Dao before the return drive to Chiang Mai. After arrival in Chiang Mai, free at leisure at resort, enjoying the pool and spa.
Today's mountain biking trip on dirt roads and trails through Mae Taeng Valley can be a as gentle or challenging as you desire. There are numerous places of interest to stop and sightsee aside from the biking, including the Buddhist sanctuary and hilltribe villages. Total cycling distance: from 10 to 22 miles (mostly flat and rolling terrain on paved and dirt trails).
Note: please pack a change of clothes for post-ride in Chiang Dao where we will shower after cycling.
When to visit?
The best weather of the year in Chiang Mai is between November to April , dry and before the higher heat of summer and monsoons in late summer to early fall.