Situated in the foothills of Northern Thailand’s famous mountains which stretch well into neighbouring China and Laos, the city of Chiang Mai is known for its walled city, with cool weather and numerous ancient temples.
Crisscrossed by a network of trails, Chiang Mai’s vast hinterland makes an ideal place for trekking, rafting or mountain biking.
WITHIN CHIANG MAI
Chiang Mai boasts more than 80 beautifully-adorned temples, some right in the centre of town. These are not only places to worship, but some also offer meditation classes and even ‘monk chats’ where you get face time with these saffron-robed men.
Some of the best include Wat Chiang Man, the oldest in the city dating back to the 13th century and houses 2 venerated Buddha figures; Wat Phra Singh, dating from 1345, located within the city walls is a fine example of a classic Lanna-style temple; Wat Si Keut where visitors can partake in meditation and massage classes; and Wat Chedi Luang that is dominated by a large Lanna-style chedi which was destroyed in a 16th century earthquake, so only two-thirds of it remains.
Some of Chiang Mai’s best action is found at the famous Night Bazaar – the city’s hub for street food and cheap goods. The Sunday Evening Market happens weekly at Rachadamnoen Road– the main street in the historical centre – which focuses on local handicraft and food with street entertainment, while a handicraft market along Wua Lai Road opens every Saturday evening.
BEYOND CHIANG MAI
Chiang Mai’s surrounding hills have many attractions, depending on your choice of activity and range of time.
There are many options for biking tours, particularly around the hilly Chiang Dao – an area that boasts deep valleys, fast rivers, authentic hill tribe villages, limestone massifs and caves. This landscape offers intense off-road trails as well as asphalt cycling. There is a loop trail that takes in a spectacular view of the limestone karsts of Doi Chiang Dao (2,175m).
The base is home to a venerated temple, which leads you into an extensive cave system that houses an important Buddhist temple where you can go for a lantern-lit tour through the passages of stalactites, stalagmites and ancient Buddhist statues. You can also cycle past rural farmingareas dotted with some small hill tribe villages – like Lahu, Lisu, Hmong, Akha and Palaung (who originated from Burma) – where you can meet some of these tribespeople. Riders sail through fields of banana, corn and rice, all thriving in the fertile farmlands at the base of the limestone karsts.
Doi Pui Suthep National Park
Home to more than 300 species of bird and numerous mammals including the sloth bear and wild boar, the area is also home to a large population of Hmong tribespeople, with the largest village located just off the park’s main trail. Chiang Mai Hike organises free weekly hikes along the park’s various trails, and mountain bike tours are regularly offered within the park’s singletracks.
Dating back over 600 years, the ancient Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep temple sits majestically at 1,070m, half way up the slopes of Doi Suthep mountain, over-looking the entire city below. One of Thailand’s most holy sites, getting there requires climbing 306 steps, unless you opt for the cable car. Every year in May, thousands of people make the pilgrimage here from Chiang Mai University.
Flight of the Gibbon
For an alternative view of Chiang Mai’s forest, strap yourself to a zip line (flying fox) and literally glide through the forest canopy to see the local inhabitants: gibbons. This “Flight of the Gibbon” in the village of Mae Kampong (37km from the city), is situated within a 1,500-year old rainforest with 30 viewing platforms and sky-bridges that connect over 5km of zip lines. Proceeds from this venture go towards the rehabilitation of gibbons and provide employment to the villagers.
The rugged Mae Tang Valley is 90km from town, near Chiang Dao Nature Preserve, and is an area full of ethnic tribal villages and pristine forests.
For an exhilarating whitewater rafting trip, head to the Mae Tang river where there are options for full-day or overnight excursions. Rafting is best from July to March, when the rivers are flowing with endless Grade III and IV rapids.
For a more relaxing paddle, you can head for a 2-hour bamboo rafting excursion in the Mae Wang river. Operators provide basic bamboo rafts about 8m long, with skinny poles for punting down the shallow river.
The Elephant Nature Park (60km from the city) is home to about 30 pachyderms who have been rescued from abusive owners. Visitors can opt to help the elephants take their afternoon bath and watch a feeding session while learning about their plight.
You can also stay overnight or volunteer for a period of time.
WHEN TO GO
The best time to bike in Chiang Mai is from December to March, with its cool evening temps and dry daytime weather. Shoulder season (end-September through October) is the tail end of the rainy season, but there are less visitors and villa offers abound.
Chiang Mai is easily accessible from Singapore via direct flights, taking about 3 hours. The airport is 3km from the city centre, or a 10-15 minute taxi ride. For more, visit sg.tourismthailand.org.