Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photograph: Ashit Desai/Getty Images
by Diana Hubbell, The Guardian, April 8, 2016
With long, leafy boulevards, Chiang Mai presents an alluring alternative to the Thai capital, Bangkok. Instead of traffic-choked urban sprawl, travellers find a picturesque downtown easily navigated on foot, where the air is clean and the climate mercifully cool. A short bike or scooter ride out of the town leads to a densely rainforested countryside interspersed with waterfalls. Since the local airport received an upgrade in 2014, more regional flights have been heading to this serene city, making it cheaper and easier to reach.
The old town, inside its moat, is an extraordinary vision. Here amid the 30-odd temple spires, barefoot monks in flame-coloured robes collect alms in the morning and street vendors sell their wares by night.
Modern and old co-exist in Chiang Mai’s old town. Photograph: Alamy
Contrary to what all the English-language signs offering yoga courses and trekking tours might have you believe, the ancient capital city harbours a vibrant contemporary scene. A spate of new galleries, co-working spaces and artsy cafes are giving creative people space to showcase their work.
Unlike many modern Asian cities, where such harbingers of gentrification have pushed traditional shops and street food hawkers out of the picture, Chiang Mai’s younger generation continues to embrace its older establishments. Bare-bones eateries serving fiery, northern dishes like laab (minced meat salad) brimming with mint, dried spices and fresh blood, or sua ue, an herbaceous grilled sausage perfumed with lemongrass and served with fingerfuls of sticky rice, still stand proudly next to modern cafes and bars.
To visit the city’s modern side, head just beyond the centre to studenty Nimmanhaemin Road, with its boutiques, galleries, coffee shops and myriad restaurants. The pace of life may have speeded up in recent years as the city’s grown, but Chiang Mai is still a city of quiet charms, best absorbed at a leisurely pace.
What to see and do
Learn traditional skills
Fields of plenty … visitors to the Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School select herbs.
Although Thai massage can be a shock to first-timers, the after-effects of being forcibly contorted into pretzel shapes can be wondrous. Pick up a few tricks from the pros by registering at one of the training centres in town. Thai Massage School Shivagakomarpaj(courses from £36) in the Old Medicine Hospital stands out for its comprehensive courses in history, concept and technique. More than 20,000 students, half of them foreigners, have studied there since it opened in 1962. A full introductory course lasts five days, but there’s a two-day foot massage course or a one-day herbal hot compress course, using healing herbs gathered in a cloth bundle and applied to pressure points.
If you’d rather improve your culinary prowess, there are dozens of cooking schools in the city. A lesson at boutique hotel 137 Pillars House (£46pp) includes a trip to Thanin market and instruction by a top chef. For a more budget option, the Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School (£24, including food and transfers) offers hands-on, small-group classes with individual cooking stations. Participants stop at the nearby Ruam Chok market before visiting an organic farm to stroll in the fields and take a crash course in ingredients such as jackfruit, holy basil and bitter eggplant, then get to work pounding curry paste with a mortar and pestle.
Heed the call of the wild
The Elephant nature park serves as a sanctuary
Selfie-snapping tourists have come under fire in recent years for posting pictures of themselves cuddling tiger cubs or riding elephants. But there are still plenty of ways to get up close and personal with nature ethically. Elephant Nature Park, some 40 miles from Chiang Mai, has been rescuing and rehabilitating pachyderms since the 1990s. Visitors can spend the day feeding, swimming with and walking alongside the contented herd in their 200-acre habitat. Got a little extra time and cash? Consider a week-long homestay in a Karen village helping with reforestation, animal vaccinations and farming. A one-day package costs £46; the full week, with Journey to Freedom, costs £275, with full-board.
Support the arts
Chiang Mai fosters a small but steadily growing community of artists and designers. Join the city’s creative crowd any evening at Thapae East, a hip space decked out in exposed brick that hosts everything from poetry readings to indie concerts. Or check out exhibitions spotlighting local talent at the new Gallery Kang Wat in Baan Kang Wat, an artists’ village and craft showcase near Wat Ram Poeng. Hern Gallery (1/3 Padat Road) is a recently opened offshoot of the Gallery Seescape, on a bend of the Ping river south of the old town.
Hit the markets
The city’s outdoor bazaars are a ‘riot of sounds and smells’. Photograph: Alamy
Chiang Mai’s outdoor bazaars are a riot of sounds, and smells. When dusk falls, prowl for gai yang (grilled chicken), khao kha moo (pork shank braised with star anise) and kanom jin (rice noodles with curry) on Chang Khlan Road every evening. Pick up silver jewellery and other handicrafts on Wualai Road on a Saturday and save a few hours on Sunday to browse on Ratchadamnoen Avenue. For a market with more locals and fewer bootleg DVDs, rise early and go to the smaller Somphet Market on Moon Muang Road.
See the best of the temples
One glance at the regal Wat Phra Singh (the temple of the lion Buddha) explains the crowds it attracts. But don’t miss Wat Chedi Luang, also in the old centre, where visitors can chat casually with monks about Buddhism, life, the universe and everything. Established in the late 13th century, Wat Chiang Man is not only impressive as the city’s oldest temple, but also for its two immense Buddha statues. One of the most revered shrines is across the Ping river: Wat Chedi Liam, part of Wiang Kum Kam, the ruins of the Lanna empire’s original capital. At the temples, remember to dress modestly.
Take a trek
Gorgeous gorge … the surrounding rainforest is a magnet for walkers. Photograph: Getty Images
After a few days in the city, the lure of the jungle beyond is hard to resist. Virtually every guesthouse will try to convince you to go on a trek, and with so many similar itineraries – rafting, elephants, hill tribe encounters – picking the right one can be a challenge. Tiger Trail Outdoor Adventures (two-day treks from £67) is a socially responsible tour operator that has been organising treks in south-east Asia since 2000. Private treks are available, but group tours never exceed 10. Or try Pooh Eco-Trekking (two-day trek from £62), which has been leading tours for two decades.
Where to eat
Blackitch Artisan Kitchen serves up some choice seafood dishes
Blackitch Artisan Kitchen
By day, this swish spot serves mild-mannered staples like spaghetti and salads, but by night, chef Panupol “Black” Bulsawan offers a high-end chef’s table, starting at 6pm. The rotating seafood-heavy menu might feature seared scallops with a wasabi-spiked mango sauce or other faintly Japanese-tinged surprises.
• Four courses £28, Nimmanhaemin Rd Soi 7, +66 84 323 1952, on Facebook
Farm Story House
Shoebox-sized it may be, but this converted teak house is worth seeking out for its thoughtful comfort food made with local, mostly organic produce. Curl up with a mug of dark, toasty khao niew leum pua (sticky rice) tea for about £1, and a bowl of Karen-style nam prik (chilli paste, £2), with sticky rice and vegetables for dipping.
• 7 Rachadamnoen Rd Soi 5, +66 81 629 1662, on Facebook
Rustic & Blue
Farm-to-table produce is front and centre at this neighbourhood joint, which throws occasional pop-up dinners in the grounds where its food is grown. Much of the charcuterie and cheeses are made in-house and the selection of aromatic teas is not to be missed. The best part is the day-long breakfast, which might consist of powder sugar-kissed “Dutch baby” pancakes (£4) or French toast with maple bacon and sausage (£3).
• Nimmanhaemin Rd Soi 7, +66 53 216 420, on Facebook
David’s Kitchen at 909
With a former head chef of the ultra-luxe Dhara Dhevi (previously a Mandarin Oriental) at the helm, it’s little wonder that the menu here is on the ambitious (and pricey) side. Arthit Dissunont or “Chef O” shows finesse with western classics such as veal osso buco with saffron risotto (£15), but shines most with inventive Thai fusion such as lamb shank braised in Penang curry (£6) or seared tuna loin on a bed of lemongrass and green mango (£8).
• 113 Bamrungrad Rd, +66 91 068 1744, on Facebook
Where to Drink
An original concoction at the Mixology Chiangmai Burger
Mixology Chiangmai Burger
Kaffir lime caipi anyone? Ostentatious as the name might sound, this watering hole keeps it mellow. Thai fruits including passion and wood apple make regular appearances in the bartender’s original concoctions and complement a menu of fusion pub grub. Order a High Five, a subtly sweet blend of tequila, pineapple, lemon and honey fluffed up with egg white.
• 61/6 Arak Road, on Facebook
We Didn’t Land on the Moon Since 1987
Drinks are dirt cheap but delicious at this dive bar par excellence, thanks to the use of fresh fruits and herbs from the nearby markets. Small art exhibitions and movie nights draw a mellow crowd during the week, while Fridays and Saturdays tend to be rowdier. Music mostly ranges from disco to oldies to local bands.
• Sirimangkalajarn Soi 3, on Facebook
This cafe sells only sustainably grown arabica beans harvested by the Akha hill tribe. The coffee not only provides a substantial source of income to the tribe, but has won nods from the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe.
• 9/1 Soi 3 Hussadhisewee, on Facebook
The Service 1921 Restaurant & Bar
Housed in the grandly refurbished former British Consulate, this slick number is the place to indulge in single malts, Cuban cigars and all manner of martinis. At £5-£6 each, cocktails like the Pomelo Julep, a zingy concoction spiked with tangerine, pomegranate syrup and dehydrated limes, or Tea Time, with Earl Grey-infused vodka, are pricier than at the local bucket bars, but worth the comparative splurge. Keep an eye out for the not-so-secret private room accessed via a hidden door in one of the bookshelves.
• Anantara Chiang Mai Resort, 123-123/1 Charoen Prathet Rd, chiang-mai.anantara.com
FABB Coffee Roasters
In case the 60 types of single-origin beans decorating the walls and the powerhouse of a roaster didn’t tip you off, this Bangkok import takes its coffee seriously. In fact, its so committed to caffeine that aspiring baristas can sign up for intensive courses.
• 91/11 Moo 5, Nandakwang Garden Mall, Sutep, on Facebook
Gone are the days when Singha and Chang were the only brews in this increasingly cosmopolitan town. This popular pub offers 50 international beers, 15 of which are on tap on any given evening, as well as the occasional draught cider. Burgers, fries and other greasy fare help soak up all the suds.
• Nimmanhaemin Rd Soi 11, beerrepublicchiangmai.com, open Tue-Sun 5pm-midnight
Where to Stay
Veranda for a gander … Ping Nakara
Ping Nakara Boutique Hotel & Spa
Sumptuous teak furnishings, rain showers, Persian carpets, natural bath products, and a pillow menu give each of the 19 rooms a plush feel. Even if you stay elsewhere, stop by for high tea (£16 for two) and French confections under fragrant frangipani trees in the Nakara Jardin restaurant.
• Doubles from £98 room only, pingnakara.com
Sala Lanna Chiang Mai
With just 15 elegant guest rooms, many with river views, Sala Lanna provides a relaxed atmosphere within minutes of the old town. The clean, simple design makes this an instantly appealing option, but what gives it a real edge is the rooftop pool with a panorama of the lush surroundings.
• Doubles from £57 B&B, salaresorts.com
Situated near the great, gilded Wat Phra Singh temple, this 25-room boutique hotel designed by Thai architect Ong-ard Satrabhandhu exudes sophistication with its antique-adorned halls, tranquil courtyards, and library housing at least 2,000 handsomely bound volumes. Burmese Shan and rare northern Thai dishes are on the menu at its excellent restaurant.
• Doubles from £147 B&B, rachamankha.com
[email protected] Mai hostel
Industrial furnishings and flouncy duvets dress up the dorms at this centrally located budget choice near Wat Phra Singh. A terrace for mingling only sweetens the deal.
• Dorm beds from £6 B&B, nonatchiangmai.com
Zensala Riverpark Resort
Offering a change from the ubiquitous Lanna style, with its teak carvings and pointy roofs, Zensala sports a raw cement exterior and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Ping river. The 14 rooms and suites with modern furnishings and spa belie the price tag.
• Doubles from £30 room only, zensalaresort.com,
There are no direct flights from the UK to Chiang Mai. Thai Airways flies daily from Bangkok from £50 return
This article was written by Diana Hubbell from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.