Why Chiang Mai?
The backpacker haven of Chiang Mai is the largest and most culturally significant city in northern Thailand. Steeped in tradition, but with a rapidly increasing western influence, there’s plenty to entertain – from Thai massage to Buddhist temples and cookery lessons to local-handicraft shopping. With an international airport, busy railway station and numerous bus terminals, Chiang Mai is well connected to the rest of the country and the perfect starting point for exploring northern Thailand. And it’s increasingly opening up to mainstream and luxury tourism, as well as backpackers.
A comfortable bed
The luxurious, five-star Dhara Dhevi (www.dharadhevi.com; 0066 53 888 888) has 123 rooms within early-era mansions and Lanna-style villas set among 60 acres of tropical gardens. There are seven bars and restaurants, pools, a spa, shopping village and daily arts-and-crafts demonstrations. Rooms start from 23,000 Thai baht (Dh2,561) per night.
For the environment-conscious, the Eco Resort (www.ecoresortchiangmai.com; 0066 53 247 111) is a great budget option, with a mixture of dormitory and private rooms. There's a large outdoor pool, a restaurant, a games area, plenty of lush tropical gardens and free Wi-Fi throughout. Rates start from 770 baht (Dh86) per night.
Find your feet
The square formed by the moat-lined city walls makes navigation easy, using the corners and gates as reference points. Tha Phae Gate is the best known, as the area is home to a multitude of hotels, guesthouses, markets, restaurants and bars. The maze of narrow streets and alleys within the city walls are fun to explore, with quirky guesthouses, funky cafes, tranquil yoga studios and bustling markets. Getting around the city is a breeze, too. There are plenty of tuk-tuks and the red songthaews are like communal taxis – flag one down, tell the driver where you’re going and hop in. Make sure to agree on the fare in advance.
Meet the locals
Market stallholders and the temples’ resident monks are usually friendly and happy to chat to foreigners. North of the city, particularly towards Pai and Chiang Rai, numerous hill-tribe villages provide an insight into traditional rural culture. From Chiang Rai, you can immerse yourself in nature on a jungle trekking tour or take a slow boat down the Mekong River into neighbouring Laos.
Book a table
The city is full of multi-cuisine restaurants, particularly around Tha Phae Gate. A few gems can be found within the city walls, including the hippy-style Tea Tree Café or the Birds Nest cafe (www.thebirdsnestcafe.com), and good-quality street food is never far away. The all-day Blue Diamond Breakfast Club on Moon Muang Road Soi 9 has a huge menu with plenty of organic options, and features a shop, bakery and lush tropical garden. An excellent veggie option, using locally sourced organic ingredients, is Anchan Vegetarian Restaurant on Nimmana Haeminda Road between Soi 6 and 10. Try the crispy banana flower salad. Prices range from 100 to 200 baht (Dh11 to Dh22).
From food markets to night bazaars and designer boutiques to modern malls, Chiang Mai really is a shopper’s paradise. The famous Night Bazaar is a good place to start for handicrafts, souvenirs, textiles and dried foods. Open daily between sunset and midnight, expect large crowds and be prepared to haggle. The Sunday walking street is one of the main attractions and runs along Ratchadamnoen Road from Tha Phae Gate through the heart of the old city. Open every Sunday from 5pm to midnight, this is a great place to shop, drink, eat, get a massage or just enjoy the buzz. A similar walking street on Wualai Road, which is open on Saturdays from 5pm, sells silverware and home decor. The recently opened Maya Mall in the Nimmanhaemin district is vast and modern, with a supermarket and food court in the basement and a multi-screen cinema on the top floor.
What to avoid
Unfortunately, as in many parts of Asia, scams and bag-snatching are rife. Always buy jewellery and gems from a reputable dealer and don’t trust market designer brands – they’re most likely fakes. Some songthaew drivers will try to overcharge you, especially inside the train station. Flag one down outside or be prepared to haggle hard. The monsoons are light here, but expect rain most afternoons between June and October.
The small mountain of Doi Suthep lies to the west, providing panoramic views of the city and featuring a lush national park, traditional hill-tribe village, beautiful waterfalls and a 14th-century Buddhist temple at the top. The largest and most impressive of the city's temples is Wat Phra Singh, which boasts many examples of classic Lanna architecture and has undergone extensive and careful renovations. Enjoy a Thai massage, watch a muay Thai martial arts match, take a romantic sunset river cruise or get playful in the Art in Paradise 3-D museum (www.chiangmai-artinparadise.com) – don't forget your camera.
Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies from Abu Dhabi to Bangkok from Dh2,525 return, including taxes. The flight time is six hours. From there, take a one-hour domestic flight to Chiang Mai with Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokair.com), from 3,300 baht (Dh367) return, including taxes.
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