Chiang Mai is often overshadowed by Thailand's bustling capital city, Bangkok — the most visited city in the world in 2019 — and the surrounding idyllic islands, like Phuket and Koh Samui, and is, thus, frequently omitted from travel itineraries.
But this city, set along the Ping River banks and located in the far north of Thailand, despite being ancient and authentic, simultaneously manages to offer chic, trendy city offerings. Here, travellers will find a quieter, more relaxed pace of life and an ultimately cheaper cost of living than Thailand's other more famed cities.
Besides the "Old City" – the city centre which offers typical Thai-style allure — Chiang Mai offers much, much more.
CHIANG MAI HAS TEMPLES GALORE AND A STUNNING NATIONAL PARK
Much like the rest of Thailand, Chiang Mai is dotted with countless Buddhist temples, many of which typically boast rich interiors, indulgent golden décor and/or ancient historical backgrounds.
Temples galore at Chiang Mai. Image supplied
Unless you're especially interested in temples, the vast number of these means that visiting them all may become quite a repetitive chore. Instead, choose two or three of the outliers that offer more than the usual.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, commonly referred to as "Doi Suthep", steeped in local history and legend, is an especially sacred spot and located atop a mountain (so, prepare for a long climb up 306 stairs, or a cable car ride).
The temple is located in a national park (Doi Suthep National Park), which is an attraction in itself, and offers scenic views, mountains, waterfalls and trails. The most identifiable aspect of the temple is the "Chedi" which is often typical at Buddhist temples — but, at Doi Suthep, is entirely gold-plated and striking at 24 metres tall.
Meanwhile, right in the hustle of the "Old City" or the city centre, "Wat Chedi Luang", close to other temples, remains the one of the most note-worthy city sites. In sprawling grounds, the ancient temple also bears a "Chedi", partially ruined by an earthquake, but nonetheless impressive, and hosts a golden Buddha. Statues, sculptures, a teak temple and gardens, part of the temple site, wait patiently to enthral all visitors.
REJUVENATION IN NIMMANHAEMIN
Nimmanhaemin, or Nimman, a neighbourhood and a long street of the same name, is the perfect escape for moments of tranquility, when the busyness of Asia becomes too overwhelming.
Either the result of gentrification or the sudden influx of tourists and digital nomads in the area, artsy bars, trendy hipster cafes and restaurants, set amongst earthy, minimal décor, can all be found in abundance here.
Exquisite scenes, everywhere you look. Image supplied
Authentic Thai massage parlours and souvenir stalls are also sprinkled about, to remind you that you, are still, in fact, in Thailand, despite the differing ambience.
For a quiet brunch, vegan meal options, Japanese and Korean restaurants, expensive boutiques, pop-up markets, and tons of photo-worthy backdrops, Nimman is the place to be.
ELEPHANT ENCOUNTERS JUST OUTSIDE CHIANG MAI
About an hour outside of Chiang Mai, a string of sanctuaries offer the unique experience of encountering and feeding, bathing and walking with elephants. Consider choosing an ethical establishment that houses elephants for their protection, and not an organisation that exploits or abuses their animals.
Chai Lai Orchid, for example, is an eco-lodge that does not plant metal chairs on their elephants, and, concomitantly, runs a programme to rescue girls from sex-trafficking.
Here, as is possible at other similar lodges and sanctuaries in this part of Thailand, fresh air prickles you awake in your earthy bungalow, and afterwards, you can stroll outside alongside the river along with thriving elephants, many of which were rescued from circuses or a life of commercial elephant riding.
From the communal meeting space and balcony, you're able to reach out over and feed the elephants bananas from the breakfast table — possibly securing a wildlife experience of a lifetime.
THE USUAL: MARKETS, SPAS, AND MADNESS
Chiang Mai doesn't disappoint when it comes to the standard Asian expectations, either.
The Chiang Mai night markets are a lively and exciting experience, with Thai souvenirs, boho clothing and street-food stalls. The markets here offer the same sort of merchandise to be found in other popular cities, but, for a significantly lower price — if you remember to bargain. Meanwhile, you can zone out with a traditional Thai massage, for as little as R100 an hour, in one of the nicer spas.
Tuk-tuks still honk about, the streets come alive at night, and an all-round buzz is ever present, promising a unique holiday and irreplaceable memories.
Beautiful temples. Image supplied
Chiang Mai is an hour's flight away or a twelve-hour bus trip away from Bangkok.
Costs of accommodation are slightly cheaper, if not, equal to their equivalents in Bangkok, and the quality of your stay and hospitable service is likely to be maintained.
Tours and day trips can be organised from within the city, with tour vendors and stores usually offering cheaper excursions than online deals, and offer trips to elephant sanctuaries, national park guided hiking, cooking classes and tribal village excursions.
Also read: Thailand: The Land of Smiles set to welcome visitors again