A world away from those famous beaches is a city of sacred places, bejewelled Buddhas and jungle clad hills. Discover Thailand’s cultural epicentre on holidays to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai
Dawn breaks and a sea of monks swathed in orange and saffron robes make the journey to the bottom of Mount Suthep to collect their alms. Scooters whizz past gilded wats (temples), the smell of fresh laundry and burning incense wafts from back street houses and stall holders start stacking up dried spices, fresh green peppercorns and oversized melons. Outside the city, Chiang Mai holidays take you where the air is mountain fresh and the climate joyfully cooler, tracing a route of waterfalls, jungle, hill tribe villages and temples.
We’ve travelled to northern Thailand and can tell you the most amazing spots for a refreshing dip under a secluded waterfall, the finest holy temples to visit for a one-on-one chat with Buddhist monks and the quirkiest cafes if you’ve ever fancied jumping in a ball pit while sipping on a candy cotton coffee. Holidays to Chiang Mai are a captivating blend of Lanna and Burmese influences, of digital nomads building a burgeoning creative scene and of spiritual harmony in an ancient riverside city that prizes meditation, massage and complementary medicine.
There’s the much revered Thai cookery schools where you can whip up pad thai and coconut soup like a professional, legendary night markets selling handcrafted gifts and those lychee and lemongrass cocktails under a roof of white lanterns and chromatic paper parasols. You’ll find terraced rice fields in the tiny hamlets of mountains, a colourful spectacle of handmade umbrellas in the artisan village of Bor Sang and extraordinary settlements of Tibetan and Chinese hill tribes who welcome you into villages to learn about their culture.
- An exotic colourful region of jungle clad hills, mighty rivers, magnificent temples and fascinating hilltribe villages
- This region has some of the best shopping in Thailand and is renowned for its skilled craftsmen
- Chiang Mai's famous night market in particular has plenty of good shopping
- Sitting as it does at the heart of the cultural north, it offers a markedly contrasting - but complementing - experience to a typical beach experience in the south
- Cooking lessons are popular in Chiang Mai - typically they will involve a trip to the market to buy fresh produce with a local cook, who will then teach the group some easy to remember Thai cooking techniques
Best time to visit Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai
Thailand’s peak season is between November and February when the climate is drier and slightly cooler, while the hottest period is April to May. May to October tends to have higher rainfall but there should still be plenty of sunshine and this is the time to benefit from the greatest value. Northern Thailand is generally cooler than Bangkok in the winter and hotter in the summer.
Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai holiday highlights
With over 300 wats (temples) inside the city and surrounding countryside there’s plenty of beautiful architecture. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is the most famous of Chiang Mai’s temples and Wat Phra Singh, inside the old city, one of the most beautiful, featuring pretty pagodas and iconic Lanna-style roofs. Just outside Chiang Rai town, Wat Rong Khun has been built entirely in white, with pieces of glass in the plaster that glint in the sunlight. At some temples it’s possible to arrange Monk Chat for a one-on-one unique conversation.
Shopping in Chiang Mai is a thrill for the senses and the Sunday market, night markets and Night Bazaar are all part of the experience. Expect handmade gifts and souvenirs, northern delicacies and a buzzing street food scene. For a slice of Chiang Mai ‘cool’ there are the stylish coffee houses, high-end bars and designer shops along Nimmanhaemin Road.
Visit the ‘roof of Thailand,’ Doi Inthanon National Park and extraordinary hill tribes including the Long Neck Karen. Playing an important role in local economy, tribespeople like the Karen, Lahu and Akha raise funds for the reduction of opium cultivation by showcasing their exceptional embroidery skills, while Meo tribes provide visitors with fascinating tours around their villages for a true insight into hill tribe culture.
Where is Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai?
In northern Thailand in a valley surrounded by mountains, Chang Mai is an ancient riverside city bordered by national parks and Burma (Myanmar) to the west. Chiang Rai is the northernmost city in Thailand and stands as the gateway to South-east Asia’s Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos and Burma (Myanmar) meet.
Although travelling around northern Thailand is best done by private car, more traditional modes of transport are cost effective, quick and exhilarating. Taxis are a rarity but rickshaw-style samlors, converted pickup truck songtaews and tuk-tuks are readily available. As with everywhere in Thailand, negotiate rates before travelling to avoid any surprise charges.
There’s a great shopping scene in Chiang Mai found in the local villages, contemporary concept stores and night markets. Renowned for weekend markets and the Night Bazaar you’ll find beautiful handmade products from artisanal vendors. Chiang Mai’s Saturday night market is on Wua Lai Road and the Sunday Market starts at Thapae Gate. Nimmanhaemin Road is home to independent boutiques selling everything from beautiful clothes to handmade jewellery and Thai cookbooks to bamboo furniture. Pick up Thai silk, teak wood, Burmese lacquerware, Lanna-style homeware and pretty Sa paper umbrellas.
Food & drink
The heady scent of lemongrass and ginger, grilled steak and oysters and spices… food in Chiang Mai is outstanding. Expect both mild and hot flavours and salty and sour seasonings whether it’s one-plate local street food or al fresco gourmet dining. Local specialities include fragrant but subtle dishes such as coconut and curry soup khao soi and north east Thai barbecue chicken dish kai yang. We recommend trying Northern Thailand’s typical dishes, as they are notoriously hard to find outside the region. The street food scene is huge but you’ll also find beautiful waterfall cafés, floating restaurants, Japanese riverside picnicking and al fresco dining overlooking the River Ping. We recommend booking a day at a Thai cookery school where you’ll go with your professional chef to the local market or farm to pick up fresh ingredients for a day of learning, cooking and tasting.