Thailand’s northern capital is a favourite among tourists and Thais alike. In Chiang Mai, no guide is necessary as the city is ideal for exploring by yourself. Sightseeing and sightseeing tours of Chiang Mai are popular activities and you can wander among historic ruins, admire exquisite temples or simply sit quietly beside the moat and soak up the charm of this sleepy city.
Surprisingly cheap and somewhat cooler than the south, Chiang Mai is surrounded by mountainous terrain and offers plenty of sightseeing activities. Simply pick up one of the many Chiang Mai guide magazines freely available everywhere.
Chiang Mai was the capital of the Lanna Thai (Kingdom of One M i l l i o n Ricefields) the first independent Thai kingdom within the fabled Golden Triangle. Chiang Mai flourished as a major religious, cultural and trading centre until 1556 when a Burmese invasion reduced it to a vassal state. The Burmese were expelled in 1785, and Lanna Thai again became part of northern Thailand.
Of the 300 hundred ornately decorated Buddhist temples in the city, the most famous include; Wat Phra Singh (with its Sinhalese Buddha), Wat Chiang Man (the oldest – c1300), Wat Chedi Luang (with an enormous ruined landmark chedi) and Wat Phan Tao (entirely constructed from teak). Wat Jet Yod and Wat Suan Dawk, a little out of town, are both over 500 years old and have fascinating histories.
Temple tours of Chiang Mai are a good way to familiarise yourself with the city’s past. Within the old town you will discover some of the city’s most prestigious temples, as well as many more equally appealing Buddhist sanctuaries. Wat Pra Singh (end of Ratchadamnoen road) is perhaps the most important. It contains the much revered Phra Singh Buddha which dates from the early 1400s, and has an exquisite maroon interior.
A tour to the top of Doi Suithep (mountain) that presides over the west of the city is a must. Its temple is one of Thailand’s most revered and the views of the entire valley are fantastic. Increasingly popular are tours to the excavated old Chiang Mai settlement of Wiang Kum Kham, southwest of the city. These 13th century ruins were only recently re-discovered. Chiang Mai is also a good launching point for hill treks which include river rafting, elephant riding and visits to hill tribe villages, and many tour operators are found in the city centre if you need an excursion guide.
Chiang Mai is one of the few cities in the world which boasts such a well preserved moat, and Chiang Mai city tours by foot or bicycle are highly recommended. Spanning roughly a square mile, this pretty water feature dates from the founding of the city in 1296 and is lined with shady trees, grassy banks and historic ramparts. Take a tuk tuk ride around its perimeter to admire the four bastions on each corner and to photograph the pretty fountains. By entering the old city through one of the five restored gates you can explore its quiet lanes, lined with traditional shop fronts and old Thai-style teak houses. By night the moat takes on a different character as it comes alive with illuminated colour.
Further afield are the popular attractions of Doi Suithep (mountain), the ancient ruined city of Wiang Kum Kham and the pretty Mae Sa valley with its waterfalls, orchid farm and elephant camps. Also popular is the Chiang Mai Zoo and Huay Kaew Waterfall.