Image by Bangkok-based illustrator Bloody Hell Big Head

The Insider Guide to Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai, founded in 1926 on the banks of the Ping river in northern Thailand’s mountainous region, has a rich cultural history, breath-taking surrounds and a laid-back lifestyle that have made it an irresistible stop on the backpacker circuit.

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The Main Attractions

Reconnect with nature, with history and with yourself in Chiang Mai. The so-called New City’s mystical energy has drawn visitors for generations – and for good reason. Tour the temples in and around the city walls to get introspective. There are many to choose from, but don’t miss the black jade Buddha at Wat Chedi Luang, the elegant assembly hall at Wat Phra Singh, the elephant sculptures at Wat Chiang Man and the five-tiered chedi (a pogoda-like structure) at the Burmese-style Wat Chedi Liam. The city’s power to reawaken the spirit spreads beyond its walls and moat. Escape on an excursion through the historic Tha Phae Gate to see more Buddhist architecture at the Doi Suthep, a temple set in a granite mountain, with incredible views back towards Chiang Mai. And yes, everyone does it – because it’s incredible: you can’t leave Chiang Mai without feeling the magic of Mother Nature up close by helping out with feeding time at the Elephant Nature Park. Back in Chiang Mai proper, immerse yourself in Thai life by wandering the Talat Warorot, a market that’s been operating for more than a century. Alongside the souvenirs, you’ll find typical Thai household goods and plenty of surprises – this market is one of the largest in the country. After all that exploring and reflection, stop off for a traditional Thai massage, with options quite literally around every corner – or you could take things a step further and book yourself in for a meditation session with a Buddhist monk. As night falls, you’ll be ready to discover the emerging roof bar scene, with several new builds topped with decks for cocktails at dusk. Now Chiang Mai has worked its magic on you, you’ll want to bring your new-found Zen home with you. Head to the night bazaar to pick up trinkets and souvenirs to remind you of your trip.

Neighborhoods in Chiang Mai