The sprawling city of Chiang Mai is a destination with many charms, inspiring visitors to discover its ancient culture, laid-back atmosphere and surrounding countryside on an idyllic Asian escape. Perfect for first-timers to Thailand who wish to experience the very best of the country's history, culture and traditions, Chiang Mai has a plethora of sites for you to explore on a far-flung city break.
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Built in 1296 as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, the northern Thai city offers a superb blend of the old and new, where you can dine at contemporary restaurants, chat with monks about Buddhism and the monastic life at temples, and get lost in the magic of the night markets.
We visited Chiang Mai with exotic holiday specialist Hayes & Jarvis to take in the best of the destination, from the remarkable temples to the vibrant shopping streets. Here's where to go and what to see in the northern capital...
Get spiritual at the tremendous temples
From Wat Chedu Luang to Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai is temple-tastic and the place to visit if you're feeling spiritual, with over 300 Buddhist temples which attract visitors far and wide to marvel at the intricate carvings, striking architecture and fascinating rituals. Wat Chedi Luang (pictured top), built in 1441, is part of a sprawling compound that formerly housed the incredible Emerald Buddha before it was relocated to Bangkok following an earthquake. The partially ruined brick wat featured an enormous chedi that was never fully restored. The compound is also home to a reclining Buddha and a replica of the Emerald Buddha. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (pictured above) is another must-see temple, accessed by a 300-step staircase lined with serpentine sculptures and famed for its glistening gold chedi that contains holy relics of the Lord Buddha. Built in 1383, Doi Suthep has stunning architecture, shrines and statues, while a large viewing terrace provides terrific views over Chiang Mai and visitors can witness one of the world's largest gongs. The temple is best explored in the early morning when the monks go about their daily activities.
Dine in style at the eccentric and elegant Service 1921
For the most exciting, unforgettable meal in Chiang Mai, book a table at The Service 1921, located in one of the most luxurious hotels in the city, the Anantara Chiang Mai Resort, which overlooks the Ping River. Housed in the former British Consulate of Chiang Mai, the splendid restaurant and bar oozes old world glamour, with its interior decor resembling the secret offices of the MI6 in a fabulous reinvention that combines all the mystery and intrigue you would imagine: think menus served as intelligence files and a private dining room accessed through a secret book shelf door. The food at The Service 1921 is sensational and beautifully presented, with highlights including the Hue Shrimp and Vegetable Pancake, and the Gai Yang barbecued organic chicken in a marinade of lemongrass and turmeric served with papaya salad and sticky rice.
Put your haggling skills to the test at the captivating night markets
The Night Bazaar and Saturday and Sunday Walking Street Markets are popular markets to pick up souvenirs, crafts, clothing and jewellery, attracting a sea of visitors in the city who are looking to experience the bustling night scene and haggle over paper lanterns, wood carvings and all kinds of crafts. But for a more authentic night market experience in Chiang Mai, head for Warorot Market at the end of Chang Moi Road, near the Ping River. Open until 11pm, the vibrant outdoor market is considered a place where you can still see the old Chiang Mai and is loved by many Thai locals who go there to do their shopping. Things are generally cheaper at Warorot compared to the markets geared towards tourists and you will find everything from woks to shoes, as well as tantalising food, including curries and grilled sausages.
Soak up the views and relaxing atmosphere at The Good View Bar & Restaurant
For romantic sunset viewing in Chiang Mai, grab a table at The Good View Bar & Restaurant where you can sip local Thai beer, cocktails or wine while taking in the marvellous Ping River views and enjoying the sky turn red in this beautiful evening spot. Sitting on the eastern side of the river, the venue is located opposite Warorot Market and ideal for al-fresco drinking on its outside terrace. The Good View hosts live music every night, attracting tourists and locals alike, while serving up local and international dishes for those who get peckish or fancy some food alongside the fun.
Retreat to boutique hideaway Tamarind Village
A charming Lanna-style hotel, Tamarind Village is a sanctuary in the centre of Chiang Mai's old town, surrounded by the ancient temples and shopping streets while a world away from the buzz of the city. The hotel takes its name from the majestic 200-year-old tamarind tree at its centre and boasts architecture inspired by typically northern Thai features, such as whitewashed plaster, timber beams and clay tiled roofs. The serene and relaxing space is an oasis of calm, whether you choose to take a dip in the swimming pool, enjoy a leisurely breakfast or indulge in the privacy of your room. The Lanna Rooms provide garden courtyard views and the most gorgeous, rustic decor and decorative touches, including handmade lacquer boxes and embroidered tribal caps placed on the tables. For traditional Thai dishes, including green curry, stir-fried pumpkin and coconut sticky rice with mango, book a table at the hotel's Ruen Tamarind Restaurant to feast on authentic northern Thai cuisine. One of the most unique features of the hotel is its connection with the local culture. Tamarind Village offers a whole host of cultural activities, from learning the art of banana and lotus leaf folding, to flower garland weaving. Guests are also treated to hand massages beside the pool and can join morning village walks to explore the back lanes of the neighbourhood.
Want to combine your city break to Thailand with a beach escape to the country's paradise islands? Multi-centre holidays are all the rage and allow you to experience more than one destination in one trip. After discovering the best of Thailand's cultural scene in Chiang Mai, you could hop on a flight to the southern islands of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan for some relaxing beach time while staying at luxurious resorts.
Book it:Hayes & Jarvis (01293 762 456) offers eight-night holidays to Chiang Mai with prices starting from £1,045 per person. The city break includes a stay at the four-star Tamarind Village on a bed and breakfast basis, airport transfers, internal flights and return international flights from London Heathrow with Eva Air.
Make it a multi-centre holiday: Hayes & Jarvis offers 13-night holidays to Thailand from £1,799 per person, including three nights at Tamarind Village in Chiang Mai, three nights at Santhiya Koh Phangan Resort & Spa in Koh Phangan, five nights at Silavadee Pool Spa Resort and two nights at Anantara BoPhut, both in Koh Samui. Accommodation is based on a bed and breakfast basis and the holiday includes airport transfers, internal flights and return international flights from London Heathrow with Eva Air.