Chang Mai, or the capital of northern Thailand, as well as one of the most beautiful cities in the country. I had been there on my first trip to South East Asia (back in 2015), I remembered it very beautiful and so it remained fortunately. Chang Mai has a beautiful old town enclosed by walls and surrounded by water, but what is most striking are the temples, they are everywhere, you just need to turn your head to see one. In proportion perhaps there are more temples in Chiang Mai than churches in Rome! But Chiang Mai is also a city with a very young population, as well as (it can be said) the world capital of digital nomads: it is full of foreigners who stop here for several months to work in one of the many coworking in the city. It is full of nice restaurants, hotels and clubs (many along the river) and is the perfect base for exploring the many beautiful places in the surrounding area as well. It is a city to which I recommend dedicating at least 3 days.
How to reach Chang Mai
If you decide to reach Chang Mai directly from Bangkok, the fastest way is certainly the plane. The flight lasts 1h and there are plenty of them every day that depart from both Don Muang Airport and Suvarnabhumi International Airport. From this link you can see them all (even buy them directly). The e-ticket then arrives by mail.
If you are looking for a more authentic experience, or if you are coming to Chang Mai from other cities like Ayutthaya or Sukothai, the train is the best way. Both from Ayutthaya and Bangkok there are very comfortable night trains with sleeper that take about 12h. You can also these search and buy from this site (I have always had a great time!). After the purchase, a voucher will arrive by email with instructions on how to collect the ticket; usually picks up at an office inside the station on the day of departure (it's all fool proof).
The bus is only recommended if you are coming from Chiang Rai or Sukothai. Coming from other destinations, with the same distance, the train is always convenient. Anyway find the timetables and departure stations on this site.
How to get around Chang Mai
To move around the historic center, the one enclosed within the walls, you will only need your legs. Some streets are pedestrianized and the distances are absolutely feasible. To travel outside, or for example, the train station or the airport, you can use the tuk tuk or songthaew (the red cars). The latter are typical of Chang Mai, they are a kind of 8-10 seater trucks that function as collective buses / taxis. If you arrive from the station, for example, and want to reach the historic center, you will find a table with the prices displayed in the station hall (30B per person). They will try to ask you for more but refer to that and tell them again before you get on. In general, as with everything in Thailand, always bargain !! To reach Doi Suthep you can find many in front of the Tha Pae Gate.
What to see in Chang Mai
Virtually all the most interesting things to see in Chang Mai (all temples) are located in the historic center, inside the walls, except the Wat Si Suphan (silver temple) which is immediately outside. Remember to bring something to cover your arms and legs with (the t-shirt is fine but the tank top is not) otherwise you will not be able to enter the temples. The things not to be missed in my opinion are:
- Wat Chet Lin: I discovered this temple practically by chance, from the outside it doesn't seem to be anything special or different from the others, but if you enter the gate and go to the back you will see a kind of enchanted place. There is a long floating walkway that crosses a pond adorned with colorful lanterns. If you walk along it, there is a structure at the bottom where the young monks are and you can talk to them. It is a very little frequented but really beautiful temple.
- Wat Chedi Luang: the main feature of this temple complex are the magnificent ruins of a large and ancient chedi, built in 1421 for the ashes of a local king. Around various temples and modern buildings where you will find, even here, some monks with whom to exchange a few words.
- Wat Phra Sing: we are talking about the most beautiful complex of temples and buildings in Chiang Mai, with golden pagodas, a wooden library and several chedi. I was there in the afternoon, around 5, and I was lucky enough to attend a ceremony with many monks of all ages and it was really impressive. Even for a photographic speech, I recommend that you go there in the afternoon rather than in the morning, when the light reflects on the golden structures.
- Wat chiang man: this temple is a little secluded compared to the others, but definitely worth the penalty. It is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai and is surrounded by a beautiful garden, it is an oasis of peace.
- Wat Si Suphan (silver temple): this very particular temple is located just outside the walls of the center and is entirely "silver" (I doubt real silver ..). Considering that all temples in Thailand (generally in Asia) are gilded or have many parts in gold ... this temple is absolutely a rarity. Unfortunately, women cannot enter the main structure of the temple, but must limit themselves to seeing it from the outside.
- Week-end Market e Night Market : Chang Mai is also famous for handicrafts and has very nice markets. My favorite is the Week-end Market which takes place on the weekend, from 17-18 in the afternoon onwards along the main street of the historic center (Thanon Ratchdamnoen). It is full of craft stalls of all kinds and food. Every day there is also the Night market (located just outside the historic center) between the Tha Pae Gate and the Ping River. It is a tourist market with lots of food stands. If you are looking for a more authentic market, frequented almost exclusively by locals, you can go to the Warorot market, which is always located near the river, not far from the Night Market.
What to see outside Chang Mai
Doi inthanon national park
All Chang Mai agencies organize different types of tours in this park, which include different things. I opted for a full day tour (from 7:30 to 18 more or less, they will pick you up and bring you back directly to the hotel) which included Wachiratan Waterfalls summit of Doi Inthanon, the two commemorative pagodas for the king and queen and a 2h mini-trekking to Pha Dok Sew (cost 1200B lunch included). The park is a couple of hours drive from Chang Mai and is named after Thailand's highest peak (Doi Inthanon, 2565 mt). It is a very large park in which there are villages, waterfalls and crops. Among the things to see there are certainly the two beautiful chedi (pagodas) that the Royal Thai Air Force built to commemorate the 60th birthday of King Rama IX and his wife (remember to bring something to cover your arms and legs to be able to enter all in all). The two chedi are surrounded by beautiful flower gardens of rare beauty. After lunch we do this small, undemanding trek, with a stop for a swim in a waterfall and another stop in a village where they grow strawberries and coffee. Overall, it is a worthwhile trip, it is very varied.
Doi Suthep e Wat Pha Lat
Il Wat Phra Doi Suthep is the most revered shrine in the north of Thailand and is located high up on a mountain very close to Chang Mai. Again the agencies organize various tours that include the sanctuary and other things, including an evening / night tour to see it illuminated. To be free to take my photos, I decided to take a private transfer (one of the red cars) to go and see both the Doi Suthep and the monastery Wat Pha Lat, which is located on the road to reach the sanctuary. It is a little touristic place, very quiet and spiritual; it is a complex of small temples wedged between the forest and a series of waterfalls found here. To see them both, I left Chang Mai around 15 pm; the afternoon light is beautiful! Seeing Doi Suthep almost at sunset was a winning choice and I recommend you do the same (there are even fewer people). The private transfer cost me 700B and it took me about 3h and 30 'to see everything calmly. If you want to spend less and only visit Doi Suthep you can take one of the red cars in front of Tha Pae Gate, but you will have to wait for it to fill up. The cost is 80B per person one way; to return you will then find others in front of the entrance to the sanctuary. Again, remember to bring something to cover your arms and legs!
Asian Elephant Project
There are many around Chang Mai recovery centers for sick, orphaned and abandoned elephants that you can visit and where you can bathe the animals, feed them, etc. To be sure that the center you intend to go to is an ethics center where animals are not exploited, I recommend that you refer to the sito dell'Asian Elephant Project. In some of these centers it is possible to stay longer as a volunteer. Unfortunately in Thailand in many places elephants are still exploited for tourism purposes (ridden, etc.) so I invite you not to contribute to this vulgar market. If you really want to see them up close, try to do good and find out that the structure is sustainable and ethical.
Where to sleep in Chang Mai
- Shangri-is Hotel Chang Mai (high end): I was hosted in this hotel and I can say that I lived in a dream. The Shangri-la Chang Mai is not just a luxury hotel, it is a fairytale hotel. It has every kind of comfort you could wish for, a signature restaurant specializing in dim sum, a wonderful swimming pool, a wellness center the size of a village, immense rooms… what can I say… if you want to pamper yourself a little it is definitely the right choice.
- Muan Hotel (hostel): very nice and super comfortable design hostel. It is in fact almost in front of the Tha Pae Gate. From here you can move anywhere on foot. They also have double rooms.
- [email protected] Chiang Mai (hostel): super nice design hostel which is located in the old town. It has mainly double rooms with or without ensuite bathroom.
- Bed Phrasingh (mid-range): modern and comfortable “Adults only” hotel located in the historic center. An excellent alternative to a hostel for those looking for a hotel with some extra comforts.
Where to eat in Chang Mai
Among other things, Chang Mai is a city famous for its cuisine. There are cooking classes everywhere here (and if you want to have one in Thailand this is definitely the place to do it!). There are restaurants and street food stalls everywhere, but the best places to eat are certainly found along the Ping River and at the night / weekend markets.