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Chiang Mai is Thailand's second largest city, and an excellent starting point for excursions into the northern territories. Its name means 'new city', even though Chiang Mai is much older than Bangkok, having been built in 1296 under the rule of King Mengrai. The city straddles the gap between urban and rural Thailand, and offers the best of both worlds in terms of attractions and activities for Thailand tourists.
While Chiang Mai has more than 300 ancient temples, including the one at Doi Suthep, which offer breathtaking views over the area, its popularity is largely due to the elephant treks in the surrounding countryside. Travellers can also use Chiang Mai as a launching pad for excursions to the Lisu Hill-Tribe, Bhubing Palace, Isaan province, and Chiang Rai. Thai cookery classes are also a popular tradition, and the city also has an extensive night market, with dozens of street vendors selling a variety of traditional Thai wares that can be obtained at very low prices if travellers have the patience to bargain for them.
Chiang Mai is small enough to get around on a bicycle, has several attractions, and offers excellent accommodation, although tourists are advised that it can be difficult to find a room in peak season, between December and March.
Some 13 miles (21km) west of Chiang Mai lies the Doi Suthep Mountain, famous for the Wat Phrathat temple perched on the summit. Legend has it that in the late 14th century King Ku Na was looking for somewhere to house a collection of holy relics. He placed them in a howdah (canopied seat) on the back of an elephant and let the animal wander. The elephant proceeded to climb Doi Suthep, on top of which it trumpeted, turned round three times and knelt to indicate that this was the spot. Within the site are bells, pagodas, statues and shrines influenced by both Buddhist and Hindu culture, including a model of the Emerald Buddha and a statue of the Hindu god Ganesh. Wat Phrathat can be reached either by a flight of about 300 steps, or by funicular, and offers breathtaking views of the countryside.
Set in the lush Doi Suithep-Pui National Park, only 10 miles (15km) out of town, the Mae Sa Waterfall is definitely worth visiting on any Thailand holiday. Travellers should follow the winding pathway to the waterfall's plummeting 10-tiered cascades. There are various little secluded areas along the trail where visitors can relax with a picnic. The jungle villages dotting the riverbanks are also fascinating to see. This popular picnic and swimming spot gets a bit over-crowded on weekends.
Boasting giant pandas from China, Chiang Mai Zoo has earned itself quite a reputation with travellers as one of the top attractions in the region. The perfect destination for a day trip with the kids, the Chiang Mai Zoo also features exhibits such as a walk through aviary, Gibbon Island, an aquarium, a Cape Fur seal exhibit and even a special Children's Zoo. With two waterfalls, plenty of space to run around and a fabulous variety of exotic residents, a trip to the zoo is a must for all animal lovers and a great way to spend the day. Seal shows and other animal shows are conducted several times a day.
Located 83 miles (135km) up a coiled mountain road from Chiang Mai in the extreme northwest of Thailand, Pai is an unlikely tourist attraction. Over the course of its history, the town has transitioned from hill tribe village to hippie hideaway, and finally to tourist playground, thanks to its relaxed atmosphere and peaceful mountain scenery. Pai is a popular base camp for treks into the hills, which can be arranged through hotels or travel agencies in the city. Closer waterfalls and hot springs are worth a visit too, as are the nearby elephant camps. An airport now connects Pai to Chiang Mai, but the best way to get there is by motorbike or bus in order to see the beautiful scenery on the way.
Temple tours of Chiang Mai are a wonderful attraction for visitors. The old town is home to the most honoured temples and some tranquil Buddhist sanctuaries. The historic Wat Pra Singh holds the revered Phra Singh Buddha, which possibly dates from the 14th century. The oldest temple in Chiang Mai is Wat Chiang Man (established by King Mengrai), noted for its ancient bas reliefs and massive teak columns. Wat Chedi Luang boasts a gigantic chedi ruin, said to be the tallest structure in the old town, and was once home to the sacred Emerald Buddha (now in Bangkok).
The Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Center is an interesting attraction near the Three Kings Monument (Saam Kasat). This multimedia history and cultural education centre offers English-subtitled video displays of Chiang Mai, followed by tours of the rooms documenting the region's history and culture since the pre-Muang period. There are also exhibits showcasing Buddhism and regional beliefs, as well as agricultural history, hill tribes and other regional cultures, and the royal dynasties are also represented. The guides are elegantly outfitted in traditional Thai clothing. The Center is a must-visit for anyone interested in learning more about the rich culture and history of Chiang Mai.
A worthwhile Chiang Mai attraction is the Lisu Hill-Tribe display at the Hill-Tribe Research Institute Museum. The lives and cultures of the hill-tribe people of Thailand are exhibited here through photographs, agricultural implements, religious artefacts and musical instruments. Household utensils and ethnic costumes are also displayed. The non-hill-tribe ethnic minority, the Mlabri (who are often associated with the 'spirit of the yellow leaves'), are included in this extraordinary exhibit.
The royal winter palace of Bhubing has beautiful, regal structures and extravagantly landscaped gardens for visitors to take in. The palace may not be entered but the gardens can be explored when the Thai royal family is not in residence. The gardens of Bhubing Palace are known for their stunning roses, and are home to a variety of bird and insect life. Visitors can walk up to the Queen's water fountain and find some shade under a pagoda. There is a strict dress code that must be adhered to when visiting this royal site, including a ban on shorts and dresses that show the shoulders.
A beautiful Chiang Mai attraction, the first genuine botanical garden in Thailand was the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden in the Mae Sa Valley. It now also serves as a centre of botanical research and studies. The main feature of this attraction is the Glasshouse Complex, which is made up of four exhibition conservatories and eight display glasshouses. A lovely river runs melodically through the grounds. The Thai Orchid Nursery and Rock Garden are other highlights of the gardens, as are various walking trails and shaded rest areas. Facilities for visitors include a restaurant, a first-aid station, souvenir shops and toilets.
Mae Sa Elephant Camp is a popular attraction located in the Muang hills, about a half hour's drive north of Chiang Mai. The camp is home to dozens of Asian elephants, and is dedicated to conservation and breeding. Visitors to the camp will be privy to shows that include elephants playing football and even painting! There are also elephant rides available for the more adventurous. Although this is not a natural environment for these great animals, they are well cared for and very entertaining. The best time to visit Mae Sa Elephant Camp is on March 13th, which is National Thai Elephant Day and is celebrated by an enormous banquet for the pachyderms.
Kids will love this wonderland of interesting creepy crawlies, which was founded in 2002 by Manop Rattanarithikul (nicknamed 'The Mosquito Man') and his wife, Dr Rampa Rattanarithikul, a distinguished academic with 44 papers published in her name. The couple both have a keen interest in insects and have been studying them for most of their lives. Manop guides curious visitors through his vast and rare collection of insects and invertebrates, which comprises 422 species of insects in Thailand.
Nestled into the lush mountains of northernmost Thailand, Chiang Rai is a hotspot for travellers who want to get a real cultural experience from their stay in Thailand. The region is home to the remote hill tribe communities that make up about 10 percent of Thailand's population. Scattered through the mountains and valleys of the province, the tribes are descendents of nomadic peoples from Tibet and southern China. Each tribe is unique, with its own colourful culture and traditions. Many travellers arrive in Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai (a three-hour bus journey) to begin their treks to hill tribe villages, but there is plenty to see and do in Chiang Rai itself, including many beautiful temples and interesting museums. Visitors will also find good restaurants and food stalls offering a taste of northern Thai cuisine. The city has a lively, if not endless, nightlife, with a few good bars and pubs hosting live music. Chiang Rai is situated near the coming together of the three modern nations of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, a region known as the Golden Triangle, which is dissected by the mighty Mekong River.
Generally more family friendly than Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a great place to take the kids while on holiday in Thailand. The national way of life, sanuk (fun), is enough to keep the kids on their toes. Couple that with the friendly, child-loving qualities of the Thais, and travellers have a recipe for a fun-filled holiday with the family in Chiang Mai.
Parents can take their kids to watch the animal shows in the Mae Sa Valley, where monkeys ride tricycles and play basketball. Also, kids can hold a cobra at the Mae Se Snake Farm, enjoy the views from an elephant's back at the Elephant Conservation Centre on the Chiang Mai-Lampang road, swim and play under a waterfalls in the Doi Suithep-Pui National Park, go fishing in a local pond, or visit Chiang Mai Zoo's giant pandas from China.
Parents should make sure their kids have plenty of sunscreen on and kit them out with a sunhat, as the temperatures can be searing. With all these attractions and more, children on holiday in Chiang Mai will be entertained from dawn to dusk.
Chiang Mai has a tropical climate, but is cooler and less humid than most of Thailand. The city experiences monsoons: the southwest monsoon arrives from India at the end of May and lasts until November, with the heaviest downpours in August and September. Rain usually occurs in the late afternoon. Summer temperatures range from 73F (23C) to 98F (37C). Between November and May cool air blows in from China and northern Vietnam, bringing a dry season with mild days and balmy nights. Temperatures are at their lowest in December and January, dropping to about 59F (15C), and it is chilly enough to require a warm jacket at night, although temperatures can still reach 86F (30C) during the day.
Shopping in Chiang Mai is an extremely rewarding experience! There is a vast array of goods available, most often at very good (if not dirt-cheap) prices. As one of the handicraft centres of Asia, Chiang Mai is the place to buy anything from silk, silver and ceramics to antiques and Buddhist art. Electronic equipment is also readily available, although sometimes of dubious origin. The first stop has to be the Night Bazaar on Chang Klan road, with stalls and arcades offering all kinds of Northern Thai handicrafts including silk, cotton, wooden carvings, silver and saa (mulberry) paper. During the day, there are also some vendors around selling crafts and food. Another good market is held on Ratchadamnoen Road, in the old city. Near Chiang Mai, Bor Sang village also sells its famous colourful umbrellas. In the centre of Chiang Mai there are numerous shops trading in fabric, shoes, antiques, jewellery and hill-tribe products. Gadgets, western-style clothes and multimedia goods are best stocked at the Kad Suan Kaew mall and Central Plaza at Chiang Mai Airport, while computer equipment can be found at the Pantip Plaza.
Chiang Mai is tourist-oriented with several transport options, and it is therefore relatively easy to get around. Three-wheeled tuk tuks, also known as samlors, are usually the quickest means of transport, and fares should be negotiated before travelling. Songthaews are another novel (if slightly hair-raising) way to travel. Small, usually red, pickup trucks with benches fitted along the side, they have no fixed route but pick up and drop off passengers like buses and need to be flagged down. Passengers should be sure to check the destination with the driver. The Chiang Mai bus service is very limited; catching a metered taxi can also be difficult at times, but Uber and Lyft are alternatives. Renting a motorbike is a popular option, and car rental agencies are also available, though traffic can be heavy, and it is advised to rather hire a car with a driver. Bicycles are another good way to explore Chiang Mai and can be hired in the old city, though travellers will have to watch out for other drivers.
Chiang Mai is a magical wonderland for visitors to explore. With so many breathtaking natural and cultural attractions, travellers will be hard-pressed to know where to begin. The best time of year for sightseeing in Chiang Mai is between November and May, when the cooler weather allows for perfect days spent outdoors. A must while on holiday in Chiang Mai is the Maesa Elephant Camp, where visitors can enjoy an elephant ride and even watch them play football or paint a picture. The Mae Sa Waterfall in the Doi Suithep-Pui National Park is a great place for a picnic and a swim, while the Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Center will teach visitors about the region, its culture, religion and its history. And if travellers enjoy cultural activities, they should check out the Lisu Hill-Tribe display at the Hill-Tribe Research Institute Museum to learn about the lives of the hill-tribe people. There are plenty of temples in Chiang Mai to visit too, such as Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, which overlooks Chiang Mai from the slopes of Mount Suthep; and Wat Phra Singh, the city's best-known temple which houses the Phra Singh statue, dating back to the 14th century.
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