As far as cultural destinations in Thailand go, Chiang Mai is a must. Former capital of the Lanna kingdom, heavily influenced by Burmese, Laotian and even Sri Lankan traditions, nestled amidst the cool, verdant foothills of the Himalayas - if you’re looking for a chance to experience the beauty and history in Thai living, this is a heck of a place to start. It’s true that rail and air accessibility, along with burgeoning popularity, have led to both the city’s expansion and modernization in recent decades, threatening to cover over the simplicity and charm that make Chiang Mai so unique. Still, stepping off the plane or train into a serene landscape dominated by lush vegetation and gentle mountains, you won’t be left wondering why this city is still considered the cultural capital of the north.
Start inside the old city walls, where beautiful temples like Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh put not only Buddhism but varying architectural styles and influences from across the region on full display. Here you’ll also find a modest dispersion of museums, including the Chiang Mai Arts and Culture Centre. Though certainly nothing that will blow your mind, it’s a good way to acquaint yourself with the city’s rich history and cultural significance. Slightly further to the west, near the top of Doi Suthep, you’ll encounter one of the cultural jewels of Chiang Mai: Wat Phra That. This beautiful temple has become a major draw for tourists for good reason, with numerous statues, a shimmering main chedi and no shortage of gold leaf accentuating a city view that alone is worth the trip up.
But the capital of Chiang Mai province is not just a city of aged shrines and exhibitions; there is a thriving contemporary culture here every bit as engaging as those vestiges of yester-century. Emporiums like the lively Night Bazaar on Chang Klan Road and the colorful Sunday Market on Rachadamnoen may be catered towards out-of-towners these days, but the experience is still ripe with enjoyment and hints of authenticity. Want to catch a Muay Thai match? Your options range from high-caliber competition at the Kalare Stadium to lower quality fights at a couple other outlying venues. Not to mention a rich dining scene and enough nightlife to keep you duly satisfied year-round. So whatever your preference, take your time to explore this northern Thai city rich in culture, history and aesthetic beauty. It’s a welcome reprieve from the crowds and congestion further south.