The largest city in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai was founded in the year 1296 and became the capital city of the new kingdom of Lanna. King Mengrai sought protection against invaders from nearby Burma. He commissioned his people to construct defensive walls and a moat in a square-mile perimeter around what is now called the Old City.
A modern-day metropolis of more than half a million people, remainders of the fortress serve as a reminder of the city’s heritage.
Thai is the official written and spoken language of Thailand. Most signs are written in both Thai and English. Learn basic phrases, like hello (sawa dee) and thank you (khop khun ka, feminine, and khop khun krap, masculine). The universal Thai greeting is called a wai and consists of a slight bow with the palms of the hands pressed together in a prayer-like fashion. The higher a person places their hands in relation to their face and the lower you bow, the more respect they show with their wai.
Wats and respect
Thailand is a Buddhist culture and Chiang Mai is home to more than 120 wats, or temples. Groups will see monks of all ages walking among the temple grounds. Some of the more popular and historically significant wats in the city are Wat Chiang Man, the first wat in Chiang Mai; Wat Phra Singh, the largest wat in Chiang Mai; Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, where visitors can ride a tram ride to the temple base; and Wat Umong, which features a complex of tunnels.
Travel tip: Remember to show respect in holy places. Women should not enter a temple with bare arms. Take photographs only with permission and discretion. Avoid pointing your feet in the direction of likenesses of Buddha. Remember to remove your shoes and to step over (never on) a threshold
Currency and seasons
In Thailand, the common unit of currency is the baht. One United States dollar is worth between 28 and 29 Thai baht. ATMs are located in the airport, in banks and at kiosks throughout the city. It’s best for groups to have cash on hand when shopping in the marketplaces or purchasing food from street vendors. Cabs and tuk tuks also require cash payment. A certain amount of negotiation and bartering is culturally acceptable in places where prices are not clearly marked on individual items.
Travel tip: Thailand has three distinct seasons: winter, summer and rainy. Temperatures commonly climb over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and mix with oppressive humidity. Wear loose cotton clothing and drink plenty of water. Sunscreen and bug spray are recommended if groups venture out into the mountainous countryside.
Food and markets
Flowing along the eastern bank of the city is the Mae Pang River, a place of transportation and commerce for most of the city’s rich history. Local outfitter Urban Adventures offers a four-hour river cruise that includes a ride on a longtail boat to an organic farm for khao soy, a traditional northern Thai noodle soup. Visitors learn about village life and native plants, and see machinery once used to harvest and grind rice by hand.
The Saturday andSunday Walking Street Markets are popular tourist attractions. Located in two different parts of town, the markets are a weekly bizarre. Hundreds of food and merchandise vendors set up temporary stalls and sell to the masses. Groups also may enjoy tours through the Chiang Mai Flower Market or the indoor Warorot Market.
Food is everywhere in Chiang Mai and food carts come out en masse at night. While the most commonly known Thai dish is pad thai, Chiang Mai has thousands of restaurants, food stalls and food carts. Nam tok pla (fish salad) tom saab (pork soup) and kah non tom (sticky rice with bananas) are delicious meal suggestions.
Groups interested in sampling authentic Thai cuisine may want to book a tour with Chiang Mai Street Food Tour; guides introduce diners to a variety of ingredients and food-related traditions, and help them to place orders while speaking Thai.
Day trips from Chiang Mai
If a group stays in Chiang Mai for more than a few days, tour leaders may want to plan a few adventures out of the city and into the rural countryside. A popular attraction is the many elephant parks located north of the city and into the countryside. One option is Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for distressed and injured Asian elephants. A hands-on experience, visitors learn each elephant’s back-story as they feed them fruit, bathe them in a river and watch them enjoy a romp through a giant mud bath.
On the eastern side of town is the Sa Paper and Umbrella Handcraft Centre, a collections of buildings where local artisans make handcrafted paper umbrellas and parasols using traditions passed from generation to generation. For a small fee, the artists will happily paint items purchased from the gift shop, or items like an iPhone case or iPad case.
A short drive past the Sa Paper and Umbrella Handcraft Centre is Sankampaeng Hot Spring, a natural hot spring that reaches temperatures in excess of 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Sankampaeng draws visitors for the medicinal properties of the water as well as the picnic grounds. Visitors can purchase eggs placed inside small bamboo baskets; both are submerged into the water and reach a hard boil in 12 to 15 minutes.
Tourism Authority of Thailand
Article by Julie Henning