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Exploring the Thai North

Known as the Thailand Northern Capital, Chiang Mai city is located some 700 km (435 miles) north of Bangkok on the Mae Ping River basin, and serves as a major gateway to explore the North. Since founded in 1296 A.D., it was a capital and cultural core of the Lanna Kingdom, and till now has preserved its distinguished cultural heritage. Celebrated its 700th anniversary in 1996, the city's 700-year history of unique culture and rich traditional background coupled with the breathtaking scenery makes Chiang Mai one of Asia's most attractive tourist destinations.

Pictures of Chiang Mai City

Historically, Chiang Mai has been hardly accessible only by the river or by the elephants. The railway line from Bangkok was completed just in the late 1920's, and the first motor vehicle arrived in Chiang Mai in 1932. Albeit the late progress, this modern-day second largest Thailand city has developed into an economic, cultural, educational and trade hub of northern Thailand complete with sound road infrastructure and decent communications.

A warm hospitality is written all over the faces of Chiang Mai dwellers, whether you choose a 5-star hotel or drowsing guest house. It’s Thailand’s cheapest major travel destination with plenty of activities to get engaged in; from wandering along timeless Old City lanes, to trekking to remote hill-tribe villages, to whitewater rafting and riding elephants, to taking a long-tail boat cruise along the Mae Ping River with delicious Thai dinner, or relaxing during unique Thai massage and spa treatments.

Chiang Mai is blessed with pristine natural resources of surrounding mountains (doi in Thai), fertile valleys, wild jungles, coconut groves, riverbanks, waterfalls, and other nature-based tourist attractions. It is one of the few places where the centuries-old shrines, pagodas, and temples in the heart of the city are merged with the modern civilization of Family Marts, convenience stores and boutique hotels. City residents are gratified by the indigenous traditional values of spirited up festivals, distinctive customary dresses, classical dances, and the cultural ethnic identity with diverse dialects, delightful northern cuisine, fascinating architecture and illustrious handicrafts of silk, wood, and silver made by local artisans as timeless souvenirs.

As a prime location in its own right, the Old City of Chiang Mai is still marked by the moat and fortified gates and has some 300 ancient Buddhist temples (wat in Thai) in the vicinity. The most significant is the Wat Chiang Man, which homes the 1800 years old Crystal Buddha, the classic Thai northern style Wat Phra Singh, and the partially ruined Wat Chedi Luang.

Another distinctive attraction in the vicinity of Chiang Mai City near the border of Myanmar (Burma) is the Doi Inthanon National Park. Its focal point Doi Inthanon, Thailand's highest peak is 2,565 meters above the sea level. The park is often called The Roof of Thailand. Nightly frosts are quite common at such altitudes during the cool, dry season, and Alpine climate throughout the year.

Doi Inthanon National Park spreads from the lowlands at an altitude of about 800 meters up to the peak, covering different climatic zones and ecological structures. The various submontane forest formations at higher elevations are a very significant and valuable asset of the park, which has the second highest number of bird species of any national park in Thailand. The forests include Moist Evergreen Forest, Pine Forest and Mixed Deciduous Forest with teak and mountain pine trees, as well as wide variety of plants, orchids, and flowers. Doi Inthanon is also the source of many rivers and spectacular waterfalls.

Doi Inthanon Waterfall
Young monks at one of Doi Inthanon's waterfalls

Doi Inthanon Chedi
Napapon Phoom-Siri Chedi (stupa) near the top of Doi Inthanon


The chedi is devoted to the Queen of Thailand commemorating her 60th birthday in 1992.
The shrine is nicely decorated with tiled murals and contains a 3-meter-tall Buddha statue.
A similar regal chedi nearby was built in 1987 to honor the 60th birthday of King Bhumibol.
Both Royal Chedis provide wide-sweeping views on the valleys below.

A key tourist attraction is to the city's west, the sacred pillar Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, bearing the Lord Buddha holy relic never seen before. Doi Suthep rises 1,676 meters above the sea level providing panoramic scenery of surrounding landscapes. They say, if you're to see only one temple in Thailand, Doi Suthep is the one. Set on a mountain plateau overlooking Chiang Mai, this visually stunning site is steeped in history and religious significance. The temple is definitely living up to the hype not only scenically and spiritually, but also pop-culturally (the opening of the Rambo III movie was filmed on the temple steps).

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep   Wat at Twilights
Chedi and Gold Umbrella of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Every evening the center of Chiang Mai comes alive with a massive Night Bazaar and turns to be the spot of choice for the city visitors. The biggest city attraction at twilights, it's crowded with lots of bargains and considered a shopping mecca for locally made handicrafts and souvenirs. Clustered around are many restaurants and other useful services, such as camera shops, Internet cafés and travel agencies offering an array of packages all over Thailand from 5-star holiday packages to group tours within Chiang Mai. One of the popular activities is to have your portrait done dressed up in traditional Thai costume. A two-story mezzanine arcade is the actual Vieng Ping Night Bazaar where the main focus is fixed on the trade of quality antiques, clothing and variety of crafts. Across the road at Kalare Center is a place to enjoy both Thai and international cuisine accompanied by traditional Thai music and dancers.

Hilltribe girls
Girls of Akha Hilltribe

It is unthinkable to overlook trips to numerous hill tribes settled in the jungles and mountain terrain all around Chiang Mai. Many tours and jungle treks originated in Chiang Mai are focusing on visits to the nearby and remote hill-tribe villages, which are grabbing attention by unique ways of lifestyle, colorfully embroidered clothing and inherited the wealth of quaint cultures coupled with the picturesque diversity of ethnic tribes.


Aka Hill Tribe     Padong Hill Tribe     Opium Pod



Po Hill Tribe     Coconut Grove

To be continued...

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