Situated more than 400 miles north of Bangkok and predating Thailand's capital by nearly 500 years, Chiang Mai is justifiably proud of its rich history and Lanna culture, a fusion of Asian aesthetics. The city was a crossroads for trade caravans, generating enough wealth to support hundreds of temples and countless artisans. While it's now a quick one-hour flight from the capital, Chiang Mai retains its unique identity and more than its share of exoticism. Nomadic hill tribes inhabit the surrounding mountains, making the city a hub for trekking. The arrival of boutique hotels and holistic spas over the past decade has upgraded the city from backpacker haven to one of Southeast Asia's top luxury destinations.
Lay of the Land: The walled, moated old city is located between the Ping River valley and mile-high Doi Suthep mountain, approximately ten miles to the west. A ring road hasn't reined in the modern sprawl of two- and three-story concrete shophouses and apartments, which extends a few miles in all directions. The west side has the leafiest suburbs, as well as Chiang Mai University, the National Museum, and major hospitals.
WHEN TO GO
The rainy season extends from May through September, making it slightly shorter than Bangkok's. November through February is ideal, with lush landscapes and dry, cool weather, especially at night. Daytime temperatures usually top out in the mid-80s, while the mercury can drop into the mid-50s at night. March and April, with daytime temperatures approaching 100 and overnight lows in the 70s, are plagued by hot, dry conditions and the thick haze of the burning season, the time when hill-tribe farmers set fire to fields and forest to make room for crops.
HOW TO GET THERE
Thai Airways (66-2-356-1111; www.thaiair.com), Bangkok Airways (66-2-265-5555; www.bangkokair.com), and Thai Air Asia (www.airasia.com) fly between Chiang Mai and Bangkok's recently opened Suvarnabhumi International Airport several times daily. Thai Airways and discount carriers Nok Air (www.nokair.co.th) and One-Two-GO (www.fly12go.com) also offer nonstop connections from Bangkok's older Don Muang Airport. Other scheduled carriers fly nonstop from Laos, Burma, Taiwan, and Singapore. Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX) is located one mile southwest of the old city; a metered taxi into town should cost less than $5.
Rental-car companies are located at the airport and scattered throughout the city. Americans may find driving a challenge: Cars keep to the left here, and the maze of roads often lack English signs. Ask your hotel to book you a metered taxi, or hit the street and flag down a tuk-tuk—a small, three-wheeled motorcycle. Compared with tuk-tuk drivers in Bangkok, there's far less hustle to detour passengers to jewelry shops or massage parlors. Another option is share-a-ride pickups called songthaews, which have benches in the truck bed and usually run set routes. Agree on the fare before boarding.
The Chiang Mai office of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is located along the Ping River, just east of the Iron Bridge, at 105/1 Chiang Mai-Lumphun Road (66-53-248-604; www.tatchiangmai.org). The general TAT Web site also provides useful pre-trip information (www.tourismthailand.org). Numerous tourist-oriented English-language publications are available free of charge in Chiang Mai. Among the handiest are Guidelines and Chiang Mai & Northern Thailand Tourist Guide, both monthlies, and the pocket-size Art & Culture-Lanna.View Thailand Factsheet