In the dynamic, vibrant Asian region, the highlights are just the beginning. Beyond the UNESCO Heritage sites, the ancient monuments and historical landmarks, Asia’s top destinations are cultural hubs worthy of going beyond the surface. Joshua Zukas is a Southeast Asian destination expert with just the right insider knowledge behind Asia’s highlights. In this in-depth series, discover what’s waiting beyond the obvious in Asia’s top spots.
In many ways the northern capital of Chiang Mai is the antithesis of loud and boisterous Bangkok. Where Bangkok is a modern metropolis with terrifying traffic that clogs the streets and towering skyscrapers that block the sun, Chiang Mai is mostly quiet and low rise, and many of the old Lanna style wooden houses can still be found both within and outside of the old city walls. Pollution is hardly an issue for most of the year and much of the city can be managed on foot or bicycle – a laughable idea in the capital.
It is for an impressive and ever-growing list of reasons that Chiang Mai is Northern Thailand’s most appealing city. For many it is the striking and enigmatic temples, many of which sparkle while some slowly crumble. For others, Chiang Mai is the gateway to a gorgeous countryside of intriguing ethnic minority villages and herds of graceful elephants. For me it was the pace of life and the people that set it. The inhabitants of Chiang Mai have somehow managed to achieve the impossible – to create an urban space that has all the charm and friendliness of a small town while still offering the artistic and cultural benefits of a big city.
I was lucky enough to be paired up with Jaem, a freelance writer and photographer, as my informal Thai teacher and personal tour guide. Originally from Isan and having spent long stints in Bangkok and London, there isn’t now a place in the world he would rather call home. It is too easy to make friends in Chiang Mai for this not to be an objective. The couchsurfing meetings are huge, as is the board game scene, and the city arguably has the best modern café culture of any city in Southeast Asia. Several maps and online blogs detail the Chiang Mai café culture scene, so be sure to check them out – your tour guide will also be an invaluable source of information.
Within the City Walls
The old city walls may not be as grand or as well preserved as those of other ancient cities in Asia, but the slow-paced and chivalrous lifestyle that takes place within more than makes up for it. Some parts of the walled city are overrun with tourists packed inside temples, but several areas lay mostly unexplored by the masses. The southwest corner of the walled enclosure just west of Sam Lan is extremely charming, with plenty of unassuming temples and gorgeous raised wooden houses. This is the ideal place for early-morning, aimless wander through the streets and alleys, but make sure you include the beautifully manicured Nong Buak Hard Park for a rest beside one of the ponds.
Outside the City Walls
A lot of highlights can be found east of the city walls as you head towards the river, but I encourage you to also explore the west side of the city, and delve into Chiang Mai’s unashamedly hip and contemporary neighbourhoods. Heading northwest of the walled city along Huaykaew Road, the first pocket of trendy cafes and bars is around Ratchaphuek Alley and Sermsuk Road. If you’re there at around lunchtime, don’t miss the khao soi at Mae Sai, a delicious local specialty of noodles in a Thai curry sauce. Head further up Huaykaew Road and you’ll reach Nimmanaheiminda Road, one of Chiang Mai’s most popular hangout spots and home to some of the cafes that have helped make the scene so popular, including the award-winning Ristr8to café. In the small grid of lanes east of Nimmanaheiminda Road you’ll find a number of other urban delights, including comfy restaurants offering local fare and boutique spas in which to unwind.
Baan Kang Wat
But what is perhaps Chiang Mai’s most unique little pocket and the city’s most intriguing ‘beyond the highlights’ spot is a little too far to tackle on foot – best to ask your guide how to get there. The Baan Kang Wat artist’s village is a large garden courtyard encircled by attractive wooden buildings that house an array of artisanal products, which reflect Chiang Mai’s fondness for blending old and new. Many of the artists and artisans in this cultural village blend traditional techniques with contemporary design to produce dazzling handicrafts that also make unique Thai souvenirs to take back with you. Even if you aren’t interested in buying, Baan Kang Wat is worth visiting for what it represents: the city’s unique flair to blend tradition with innovation- and to get the balance just right.