Set in foothills, surrounded by lush countryside and with a pleasantly cool climate, Chiang Mai has a laid-back, country town feel that encourages visitors to linger. A moat and four medieval city walls surround the old town, which was the original capital of the northern Lanna Kingdom in the late 13th century. Here, ancient temples and traditional wooden houses stand alongside museums, galleries, hotels and restaurants.
The old town can easily be explored on foot, or make like a local and flag down a songthaew, one of the ubiquitous red minibuses that operate like shared taxis. Tuk tuks are more expensive, but are direct and faster in traffic; otherwise, hire a bicycle or motorbike for total freedom.
Set on a mountain overlooking the city, the sacred 14th-century Wat Phra Thai Doi offers unsurpassed city views. Climb the 306-step staircase flanked by ornate carved serpents (or take the funicular-style lift) to reach a terrace with Buddha statues, rock gardens and shrines. The temple was built to house a relic said to be from Buddha himself, now encased in a dazzling gold chedi (stupa). The temple is still a working monastery; don’t miss the monks chanting at sunset.
On Sunday afternoons, Ratchadamnoen Road in the old town is closed to traffic for the Walking Street Market. The beautiful handcrafted items for sale include shoes, jewellery and clothing, and the market is particularly magical after dark, with twinkling coloured lights and street entertainers performing for the crowds.
The Elephant Nature Park is a centre for the rehabilitation of injured and mistreated elephants (as well as cats and dogs) and is an ethical way to spend time with these majestic animals. Its located 60km (37 miles) outside the city, but there are plenty of day tours available. Visitors can help feed and bathe the elephants and learn more about conservation. After a visit here, you’ll never ride an elephant again.
You’ll have to get up early, but the morning market at Chiang Mai gate is a great place to watch the city slowly waking up – and is a sight few tourists catch. Open from 4am, the market sells fruit, vegetables and spices; watch the locals haggling as well as the monks collecting alms.
Huay Tung Tao Lake is a popular haunt. Set 10km (6 miles) from the city, this reservoir is surrounded by mountains and filled with locals relaxing on weekends. Huts lining the water offer simple but delicious food, and you can hire a pedal boat for a meander around the lake.
Authentic Northern Thai cuisine is distinct from the rest of the country and has Burmese and Chinese influences. The most famous export is probably khao soi, crispy fried noodles in a fragrant curry broth. Other specialties include laab (a pungent minced meat salad) and sai ua (spiced lemongrass sausage), usually served with sticky rice. Chiang Mai is awash with outstanding street food vendors, but you’ll find plenty of modern cafes and restaurants serving Western food, too.