In a hurry? Don't want to wade through a lot of pages of information? Then just read this one. We've summarized all you really need to know about Chiang Mai in a nutshell. Of course, there are still links to all the details, if you want to know more.
Is it For You?
A lot of people love Chiang Mai, but not everybody. The city appeals to a diverse range of tastes, from adventure seekers who use it as a base, to power shoppers who love the local handicrafts, to those who just like the relaxed pace. The adventure seekers come to trek, work with elephants, go white water rafting, and much more. The shoppers like the wide range of traditional handicrafts, as well as modern interpretations, on offer in the city's many markets and shopping areas. Chiang Mai's old city makes a pleasant place to wander around in on your own, at a relaxed pace.
When to go to Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai really can be enjoyed at just about any time of year. Traditional wisdom has it that the best time to visit is during the "cool" season from November to March, when temperatures are somewhat tolerable and the rains have stopped. If you're keen on outdoor pursuits, then you'll definitely want to visit during this time. However, for any other pursuits Chiang Mai can be enjoyed all year round, and during the rainy season, hotel rates will be lower.
How to Get to Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is extremely easy to get to. Most people arrive by plane from Bangkok at the city's airport, which is just outside of town. You can also take a train from Bangkok, but by all accounts it's not a very enjoyable experience, and with a number of low cost air carriers vying for your business, flying can be as cheap as the train or bus.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
If you're visiting Chiang Mai to see the sights of the old city, or shop, then you'll want to stay in town, in either the Night Bazaar area or the old town itself. If you're visiting Chiang Mai to just relax and enjoy some scenery, then you may want to think about one of the posh resorts around the country-side. See my selection of Chiang Mai hotels for ideas.
Getting Around Chiang Mai
The complaint of the one person I know who doesn't like Chiang Mai is that "it's a big sprawling city that's difficult to get around." That's not entirely untrue, but not entirely accurate either. Chiang Mai is not a small town, although sometimes it feels like it. The part that you'll want to get around in, from the river to the old city, is not that big, and easily walked. In fact, one of the main attractions, for me, of Chiang Mai is that it's such a great place to just wander around in. That said, you will want motorized transportation every now and then. Tuk-tuks are still plentiful in the city, and the quickest and easiest way to get around.
What To See & Do
No visit to Chiang Mai would be complete without a walk through the old walled city. A visit to the mountain-top temple of Doi Suthep is also considered a "must" for any first tiem visitor. The rest is up to you: elephant camps, orchid farms, cooking schools, and many other attractions and distractions are easy to find in Chiang Mai.
For some, the shopping in Chiang Mai is the main reason to visit. The city is widely regarded as Thailand's "cultural capital" and home to many traditional crafts, such as silver, lacquer and silk. In addition, the city has become increasingly well known for its modern interpretations of traditional crafts. Check out the shopping page for more details.
The currency of Thailand is the "Baht" - sometimes spelled "Bath" but pronounced to rhyme with "hot." One Baht is divisible into 100 Satang. Major credit cards are accepted by hotels and large shops, but "hard cash" is the preferred tender almost everywhere. Travelers checks are not widely accepted outside of hotels, so change them for cash at a bank exchange, which you'll find in any and every tourist destination. See the money matters page for more information.