Updated 2016

Chiang Mai is the principal northern Thailand city and a good base from which to explore the surrounding countryside. Although it's nucleus for tourism, it's still an fascinating place to visit with it endless supply of temples, affordable accommodations and good international food. It's an excellent base to organize treks around the region.

Why Add Chiang Mai to Your Thailand Trip

Chiang Mai is a popular hang out in the north of Thailand, for folks traveling through and for longer term expats alike. There is a growing digital nomad crowd congregating there as well. While it's popularity with foreigners might be seen by some as a detractor, there's a reason everyone is there. Chiang Mai is great. If you've spent time in the big city of Bangkok, or you've been working on your tan in the Thai islands, then you're in for a very different lens on Thai life. The northern culture is enriched by tribal groups that still live somewhat remotely and is rooted in agriculture as farms unfold across rolling hills. Life moves at a slower pace than in the city and teak houses replace high rises. Food and lodging are less expensive in the north and there are dozens of adventures to be had. You really shouldn't miss the north, and Chiang Mai is the perfect place to base yourself.

Read: Ten Reasons to Visit Thailand Now

What to Do

You won't have a hard time finding things to do around Chiang Mai. Spend a day simply walking. Tour the old, walled part of the city. Pop in and out of the numerous small wats that dot the city blocks. Go to a fish spa, or get a massage. Cruise the strip of street food just outside the wall. Pop in to one of the numerous (excellent) restaurants that elbow each other for space. Don't miss the night market that Chiang Mai is famous for. It's the best place to buy that handcrafted hill tribes silver that you've been hearing about. Be sure to look around and barter for the best price.

Head out of the city to Wat Phra That Doi Sutep and climb the 309 steps lined with an undulated mosaicked dragon to the wat itself on top of the hill. Yes, it is worth the climb. The view is spectacular. The wat itself is an important piece of history and there are often interesting cultural and religious ceremonies to observe.

Hop in a Songthaew and take a day trip to the Mae Sa waterfalls and national park. The entrance ticket (about 200 bhat) is good for other parks in the area on the same day. These are the biggest and most spectacular waterfalls in the area and well worth a day. With then tiers of falls there are plenty of beautiful pools to swim in and have a picnic. Don't pack a picnic, you can buy one there, complete with basket and a blanket on loan from the food vendors lined up along the entrance. It's a perfect way to while away a hot day.

Definitely make the effort to travel north to Wat Rong Khun. The "White Wat" is the only wat of its kind in all of the world. Built from the vision of Chalermchai Kositpipat, it is a fascinating trip into his creative mind as well as philosophical commentary on the condition of humanity. Where else will you find George Bush and Osama Bin Laden painted into the irises of the eyes of a god? Unlike other wats that are gold gilt to the max, this one is entirely white on the outside (hence the name) and is reminiscent of a multi-tiered wedding cake. The only building decked out in gold is the toilet building... I'll leave it to you to learn why. Don't miss this.

If you're looking for an elephant experience that gives back and is sustainable instead of one of the numerous sketchy, and often unethical "elephant ride" places, book some time volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park. This is less of a tourist attraction and instead focuses on the rehabilitation and care of elephants that are reduced from all over Thailand from horrible situations.

Read: 5 Unmissable Thai Dishes

Where to Stay

There are no shortage of small inns and guest houses in Chiang Mai. You'll find big hotels there too and even a Four Seasons if you really want to splurge. When you search for hotels in Chiang Mai keep in mind location. If you want to stay within the historic old wall of the center of the city you are going to find the rooms a little more competitively priced and harder to book, especially during the big festivals (like the lantern festival the city is renowned for). There are dozens of great places outside the walls and still within easy walking distance of everything you want to see. Also, don't be afraid to try one of the more remote homestays that are out of the city a little bit for a truly unique experience and a window into Thai life that will be harder to get within the city proper.

Read: Visiting Thailand Indie Style

How to Get There

The quickest, easiest way to get to Chiang Mai from anywhere else in Thailand (or Southeast Asia in general) is on one of the discount local airlines, like Nok or Air Asia. The search for flights is a simple one as there are numerous options, daily. The most romantic way to get there is on the overnight train from Bangkok. Once you're there, public transportation is by Songthaew (pick up trucks with bench seats in the back) or tuk tuk around town. It's a simple matter to hire a driver for a longer day trip if you're interested in exploring the countryside your own way. Buses run from Chiang Mai north to Chiang Rai and over to the popular little town of Pai daily. If you have a week or more, I'd encourage you to rent a car (easily done at the airport or at any of the independent car hire agencies you'll see around town) and take a road trip north through the golden triangle, or in a loop, over and down along the border with Myanmar. Remember that Thailand is lefthand drive!

Read: Culture Connection: How to Wai Like a Thai.