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The perfect antidote to busy Bangkok – the northern capital is a charming blend of old and new with a food scene to die for
Nestled in the foothills of northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is replete with hundreds of sacred temples. These holy relics, as well as the city’s quaint moated old quarter, its location amid prime visual splendour and its unique culinary attributes, make the city a special place to be and it is a perfect base from which to explore the surrounding countryside.
Chiang Mai’s culinary scene can still mix it with the best of what Thailand has to offer. Start by seeking out a bowl of the northern specialty khao soi. The favourite – chicken or beef in a coconut milk curry soup with deep fried crispy egg noodles, boiled egg noodles, pickled mustard greens and topped off with a dash of lime juice – can be sampled at venues around the city. A choice spot to visit is Khao Soi Khun Yai, situated in an atmospheric courtyard next to the city moat. Another prime place for cheap eats is the night market at Chang Puak (North) Gate, where everything from deep fried nibbles to delicious curries can be found. For a more elevated level of dining try Ruen Come In and Paak Dang, which both serve first class northern cuisine. High-end gastronomy, meanwhile, can be sampled at David’s Kitchen, which blends Thai influences with French and Italian fine dining tropes, and Favola, the Italian venue at Le Meridien Chiang Mai hotel.
The reason that Chiang Mai feels like such a spiritual place is because it is. On quiet mornings before rush hour starts, the beatific chime of temple bells blend with the call of birdsong as monks clad in saffron robes collect their daily alms. There are several temples to choose from, including some of Thailand’s most revered places of pilgrimage. We particularly love Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a monastery dating back to 1383 and offers outstanding views over Chiang Mai from its perch high on Doi Suthep mountain. In the city itself, Wat Phra Singh is probably the top pick for most visitors, due to its beautiful mosaic-inlaid sanctuary. The temple is also notable for its famous Buddha image, known as Phra Singh. For earthlier (and earthier) traditions, we recommend a visit to Talat Warorot, Chiang Mai’s oldest public market where you’ll find everything from live catfish to tiny statues for spirit houses.
The gateway to some of Thailand’s most enthralling scenery, Chiang Mai is an excellent start-off point for a range of highlights. We love Elephant Nature Park, which is by far the most ethical place in Thailand to get up-close and personal with elephants. Guests spend their day wandering with the majestic beasts, helping to feed and wash them. For more active thrills try Flight of the Gibbon, a zipline operation which has nearly three miles of wire and staging platforms strung up in the forest canopy. To cap off your trip, consider scaling Doi Inthanon – the highest mountain in Thailand at 8,400 feet.