1. Visit the Sunday Walking Street
This veritable institution is without doubt the best market in Chiang Mai, and, alongside Bangkok’s Jatujak, ranks as one of Thailand’s must-do shopping experiences. It runs east west through the old walled city area, running for over a kilometre along Ratchadamnoen Road. Stalls start to open around 4pm, and stay that way until around midnight.
As the road becomes a pedestrian-only zone, there’s no traffic to avoid as you browse the myriad stalls selling everything from handmade bags to traditional Lanna handicrafts to antique religious statues.
Added to this is a huge array of street food, the best of which you’ll find in the many temple courtyards that line the road, as well as numerous street performers – last time we visited there was a teenage violinist, blind guitar troupe, and a young boy bizarrely painted as cult Japanese manga character Doraemon.
Note that the market can become very busy after 7pm, so those with large families or young children are advised to come early when it’s much quieter.
2. Find peace in the city temples
There is something about Chiang Mai’s temples that truly makes them seem like places of sanctuary. There are more than 30 within the walled city alone, (and an incredible 300 in the greater metropolis), incorporating a multinational mix of influences that incorporate Lanna, Sri Lankan and Burmese styles.
One of the most impressive temples is Wat Chedi Luang, which is home to a famous chedi, or stupa, that partly collapsed following a massive earthquake that hit the area in 1545. It famously used to house the Emerald Buddha, later transferred to the Grand Palace in Bangkok for safekeeping, and was controversially restored to its former greatness in the early 1990s.
Other temples to visit include Wat Phra Singh, which houses the religiously important Phra Singh Buddha image, the silver-covered Wat Sri Suphan in the traditional silver-making district of Wualai, and the incredibly scenic Wat Doi Suthep, which sits on the slopes of a mountain outside the city.
3. Sip tea at the Raming Tea House
While northern Thailand is famous for its many coffee plantations, the area also has a rich history of tea production, such as that of the Raming Tea Company (ramingtea.com). The firm was founded in 1941 by Chiang Mai farmer Prasit Poomchusri, who discovered that the teas growing wild in the surrounding mountains belonged to the same variety as the Assam teas planted in India and Sri Lanka.
Now producing a huge variety of black, green, Chinese, herbal and organic teas, the best place to sample them is at the Raming Tea House Siam Celadon, a large, two storey teak building constructed in 1915. Once used as a hardware store, then a doctor’s practice, and later an Italian restaurant, a sensitive renovation in 2002 saw this colonial-style building restored to its original splendour.
With no air-conditioning (the high ceilings mean there is always a breeze flowing through), it’s a charming place to spend a quiet afternoon’s contemplation with tea and cake. A large variety of celadon ceramics are available for sale in the front foyer.
4. Go shopping at the Night Bazaar
The Night Bazaar is in many ways the wayward, rough and tumble brother of the Sunday Walking Street Market. Instead of handicrafts and artists, here, you’ll find tourist trinkets and touts. Still, it is an essential part of the Chiang Mai shopping experience – after all, where else are you going to find that Chang wife-beater, or Downton Abbey DVD box-set?
Running along Thanon Chang Khlan, close to the Ping river on the east side of the city, stalls start setting up in the late afternoon, in preparation for the nightly tourist hordes. As well as street-side shopping, there are a number of arcades filled with small stores as well as a huge covered outdoor market.
At times, the sheer array of items can be bewildering – especially as so many shops seem to sell exactly the same products – so the best approach is to treat it as one big tourist attraction, and only stop when you actually intend to buy something.
You will require good bargaining skills, but the give and take is all part of the fun. You’ll have a far more enjoyable time if you treat it as a game. Make sure you refuel with some delicious local street food.
5. Have dinner by the Ping River
Though it runs for more than 569 kilometres, from the northern Burmese border south to Bangkok, where it becomes the Chao Phraya, the small stretch of the Ping River that runs through Chiang Mai is very much the heart of the city.
Often missed by tourists – who usually pass over it in a tuk-tuk on their way to the Night Bazaar – there is a thriving restaurant, bar and live music scene along the rivervside Charoenraj Road, where locals gather nightly to toast the passing waters.
One of the most popular hangouts is The Riverside (theriversidechiangmai.com), which has been feeding and entertaining guests in equal measure since 1984. Meanwhile, just a little way up the river is The Good View (goodview.co.th), a great place to enjoy a quiet sunset meal, before a young Thai crowd starts arriving to sing along to live rock music.
If you are visiting the city in November, you’ll witness the spectacular show that is Loy Krathong, known locally as Yi Peng, when thousands of lanterns are launched from the Ping into the night-time sky.
Where to stay
Tamarind Village is a unique and charming boutique property that nestles in the heart of historic Chiang Mai. Surrounded by ancient temples and quaint shopping streets, it takes its name from a magnificent 200 year-old tamarind tree that shelters the hotel in a shady embrace.
Set around a series of garden courtyards, the 42 guest rooms and 3 suites reflect the rich ethnic diversity of northern Thailand by using fabrics and patterns drawn from various tribes of the region. Intimate, serene and relaxing, Tamarind Village is an oasis of calm and tranquillity, the perfect base for exploring Chiang Mai and beyond.
The hotel’s current Thai Residents Offer is B3,000++ for two, including accommodation in a Lanna Room for two people, daily buffet breakfast for two, private transfers from/to Chiang Mai International Airport, and 15 per cent savings on food and beverage and all treatments at Tamarind Village’s The Village Spa. Offer valid through October 31, 2012.