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Across the 4 Corners of Chiang Mai Thailand

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Tangled jungles, steep terrain, blinding temples, hill tribes, and remnants of a drug trade triangle. Thailand’s northern regions are full of sights of natural, cultural and historical significance. Chiang Mai is the perfect – base but how to see it all and organize your visit?

After spending a couple weeks in Chiang Mai we’ve got a short guide to discovery that makes it as simple as drawing primary school shapes.

If you can draw a square you can plan your visit to Chiang Mai and surrounding sights. With the town organised in and around the old city, a moat and remnants of a defense wall remain.  The moat goes around the town center creating a square which makes navigation on the scooter easy, (while sometimes long-winded since the road is one-way with the clockwise route on the outside of the moat and the opposite direction around the inside).  It’s all nicely kept up with flowers and greenery making it a unique town with a historic feel.

Getting around on scooter is easy but there are also tuktuks and songthaews (trucks with seats in the covered back truck bed).  Songthaews are the cheapest – 20 baht for a ride – but it may take a while as it’s not a direct route.

chiangmai moatGreenery around the remains of the old wall and the moat around Chiangmai’s old town.


Top Left – Pandas and a View

Starting at the top left corner (north west for those who prefer cardinal directions), this is an exciting place for those who love Pandas – the Chiang Mai Zoo is here. It’s the home of Lin Ping, the panda born there in captivity in recent years. They used to have an entire TV channel, kinda like The Truman Show, devoted to the daily life of the adorable animal, and they still show clips from time to time.

Continue past the zoo, up the steep winding road, to Doi Suthep – the temple overlooking the city. There are tons of souvenir and coffee shops around the base at the road, we parked the motorbike and were able to walk up the 80 or so steps and walk around the back to see the expansive view.

Finally, at the top left we thought was a good place to stay. There’s lots of facilities close by: a mall, a scooter rental place, Thai massage 180baht (£4/$6), restaurants, street food… even found a great hair dresser (not always easy for women). Our hotel was the Chiang Mai Residence, decent enough and would probably stay there again if the price was the same (under 800 baht/n).

chiangmai templeSteps leading up to Doi Suthep led by dragons on each side.


From here we’ll head counterclockwise…


Bottom Left – South West Corner – Jets and Jungle

If you fly into Chiang Mai you’ll arrive here- the airport is wonderfully close to the city centre. Love to cut down that travel time whenever possible.

There’s a huge cinema with English films at the mall by the airport as well – a cool night out. You’re still reminded you’re in Thailand when you have to stand for the King and the anthem before the film starts.

From this corner the road leads to Doi Inthananon National Park.  This is where you can head into the jungle and see some of the natural and cultural scenery.  Organized day trips from Chiangmai are priced from 1000 baht for a day or more depending on how long and what you want to see.  There are many waterfalls including the area’s largest, Vachiratharn, and hill tribes to visit, as well as the King and Queen pagodas or monuments that reach the clouds.  Gets chilly so some longer layers are a recommended accessory to pop in the day-pack.

chiangmai waterfall Waterfalls can be a refreshing relief from the hot sun near Chiang Mai. Photo: tjriley82, Flikr


Counterclockwise again around the square…


Bottom Right – South East Corner – Bazaar and Muay Thai
Jump over the opposite south side and you’ll find the booming night bazaar. A big market and restaurant area. On Fridays there are additional delights for the senses as there’s a food festival, Halal Street, and there’s Muay Thai to watch too.

For more shopping and market action, head up the east side of the square – you can’t miss the Gate…. On Sunday nights, inside the gate the road is closed to traffic and filled with vendors for the Sunday Walking Street. It’s more of a shuffle than a walk though as it gets very busy and foot traffic gets bottle necked among the stalls.

What’s great is what they’re selling though! So go but go with patience and don’t be in a hurry. Not full of typical souvenirs, there are creative items and handicraft that made this market something unique after spending time in the markets of Bangkok. Apparently Chiang Mai has “Creative City” status with UNESCO and the market definitely demonstrates this.  Also the cheesecake cups were amazing.

Outside the gate is an event area where there are often local concerts and there’s a very touristy area with some fast food chains, many guest houses and relatively pricey restaurants (when you’re used to Thai street food prices). We tried the cafe place on the corner and it wasn’t bad – nice to splurge once and a while for something different. There are also several book shops on the side street nearby.

chiangmai marketHandicrafts and more at the Sunday Walking Street right in the middle of the old town in Chiang Mai.


Continuing counterclockwise…


Top Right – North East Corner – East Asian Connections

Heading out of the city in this direction are some really great sights, lots of history and culture too. Towards Chiang Rai, the old capital of this northern Lanna region before Chiang Mai took over, there’s a blinding attraction called the white temple- a white edifice decorated in pieces of mirror that reflect the intense sun. It’s something to see.

Then you can head up to Laos and Burma and actually go into by boat tour Laos without any visa issues for just a short visit. Immediately the differences are apparent from Thailand – children begging for money, I hadn’t seen that much or at all in Thailand thus far.

They’ve basically put together a tourist village of shops – nice to grab a post card of this “golden triangle” area, where the 3 countries meet and where the opium trade was once booming. They also sell whiskey bottles with various exotic animals like scorpions and snakes inside… Not at all tempting but a great photo op!

This was all part of the tour we booked with a guide we found on the Sunday Walking Street- the trip was good but the bus ride was horrible due to lack of space – it was an uncomfortable few hours.  The trip cost around 900 baht per person with lunch included for the full day trip.


chiangmai white templeBring your sunglasses – the mirrors on the White Temple make this a very bright attraction.


chiangmai golden triangleMeet in the middle – the meeting point of the 3 countries was an opium trade hub back in the day. Now a tourist attraction.


Counterclockwise again…


Top middle – Tigers
Finally, there’s a road extending out the top of the square – just a short drive to Mae Rim on the scooter. This is basically the “exotic attraction” village. Snake shows, elephant camp, botanical garden, monkey school, long-neck tribes… and the best of all in our opinion – tigers!  We went to the Tiger Kingdom and loved it. We chose the package to see the largest and the small tigers (there were also medium and the “smallest” playful cubs) and we took the photographer for the large tiger area- we’re so happy we did. Some really great shots.

North of the town there’s more adventure to be had with zip lining – there were several companies and we went with Jungle Flight. We had a great time – only wish we had a better camera. When you book this they’ll pick you up and we suggest going on the early trip to avoid the crowds and the hot afternoon sun. The morning was crisp and the jungle was beautiful (I have a thing for jungles, not sure where it comes from).

chiangmai tigerChillin with the tigers at the Mae Rim Tiger Kingdom near Chiang Mai – a grrrreat time :)


So there you have it – an exploration of the 4 corners of Chiang Mai.  Many talk about this northern Thai town and we now see why – there’s tons to see and do as well as a nice atmosphere and climate in December.  While this is not an exhaustive list of all Chiang Mai has to offer, it can definitely keep you busy for a short stay in the northern capital.
Read more about independent travel in the northern provinces of Thailand in our magazine issue Northern Thailand – Take a Spin available on iTunes Apple Newsstand. App and subscription currently FREE!!!



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