Chiang Mai, on the banks of the Ping river, is often referred to falsely as Thailand’s “second city”. In fact, its population is smaller than that of three other cities in provincial Thailand, as well as Bangkok’s. But Chiang Mai is indisputedly the capital of the North and its number one tourist city.
Like a Thai Kyoto, or Ubud in Bali and Jogyakarta in Java, the city is a unrivalled as a centre of local culture. Its rich history and traditions are still proudly on show. The city centre is full of glistening medieval temples, among them the brooding and impressive ruin of Wat Chedi Luang, and surrounded by the remains of its moat and city walls. People come from all over the world to study massage and cookery, and the streets are full of local craft vendors as well as tourists and orange-robed monks.
The city is not unblemished by modernity, though. Chiang Mai hums with supermarkets and gas stations, tuk-tuk jams at rush hour and a thriving cafe culture. A huge population of students at the local universities – and Thai tourists – support chic restaurants and happening little bars, giving the city a sophisticated, design-conscious streak. This gives Chiang Mai a sometimes unexpected hipster edge.
The city is also a firm favourite for Western expats including hippies, students, retirees and business-owners, meaning that despite its relatively small scale, low-rise skyline and subdued pace it offers (almost) all the comforts of home – a French bakery for instance, or a happening electronic music bar and half a dozen English language bookstores.
But you can still walk from one end of the city centre to the other in twenty or thirty minutes, and look up to see blue peaks rising around the city in (when I was there at least ) a bright and shining sky. It is a winning combination.