Chiang Mai is the main city of Northern Thailand. With a population of over 170,000, it is Thailand's fifth-largest city. Located on a plain at an elevation of 316 m, surrounded by mountains and lush countryside, it is much greener and quieter than the capital, and has a cosmopolitan air and a significant expat population, factors which have led many from Bangkok to settle permanently in this "Rose of the North". The climate is much less humid than in the south of Thailand – almost like a hot European summer.
Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 AD and is a city rich in culture with temples and historic buildings throughout. The city is the longest continuously inhabited settlement from the ancient days of Siam. Located amidst the rolling foot hills of the Himalayan Mountains 700 km north of Bangkok, it could only be reached by an arduous river journey or an elephant back trip until the 1920s, isolation which has helped keep Chiang Mai's distinctive charm intact to this day.
Chiang Mai's historical centre is the walled city (chiang in Thai, hence Chiang Mai - "New Walled City"). Sections of the wall remain at the gates and corners, but of the rest only the moat remains. The old city forms a perfect square in the centre of Chiang Mai and is a peaceful and tranquil place to visit. Most of the temples are situated at this location and hours can be spent wandering from place to place – the temples and buildings are all in close proximity.
All in all inside Chiang Mai's remaining city walls are more than 30 temples dating back to the founding of the principality, in a combination of Burmese, Sri Lankan and Lanna Thai styles, decorated with beautiful wood carvings, Naga staircases, leonine and angelic guardians, gilded umbrellas and pagodas laced with gold filigree.
Surrounding Chiang Mai are a series of mountains which each offer a variety of activities and attractions. For example Doi Suthep offers the most famous temple of the region at the very peak of the mountain its gold leafed structure glinting in the morning sun from miles away. On the same mountain is the Mae Sa elephant training camp plus orchid farms, snake farms and monkey shows.
Modern-day Chiang Mai has expanded in all directions, but particularly to the east towards the Ping River (Mae Nam Ping), where Thanon Chang Klan, the famous Night Bazaar and the bulk of Chiang Mai's hotels and guesthouses are located. The locals say you've not experienced Chiang Mai until you've seen the view from Doi Suthep, eaten a bowl of kao soi, and purchased an umbrella from Bo Sang. Ratchadamneon Rd, the main walking street from Thapae Gate to the very popular Wat* Phra Singh, is fast becoming the place to go in the evening if you want somewhere a little more relaxed.