The north of Thailand wasn’t incorporated into the Thai nation until the beginning of the 20th century. For centuries local lords held sway over shifting principalities, the most significant being centred on Chiang Mai. This city remains the largest in the north and a magnet for thousands of tourists. With its walled centre, serene and ancient temples, bustling markets and excellent accommodation, it’s easy to understand why. When Reginald Le May wrote about Chiang Mai back in 1938, it was, in his view, one of the loveliest cities imaginable. Life, as they say, has moved on since then but, while old Thailand hands may worry about lost innocence, Chiang Mai is still worth visiting.
The city has a rich and colourful history, still evident in its architecture, including more than 300 wats; it is manageable and relatively ‘user friendly’ (unlike Bangkok); it has a rich tradition of arts and crafts, and it is an excellent base from which to go trekking and visit the famous hilltribe villages in the surrounding highlands. For the traveller, there are also some good practical reasons to base yourself here. Chiang Mai has developed into a major tourist centre with a good infrastructure, including excellent hotels and restaurants in all price categories; it is an important transport hub, and the shopping is the best in the north.