'A princely citadel turned metropolitan'

City Slicker: Chiang Mai - This Thai city is overtaking Bangkok in travellers' affections. Andrew Spooner offers a guide for new and returning visitors
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The Independent Travel

Why visit?

With the Thai capital, Bangkok, still struggling under a long-term government state of emergency after the protests in April and May, elegant Chiang Mai, the de facto capital of northern Thailand and the one-time hub for the ancient Kingdom of Lanna, is now emerging as Thailand's most popular urban destination for the discerning visitor.

Contemporary and engaging, with a lot less of the traffic, pollution, stress, political upheaval and stifling heat of Bangkok – visit between November and February to enjoy a climate akin to a perfect British summer's day – Chiang Mai is also infinitely more liveable than the Thai capital. And, while Thailand recovers from recent events, some bargain packages are being offered.

Ancient temples, forested hills and tasty local cuisine add to the picture, while a genuine metropolitan sophistication is slowly developing in this one-time princely citadel. During the cooler months, the Old City, its warren of streets surrounded by crumbling walls and moat, is the place to go for an early evening amble, stopping off to sup bowls of local speciality khao soy (spicy coconut noodle soup) at roadside vendors.

As the jump-off point for the remoter hills and forests of the north, to see highlights including the living museum of Nan, the hill peoples of Chiang Rai and the stunning lake at Phayao, Chiang Mai also offers a lot more than just a city break. Rent a motorbike or charter a songtaew (pick-up truck converted into a mini-bus) and you'll soon find yourself amid some of the most dramatic mountain scenery in South-east Asia – Thailand's highest peak, Doi Inthanon, is only an hour's drive south.

Don't miss...

Some of the oldest continually used Buddhist temples in Thailand. While many visitors make a trip to the hilltop Doi Suthep temple, most of the best are found in the Old City. The oldest, in the Old City's north-east corner, is the 13th-century Wat Chiang Man ("wat" means temple); the 400-year-old Burmese Shan Wat Pa Pao is nearby, and locals love the beautiful Wat Phra Singh dating from the 14th century.

Browsing the "Walking Street" market, held every Sunday between 3pm and 10pm near Tapae Gate on Rachdamnern Road. You'll find well- designed local crafts, some excellent eats, a friendly family atmosphere and a complete absence of traffic – a rarity in a nation that's in love with motorbikes and cars. You'll even be able to get a foot and back rub from a streetside masseuse. There's a smaller Saturday market on Wualai Road at similar times. If you want something more raucous and touristy, head to Chiang Mai's nightly Night Market on Chiang Klang Road.

A trip to Chiang Mai's hillside temple on Doi Suthep mountain. But don't stop there – keep going up to reach a bumpy track that leads to a tiny, authentic Hmong village in the crook of Doi Pui mountain. A one-time opium-smuggling transit point, this village has partially succumbed to the vagaries of tourism but still maintains plenty of atmosphere, hinting at the diverse ethnic mix of Thailand's northern hills.

What's new

Nimman

Those in the know have been waiting for Nimman finally to take off, and it seems that this area – cut through by Nimmanheimin Road and Chiang Mai University – has found its wings. While the main drag is filled with contemporary bars, cafés, local designer shops, and restaurants, the back sois (alleys and side streets) are home to the real gems, with tiny boutiques, guesthouses and outdoor restaurants.

Kantary Hills

This recent stylish addition to Nimman is a nicely crafted hotel cum apartment complex with all the mod-cons – roof-top pool, steakhouse restaurant, views of gorgeous Doi Suthep mountain – that any urban hipster has come to expect. There are sleek modernist one-bedroom apartments and studios, within which you'll find giant flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi, stereos and even a washing machine.

Details: kantarygroup.com

The Restaurant, Chedi Chiang Mai

Set in the refined, elegant riverside atmosphere of the former British consulate, the Chedi Chiang Mai hotel's restaurant – simply called The Restaurant – has recently undergone a menu relaunch, forcing itself on to the high table of Thailand's dining experiences. Foie gras, scallops, harissa-spiced chicken and ostrich tenderloin vie with extraordinary frog tikka and an extensive Thai and Indian menu. There's a comprehensive cigar menu and wine list for post-dinner riverside indulgence.

Details: ghmhotels.com

Iberry Garden

A giant yellow dog and towering fibre glass Chairman Mao greet you at this eccentric and narak (cute) ice-cream parlour and coffee house. Set in a laid-back villa amid trees and gardens, the Nimman branch of this nationwide ice-cream chain is the flagship for the Thai owners. Bring your laptop, sit amid the fairy-light adorned greenery, and dive into any one of 106 flavours of ice cream, sorbet or frozen yoghurt.

Details: iberryhomemade.com

La Luna

With one of Thailand's best arts universities on its doorstep it's no surprise that La Luna has developed into one of the nation's leading art galleries. And its wide selection of South-east Asian contemporary art eschews the usual hackneyed Thai images of monks and Buddhas. With a recently opened gallery space and shop upstairs you can now find examples of Thai design and art to fit every budget.

Details: lalunagallery.com

Andrew Spooner is the author of Footprint Books' Thailand Handbook (£15.99 footprintbooks.com)

Insider's secret

Chananut 'Jang' Choosombut, Club Manager, The Chedi Chiang Mai

"The best-kept dining secret in town is the run of Muslim food stalls along Chiang Klang Road, Soi 1, just off the Night Market. The oxtail soup, biriyani, and beef massaman curry are excellent. On Fridays, between 6am and 10am, you'll also find an authentic hill peoples' market here."

Compact Facts

How to get there

Etihad Airlines (0800 731 9384; etihadairways.com) offers flights to Thailand via Abu Dhabi from Heathrow and Manchester starting at £408.

Further information

Tourism Authority of Thailand (0870 900 2007; tourismthailand.co.uk).

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