Chiang Mai, the city and surrounding
The entrance to the north of Thailand is Chiang Mai regardless how you travel. During my first visit to Thailand I came by train, later I cycled from Huay Xai, Laos and in February 2012, I flew in. This is the capital of the north, so to say.
When I first visited, Chiang Mai was a relative small city which was already under the spell of tourism.
At the time, I explored the city on a rented bicycle. It was also the year I went to Doi Inthanon, the national park, south west of the city, which at the time was hardly visited.
The northern capital, as it is sometimes called, is over the year relatively cool, especially compared to Bangkok. It's why a lot of travelers, including me the first time I visited Thailand.
The city as it is might have several attractions, but in the whole area there are many other possibilities. In fact, you could easily spend a month in the area and still have not seen all there is to see.
Accommodation in the city
With so many different hotels and guesthouses in all price ranges it might be hard to find your favourite. When I visited in February 2012, I was surprised to learn that despite the so called low season, many guesthouses were full. I was told that nowadays more people book online. So, here we go with the possibilities:
In 2012 when I visited the city, I stayed in the Royal Guesthouse, an old mansion. Rooms are basic but clean and spacious.
There is a pool with freezing water. You can have your meals here but so much variety at the night market, you might only want to use your breakfast here.
I would recommend it to any visitor coming to Chiang Mai.
Attractions in Chiang Mai
There are many temples in the city but Wat Phra Sing (close to the west city walls) and Wat Suan Dok, the Flower Garden Temple (just outside the city center) are two of the "must visit" temples due to their size, activity and high quality of artwork. A visit to Chiang Mai is not complete without visiting these two temples.
That said, there are many other very beautiful temples in the city to explore. Try to find Wat Bupparam where you will find Donald Duck in the garden in front of the temple. The temple itself has a lower section with a library and a very peaceful and beautiful temple above it.
The Night Market around Chiang Khlan road is a good place to hunt for bargains and eating. It's not as cheap as it used to be, but with some luck you find some real bargains.
There isn't much left of the old city wall but there are some nice pieces preserved.
In the city you will find several museums of interest as the National Museum and the Tribal Museum which is of interest for those who will travel further in the minority areas.
Attractions around Chiang Mai
To my shame I have never done the Mae Hong Son loop although I went to Fang and Tha Thon which is close to the Golden Triangle. You can do some caving here including caves which are directly at the Thai/Burmese border.
I did a river "cruise" here too which was wonderful too. The Golden Triangle is nearby.
Chiang Rai is also nearby. In 1991, I took a bus to Chiang Rai, a smaller and more relaxed version of Chiang Mai. Nothing much had changed when I came back in 2006 on the bicycle from Huay Xai. But apart of the night market and several temples, Chiang Rai has little to offer.
The same can be said about Nan, a city closer to the Lao border. Few travelers make it here and I can't blame them. There's little to keep you here unless you look for quiet cities without tourists.
West of Chiang Mai there are several national parks and elephant parks. I found Do Inthanon very beautiful.
Doi Tao is hardly visited, not in the last place because there is not much accommodation. Here is more about the road to Doi Tao and the lake itself.
Getting to Chiang Mai by plane train or bus
If you want to maximize your time in Thailand, try to get a visa first. Flying in from another country offers you a 30 days on arrival visa which is enough to explore to north but not enough to explore the rest of the country on bicycle too. The airport is only 10 minutes away from the city center and you can even walk it.
The railway station is located east of the city center at no more than 10 minutes cycling. There are daily trains to Bangkok and there's no problem to drop your bike on the train.
For cycling options, see these pages for more details. There are several good bicycle shops in the city where you can repair and maintain your bike if necessary. Renting bicycles is usually possible through the hotels.
Maps of the city
While Nelles Maps have a map of the city, I recommend the city map by B&B City Streets from Berndtson & Berndtson. This map not only offers a very good map of Chiang Mai city center but it also offers on the flip side a map of the region.
The map is made of plastic so you write on it and wipe it later off. You should be able to get the map in both Bangkok (Khao San road) and Chiang Mai.
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Doi Tao, about 150km south to south west of Chiang Mai is a little known but beautiful lake side. You will enjoy the peace and quietness after the busy Chiang Mai city. Wonderful place.
The road to Sukhothai
A very pleasant and inspiring bike ride from Thoen to Sukhothai. Mostly through quiet countryside and small town, this road shows what rural Thailand looks like.
Doi Tao to Thoen
This was an interesting ride through rural Thailand where I met some amazingly friendly people, some cool hills and got myself in between bush fires
Maps of Thailand
Traveling in Thailand without a map is possible but I like maps. Here are some recommendations international and local made Thailand maps.