In contrast to the mile-a-minute chaos of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a breath of fresh air. Here, leafy boulevards and European architecture survive alongside temples dating back to the twelfth century. Street-food shacks serving minty laab live side-by-side with gourmet coffee shops, and you’re as likely to find yourself in a trendy contemporary arts space as a traditional open-air bazaar.
The heart of the city is Tha Pae Gate, where live music fills the air on a Saturday evening and street vendors sell everything from khao soi curried coconut noodles to fresh fruit smoothies. This is the Eastern edge of the old city: a moated, two-by-two kilometre square filled with a labyrinth of market sois (alleyways) dating back to the days when Chiang Mai was the capital of the Lan Na Kingdom.
Beyond the ruined city walls, you’ll find cosmopolitan districts lined with European-style buildings and university students chilling out at hip riverside bars. There are suburbs where you can explore 11th-century ruins, learn the secrets of Lanna cuisine at a cooking school, or browse the country’s biggest craft market. There are gilded temples like giant jewellery boxes, temples honeycombed with secret passages, and jungle temples with hidden waterfalls. Then, when you’re all templed out, there are relaxing tea tasting sessions in the highlands, and some of the finest hiking trails in the country — leading to Hmong villages in the mountains with picture-perfect views over the city.
If there’s anywhere where the familiar and the exotic are more delightfully merged, and the traditional and the contemporary more perfectly balanced, we’re yet to find it.