Standing in splendour beneath jungle-covered hills, Thailand’s second city Chiang Mai glistens with ornate temples and bustling night markets. Pace-wise, it’s far more laid-back and relaxed than Bangkok, and as you wander the traditional wooden houses, elaborate gardens, and temples, you’ll find far fewer visitors. Chiang Mai, while a thriving modern city, is proud of its heritage and clings fiercely to it: new building in the beautiful old quarter is strictly limited and many of the houses are wooden and traditional in design.
We particularly like exploring the Bo Sang markets by tricycle, relaxing at the lantern-lit restaurants and bars that dot the river, and enjoying some of Thailand's best full-moon festivities during Thai New Year.
Chiang Mai is also a great base for adventure, with the opportunity to spot gibbons in the rainforest, go elephant-trekking, take a dip beneath spectacular waterfalls, and fly though the forest canopy on an exhilarating zip-line.
A few hours’ drive northeast of Chiang Mai, the setting of Chiang Rai couldn’t be more spectacular: encased in Northern Thailand’s legendary Golden triangle, where the mighty Mekong and Ruak rivers meet, and close to the borders of Laos and Myanmar which lie beyond the lush jungle-draped mountains.
It’s also the capital for soft adventure, offering mountain biking, elephant riding, waterfall swims, and treks to visit unique hill tribe villages, as well as zip-lining through the jungle canopy, and boat trips to Laos on the myth-shrouded Mekong River.
An absolute must for elephant-lovers is a day spent with a mahout in which you learn how to care for and bathe these gentle giants, and for a fascinating dose of history, we recommend a visit to Chiang Rai's opium museum. Chiang Rai is also home to the Mae Fah Luang Art & Culture Park, which has a vast collection of contemporary art alongside Buddhist temples and artefacts from the medieval Lanna Kingdom.