In 2016, Travel + Leisure readers voted Chiang Mai the No. 1 best city in Asia. It’s the rising star of Thailand, beloved for its striking temples and frenetic, all-day-all-night bazaars.
How does one properly explore Chiang Mai? First, get your bearings by taking a tuk-tuk ride around the historic Old City, where some of the most extraordinary temples in the entire country can be found. Highlights include the ruined stupa and sweeping compound of Wat Chedi Luang (the sacred bronze Buddha inside Wat Chang Taem) or Wat Dab Pai, a temple guarded by twin chinthes (mythological, lion-like beings) and full of intricate murals.
If you need to escape the white-hot afternoon sun, you can let the day cool off while playing inside the world’s largest 3D art museum, Art in Paradise. Inside this retrofitted department store you’ll find countless opportunities for photo opps. You’ll see penguins leaping off the canvas and find entire rooms meant for exploring.
Chiang Mai is also famous for its markets, which are open almost every hour of the day. The Tonlamyai Market, or flower market, opens in the early morning hours. Orchids, piles of banana leaves, and traditional Thai garlands (phuang malai) line Praisani Road.
And at dusk, whether it rains or shines, Chang Khlan Road is just coming to life with the opening of the Night Bazaar. Tourists and locals flock here for kitschy souvenirs, knock-off bags and wallets, hand-tailored silk fashions, and fresh spices. Elbow up to a stall for stir-fry classics like pat kha pao or phad pak boong dang (morning glory with oyster sauce). Chiang Mai’s oldest public market, Talat Warorot, hawks Hill Tribe handicrafts and everyday goods such as hemp textiles and fishing nets.
After midnight, make your way to nearby 137 Pillars House, named Travel + Leisure’s 2016 World’s Best hotel in Southeast Asia — and one of the best in the world. Guests can stroll the terraced grounds, and find peace in the vertical garden. Once the personal villa of the British East Borneo Company’s manager, rooms inside the teak villa are now done up with tiled verandas and outdoor showers. Guests are assigned personal butlers. (We recommend splurging on one of the Louis Leonowens Pool Suites, which have private swimming pools.)
Guests who venture outside the city can enjoy a night or two at the Baan Chang Elephant Park, where visitors are taught to be Mahouts, or traditional elephant caretakers. Another great day trip: the region’s famous rice paddies, which sit only 30 minutes outside the city.