After a couple of bumpy years, Thailand has re-emerged from the darkest era of travel as one of the most sought-after destinations in Southeast Asia, distinguished for its year-round sunny weather, affordable prices, and abundant tropical nature.

Beyond the bustling capital that is Bangkok, the debauchery of Pattaya, and the tourist-ridden beaches of Phuket, there is an alternative cultural destination that’s been gaining as much traction lately, with arrival numbers on the up according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

This year, there’s simply no escaping Chiang Mai and its lively night markets, myriad of ancient temples and charming Old Town district:

Thailand’s Cultural Capital

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s cultural heart and arguably its most traditional larger city.

Unlike Bangkok, where historic pagodas and traditional architecture are condemned to forever perish in the shadow of towering high-rises, its northern sister is more picturesque.

That’s not to say it is a laid-back small town: far from that.

Temple in Chiang Mai Thailand

It is home to over a million people, but whereas its Southern competitor has become an international hub, and with the exception of the more homogenous demographic, could sometimes pass for any U.S. metropolis, Chiang Mai has retained that Old World character.

It does have its own thriving business district, but if you’re based in the charming, skyscraper-free Old Town, a UNESCO-protected zone surrounded by walls and a moat, you might be forgiven for thinking it is largely protected from the spoils of Westernization.

This Is Why Westerners Fall In Love with Chiang Mai

happy woman traveler with a camera in chiang mai thailand

Chiang Mai’s conservative approach to modernization is part of the reason visitors fall in love with it: it is one of a handful of places in Thailand where the indigenous culture lives on, be it through the monastic training of the youth or the family-oriented values a majority of locals still uphold.

Don’t get us wrong, nighttime in Chiang Mai is still a lot of fun, particularly within the Old Town walls and along the riverside, but don’t expect to find an equivalent to Bangkok’s libertarianism or Phuket’s diverse adult entertainment scene.

Historic Temples In Chiang Mai, Thailand, Southeast Asia

The fact that Phuket-bound beachgoers deliberately skip Chiang Mai, as it is nowhere near the coast, has arguably helped maintain it ‘unspoiled’ for longer, at least in comparison to the islands, where talks of tourism-led gentrification have dominated the scene.

Contrary to the former, it is primarily a cultural destination foreigners visit to admire richly decorated temples, get lost in the maze of shop-lined narrow streets, and challenge their palate with the spicy Northern Thai cuisine.

People Shopping For Clothes And Colorful Rugs In A Street Market In Chiang Mai, Thailand, Southeast Asia

Some of the most delicious street food in all of Thailand can, in fact, be found in Chiang Mai’s vibrant night markets, including the signature Khao Soi (egg noodle curry), Sad Oua (spicy herb pork sausage), and our personal favorite, Mango Sticky Rice.

Chiang Mai Is Incredibly Affordable – Even For Thai Standards

Thailand is known for being extremely cheap, and unless you’re earning your salary in baht, chances are Bangkok and the Thai islands will be an absolute bargain to you, but trust us when we say two days in Chiang Mai will make Phuket prices seem like daylight robbery.

Woman Holding A Red 100 Baht Bank Note, Thailand, Southeast Asia

While a simple dinner in a casual restaurant in Old Town Chiang Mai can cost as cheap as $11, in Phuket you could be charged double that amount. The same goes for hotels: in Northern Thailand, accommodation costs on average $53; in the touristy south, $115.

An overnight stay at the pool-equipped Vieng Mantra Hotel in Chiang Mai will set you back by a reasonable $28 this spring, while five-star stays at the highly-reputed Rarin Jinda Wellness Spa Resorts are priced from only $107.

woman visiting temples in chiang mai thailand

With its fascinating culture, controlled levels of tourism, and fair pricing, Chiang Mai is quickly becoming a tourist favorite in Thailand, and it’s no wonder the Prime Minister has touted an expansion of the local international airport, set to commence at some point this year.

Not only is there an expansion in the cards, but also the construction of a brand new airport to help accommodate increasing traffic now that Chiang Mai is challenging Southern Thailand for the post of second most important tourism hub after Bangkok.

blonde woman looks at a temple in chiang mai thailand

One-Stop Flights From The U.S.

Earlier this year, Taiwan-based Starlux launched flights to Chiang Mai from the United States, with one-stop routes available from Los Angeles and San Francisco, connecting in their home base of Taipei, available from $976 one-way.

Starlux is a newly-debuted airline that’s making a name for itself in the luxury travel scene, particularly in relation to its Business Class product, which features lie-flat seats, Michelin chef-curated fine dining, and a wide range of inflight entertainment options.

Traveler Holding United States Passport At Airport, Unspecified Location

Since flight connectivity between the United States and Chiang Mai—or anywhere in Thailand, for that matter—will be non-existent in 2024, West Coast-based travelers are sure to welcome this promising launch, even if it entails a layover in a third country.

If anything, they’re probably excited they get to tick a city as exciting as Taipei off the bucket list. Two birds, one stone, right?

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