Wat’s Up, Chiang Mai?

With new direct flights opening up, the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai is easier to reach than ever—especially considering that the city was only accessible via elephant river trek until the 1920s. Dubbed the Rose of the North, this colorful city is home to the best of Thailand: awesome street food, sky-high temples, chaotic markets and exotic animals.

What to See

Thanks in part to crumbling chunks of once-towering city walls, complete with a moat, the historic quarter is one of the most picturesque districts in Chiang Mai. Within just minutes of each other, you’ll find more than 300 temples, with ornate hand-carved wooden reliefs and gilded gold details that gleam in the sunshine.

One of the most famous of Chiang Mai’s wats, or temples, is Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (Huai Kaeo Road; entry THB30, $7), which is home to an incredible view but is a bit tricky to access, as it’s tucked away into the mountainside a few miles outside of the city. You can either catch a “songthaew”, or a shared van, from Mani Nopharat Road for about THB50 ($12) each way to the cable car (THB20, $5), or hike up the 300-or-so stairs, which is harder than it sounds.

For a gorgeous glimpse of Lanna-style architecture that’s just minutes away from the city center, walk to Wat Duang Dee (228 Phra Pok Klao Rd., Chiang Mai), which is covered in beautiful golden dragons and is said to date back to the early 16th century. But Chiang Mai’s historical essence doesn’t stop there. The city is home to several worthwhile museums, including the multimedia Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre (Prapokklao Road, Chiang Mai, (+66) 53-217-793; THB90, $22), the unusual Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders (Soi 13, off Nimmanhemin Road, Chiang Mai, (+66) 53-211-891, www.thailandinsect.com; THB200, $48) and the quirky new Art in Paradise center (199/9 Chang Klarn Rd., Chiang Mai, (+66) 53-274-100), which is home to an endearingly kitschy mix of interactive art that certainly requires a sense of humor, but also makes for great photo ops.

The more adventurous can test their mettle with a trip to the Flying Squirrel obstacle course (299/99, Moo 2, Mea Hia, Chiang Mai, (+66) 53-27-898-990, www.treetopflight.com), which takes a bit of nerve but rewards the courageous with unbeatable views above the treetops.

Animals to Pet

Planning to leave Chiang Mai without posing with a jungle beast? For shame. You have your pick of cool cats or hefty elephants here, but it’s important to do your research: it’s not uncommon for some tours to charge twice as much as others and, sadly, not all companies have the animals’ best interests in mind.

If you have your heart set on spending some time with an elephant, book a tour with the Elephant Nature Park (209/2 Sridom Chai Rd., (+66) 53-818-754, www.elephantnaturepark.org; from THB2,500, $604), which is about half an hour’s drive outside of the city and specializes in nurturing and rescuing mistreated elephants. Instead of performing circus tricks for tourists, the elephants here simply roam around the 50-acre parkland. Rides aren’t part of the deal, but you can bathe and feed the elephants, as well as stay overnight—or if you really fall in love, volunteer for a week.

Chiang Mai is also home to several tiger sanctuaries, but they are hotly debated because some sites allegedly use tranquilizers. One of the better options appears to be Tiger Kingdom (20 minutes from downtown, Mae-rim, Chiang Mai, (+66) 53-299-363, www.tigerkingdom.com), where 300-pound tigers are free to roam around and play when they’re not posing for pics. Visit the rambunctious “smallest” tigers first (4-8 months; THB620, $150) before sitting with the big boys (2 years; THB420, $101)… preferably after they’ve had lunch. The facility makes a point to reassure visitors that the tigers aren’t drugged or mistreated, insisting that they “naturally sleep for 16-18 hours a day.”

Drop Some Bahts

You can’t leave Chiang Mai without a swing through one of its bustling markets. The night bazaar along Chang Klan Road is the most popular place to shop, but the Ratchadamnoen Road night market is another option for bargain hunters. The place is packed with traditional snacks, beautiful wooden handicrafts, live music and gifts for every stripe. Keen to take home loads of Thai snacks and spices? Stop into the Warorot Market (between Thapae Road and Chang Moi Road).

There’s also some new, trendy Thai shopping along Nimman Promenade. Check out Chabaa(14/32 Nimman Promenade, Nimmanhaemin Road, Chiang Mai, (+66) 18-868-689, www.atchabaa.com) for hand-crafted jewelry, colorful bags and dresses from local designers.

Last-minute shoppers are in luck: Central Plaza, about a five-minute walk from the international airport, is full of easy-to-pack Thai candies and even devotes an entire floor to Thai silks and cultural crafts.

Where to Eat

You really can’t go wrong with eating three meals a day from street vendors or food courts—look for the iconic “kao soi,” crunchy curry noodles—but if you need a break, take a seat at the Green Table (2/F, Kantary Terrace, 44/1-2 Nimmanhaemin Rd., Soi 12, Chiang Mai, (+66) 53-920-190), which cooks up delicious Thai staples in a modern setting. Better yet, book a hands-on cooking class from the likes of the Siam Rice Thai Cookery School ((+66) 53-329-091,www.siamricethaicookery.com; THB900, $217), which includes transport from your hotel, a trip to the market and a booklet full of the recipes that you’ll create.

Where to Stay

With reasonable prices and gorgeous architecture, Chiang Mai hotels set the bar pretty high. It’s easiest to choose based on what kind of experience you’re after.

A romantic getaway: Stay at the out-of-town Veranda Chiangmai (192 Moo 2, Banpong Hangdong, Chiang Mai, (+66) 53-365-007, www.verandaresortandspa.com; from THB6,261, $1,512) for sexy rooms and views.

All about convenience: You can’t go wrong with the modern yet budget-friendly Dusit D2 (100 Chang Klan Rd., Chiang Mai, (+66) 53-999-999, www.dusit.com; from THB3,700, $894).

History buff: Sleep where the son of Anna, from “Anna and the King,” briefly lived while he was working in Chiang Mai. That’s right, the 30-suite 137 Pillars House (Nawatgate Road, 2 Soi 1, Chiang Mai, (+66) 53-247-788, www.snhcollection.com; from THB12,700, $3,067) was built in the 1800s, originally as offices for the East Borneo Company. It still retains all of its yesteryear charms.

Low-key beauty: Located in the historic district, Tamarind Village hotel (50/1 Rajdamnoen Rd., Chiang Mai, (+66) 53-418-896, www.tamarindvillage.com; from THB4,943, $1,194) encircles an incredible 200-year-old Tamarind tree and has a down-to-earth feel that can’t be faked.

This article originally appeared in HK Magazine, in print and online.