Katie Wright discovers the hidden surprises of a destination rivalling Bangkok.
Most Brits heading to Thailand usually arrive in Bangkok and promptly board a plane south in search of sandy shores and blue seas.
But just an hour’s flight north is an exciting city-break destination worth seeking out.
Once the heart of the ancient Lanna kingdom, Chiang Mai is home to a mix of stunning mountainous scenery, historic sights and tasty cuisine.
The square, walled old town is packed with temples or ‘wats’, but the most impressive is found at the end of a snaky drive up a neighbouring hillside, followed by a short, steep funicular ride.
Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep was built here because it’s believed this is where a white elephant carrying some of Buddha’s ashes stopped some 600 years ago.
Against a backdrop of buzzing cicadas, the wat’s hilltop complex echoes with the clanging of bells - rung for good luck - that surround the ornate golden-roofed main temple.
Back at sea-level, the old town is small enough to walk around, but for journeys further afield, you’ve got to try Chiang Mai’s unique method of transport - the bright red ‘songthaew’ trucks that seat about 10 across two rows.
Flag one down and, if it’s already got passengers, see if they’re going in the right direction, then barter until you’re happy with the price. Most journeys shouldn’t cost more than 20 baht per person (less than 50p).
Thailand’s famous tuktuks are slightly more expensive, but careering wildly through the streets on these surprisingly speedy three-wheelers is a whole lot of fun and should be experienced at least once.
It’s a tuktuk that delivers me to a bend on the Ping river, where the city’s best nightlife is said to be found.
The Good View and Riverside bars are where young Chiang Maians head to let off steam and sink a few Chang beers while dancing to live music, but for something a little more sedate, Deck 1 offers cocktails on a pretty terrace overlooking the river.
For late-night eats, you’re never far from a street-side vendor, and you may be relieved to learn that northern provincial food tends to be a little less spicy than other regions.
But, as with everything in this vibrant city, it’s no less flavoursome.
>Katie Wright was a guest of Hayes and Jarvis (www.hayesandjarvis.co.uk) who offer an 11-night trip to Thailand, taking in Chiang Mai and Phuket, from £899 per person.