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Introducing Chiang Mai

Are you here yet? OK, good, breathe a sigh of relief – you're in Thailand's second city, but it ain't Bangkok. Now, have a look around you, because this nonchalant city encapsulates much of what is unique and breathtaking about Thailand.

Piercing the foothills of northern Thailand, and snuggling up to Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai contains hundreds of sacred temples, with chedi and gabled rooftop tiers soaring skyward, and then billowing out protectively as they swoop to the ground. The city's enduring Lanna characteristics are evident in these revered, merit-making houses of worship, along with the quaint, moated old city where so many temples are housed. The surrounding mountains, their legendary, mystical attributes ever watchful over the steamy metropolis, loom large over the city.

Chiang Mai is laid-back, creative and reverential. It's a city with heart – most NGOs working with Burmese refugees have their headquarters here. In reality, the city is dynamic and modern without having lost its down-to-earth charm. There's certainly traffic, pollution and ugly concrete buildings, but this is a very Thai place – Thai culture overwhelmingly pervades a city wrapped up in Western sensibilities and striving for advancement. Fortunately the university students keep Chiang Mai looking and feeling youthful. Head down to Th Nimmanhaemin and you'll glimpse the city's future movers and shakers, intent now on moving and shaking it in the nightclubs, bars and discos that crown this area as Chiang Mai's nightlife headquarters.

Oh, and don't forget the eating scene. Specialities of the city include Japanese sushi bars around the university, Burmese curries and salads, and of course Thai: from delicious street food to white-linen riverside dining where fine wines and twinkling candles floating on the water create a special Chiang Mai indulgence.

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