Infinity pool MGallery Veranda Resort & Spa Chiang Mai
It may not have the coveted beaches of Phuket or the frantic energy of Bangkok, but Chiang Mai is nevertheless a firmly established tourist favourite in Thailand. Travel photojournalist David Bowden heads north to chill out and cool down in this historic Thai city.
One of the first things I noticed about Chiang Mai is just how cool it is. Cool in terms of temperature and also cool for its hip quotient. A lot has changed in Thailand’s northern capital over the past few decades from being a backpacker’s haven in the 1970s and 1980s to now being a magnet for design conscious travellers.
Northern Thailand is the home of the first Thai Kingdoms of Chiang Saen, Chiang Mai, and Sukhothai. Over the centuries, Thai and Burmese rulers tussled for control of these cities. With the Thais firmly in control, Chiang Mai has become Thailand’s most livable city, where life is cosmopolitan but without Bangkok’s congestion. The mountains north of Chiang Mai moderate the tropical lowl and climate, and relatively cool evenings are common. The best time to visit Northern Thailand is during the cooler months, generally from October to January.
Chiang Mai is located in the fertile valley of the Ping River at the base of Mount Suthep (Doi Suthep). In the 1970s, backpackers descended upon Chiang Mai to walk the northern hills and to see the various hill tribe people living there. The night markets became the place to buy hill tribe textiles and handicrafts. While backpackers still come, a new wave of tourists finds the north equally appealing. The arrival of internationally branded hotels like Anantara and Accor have paved the way for more upmarket tourists seeking life’s little indulgences like innovative restaurants, creative bars, soothing Thai spa treatments, and designer boutique hotels.
Silver Temple Chiang Mai
When I first visited Chiang Mai many years ago, I was attracted to the Buddhist temples in and around the city. Now, somewhat “templed out,” the 300 temples have limited appeal to me, but for someone who is only newly familiar with the area’s history, the main ones certainly should be included in a travel itinerary of the north. Many date from the ancient Lanna Kingdom, and there are different architectural styles, including those from neighbouring Myanmar. The modern Silver Temple is an unusual temple in that it is all silver and is worth comparing with the normal yellow and golden temples.
Doi Suthep is Chiang Mai’s best-known temple destination and notable for its central pagoda of Wat Phra That Doi, which features four ornate golden parasols. It’s out of town and an obligatory destination for first-timers also because of the views over the Ping Valley from an altitude of 1,700 metres. However, don’t be surprised if the pollution and haze impact the view.
Hill tribe handicrafts
Chiang Mai has always been a shopping haven with the famous Night Market being the place for local handicrafts and hill tribe products. Located along Chang Khan Road in downtown Chiang Mai, visiting the market is a traveler’s rite of passage, but many maybe more impressed with the quantity rather than the quality.
There are two ‘walking street’ street markets that offer a more vibrant selection of goods than the Night Market. These markets are held in the open air every Saturday and Sunday night. On Saturday, the market extends along Wualai Road while on Sunday, it’s the bigger one held along Rachadamnoen Road.
The city’s hip shopping precinct is Nimmanahaeminda Street (mercifully abbreviated to Nimman) in the western parts of the city (15 minutes by taxi from the city centre). Several side streets (called soi) radiate from the main road. Restaurants and bars add to the mix, so my suggestion is to start in the late afternoon and extend into the evening to make the most of the boutiques, streetside spas, restaurants, cafés, and bars.
The road to Sankampaeng was once lined with small artisans producing handicrafts, but catering to tourists is big business and factory outlets have mostly replaced smaller outlets these days. One of the best routes to follow (negotiate a half-day fare with a taxi driver) heads east from Chiang Mai on the road to Sankampaeng via Bo-Sang. The road is lined with shops selling antiques, celadon (ceramics), silverware, umbrellas, wood carvings, lacquerware, silk, and handmade paper products. Shop along one side of the road that extends for 15km to Sankampaeng and then shop the other side on the return trip. It’s a bit touristy, but the selection is extensive, and while artisans can still be seen, they mostly swing into action when the tourists arrive.
Si krawk issan or NE sausage
Naturally, food is one of the great joys of visiting Thailand, and the experience in the north is particularly rewarding, as there are many delicacies which are accessible, cheap, and uniquely Thai. Local Chiang Mai dishes to try include naem sausages and khao soi noodles. Galare Food Centre within the Night Market has a variety of stalls serving mostly Thai food, Chinese (specialties from nearby Yunnan are available), and Indian vegetarian meals.
Call me old-fashioned, but for atmospheric dining, the Riverside (not surprisingly located along the river) offers an unbeatable combination of Thai and Western dishes, cold beer, and fabulous ambiance. The Restaurant in the Anantara is more upmarket, but with the same fabulous riverside dining experience.
Khao sawy noodles Chiang Mai
There’s a cool coffee scene too with local concepts like Doi Tung, Wawee, Doi Chaang, and Tom N Toms being more interesting than the established international brands. Dolcetto on Nimmanahaeminda, Soi 7 is a smart outlet with specialty coffees such as iced dolcetto rum to accompany waffl es and lava cake.
Thai creativity and design savvy extends to some of the city’s bars, as well. Bus Bar by the city side of the Iron Bridge is a cool, outdoor venue where the bar is an old bus. Zoe in Yellow (on Ratvithi Street or ‘reggae alley’) is the bar to visit later in the evening while Spicy gets fired up when most travellers are in bed. HOBS on Nimman serves Belgium beer to a cool crowd who congregate for the food, beverages and deejay music.
North by Northwest
Elephant rides in Chiang Mai
There are many places to visit in northern Thailand, with the Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao-Pai-Mae Hong Son-Khun Yuam- Doi Inthonon loop being a route that is mountainous, but one which can be negotiated over a few days in a hired car.
Elephants and elephant training are both on the essential activity list while in the north, and there are several places scattered in the northwest hills to experience all the action (www.maesaelephantcamp.com). While originally established to train elephants for the logging industry, they have become more commercialized. Nevertheless, the kids will still love the opportunity to feed elephants and to take a bumpy ride.
For those who like a little adventure, zip lining through the rainforest canopy with Flight of the Gibbon (www.treetopasia.com) is highly recommended. The operation is well-managed and while some sections are high up in the trees and look quite challenging, the fact that you’re safely strapped onto support wires means that everything happens very smoothly.
How to Get There
There are direct daily flights from Kuala Lumpur to Chiang Mai, with the journey being less than three hours. Entry to Thailand is visa-free for nationals of most
Metered taxis are the easiest way to get around, although local transport such as songthaews (converted pick-up trucks) and tuk-tuks are available for the more adventurous.
Where to Stay
Chiang Mai is full of hotels from really cheap backpacker dorms to super cool designer spaces. Design-conscious travellers will seek out any number of smart hotels like the Anantara (www.anantara.com) in the city centre. This superb deluxe property is situated close to the Night Market on the banks of the Ping River and its spa facilities make for some peaceful relaxation. For a truly romantic and remote resort, check into the MGallery Veranda Chiang Mai The High Resort (www.verandaresortandspa.com) and enjoy its cool mountain ambiance. Budget travellers shouldn’t pass up the well-established Galare Guest House (www.galare.com).
Obtain excellent information before you travel or while in Chiang Mai from The Tourism Authority of Thailand (tourismthailand.org).
Source: The Expat magazine September 2015
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