I began the story of my sojourn to Thailand last month with an article on Bangkok. I continue now 900 miles to the north in Thailand’s second largest city, Chiang Mai.
This city, enclosed by a moat, the ruins of an ancient wall, and surrounded by thick mountainous jungle, was the 13th century capital of Thailand’s lanna kingdom. It is a place easy to traverse by foot or aboard exotic three-wheeled motorbike cabs called tuk-tuks. A major destination for youthful “trekkers” from around the world, Chiang Mai has plenty of more sedate adventure for older travelers. There are four world-class golf courses nearby with bargain green fees from $15-30.
You can fly into Chiang Mai, but one of the world’s great railway journeys is the night train from Bangkok. It departs at dusk. An attendant will bring you dinner and plenty of Thai beer and later arrange your bed. At dawn, you’ll awake to spectacular scenery as the train snakes its way through steamy, lush, tropical jungle, finally arriving in Chiang Mai at 7 a.m.
I stayed at the Amari Rincome (66 0 5322 1130), a 158-bed luxury hotel just outside the walled city. As in most Thai resort hotels, an expansive buffet breakfast is included in the price. My room was spacious and well appointed, with a balcony view over a pool set in a palm tree oasis isolating it from the busy traffic on the bordering street. Its rates are $56-75, depending on season. With a comfortable lobby, an inviting bar, a convenient location, and attentive service, the Amari Rincome was the first of many great local bargains.
We hired a driver for 400 baht ($10) to introduce us to Chiang Mai. Though we were eventually taken to the interesting wats (temples) and the famous night bazaar, our sightseeing began with what you might view as the “hustle” tour – stops at local handicraft factories. But while it might have been a lucrative ploy by our driver, I didn’t feel hustled. Chiang Mai is the handicraft center of Thailand. Much of its unique products are made here. And our visits to local factories turned out to be quite fascinating. First stop was an umbrella factory. I had no desire for a painted umbrella but the artwork was excellent and you can hire their artists to paint on anything. My son had his backpack personalized with a painting of an elephant scene. Thai silk is world famous and our next stop was a silk factory. Here we were shown how they draw out raw silk from cocoons, spin it into thread, dye it, and then weave it into beautiful material. You can buy it by the meter or order anything made from it – tablecloths, shirts, suits, and more. Other local handicraft destinations include leather stores, woodcarving, lacquer ware, and pottery stores.
After a day touring the town, we sought out a “dream massage” at Let’s Relax (053-818-498) – 1 1/2 hours of pampering cost 450 baht ($11). Thoroughly relaxed, we exited into the rush of people plying Chiang Mai’s Night Market. Here there are seemingly endless booths selling name brand knock-off clothes, purses, and watches; native artwork and silks; and much more – at bargain prices that can be bargained even lower.
Elephants are big in Thailand. I can’t help the pun. Elephants have been a major part of Thai culture for centuries – both as working animals and for their spiritual significance. While Thailand’s vast elephant population has dwindled, because they are no longer used in the logging industry, there are still plenty of them, now used as a popular attraction for the tourist industry.
Early one morning, a tour operator picked us up in a van. A half hour later, we were in the mountainous jungle countryside at an elephant camp. We sat atop our elephants on hard wooden bench saddles. After the animals took us safely across a muddy river, the “drivers” invited those who wanted to – to ride the elephants “bare back,” sitting atop its head and neck. With our guide urging the elephants on with a stick, we rode on for about an hour – feeling quite native – climbing up into the jungle terrain with views of verdant valleys below. After dismounting, we hiked about 20 minutes further uphill to a Hmong Village with our guide pointing out unusual flora along the way. We finally arrived at the village with its distinctive thatched roof homes, covered in teak leaves, built on stilts above ground – with pigs, chickens, and garbage stored beneath.
The hill tribes know no borders. The Hmong, Lisu, Akha, Karen, Lahu, and Mien are the six principal tribal cultures with settlements in Thailand, most in the far north of the country. They are not strictly citizens of any country and at times, their primitive “slash and burn” agriculture runs at odds to the conservationist plans of the central government. During my stay in Thailand, the border with Burma was closed because of disagreements on how to handle the hill tribes. While life in some of the hill tribe villages remains as it was centuries ago, civilization is fast encroaching to the point that many of them are simply tourist destinations.
Tour operators in Chiang Mai are everywhere and book a variety of “treks.” You can take short, one or two day trips. These might encompass elephant rides through exotic jungle, bamboo river rafting, and a hill tribe visit. You might choose a trip to the “Golden Triangle,” where the borders of Thailand, Burma, and Laos meet. Here you can take a boat ride down the Mekong River, visit border villages in Laos, or (once the border re-opens) gamble in the casino at the Paradise Resort in Burma. Or, you can choose longer, more strenuous backpacking treks, some as long as a week, that visit more remote tribes and allow you to live with them and intimately experience their culture.
The Amari Rincome is not far from Doi Suthep, a popular forested mountaintop where you can see the entire city laid out below. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, one of the Thailand’s most revered Buddhist temples, sits atop the mountain. After a tortuous drive up the mountain, you can choose to walk up to the temple along a dramatic staircase flanked by “nagas,” giant dragons, or you can save your time and energy and take a funicular to the temple mountaintop. The temple with its murals and many golden Buddhas is wondrous. You’ll find yourself among international tourists, native Thais at prayer lighting incense and laying out lotus-blossom offerings, pilgrims applying gold leaf to already gold encrusted Buddhas, and, of course, plenty of orange-robed monks. And the views of the city and the countryside below are spectacular. There are rows of giant bells on the temple grounds. They ring constantly as tourists walk down the rows of bells, ringing one after the other – just for fun. Make ringing the bells at Doi Suthep part of your itinerary. It’s said to bring good luck.
Before departing Chiang Mai, I moved on to another hotel about 17 kilometers north of the city – The Regent Chiang Mai Resort and Spa ( Set in its own peaceful emerald forested valley, it is one of the world’s great resorts. The Regent, which opened in 1995, is a Four Seasons Resort with off-season rates starting at $310. Even in the jungles of Thailand, this place offers every amenity you could expect in a luxury resort along with extraordinary service and Thai graciousness. Most remarkable is the design and ambience of The Regent. There are 64 spacious individual suites, exquisitely decorated in “lanna” style – a historic blend of Burmese, Indian, and Chinese cultures. The bathrooms have deep-soaking tubs overlooking secluded gardens decorated with native plants and sculptures. And each suite has its own private outdoor “sala” – a gazebo attached to the main suite by a wooden footbridge. There are also 16 palatial residences on the resort’s twenty acres suitable for groups or families of 8-12. The Regent’s Lanna Spa is by far its crown jewel. It’s a three-story building whose design is based on that of ancient Lanna Thai temples. There are seven private treatment suites with massage beds next to fireplaces, opening out to private gardens. You enter across a teakwood bridge into a world created to provide the perfect harmony of body and soul.
To establish the ambience of a traditional Thai village, The Regent created a living “movie set.” Their suites and residences are built around their own terraced rice paddies. As you dine in their formal restaurant or sip drinks poolside, you gaze out at water buffalo grazing and at peasants working the fields. It is that attention to detail that makes the Regent Chiang Mai a remarkable Thai destination in itself.
Northern Thailand is a tropical rainforest. And though there’s a “rainy season,” June to October, every month is rainy. I visited in September. The rains came, often every day, several times a day. But I found it no bother at all. While the rains were intense, with cascades of water sometimes flooding stairways or streets, they were brief. The sun would re-emerge and in moments, all would be dry again. And business as usual would resume. So, don’t limit your choice of times to visit Thailand and its northern city, Chiang Mai. It will always be hot, always be rainy, and always be astounding.