Chiang Mai: Thailand’s beguiling Rose of the North

by Jeff Kingston

It is a great time to visit Thailand. The political crisis has abated, the airport is open, everything is a bargain and tourists are few and far between. What more could a traveler ask for?

Thailand is rightly famous for its gorgeous beaches and incredible food. Phuket, Koh Samui and Krabi pack in the sun worshippers, while Bangkok has its own enticing vibe.

But if you haven’t been, it’s time to visit Chiang Mai, the charming Rose of the North, where temperatures are pleasantly cool and the ratio of urban amenities to hassles is far better than in traffic-clogged Bangkok.

In Chiang Mai, people are more laid back, and it never feels like you are in a city, but travelers are spoiled for choice whether it’s for hotels, dining or things to do.

One of the great pluses is the Ping River that snakes alongside the town. Naturally, there are boat cruises of varying duration, and there are many fine riverside restaurants — The Gallery being an excellent choice — where one can unwind. The regional specialty, khao soi, is an unforgettably delicious dish of curry, chicken, coconut cream and egg noodles that is better here than anywhere else.

The Old Town is laid out in a grid, and the brick-walled ruins and moats convey a sense of past glories, while there are enough wats to satisfy even the most ardent temple-hound. Tuks-tuks (motorized, open-air two-seater scooter taxis) are a cheap and pleasant way to get around, but most places one would want to see are within walking distance. Indeed, a nice feature of Chiang Mai is the foot massages that are on offer, where one settles back into a comfortable lounge chair outdoors and enjoys a rejuvenating respite.

The most impressive temple complex is the Wat Phra Singh, where the breathtakingly beautiful Viharn Lai Kam embodies the classical lanna architectural style of northern Thailand with steep-sloped roofs and gilded ornamentation.

In the bizarre category, I saw a Donald Duck statue in a temple garden, but could not find anyone who could explain his presence.

Early in the morning and later in the afternoon, one can wander into a temple for a tranquil interlude listening to the monks chanting sutras.

There are, of course, those memorably incongruous moments when one spies a monk chatting on his cell phone, or novices laughing and mugging while playing with a kitten at the back as the more reverent older monks chant on with greater devotion and piety.

Chiang Mai boasts a wide range of hotels, ranging from those catering to backpackers to five-star resorts with all the trimmings. Certainly, one can do very well in the ¥5,000-¥10,000 price range per night, but pass upward from that threshhold and the pickings, and bargains, are superb.

It is incredible that a place the size of Chiang Mai (population around 233,000), boasts five five-star hotels. The pick of the litter is The Chedi, a gorgeously designed modern structure faced with teak slats in an L-shaped layout surrounding a large pool/lounging/spa complex and the charmingly renovated former British Consulate.

From its perch nestled along the banks of the Ping River, the vistas are superb. The staff get everything right and avoid that all-too-cool aloofness that mars many upscale establishments. The suites are spacious and feature high-end amenities with a minimalist Zen design. The four-hand massage is a pampering treat not to be missed, while the food is superb, served in a romantic setting.

Assuming you can tear yourself away from such sybaritic pleasures, next door is a riverside temple where one can arrange boat trips, while the night market is just across the street. There you will find exquisite handmade silver jewelry and woven items that, with some bargaining, are very reasonably priced.

Sunday night, however, is when Chiang Mai lets its hair down and has a weekly carnival, creating pedestrian arcades in the center where all and sundry handicrafts are laid out for sale.

Further afield, nature lovers can go elephant trekking, rafting, visit hill tribes or watch colorful umbrellas being made by hand. And if you have an urge to cuddle with big felines, there is a tiger cub-petting park about 45 minutes out of town. Golfers are spoiled for choice with six, 18-hole courses in the vicinity.

Doi Suthep, however, is the highpoint of a trip to Chiang Mai. The 600-year-old Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is perched on top of a mountain overlooking the city. Get there early to enjoy views of the city emerging from the morning mist. One notices that almost all the visitors are Thai, many apparently on religious pilgrimages as they circle the wat, praying, bowing and laying down garlands of flowers, lighting votive candles and snapping pictures.

It is one of the many exquisite scenes in Chiang Mai that make one want to linger and vow to return.