Rose of The NorthChiang Mai presents a wonderful contrast to Bangkok. It is Thailand's second largest city, though only one fortieth the size of the capital and quite unlike it in most other respects. Of great antiquity and moulded by a distinct history, Chiang Mai is a most attractive destination with sights and charms peculiar to itself and the picturesque Northern region of which it is the centre.
Located 700 kilometres north of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is less than an hour from the capital by plane and is served by several daily flights. It can also be reached conveniently by airconditioned overnight train or coach.
Although readily accessible, the city popularly known as the "Rose of the North" presents a superb contrast. Whereas Bangkok is a mere 200 years old, Chiang Mai was founded in the late 13th century and is one of the oldest continually inhabited settlements in Thailand. It was once the capital of Lanna, an independent Thai kingdom, and has preserved its unique cultural heritage to a marked degree. Accordingly it is a veritable treasure house of the arts and architecture unique to the region.
Within the city's original perimeter, still marked by moat and fortified gates, are numerous ancient Buddhist temples and other monuments attesting to a distinguished past. Close by are more magnificent attractions, including Wat Prathat Doi Suthep, and Phuping Palace, the summer residence of the Royal Family.
Arts & Crafts
Chiang Mai is further characterized by being one of the world's largest centres of cottage industries . Numerous handicrafts are traditional to the region and craftsmen, using skills passed down from generation to generation, continue to produce marvels like silverware, , lacquerware, celadon pottery, silk and cotton, hand-painted paper umbrellas and more.
Here is a true shopper's paradise and there is plenty of scope for browsing for unusual gifts and souvenirs. But buying is not all, and just as thrilling are visits to workshops, even whole villages devoted to handicrafts, like Bo Sang, to see the crafts in the making.
People of the hills
The region is, however, most strongly coloured by the various hilltribes who make their homes in the highlands. Comprising seven major trubes--Meo, Karen, Yao, Lisu, Lawa, Lahu and Akha, each with its own distinct culture, religion, language and colourful style of dress--these people maintain independent lifestyles . They are nonetheless hospitable and welcome visitors to their villages where their singular cultures are mostly untouched by the 20th century.
Chiang Mai is the ideal base for excursions to these varied sights and attractions, as well as a destination in its own right. The city has expanded considerably in recent years, though new building has not obliterated views of centuries old temples and there is little of the frenetic air that typifies life in Bangkok. The 'Rose of the North' remains a relaxing place, with its hospitable and easy going people who still hold to traditional ways and values.
There is, of course, modern development and today Chiang Mai offers the visitor an excellent range of facilities. Hotels, from deluxe properties with standards comparable to those of Bangkok to inexpensive but comfortable guest houses, provide accommodation to suite all tastes and budgets.
Restaurants, specializing in various national cuisines as well as the typical spicy northern delicacies, are plentiful. The best way to sample the local fare is to try a Khantok dinner, a Chiang Mai tradition, which features a variety of local dishes served with sticky rice, the favourite staple in northern cuisine. Typically the meal is accompanied by performances of traditional northern music and folk dances.
Chiang Mai further offers various places of evening entertainment and while these are not as numerous as in Bangkok, they are sufficient to ensure variety. For shopping there is the famed Night Bazaar as well as a host of other shops affording the bargain-hunter enormous scope.
Golden Triangle ( click for postcard )
Chiang Mai is wonderfully rewarding in its kaleidoscopic attractions and extensive facilities, but it by no means exhausts travel possibilities in the region. To the north, just a short hop by plane or about three hours by road, lies Chiang Rai and the "Golden Triangle", that spellbinding spot where the borders of Thailand, Burma and Laos meet.
A natural discovery
The best way to appreciate the natural charms of the North is by joining a jungle tour. The means of travel are extraordinarily varied--on foot, by jeep, by elephant back or by river rafting--while overnight stops are made at hilltribe villages where one gains a rare insight into tribal life.
Jungle tours are an established option in the North and the local TAT office provides a list of specialist travel companies. Trips can last from one day to one week, and each group is accompanied by an experienced guide.
For those with little time a splendid way of experiencing the jungle scenery is to take the regular long-tail boat which plies the Kok River between Tha Thon (due north of Chiang Mai) to Chiang Rai. The journey of just a few hours is a memorable experience. The same trip can he covered more leisurely by raft, stopping at hilltribe villages along the way.
Not the least of the North's attractions are the many festivals that dot the calendar. All Thais love a celebration but northerners have a special flair for them . The Songkran New Year festival in April, for example, is seen at its most colourful and boisterous in Chiang Mai, while Loy Krathong, held on the night of the full moon in November, is most enchantingly celebrated amid the ruins of Sukhothai.
Such is the northerners love of festivals that they do not limit themselves to the events in the national calendar and have numerous celebrations that are unique to the region. Notable among these is the Chiang Mai Flower Festival held in February.
The visitor will also find that traditional occasions for festivities, such as the ordination ceremonies for young men entering the monkhood, are much more elaborate affairs in the North than in Bangkok.
It is this unparalleled blend of historical attractions, natural scenery and a joyous people that makes a visit to Chiang Mai and the North so rewarding. Quite simply the region is different from the rest Thailand and holds many pleasant surprises for those who wish to explore beyond Bangkok.
Planning your trip
A week's stay in Chiang Mai would not exhaust the area's scenic, cultural and shopping attractions. Just to cover the city and its immediate environs, it is best to allow three days--say, one day city sightseeing, one day exploring the surrounding countryside, half-day excursion to Doi Suthep and a half-day shopping.
To experience the North more fully excursions are recommended to Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai. Both are destinations in their own right, and it is best to allow a couple of days for each. Mae Hong Son can be reached from Chiang Mai by air or by road, the latter journey takes a full day in each direction. There are also air and road connections to Chiang Rai, though a more adventurous approach is by road to Tha Thon and then by boat down the Kok river (a full-day trip).
Travel by road either to or from Bangkok is perhaps the best way to include Sukhothai on a Northern itinerary. While it is possible to make the trip in one long day, an overnight stop at Sukhothai or Tak is recommended. If coming from Bangkok, you could continue on by road from Sukhothai to Nan for another overnight stop, and finally on to Chiang Mai via Phrae and Lampang.