Heavenly Kingdom

Chiang Mai means ‘new city’, but in this northern Thai metropolis, centuries-old heritage and simple village traditions still take centre stage.

Chiang Mai means ‘new city’, but in this northern Thai metropolis, centuries-old heritage and simple village traditions still take centre stage.

Too often, a traveller’s search for nirvana in Thailand seems to lead through a jumble of cheap eats and raucous drinking holes, to a scorching-hot beach covered in discarded plastic straws and cocktail umbrellas. There is an alternative. Tucked away in the country’s cool, lofty north, there is an escapee’s paradise called Chiang Mai. While Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, is a bustling, chaotic network of klongs (canals), concrete, highways and skyscrapers, Chiang Mai has modernised itself without letting go of its peaceful shrines and lily ponds. Bangkok clangs off the tongue like cymbals in a melodrama, but the two syllables of the ancient northern capital chime like temple bells.

Chiang Mai is located in a valley overlooked by the glittering Buddhist sanctuary of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Surrounded by 13th-century battlements, five antique gates and a tree-lined moat, the citadel of the Lanna Kingdom (or north Thailand, which was once considered an independent state) was a trading hub for hundreds of years. It still reverberates with the velveteen tramp of hippies and the silver trinkets of the hill tribes - although these days they are exchanging organic passionfruit and strawberries, not opium. In flower-filled lanes, dozens of gold-leaf wats (Buddhist temples) happily coexist alongside chilled-out bars and ornately decorated restaurants.

Chiang Mai means ‘new city’, as it was built on the remains of an earlier civilisation, with ramparts to defend it against invading Mongols and Burmese. Rural villages flourish within 15 minutes of the CBD and, although the city is growing fast, you can walk from one end of the old town to the other in 30 minutes and cycle safely round the entire city in about an hour. Every Sunday night, the fabled Walking Street Market stretches from the Tha Phae Gate along Ratchadamnoen Road, creating a ripple of musicians, vendors, villagers, artists and craftspeople selling every ingenious product, decoration, service and snack you can imagine.

Northern Life

Although the region is located far from the sea, water is the reigning element. Fed by the glaciers of the Himalayas to the north, the Ping River snakes down Chiang Mai’s eastern side. It is spanned by a series of elegant bridges and flanked to the south by giant teak trees, the likes of which once covered the entire countryside.

All this makes Loi Krathong - the annual full moon festival in which locals give thanks and honour the water spirits - more important to Lanna Thai people than any other event on the calendar. In late November, citizens of all ages flock to the riverbanks to release lanterns into the sky and floral tributes onto the water as part of the two-day festivities.

Throughout the rest of the year, the people of Chiang Mai move at a gentle clip. Traditional Thai values are enshrined in phrases such as mai bpen rai (it doesn’t matter) and sanook mai? (was it fun?). You’ll also hear people say sabai sabai (everything is great) regularly, and the question all northerners ask each other on a daily basis: aroy mai? (Is it tasty?).

The affluent university precinct spills out onto Nimmanahaeminda Road. It’s a pleasant area - tree-lined sois (laneways) branch off the main street and its student population has encouraged a thriving cafe and restaurant scene. It is also good for pedicures, haircuts, art galleries and fashionable boutiques, and some of the smaller bars and hotels, such as the city’s recently opened five-star Akyra Manor, showcase a more playful side to modern Chiang Mai. The award-winning boutique hotel’s exterior facade was inspired by the old city wall. Dating from the 13th century, it survives in varying states of crumbled brickwork throughout the old quarter.

Within walking distance of the old town (or a short tuk-tuk ride away) is another highlight of the city. The Night Bazaar on Chang Khlan Road is as rowdy as Nimmanahaeminda is intimate. It has everything from American fast-food palaces to market stalls stuffed with textiles, clothing, souvenirs, and jade and silver jewellery; footpaths are stacked with little tents full of knick-knacks. There are food courts off the main drag and, in the back lanes, an interesting mix of ladyboy bars and old mansions.

If you want to shop with the locals, get down to Chinatown early in the morning, before it gets too hot. Warorot and Ton Lamyai Markets are two old-style emporiums on opposite sides of the same dusty street. They enclose a rabbit warren of stalls and galleries where you can buy almost anything from Thai snacks such as dried fruit and sausages, to woks, clothes and tools. The nearby streets are also fantastic for buying fabrics. Dive inside the cloth merchant’s maze and you’ll be dwarfed by the huge bolts of linen, silk, satin, chiffon, seersucker and lace. Venture down the numerous side alleys for bohemian treasures - think voluminous harem pants, leather sandals or scarves. You may even find the alley with the hill tribe tents - where embroidered handbags can be picked up for less than $10 (they sell for more than $100 in Australian boutiques). Don’t miss Thamel Coffee on Kuang Men Road, just a block from Warorot. The cafe has a Moroccan feel with hand-painted furniture and murals, mosaic lanterns and wall hangings, but it serves pizza, a range of ice-creams and cold fruit drinks. There’s no better place to recover from the heat of the busy market.

Moving along on the eastern side of Warorot, right by the river past the fresh produce stalls, the flower markets offer exotic blooms of all description from roses, marigolds and orchids to garlands of jasmine. You can cross the bridge here to wander along Charoenraj Road on the other side of the river, where old Chinese teak shophouses have turned into antique shops and riverside eateries serving cheap authentic food.

Gifts of Nature

The real beauty of Chiang Mai, however, is its proximity to the rice fields and forested hills of the rural north. Within a few hours, you can be living in the verdant highlands with the tribes, or trekking over mountain ranges, past waterfalls and rapids overlooking the Mekong. You can nuzzle elephants in the Golden Triangle (the point where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet) and there’s even an alpine cloud forest on Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest peak, located less than two hours to the west. Pai - about three hours’s drive from Chiang Mai - is a beatnik town with music in every cafe, while Chiang Rai, 200 kilometres to the north, is famous for its wedding-cake architecture and lakes.

The Lisu hill tribes live a little closer to the city, about 1.5 hours north. The Lisu people wandered here from Tibet and southern China about 100 years ago, and after decades of poverty, found prosperity in eco-tourism. Lisu Lodge is part of a community-based project that aims to conserve the heritage of the tribes. Women can be found at sewing machines making their iconic candy-striped textiles, while a shaman will put on a show with his splendid headdress and plaintive stringed instrument. Gardens surround the bamboo pavilions and colour is everywhere.

It’ll take you about two hours, but a trip to the mountains of Doi Inthanon National Park can include a homestay with the Karen tribe, where a day spent wandering through rainforest ends around a campfire drinking moonshine under the stars. (Your hosts will probably be shivering while you enjoy the fresh 19-degrees-Celcius air.)

The Karen people are hard-working, and despite many having converted to Christianity, they have retained a strong connection to the spirit world. They’re a lot of fun and everyone contributes to village life, young and old. But don’t expect hot showers or a duck-down mattress here.

For all its metropolitan sophistication, Chiang Mai remains a city where the population still has one foot in the village. Despite the impact of climate change - which has brought low rainfall and reduced crop yields to this notoriously fertile landscape - life still revolves around the timeless cycles of wet and dry; reap and sow. It’s a place to remind yourself that there’s really no hurry, no reason to endlessly strive, no point in stress. It is the Lanna Thai tradition to enjoy each day of your life, just as it comes.

Eat

Ming Muang (Nimmanahaeminda Rd) serves consistently delicious Thai food.

If you’re craving steak, fries or pizza, LaVa Cafe, Bar & Grill (183/15 Chang Klan Rd) delivers, or try a risotto at Akyra Manor’s Italics (22/2, Nimmana Haeminda Rd, Soi 9), known for its innovative Italian food.

Modernity meets colonial swank at Rachamankha (6 Rachamankha 9 Phra Singh), a beautiful hotel with fine dining and live music.

Accha Fusion India (Nimmana Haeminda Rd, Soi 9) is lively and great value - and the vegetarian tandoori platter is a knockout. Baan Jangarpor’s (71 Charoenprathet Rd) serves northern Thai cuisine in a 150-year-old teak house, while Le Spice (31 Charoenprathet, Soi 6, Changklan Rd) specialises in tender tandoori.

Visit Dhara Dhevi Cake Shop for coffee and cakes, or the Amazing Sandwich (20/2 Huey Kaew Rd) and Smoothie Blues (32/8 Nimmana Haeminda Rd, Soi 6) for a truly western-style breakfast.

For eating around the clock, Somphet Market (Moon Muang Rd, Soi 6), rolls out street food day and night, and Chiang Mai Gate Market contains a cornucopia of village treats open 24/7.

Culture

Behind the Night Bazaar written by Australian crime writer Angela Savage, follows a hard-nosed Aussie girl taking a break from her private detective work in Bangkok to visit an old friend in Chiang Mai. Almost immediately she is thrown into the city’s underworld and the arms of a handsome undercover cop. It’s great fun to read while visiting the actual places. One to read before you go (but best not to take with you) is The King Never Smiles, by Paul M Handley. Banned in Thailand, this unauthorised biography of the country’s longest reigning monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, provides fascinating insights into the courtly intrigues which led the idealistic young king to the throne.

Stay

Akyra Manor is a sleek boutique hotel in a lovely part of town. It has a pillow mist menu, fabulous food and terrific staff.

RarinJinda Wellness Spa Resort, located on one of Chiang Mai’s most fascinating streets, Charoenraj Road, offers affordable luxury by the river.

The boldly decorated Anantara Chiang Mai Resort is a well-run hotel, with colonial bones and high standards.

For local village culture, Trikaya Tours will organise a custom tour and homestay with the Karen hill tribe.

Lisu Lodge is community-run and the Lisu tribe are vivacious hosts. The peace and quiet here is as thick as velvet.

Another retreat is Khum Lanna, where you can stay in an exquisite teak house.

Ruth Hessey - Published in Voyeur May 2016
Quick Facts 
Population Approx 390,000
Area 40,220 km2
Time Zone GMT + 7
Languages Kham Muang, Thai, English
Currency Thai Baht
Electricity 220 Volts. Several plugs and sockets are used, but two pin flat (US type) or round (European type) are universal. Adapters can purchased from local stores.
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