Chiang Mai - central point of the north
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Chiang Mai

 Central Point of the North

Chiang Mai - Central Point of the North
By Benjamin Malcolm

As both a destination in itself and a stepping-off point for further northern excursions, the city of Chiang Mai seems to fit in easily into the travel plans of most people. It is indeed the green jewel of the north - a reminder of the glory days of the Lanna Kingdom, encircled by crumbling brick walls and a moat around which the vibrant hum of traffic surges day and night.

Chiang Mai has all the conveniences of Bangkok without the traffic hassles, although the city does grow year by year, attracting in more people and commerce into its confines. It is the undisputed centre of the north, with the second highest city population in the country. Its international reputation grows every year and there are a number of high-class hotels and restaurants, resorts, golf courses and well-groomed hideaways to rival the other more well established tourist centres. It is also accessible by all means of transportation. The northern railway ends here and there is an international airport southwest of the city.

Like the rest of the north, Chiang Mai is cooler in temperature, because of its elevation, especially during the cold season evenings.

There is a bounty of activities to pass the time within and without these crumbling walls. An excellent first step would be a walk, bicycle, or motorcycle ride around the city's interior, within the moat, exploring the numerous smaller streets and temples. There are many places from which bicycles, motorcycles or cars may be rented for reasonable prices. Bicycles and motorcycles are the best mode to choose, as Chiang Mai is small enough to explore via these conveyances.

Chiang Mai's reputation as a "city of temples" quickly becomes apparent during this journey through the interior. Among the more important ones in the area are Wat Chedi Luang, which was built in 1401, the beautiful Wat Pra Singh and the stunning Wat Doi Suthep, a temple built on the summit of nearby Mount Suthep. Suthep, which takes some 40 minutes to reach, provides a panoramic view of the countryside and city and is well worth the journey to visit, especially if the weather is clear.

For those desiring a luxurious stay, head north toward Mae Rim and book a night or two at the Regent Resort or Mae Rim Lagoon Hotel. Other international hotels, such as the Westin Riverside Plaza, Chiang Mai Orchid and Royal Princess, are located in the heart of the city.

Many visitors opt for lessons in massage or in Thai cooking. A veritable cottage industry has sprung up catering to these two peculiar Thai institutions - there are a number of schools that teach both and others that hold weeklong seminars on the techniques involved in ancient Thai massage.

Night life and food are other reasons to extend one's stay here, as Chiang Mai really comes alive during the evening hours. Two of the more popular areas with visitors are the Tha Phae Gate area and the Night Bazaar, although there are plenty of other smaller, less-travelled areas that beckon the explorer. Tha Phae is the centre of the aforementioned cooking schools and is a backpacker's haunt. The Night Bazaar is a shopper's paradise offering just about everything under the sun, an every-day Chatuchuck-like open air market that thrums from sunset to around midnight. There are plenty of rip-offs here such as copied CD's of dubious quality and other tourist trinkets, but there are also some great buys. Excellent northern woodcarvings, cloth and textiles and other decorations may be found at rock-bottom prices. Bring your shopping savvy and enjoy the atmosphere as much as anything else. There are boxing demonstrations, northern dancing and other interesting performances all over the area, as well as any manner of Go-Go bars. Good deals can be found on tailored clothing and carvings.

Another option for those who like better deals is the lesser-known Warorot Market, north of the Night Bazaar, an all-day open market with food, fruit, flowers, textiles, clothing and other items.

Coffee houses also seem to be a growing industry in Chiang Mai, feeding off the region's coffee bean producers. While there is a Starbucks in the Night Bazaar area, coffee aficionados are better off exploring the cappuccinos and caf? au laits of Tha Phae's J.J.'s Bakery and Bake and Bite and the Lanna Caf?, which is located on Huay Kaew Road near the Central Department Store.

For excellent food and higher-end shopping options, head across the river to the Charoenrat Road area where textile, antique and cigar stores prevail, as well as high-end restaurants that sit door-to-door along the banks of the Ping River. Most of these restaurants, in particular Good View, the Riverside Restaurant and the Antique House II are popular with city residents especially, for their nightly music and open air atmosphere. Others, such as Brasserie, The Gallery and the Oriental Style, are quieter options.

Another cottage industry is the city's Khantoke dinners, which combine northern cuisine with northern dance into a night-long dinner performance. There are several centres for this in the city. For a more modern alternative, head toward the Huan Soontaree Vechanont Restaurant northeast of the city beside the river - here diners can sit down to Chiang-Mai specific food, while rotating musicians and the restaurant's namesake, entertain with classic Northern Thai music.

Chiang Mai is renowned as the stepping-off point for further adventures into the north and its travel agencies are primed to send people off toward whatever destination they have in mind - be it a raft trip, a visit to the hilltribe territories, cave exploring, or an ascent up the highest mountain in Thailand - Doi Inthanon (2565 metres).

There are excellent day trip options including the aforementioned trip to Doi Suthep, the Bo Sang umbrella-making village and San Kampaeng weaving village, the magnificent Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai in Lamphun and the elephant conservation centre near Lampang. Other adventures lie farther afield, but can also be easily arranged in Chiang Mai.

If you are thinking of visiting the hilltribe areas, you can get a preview of these northern subcultures at the Hilltribe museum, which is located north of the city on highway 107. The museum contains thoughtful displays and abundant information about each tribe, their location and their status.

With all these options and more, it is small wonder that Chiang Mai is a constant choice in travellers' itineraries.


- December Issue, 2002

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