Most tourists are familiar with the commercial side of Thailand. In contrast, the twin towns of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, nestled in the hills of Lanna, are havens of calm.
When in Thailand, visit Lanna in the north and you realise that its untapped, natural beauty is a complete contrast to the brassy commercialism of the more ‘touristy’ south.
Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, towns nestled in the verdant hills of Lanna, are perfect destinations for the unhurried traveller who likes to have some peace and quiet.
The artsy town of Chiang Mai is the second largest in Thailand after the capital, Bangkok. It is culturally rich and beautiful, and is a great place for some much-needed rest and relaxation.
From learning the finer nuances of Lanna cookery to marvelling at the handicrafts made here, there is a lot on offer.
One of the finest repositories of the ancient art of parasol making is the Bo Sang Handicraft Centre, a little out of the main Chiang Mai city centre. Here, you can pick up a few beautiful parasols at rock-bottom prices and the on-site artistes making them are only too happy to give you a little demonstration.
If you love the gentle giant of the jungle and Thailand’s treasured national animal, head to the Chiang-Dao Elephant Training Center, which is a mere 30 minutes from the city. This centre is home to 32 elephants that are trained by their own mahouts. The emphasis here is on eco-tourism. Travellers can see the elephants upclose and can also help in bathing them in the nearby Po river.
The Chiang Mai night safari is another way to meet and greet the other inhabitants of the jungle. Visitors are encouraged to feed animals like deer, zebras, giraffes and kudus, while being whisked along the safari path in an open-sided vehicle. A late night, postsafari laser, light and sound show is a nice way to round off the evening.
With a more herbaceous take on the coconut milk-redolent southern and central Thai food, the Lanna cuisine of the north is flavourful. Try out the typical street fare like the spicy and lemony Chiang Mai sausage and yum hed, a spicy mushroom salad. Other dishes to try here include the light khew wan kai chicken curry and the northern Thailand version of the ubiquitous som tam thai papaya and prawn salad, all served with sticky black rice that is a speciality of the region.
Meet the natives
The weekend handicrafts market in the town centre is the perfect place for a glimpse of the elusive hill tribe Mon and Karen of this region. They come down from their villages in the hills to the valley to sell their wares.
The Mon women sport large metal-beaded headdresses and the Karen women wear high-coiled neck pieces, rendering diversity to the Thai look.
Festival for gods
If you are in Chiang Mai in November, then you will get the opportunity to witness the Yi Peng festival. This autumn festival celebrates the full moon day in the second month according to the Lanna lunar calendar with intricately- fashioned lanterns called khom loi launched into the air to take one’s wishes up to the gods above.
While it may be diminutive in size compared to its Lanna sibling, Chiang Rai, which is 180km to the north of Chiang Mai, is no less fascinating. Positioned strategically at the tip of the inverted Golden Triangle with Myanmar to the left, Laos to the right and China a little farther to the north, this hilly town off ers great vistas of the confluence of the mighty Mekong and Ruak rivers that link all the countries together.
Chosen as the summer home for the Thai Royal family, this town is famous for the Doi Tung Royal Villa built by the current king’s late mother, Princess Somdej Phra Srinagarindra. This villa was built to partly resemble a Swiss chalet as Princess Srinagarindra lived in Switzerland for a while. With its well-manicured lawns and botanical gardens, this place is a must-visit when in Chiang Mai.
For an unusual way of learning about the ancient life of Lanna, one should go down to The Hall of Opium museum, 30 minutes from town. Here, you can learn about the trade, sale, consumption and after-eff ects of the dreaded drug that was notoriously popular all over the Asian continent and particularly the Golden Triangle region in the 17th and 18th centuries. The eerie, cavernous entrance is a fascinating introduction to the museum with its sculpted frescos showing contorted human faces—all bathed in a ghostly deep blue light.
Blessings of the Buddha
One of Chiang Rai’s newest attractions is the white Buddhist temple called the Wat Rong Khun. This uber contemporary temple was built in 1997 by Thai visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat to show man’s constant wanting, depicted by outstretched hands reaching upwards from the base of the temple. Sadly, the earthquake in May this year damaged its spire and a few of its intricate ornamentation.
Restoration work is in progress, under the watchful gaze of its creator, Kositpipat, who can often be found sitting at its entrance, much to the delight of architecture aficionados and travellers alike.