What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a Thailand holiday? The stunning beaches? The food? Crazy nightlife in Bangkok? Explore the north, and discover a different facet of Thailand.
Rich in history and tradition, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are northern Thailand’s most culturally significant provinces and arguably the nation’s best vehicles for educating and entertaining visitors. Here you have the opportunity to explore centuries-old temples, trek through the jungle and/ or chill out at one of the fabulous meditation/ yoga retreats. Chiang Mai (city) makes for a great base, and from there you can even cross the border to Myanmar, or Laos (taking in Chiang Rai province to the northeast on route).
Thailand’s gateway to the great north is loaded with rugged mountains, rich stands of hardwood forest and rice fields. It’s also the domain of a complex web of tribal groups, who began migrating there over 1,000 years ago from central and southern China. Time was, a visit to these villages was a must but nowadays you might think twice about this. With so many tourists intent on seeing the tribespeople, many feel that the villages have been reduced to ‘human zoos’ rather than the right-on platform for cultural exchange that they once were.
Relaxing in Chiang Mai
I don’t know if it’s the hippie in me, but there’s something magical about Chiang Mai that made me extend my weekend city-break to a one-week stay. Of course this is arguably the wellness capital of Thailand, so you need plenty of time to spa, trying out traditional remedies and time-honoured healing arts alongside modern techniques. But that’s not all. The old town oozes a bohemian feel, thanks in part to the number of backpackers and artists chilling in the area. Quaint coffee shops and boutique stores dot the cobbled streets, and picturesque bars and restaurants line the Maenam Ping River.
On Sunday afternoons, everyone heads to Chiang Mai’s celebrated Walking Street, which stretches from one side of town to the other. The whole area is blocked off to traffic and filled with stalls, where you’ll find irresistible silks, parasols, silverware and lacquerware, pottery, hill-tribe treasures and of course Thai street food.
Speaking of food, Chiang Mai is probably my favourite spot in Thailand to eat. Khao soi (curry noodle soup) is the most famous northern dish, but my other favourites include kanom jeen nam ngeow (rice noodles in meat broth) and kaeng hang le (pork curry). I’m also quite partial to locust and beetle deep-fried. Spice everything up with nam prik ong (a northern-style chilli dip). And for a hands-on introduction to the cuisine of the north, sign up for a cooking class.
In Chiang Mai old town, there are stunning Buddhist wats (temples) at every turn. One of the most popular is the 14th century-built Wat Phra Singh, which takes its name from the important Buddha statue of a lion (singh) it houses. Just a few blocks away Wat Chedi Luang is an impressive temple complex built in the 14th and 15th century. Stairways leading up on each side of its 60-metre stupa are guarded by ferocious-looking stone nagas (divine serpent-people). Incidentally, Wat Chedi Luang used to home the Emerald Buddha, the holiest religious relic in Thailand, which was moved to Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok, in 1784.
Be sure to visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep tucked away in the mountains half-an-hour’s drive from the city. Some 300 steps lead up to the main temple, where glorious murals depict the life and teachings of Buddha. At the centre, a gold-covered stupa is encircled by sacred Myanmarese-style chats (gilded parasols). Despite all the visitors, this temple and its beautiful surroundings put me in a truly meditative state.
Taking in Chiang Rai
If you want to head further afield, the bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai takes about three hours, and from there it’s around two hours to the Myanmarese border town of Chiang Saen. This ancient city lies on the banks of the Mekong River at the southern-most tip of the Golden Triangle (the border tri-point of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar). Although the town is very small, it has been a major trading post since the seventh century.
Chiang Saen is literally littered with temples, fortresses, moats, and crumbling city walls and stupas that all bear witness to its intriguing past. Some of the monuments found here are older than the town itself, pointing to the existence of an earlier kingdom (known to the locals as Yonok Country) that comprised parts of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. You’ll find many historical artefacts, notably sculpture and pottery, in the Chiang Saen Museum, which provides a fascinating insight into the town’s history and pre-history.
Doubling back through Chiang Rai province, you’ll find a host of activities on offer from rock climbing and caving to temple hopping and spa/ yoga retreating. If your visit to the area is brief, make a point of seeing the 1997-built Wat Rong Khun or White Temple, a half-hour drive from Chiang Rai town. It’s a truly bizarre Buddhist temple inspired by sci-fi movies: only in Thailand! Sculpted demons and skulls surround the complex, and as you cross the bridge you’ll see hundreds of sculpted hands (symbolising desire) reaching up to you. Once inside the temple, there are plenty of traditional Thai Buddha statues but the walls are lined with rather more contemporary ‘superheroes’, such as Superman, Batman, Ben 10 and even Neo from The Matrix.
Wat Rong Khun is, without doubt, the most peculiar temple I’ve ever visited. But I can’t deny that it’s also one of the most incredible places of worship I’ve seen in Asia. Like everything about these far-flung provinces, it’s a real eye-opener. If you want to get to know the real Thailand and its people, head north.