Chiang Mai presents a wonderful contrast to Bangkok. It is Thailand's second largest city, though only one fourth 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 air-conditioned 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 tribes--Meo, Karen, Yao, Lisu, Lawa, Lahu and Akha, each with its own distinct culture, religion, language and colorful 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.
They originated from Tibet migrated through Burma and crossed over into Northern Thailand during World War II . Animalistic rather than Buddhist they make sacrifices of cockerels as part of their religious practise.
Witch doctors heel their sick and believe that the body has 12 souls. When a part of the body is injured that sole has left the body. To encourage it to return they sacrifice a cockerel cut off the head, throwing it into the air to open the spirit world allowing for the soul to return. The witch doctor will construct a spirit compass from bamboo paper and string and split linked with split bamboo which forms the spirit bridge.
Access to the sacrifice altars which are on the highest point adjacent to the village are only accessible to male members of the community.
Fortune telling is not done by reading palms or cards rather with the sacrifice of a cockerel, which is then cocked and eaten except for the legs. Wooden picks are put into the flesh of the legs as they pray to their god asking the questions for which they want answers. For example, if they want to know whether a couple should marry or not when the leg bones are brought together and they are parallel the sign is they will be together for a long time. However if they are pointing in opposite directions the indications are that they would soon part and should not marry.
The method for a funeral will depend on the nature of the death. If it is what they call a good death by natural causes then the body should be buried. The Lisu do not have cemeteries rather they return their dead -to the land burying them in a good site in the family field, Originally this was decided by throwing an egg into the air if it cracked on landing it was not where the body. should be buried. However, if it remained unbroken it's body should rest.
A bad death was one by accident or decease and housed a bad spirit. In such circumstances the body cannot be returned to the land as the spirit would be passed onto future generations and should be cremated.
A Lisu house has a slopping roof that nearly reaches the floor. It is divided into two rooms one for sleeping and one for cooking. Their belief doesn't require every house and plot of land to have a spirit house as elsewhere in the rest of Buddhist Thailand.
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 suit 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 favorite 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.
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 spell binding 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 be covered more leisurely by raft, stopping at hilltribe villages along the way.
Chiang Mai Winter Fair
Dec 29- Jan 10, noon- late.
Behind the Govenor's office, Irrigation Canal Rd (66-53-219291).
Lanna Winter Fair
Phrae Sweet Tamarind & Red Cross Fair
Petchabun Bo Sang Umbrella Fair & San Kampheng Handicraft Festival
Jan 15-17 Bo Sang, Chiang Mai
Ban Thawai Wood Carving Fair
Demonstrations, contests and sales of wood carvings and local handicraft. The Chiang Mai celebration Jan 29-Feb 4 includes local folk performances and a procession highlighting the popular range of Northern Thai wood crafts.
Chiang Mai Flower Festival
Feb 5-7 with the main procession on Feb 6. The route from the Governor's house to Suan Buak Haad will be lined with tens of thousands of flowers and plants. Beautiful Lanna ladies will be perched on floats competing with each other in both the beauty of the flowers and the girls. Flower show, horticultural competition and fair selling a wide variety of plants.
Teen Jok Fair
Feb 6-8 Amphoe Mae Jam.
On Feb 6 boat races as well as a large drum competition will open the fair at around 4pm. There'll be an exhibition of antique Teen Jok materials, hand woven by local guilds of women, plus over 3,000 pieces of teen jok on sale. Demonstrations of weaving and competitions by local villagers added to the enjoyment. Call : ( 66-53-485052 ).
Phra That Cho Hae Fair
Feb 25- Mar 1, Wat Phra That Cho Hae, Phrae. Usual provisional fair attractions, from Li-Khe theatre and beauty contest to food and stalls.
Phra Buddha Chinart Fair
To honour one of Thailand's most sacred Budhha image enshrined at Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat in Phitsanulok. Features assorted entertainment such as folk theatre and ran-wong dancing.
Thai Lue Tribal Legendary Fair
Mar 6-7, Wat Bann Sop Waen School, Phayao.
Contact TAT : ( 66-53-717433, 744674-5 ).
Lanna Arts & Culture Festival
Apr 2-6, The compound of Chiang Mai University features demonstrations and exhibitions of local handicrafts, Lanna ancient ceremonies and cultures while the Arts and Culture Hall of the city displays paintings and art works by mostly local artists. Late afternoon to evening, live music and a Lanna long drum competition are held at the Three King Monument. Also, special tours around the city by bikes and boats all day long. Call: ( 66-53-248 604, 248 607, 252 743 ).
Chiang Mai Songkran Festival
Apr 13-15, Tha Pae Gate & citywide. Chaing Mai is the main center of Songkran celebrations .
Mai Kham Bho Procession Festival
Apr 13-15 Amphoe Chom Thong, Chiang Mai. Before the Buddha image, the Bo tree was the original icon of Buddhism, and each year in Chom Thong, Chiang Mai, the Mai Kham Bho (literally wooden supports for trees in temple courtyards) are employed in meritorious acts designed to bring participants long and happy lives. They are prepared on Apr 13-14, accompanied by cultural performances and then carried in procession to the temples on Apr 15. Contact TAT : ( 66-53-248 604, 248 607, 241 466 ).
Sao Intakin Ceremony
May 18, Chiang Mai, Soa Lak Meuang or the guardian deity post of the city is situated within the compound of Wat Chedi Luang. The ceremony will be held around the post to assure that the annual monsoon will arrive on time. Call TAT Northern Office: Region 1 ( 66-53-248 604, 248 607, 241 466 ).
Phra That Hariphunchai Bathing Ceremony
May-Jun Lamphun, Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai, one of the grandest and the most important temples of the North, is said to be built by a King of Hariphunchai kingdom hundreds years ago, to enshrine a hair of the Buddha. During this period of the year, after the Thai traditional New Year festival, Buddhists in Lamphun and neigbouring provinces come to the temple to attend the bathing rite for old chedis in the temple and receive blessing for the new year. Call TAT Northern Office: Region 1 ( 66-53-248 604, 248 607, 241 466 ).
May, 16-17, Amphur Mae Jai, Payao, a local lychee fair will be held to celebrate the return of the lychee crops. Local handicraft and goods will also be for sal all day,
Contact TAT : ( 66-53-71 7433 ).
Respecting Pra Jao Ton Luang,
A temple fair to celebrate the 8th month of the Lanna calendar. Wat Sri Kom Kam, Amphur Muang, Payao. The date is yet to be confirmed.
Contact TAT : ( 66-53-717 433 ).
13 May, Chiang Mai agricultural day and the blessing of crops. There will be an exhibition, demonstration as well as sales of local agricultural products. Plants and fish will be given free to local farmers as well asinterested parties. Call : ( 66-53-219 291 ).
11-17 May, Inthakin City Pillar Ceremony at the city four corners, five gates and Three Kings Monument. Merit making, blessing of the Buddha statues and remembrance of history will be held all day for a week. For further details call : ( 66-53-219 291).
A New Cable Car for Doi Southep
The temple of Doi Southep is one of Chiang Mai's most visited landmarks that were until a couple of years ago, when tragedy struck. The cable pulling the small funicular train up the hill from the road to the temple and controlled its descent snapped sending it crashing down the hill resulting in many injuries.
Many that wish to pray at the temple are too old and infirm to climb the steps. Therefore at a cost of Baht 7.9 million, a totally safe system have been installed In effect it is an OTIS lift cabin that is pulled up and lowered down diagonally rather than vertically as in a tall building. It has a maximum capacity of 20 people and travels at 3.6km/h slightly slower than walking speed. Fully electronically controlled with a backup safety system in the event of the main one failing. The service is available daily from 8am-4pm and roundtrip costs Baht 40 half of that is used to repay the capital investment. Click here for Chiang Mai Hotels & Resorts Reservation
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.
The Open Roads of North Thailand
What surprised me about driving in Northern Thailand were the traffic-free roads. I have a strong memory of being at the bottom of a steep mountainous road, selecting the low ratio gear and my Mondeo climbing the track with the athleticism of a thorough bred. Mile after mile up hill and down hill, passing fascinating terraced agriculture with the freedom to stop and visit as I wished.
The roads are well made and there are sufficient road signs in English. On the rare occasion that I was uncertain of what direction to take, locals offered friendly assistance with a warm smile using little more than sign language and the name of where I was going. Having a car was the key to the pleasure of travelling around in northern Thailand.
On leaving the baggage hall at Chiang Mai International Airport, there was a representative of Budget waiting for me. He took me the short distance to their office to collect my car. The documents I needed were a valid driving licence and a passport to prove that I was over 21. Budget World Class Drive offers a selection of well documented routes to explore with maps and key points of interest. In addition to local maps, the office provided me with the book "Exploring Chiang Mai, City, Valley & Mountains" by Oliver Hargreaves, containing a wealth of knowledge about discovering the region.
Budget were able to offer a selection of six car types ranging from a 1.3 litre Honda City up to a 4.0 litre Jeep Cherokee 4WD. I opted for the Ford Mondeo sedan as it offered a comfortable ride for the journeys I had planned. Even in downtown Chiang Mai there is low density traffic.
As I wanted to get out and explore the surrounding area I chose a hotel in Mae Rim Valley and was lucky to be staying at The Regent Resort Chiang Mai, Mae Rim-Samoeng Road, Tel (66 53) 2989181, Fax (66 53) 298189. It has sixteen clusters of two-storey buildings, each with four pavilion suites focussed around a central paddy field. The suites in Lanna style are lavishly furnished, offering luxurious living space. An ideal base for a driving adventure, enjoying the cool mountain air on the terrace at breakfast and after a day exploring to be able to return to a relaxing massage in the spa.
On the first afternoon I explored the Mae Sa- Samoeng loop. Turning left out of the hotel on Route 1096, it as just a short ride to the upland Mae Sa Valley 700 metres above sea level. I passed several orchid farms, the Mae Sa Falls, the Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden (Thailand’s first botanical garden, built and developed with advice from Kew Gardens in London) and the Elephant Camp. The road continues along Samoeng valley with spectacular views to the west. The complete loop is just under 100 kms and takes about three hours allowing for stops along the way.
The next day I was up early and out on the road before eight o’clock. I headed for Route 107 in the direction of Fang and onto Thaton to check out raft trekking on the Mae Kok River to Chiang Rai. I passed through several police road blocks checking for drugs and guns. Being a foreign tourist in most cases they waved me on. Under Thai law, drivers are required to carry their passports and driving licence and produce them when required.
After lunch, with Mae Sai as my target destination, I continued the climb passing through Yuannese Chinese villages and onto Mae Salong, the former HQ of opium warlord Khun Sa. Continuing on Route 1130 joining the Chiang Rai-Mae Sai highway north of Mae Chan. From there it was a clear run up to the Myanmar border at Takhilek.
Vehicles hired are not permitted outside the Kingdom of Thailand. To take the car into Myanmar, it would void the insurance cover. It is possible to obtain a day pass to visit Myanmar as a foot passenger for US$ 5 on production of a valid passport.
It is recommended to fill the car with petrol at one of the large drive-in petrol stations before Mae Chang. From there until Thaton, there are the local hand pumps and filling could take some time. All of Budget’s vehicles use 95 unleaded fuel at 11.29 baht a litre (17p), far less expensive than in the UK.
For rental of more than 3 days, Budget operate a "Rent Here-Leave There" service and it would have been possible to leave the car at Chiang Rai Airport rather than returning to Chiang Mai.
The round trip journey from Chiang Mai to Mae Sai is some 600 kms and it is recommended to spread it over at least 3 days.