Sawasdee (Hello)! Tourists tend to either flock to the urban cityscape of Bangkok or the beaches of Phuket and Phi Phi Island when travelling to Thailand. But the expressways choked with traffic and smog, and enormous number of fellow Australians can be a real turn off for those travellers looking for a more intimate holiday. [tweet_dis]For a more spiritually satisfying experience of Thailand, head north to the lush mountainous countryside of Chiang Mai.[/tweet_dis]
Chiang Mai, referred to affectionately as the “Rose of the North”, is a city like no other. Known for its exotic temples and sweeping mountain views, it’s the largest (urban population of 150,000, metro population of 1,000,000) and most culturally significant city – temples and festivals aplenty – in Northern Thailand.
There’s a reason why Chiang Mai attracts 5 million visitors a year (2 million foreign tourists). From the natural to manmade beauty, old world charms and thriving nightlife, there is truly something for everyone here. [tweet_dis]If you’re heading to Thailand soon, you’ll want to follow this guide to get the most out of your visit to Chiang Mai.[/tweet_dis]
Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep
There are many temples worth visiting in Chiang Mai, but if you only have time for one, make it Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. According to local legend, the site of Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep was decided by an elephant that was sent to roam the countryside. The elephant stopped in the current location of the temple, trumpeted, circled around three times, then knelt down and immediately died.
That elephant couldn’t have picked a better spot. Situated at an elevation of 1000m at the top of Doi (Mount) Suthep, this temple offers the best views of the beautiful city outside of local hot air balloon tours. It’s not an easy trek to get to the top: you’ll have to take a taxi up the mountain, and then fight through the thin air and ascend more than 300 steps of naga-lined stairs (bannisters made of elaborate dragon/snake sculptures) to get to the temple.
The tough journey is rewarded ten times over at the top. Grand views of the city and countryside alone are worth the hike, but you’ll want to turn your eyes towards the temple for the best view. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is out of this world. A glittering golden spire surrounded by architecture of the most ornate and exotic order. It does the temple no justice to try and describe it with words: you’ll have to see it for yourself to understand and experience its beauty.
This area is teeming with elephants! If you’re attracted to these majestic creatures, the elephant parks and camps will cater to your intrigue by offering private time with them. Not all of these elephant parks are the same: some treat the elephants with love and care, and others have a blemished record. Research your elephant venue thoroughly to ensure you don’t give money to an elephant abuser.
Baanchang Elephant Park is one such park that treats their elephants right. No abuse here. This is one of the cheapest venues in Chiang Mai where you can see elephants up close. Those who choose to stay overnight at Baanchang will enjoy some unique rural entertainment, such as making sticky rice in bamboo and releasing fire lanterns into the night sky.
For around 2,300 baht (AU$90), Eddy Elephant Care offers a more expensive but intimate experience. This is not a park, camp or farm. Eddy, the owner, personally cares for 7 orphaned elephants. He will teach you how to bathe and give orders to the elephants. Once Eddy feels you are ready, you’ll be allowed to hop on the back of one of the elephants and ride them through the jungle. Exhilarating stuff!
The Chiang Mai Flower Festival takes place every year during the first weekend of February. As we said earlier, Chiang Mai is known as the “Rose of the North”. This nickname is especially fitting during the Flower Festival, where the Damask Rose, a variety found only in Chiang Mai, is in full bloom.
This time of year marks the peak appearance of flowerbeds, including yellow and white chrysanthemums and pinky purple Dendrobium orchids, that overrun the public spaces in Chiang Mai. It’s stunning. Suan Buak Haad City Park is perhaps the most beautiful of these parks, with elaborate displays of flower bloom interspersed with patios and waterfalls.
The Saturday parade is the highlight of the Flower Festival. About 25 ornately decorated floats, manned by shy Thai women and wirey men in native costume, drive slowly down the main strip of town and hand out roses to festival gatherers. Don’t miss it!