There’s nothing like a visit to Thailand to make you feel just a little bit special. It’s because the welcome you get everywhere you go in this country is so genuinely warm and heartfelt. It’s rare to come across anyone in Thailand who got out of the wrong side of the bed. It’s always an absolute pleasure to travel here, and for this week’s episode of Tour the World with On The Go Tours we jumped at the opportunity to see a part of Thailand that’s a road less travelled for us Aussies. Yes we all love our Phuket flop and drops and a spot of shopping in Bangkok. But a journey up to the country’s north provides a more cultural experience. And we absolutely fell in love with the city of Chiang Mai! So here’s our Big Five from this amazing destination.
Chiang Mai oozes charm and character. Despite being the largest city in the north - and the capital of the Chiang Mai province - this destination feels more like a busy village than it does a big city. There are more cafes here than in the south and the city has a really creative vibe, with a thriving arts and crafts scene.
While there are some three hundred Buddhist temples in this city to explore and plenty of other tourist activities, for us the key to experiencing Chiang Mai’s cultural charm is just to wander and soak it all in. It’s less about running from one attraction to the next, and more about letting this extraordinary city come to you. It sounds like a cliché, but there really is something magical to uncover around every corner. The real joy here is in the next unexpected encounter. Consider a visit in February during the fabulous flower festival.
The food varies tremendously in Thailand depending on where you travel. There are staples, specialties and culinary traditions unique to each region. Here in the north coconut cream is used far less for cooking than in the south – but there’s a much greater emphasis on deep-fried dishes. And Chiang Mai is a renowned street foodies’ haven.
The night markets are among the best we’ve visited in all of Asia. The senses are assailed as you wander the neat corridors, admiring the mouth-watering delights on offer. Watch where the locals are eating for the best options.
For the chance to learn more about traditional Thai cuisine here in the north, we visited the Baan Thai Cookery School (www.cookinthai.com). The classes are small and personal and they take place in a really homely setting - so you almost feel like a member of the family! Baan Thai actually means Thai house, so this is a wonderful atmosphere in which to learn the secrets of Thai cooking. And everyone sits down and shares the meal at the end of the class.
Chiang Mai was established in the 13th century and there’s still plenty of evidence of the old city to experience – some of it underfoot – where the bricks from the original city walls were used to pave the streets! Parts of the old city walls remain, along with the moat. The main gate of Thapae is a good starting point. From there head into the old city to explore the narrow lanes that crisscross the 1.5 square kilometre area. There are hundreds of historic monuments to see along the way.
One of the best places to really connect with Thai history and culture is the courtyard in front of the Old Provincial Hall and the Three Kings Statue. Here Buddhist monks come between dawn and 8am to gather alms. You can take part in this tradition yourself by making a donation.
We’re never ones to pass up the offer of a good massage and Chiang Mai’s Peak Spa (www.peak-spa.com) is one of the city’s best known day spas. The Peak Spa offers a comprehensive range of treatments in serene surrounds that will leave you feeling totally relaxed and rejuvenated. We loved it.
And while swinging through the trees may not seem like everyone’s idea of a relaxing time, here’s another experience that we thoroughly enjoyed during our free time in Chiang Mai - a spot of zip lining with Flight of the Gibbon (www.treetopasia.com). These guys offer five amazing kilometres of forest zip lines to enjoy and the longest single zip line in Asia at 800 metres! Strap in, let go and enjoy the ride!
The shopping in Chiang Mai is fabulous anyway, but the Night Bazaar is one of the city’s absolute must-sees. The bazaar operates along a one-kilometre stretch to the east of the old walled city. Even if you’re not planning to buy anything, head along for a look. It all kicks off at 6pm and it’s great way to engage with the locals. It’s also the spot to look for locally produced handicrafts – as you would expect, there are a wide variety of imitations.
Tour the World’s Time for Thailand episode airs Saturday May 9 at 12noon on Network Ten. For more information visit www.tourtheworld.com.au.
Tour the World travelled as a guest of On The Go Tours.
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