Though a growing urban sprawl, Chiang Mai is relatively relaxing and diverse with fun activities. Within half an hour’s reach from Chiang Mai downtown are misty hills, fascinating farming villages and spell-binding communities of artisans. It is, therefore, easy to make a perfect escape.
Whenever I visit this capital of Lanna region, I cannot help finding my way up to Doi Suthep Hill, an arguably Chiang Mai’s landmark. It is the nearest hill to the city with a revered Buddhist temple on top of it. For other first-time travellers, it is considered a must-see spot. The temple offers a commanding view over the city.
Getting up to Doi Suthep is easy. Local buses carry Buddhist worshipers and tourists from the foothill to the temple every 15 minute. But if taking a bus is too conventional, you can ride a bicycle up a winding scenic road. Be sure to allow a half-day period for this trip. Bicycles can be rented near a bike shop in front of Chiang Mai University.
At the foothill of Doi Suthep is situated Chiang Mai Zoo. This is a fun weekend stop for children and adults who want to get a glimpse of pandas, penguins, seals and other exotic animals.
Having traveled to Chiang Mai on several occasions, I thought I have seen it all in terms of historical ruins. Until recently, my friend has stumbled across a tour programme that promised to take us back to Wigna Kum Kam, a mysterious city buried under Chiang Mai City. It is located 4 kilometres on Chiang Mai-Lamphun Highway. Historical accounts show that Wiang Kum Kam was founded in 1286 by King Mengrai. It had served as the capital of Lanna Kingdom for 8 years. The ruins were first unearthed by a team of archaeologists in 1984 and opened to the public a few years ago. Before touring, I sat among other visitors in a small theatre room to watch a video presentation on Chiang Mai’s history. Then, we rode on a tram for an hour to see various ruins. I noticed that some visitors took a horse-cart tour service. At the Visitor Centre, volunteer guides are available. Altogether, it is a half-day tour where you can dig in Chiang Mai’s glorious past.
In search of a new activity around Chiang Mai, I drove out of Chiang Mai one day, following a road linking Mae-Rim and Samoeng. This is one of the most scenic roads that snakes through fascinating landscape of forested hills and villages. I stopped at Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden. It is the first botanical garden in Thailand that serves as a centre of conservation of the Thai flora and a place to provide botanical education and aesthetic displays. I was awed by the sheer size of the garden. The expansive garden offers four interesting routes. The first route consists of more than 1000 species of native plants and local medicinal herbs. It takes about 30-45 minutes to walk the route. The second route leads to plants from the Aboreta family and features palm trees, alocasia, musa, fern, pine trees, ginger family. The third route is a trail along the Mae Sa Noi stream showing plants that grow in dry climate. This route ends at a Thai orchid nursery, which is about 300 metres long. The last route leads to an area featuring climbers. Visitors can stop at a complex showcasing four conservatories and eight glasshouses displaying various plants. It shelters plant species grouped according to their environmental conditions and uses. The conditions within each house are automatically monitored to control humidity, ventilation and light.
If you are into trekking, Chiang Dao Elephant Camp provides a trekking tour on an elephant back, including a bamboo rafting in the Mae Ping River. In Thaton sub-district, 24 kilometres from Fang District of Chiang Mai, the scenic bamboo rafting along the Kok River is also popular among international visitors. Hill tribe villages dot around Chiang Mai. The Hilltribe Museum in the city offers a wonderful introduction to ethnic people of the region. Several tour shops in the city can arrange a variety of hill tribe tours. Hmong Hilltribe Lodge and Lisu Lodge are two resorts that provide adventure tours and basic but comfortable accommodation among pristine nature. Guests eat, socialize, and are entertained in the evenings by local musicians and dancers. It allows the villagers to earn much-needed income without becoming some sort of circus attraction. The management of the lodge strives to treat the local people with the respect and deference they deserve.
Apart from the well-known Night Bazaar on Chang Klan Road, insatiate shoppers in search of exclusive handicrafts created by local artisans are advised to proceed to Ban Thawai in Hangdong District on km 15 of Chiang Mai-Hot Road. The roads to Hangdong and Mae Rim are also dotted with shops selling handicrafts, wood carvings and furniture.
After all, I cannot miss shopping at Chiang Mai Sunday Walking Street, which starts from the Tha Phae Gate and continues along the Ratchadamnoen Road. At the end of the day, a weary tourist like me deserves to a little pampering to ease aching muscles. There are many choices of massage places and spas on virtually every road in Chiang Mai city. Therefore, I walked to a small massage shop near the hotel for a Thai massage. To me, this is a perfect way I end another day in Chiang Mai.