Feel like taking a short break? Just look East and head to Chiang Mai. The culturally rich hilly town often gets ignored by busy travellers who end up in Bangkok exploring the city and filling their suitcases with tempting must haves. But Chiang Mai has a lot more to offer. Nirmal Khanna writes…
As more and more people discover Chiang Mai, they budget a few days to check out its myriad attractions: from golden temples, to soccer playing elephants, exquisite handicrafts being created (the riddle of a bamboo umbrella being made) multi-hued silk being woven, enamel work, intricate jewellery and much more. Nestled in the mountains north of Bangkok lies the tranquil, picturesque resort just an hour’s flight from the capital.
Established in 1296 as the capital of the Lanna kingdom it is rich in history and culture. Also, as it is in a hilly terrain, about 700 km north of Bangkok, getting there was difficult. The journey was partly by river and at times by elephant till the early part of the 20th century. Hence, due to this inaccessibility the culture is distinctive and the city has an old-world charm with a serene atmosphere quite unlike Bangkok where everyone seems to be rushing between malls shopping like crazy plus striving to fit in some essential sightseeing.
Chiang Mai (city is Chiang; Mai is new) once a walled city, the enclosed area has more than 30 temples showing the Burmese, Indian, Sri Lankan and Thai influences. An interesting fact is that at some stage the city must have been a trading hub as apart from the innumerable Buddhist temples, there are several mosques. Records show that in the middle of the 19th entury, Muslim traders travelled to the northern part of Thailand, some eventually settled there. The mosques show a strong cultural link to the Chinese Chin Haw Muslims, plus people of Bengali, Pathan and Malay descent. Also there are Sikh gurdwaras, Hindu temples and Churches. These highlight freedom of worship, a praiseworthy point in any society.
Originally a walled city, over the centuries the walls crumbled and the city expanded. Now, it boasts of luxury hotels, entertainment ranging from white water rafting, elephant handling, tiger sanctuaries, to classes in meditation and everything in between. While moving with the times to keep tourist happy and busy, luxury hotels and spas, the city developed as a hub for fine handicrafts, hence if seeking top quality mementoes like wood carvings, lacquer work, jewellery and silk, shopping here is rewarding.
A walk down San Kamphaeng road provides a vista of locally made handicrafts: enamel work, silk, silverware, jewellery and much more. I found umbrella making just fascinating: handcrafted out of bamboo, paper and hand painted with ornate, funky, delicate and even cartoon figures, to cater to every taste and need. Tourists line up to watch, admire, request colours and patterns, and then buy. And it is not just umbrellas being embellished. Bring along a handbag and have it adorned with a pattern or flowers: just anything. Time your next visit for the 3rd week of January when the there is a handicraft fare and then pick out from a mind boggling choice.
This awe-inspiring trip to Chiang Mai was courtesy Royal Consulate of Thailand and Thai Airways.
A visit to Chiang Mai makes this possible for as you stroll down San Kamphaeng road you can watch the umbrellas and parasols being made. Show them your outfit, tell them what you like and soon you will have your bespoke parasol.
One of the most romantic spots in the area is an orchid farm. In the vicinity of Chiang Mai there are several gardens growing these flowers for export. The view of orchids of myriad hues, shapes, with colours ranging from delicate ivory to blazing red, spotted, striped or shaded, make it an amazing experience, besides the delicate fragrance wraps one in a romantic mood. Visit the souvenir shop, get overwhelmed by the choice of clips, necklaces reflecting the exotic blooms and take back a memento.
Once upon a time, orchids grew wild in every forest of this region. The magnificent flower dates back to the time of the Greeks for whom it represented virility, the Chinese called ‘the plant of the King’s fragrance. In the middle ages it was considered an aphrodisiac and used in love potions. After the 18th century, orchid growing became a serious business and now; Thailand is a major exporter of the exotic flowers.
“We will now visit an elephant sanctuary,’ said my guide and I stifled a yawn. This would be a boring walk through a zoo like enclosure, just looking at pachyderms. This turned out to be one of the most delightful excursions that I have ever had.
It won’t be an exaggeration to say that Chiang Mai is not just a complete holiday destination; it is an experience that will mesmerize you to the point that you will keep coming back for more.