I have visited Chiang Mai couple of times and always had a ball. After the unpleasant Golden Triangle trip, I skunked low for a few days, indulging in massages, food and photo walking. I loved the University area of CM which was full of golden shower flowers, young student crowd and awesome cafes. In fact the Cafe Baan Din Dee inside the University Art center grounds was my favorite hangout place and I always enjoyed the relaxing artsy vibe.
It was also very close to Wat Umong where I ended up every evening during prayer time. There was something very surreal and peaceful about the monk chant ringing through the cool darkening forests. Even the omnipresent crickets seemed silent and the prayers would make me feel one with the universe. CM incidentally has some amazing and intrepid jewels, some well trodden while others are still relatively unexplored.
The Lake Rama IX and Huay Tung Tao Lake make great relaxing day trips. Still relatively not popular with the foreign tourists, most of the locals hang out at the umpteen lake bars, firing range, horse stables and restaurants on stilts. Angling tours are also organized at the lakes (both day and overnight trips) and they are great for chilling out with a beer, catch the sunset, eat fried local fish and shoot some breeze. Tried and tested Teak Tree Lake (http://teaktreefishingchiangmai.com/) is a reliable company to go on a CM angling trip. For more romantic dining options, choose one of the wooden restaurants (Mit Mai Tree is the best) on Lake Rama IX and enjoy local cuisine, under a sky full of stars.
One of my most boring and mind numbing CM experiences had been the traditional Khantoke dinner. A traditional formal dinner of the Lanna kingdom (Northern Thailand and Laos), khantoke involves sticky rice and huge number of traditional dishes (vegetarian options are available for vegan and Muslim diners) served on a small pedestal. Elaborate, with too much of food, khantoke is traditionally served on the floor during festivals, weddings, house warming parties, funerals etc. CM touristy khantoke dinner included pick up and drop facilities, elaborate dinner, traditional Thai dance shows and hill tribe performances. The food was mediocre as expected, the Thai dances were monotonous and the service below average. The only saving grace of that evening was the energetic hill tribe dance performances with elaborate costumes, interesting musical instruments and fire juggling.
Our visit to 1 of the orchid farms which dot the city outskirts had also been very enjoyable. Chiang Mai loves its flowers and nearly all streets and highways leading to CM house numerous plant nurseries. Potted .rubber trees, brilliant bougainvilleas, frangipanis and orchids dapple the streets with rainbow colours. The Orchid Farm we visited was small, but carefully tended and had the exotic blooms crowding every available space.
Jewel hued, stained, printed with stunning shapes and sizes, the orchids created paths of rainbow colours inside the small shaded enclosure. We received our souvenir blossoms, pinned them happily on our shirts and strolled through the garden of paradise. It was however quite muggy and we soon escaped to the small vintage automobile exhibition pavilion at the back. The farm also had a cafe and a souvenir shop selling glass encased orchids, pinned insect collections and very touristy Orchid Farm t-shirts.
One of the most pleasant CM memories however had nothing to do with visiting anywhere, but simply being lazy at our resort. We have stayed at a variety of accommodations in CM, and some of them had been quite spectacular. The most exotic (and expensive) had been a beautiful Lanna style resort with our private lily pool, open bathtub on our private rice field, parasol covered porch and an intricately carved wooden bedroom with a classic 4 poster bed. Mornings used to always be scented with lilies and in evenings thousands of fireflies and croaking frogs descended upon our little villa.
But it was our experience of living in a tree house, in the lap of nature, getting most relaxing 4 hands (and sometimes blind) massages and spending a beautiful Valentine evening by the Mae Ping River which always bring a beatific smile on my face. Most of CM’s hip and happening restaurants, cafes and clubs line Mae Ping and that evening the river shimmered with hundreds of red hearts. It was beautiful, romantic and absolutely fitful for a day dedicated to love.
We strolled hand in hand along the river various strains of music taking us to endless karaoke bars, jazz cafes and live music houses. I croaked my heart out (no pun intended) at a few karaoke bars, celebrated our day of love with beers from the mobile bars and took in the splendid sights of a lit up upscale Chiang Mai. It was one of the most beautiful evenings of my life and definitely the most special. Another very memorable experience had been the treetop zip lining with Flight of the Gibbon.
It was another early morning CM excursion where a comfortable minivan (instead of a pineapple filed wagon) came to pick us up from our hotel. We left our cozy beds way too early, since we were staying at an organic farm outside the city and it took more than an hour’s drive to reach the base. Thung Dong Farm ( www.thungdongfarmstay.com) was our 2nd organic farm stay in CM and settled amidst lush green wilderness, pools and farm animals, it was a tiny piece of heaven. Phrao Organic Farm (www.phraoorganic.com) was the other farm stay we had tried in CM and while on a smaller scale in comparison to Thung Dong, it was more intimate, homely and charming.
The morning drive to Mae Kompong (base of Flight of Gibbons) was very pretty and the tiny village was most picturesque. The lush slopes banked steeply into small forested valleys and rickety wooden houses clung precariously along the endless falling green. At the base, we assembled into small groups and got introduced to our guide, who informed us on safety equipment, procedures and the thrill of it all. While the idea of zipping over tree tops of CM had looked absolutely amazing on glossy brochures, the practicality made us wobbly kneed.
We trekked along wooded path, climbed atop tree platforms and got roped in. Being the lightest member of the group, I was the first one to fly out. 1 guide went ahead and waited at the arrival point while the other pushed me out. The first jump off was the scariest and after that it was only fresh greenery, open space and a small maverickbird zipping like a firefly. It felt awesome-the freedom, space and feeling like a bird. The zip lining continued deeper into the forests, higher up the slopes and included rappelling, abseiling and trekking over waterfall to get back to the base.
Lunch was included in the package and we gorged on local vegetarian dishes, fresh fruits and juices. While this adventure is perhaps not for the weak hearted, it was a lot of fun. It reminded me of another CM adventure which was also a day trip during Songkran. Post Chiang Rai and hill tribe visit, my guilt stricken conscience made me lie low for a few days. However 1 fine sunset, nature beckoned me again and I booked myself for bamboo rafting and elephant trekking group tour. A previous sad animal related CM tour and shocking stories of mistreatment of elephants by some of these companies, had nearly made me decide against it. Luckily positive feedback from 1 of its old customers, whom I bumped into at the Night Market finally sealed the deal. Incidentally CM has a lot of animal based tourism activities, the most notorious one being the Tiger Kingdom.
Highly controversial and seemingly unethical, Tiger Kingdom is another travel experience I regret participating in. It had happened during my first CM visit when our hotel staff suggested the place to us. We had visited there on a private tour, and found the park horribly wrong. While nothing seemed out of place and there was no visible/tell tale sign of cruelty or unethical practice, we could not help wonder as to what methods were used to turn the magnificent full grown tigers docile as kittens. The young ones were playful little things, nibbling, peeing and gamboling around but their adults were strangely silent, deathly still and looked totally zoned out. It was not natural at all for these ferocious beasts to behave such and cruel stories of the tigers being drugged, beaten to submission, old, infirm animals killed for traditional Chinese medicine and scientific experiments seemed horribly true.
That had been a very unsettling experience and made me wary of the elephant trek too. However I went along the next morning, and had an extremely enjoyable day. It was the last day of Songkran festival and an official holiday in Thailand. The country seemed to be resting tiredly after days long water fest, and small villages, orchards and rice fields lay placid as we headed south of CM. The bamboo rafting was at the small Mae Wang river which tumbled and leaped over smooth boulders. Wooden restaurants, shops and a few resorts dotted along its bank as it flew swiftly through tunnel of green bamboo and blackberry trees.
The rafts were basic, with bamboo shafts latched together into a platform and 6 of us grouped on it. Our guide rowed us from the front and we scattered on it lazily at comfortable distances. It was most relaxing to float down the lovely river amidst bird calls, dragonflies and crickets. Water splashed on us, a few locals dunked us generously keeping the Songkran spirit alive and ripe fruits dropped like pebbles. Some piled bits of trash on the river made me wonder if the water was clean enough but coming from India, it was an uncomfortably regular sight. Wet and relaxing it was a refreshing nature break, just perfect for a hot CM day.
The elephant farm was a few kilometers down the river and the sight of the jumbos by the road lifted my spirit. They looked healthy, un scarred and lightly bound-But still in chains. We rode through the uphill forests on the gentle beasts, stopping only to buy bananas for them from village shops (actually the elephants seemed trained to stop every now and then to make the tourists buy them bananas from the villagers), splashed over streams and ambled back to the starting point via fruit orchards. While extremely touristy it was quite a pleasant way of spending a lazy CM afternoon. Our last stop was at the Hmong village and it was a far cry from the Long Neck Karen village.
Hmong also belong to indigenous hill tribes and have a very unique culture. Their wooden huts clustered along the slope overlooking their paddy fields and massive sows rolled under the houses. Marriage and pigs (literally, no pun intended) went hand in hand and the bigger/more number of pigs a woman in that tribe had, the better were her prospects of getting hitched. No wonder the sows, whose sizes posed serious challenges to anybody who might try to even budge them were securely fastened within wooden pens under the houses. That village had better facilities than the long necks and some villagers even possessed cars. We walked up the hill, past bamboo forests, rice fields and rocky escarpments till the most enticingly green pool shimmered in front of us. A small waterfall gushed down and a young river leaped under bamboo bridges and slippery boulders.
It was all that we wanted after a muggy sticky CM day and we rushed in. Trees drooped from the banks, and we swam in the deliciously cold water, sampled fried shrimps on bamboo platforms and dozed in the mellow late noon sun. It had been a perfect day and as I watched a gorgeous sunset deepen the colours of cherry blossoms en route back to the hotel, I thanked god for the best conclusion of any of my Chiang Mai trips till date.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE