I've travelled to a lot of places in my life, and although it's a difficult call, if I had to name my favorite travel destination, it would be Chiang Mai, Thailand. Cheap lodging, an amazing variety of inexpensive Thai and Western food (including what I would argue is the best pizza place in Asia), and a great music scene. Outside of town there are numerous trekking possibilities, while the city itself serves as one of the best introductions to Buddhist temples and Thai culture. To top it off, enough English is spoken that there is no problem in getting what you want and sufficient ATM machines and currency exchanges exist so that you should be able to get it when you want it. If you are exploring the less travelled parts of Southeast Asia, Chiang Mai serves as a welcome break and a chance to indulge, while if you are travelling to that part of the world for the first time, Chiang Mai provides a transition to another world that is not so artificial as to be devoid of character but not so raw as to overwhelm the newbie. What's not to like? The problem is that there is so much to do, it's easy to become overwhelmed. In order to help you get the most out of your limited time in this magic place, I consulted with a specialist.
1. Worship at Wat Doi Suthep
“If you want to know Thailand, first know the Buddha,” says Lanna Chayanisa, owner of Northern Thai Escapes, a travel agency which specializes in Chiang Mai and the surrounding area. Fortunately, in a city that contains hundreds of temples, this is not hard to do. However, getting to the area’s most famous temple will take a little work, as it should. Located 10 miles outside the city and situated at a height of 3,500 feet, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of the most revered temples among all Thais. And your visit there will help you begin to understand something about Buddhism. Just as the Buddhist monk detaches himself from worldly desires, so the distance of this temple from the city (10 miles) and its elevation (3,500 feet) allows you to feel something of that separation. For those serious about Buddhism the Wat providesclasses in meditation.
2. Shop at the Sunday Market
Buddhism is all about balance, and the Buddha famously preached the middle way. So that you do not get too caught up in the spiritual side of things, it is worth spending some time planting yourself in the earthly reality of commerce. While the Night Market is the most famous of Chiang Mai shopping experiences, and is open every night of the week, Lanna lets me know that those wishing to shop with the locals would do well to plan their visit so that they can experience the Sunday Market, also known as The Walking Street market, which starts at Thapae Gate and runs along the length of Ratchadamnoen Road through the heart of the Old City. While the Night Market is frequented mainly by foreigners, Thais greatly outnumber visitors on any given Sunday.
3. Train an Elephant
“The Elephant is Thailand’s national animal,” Lanna informs me, and my mind immediately thinks back upon pictures I’ve had taken with iconic animals: a panda in China, a camel in Egypt, a yak in Tibet. However, when I inquired about adding picture of me with a Thai elephant to my list, Lanna suggested a more substantive interchange: a day at Woody Elephant Training, where you don’t just get a cheap picture but study how to become a mahout or elephant master. In addition to allowing you a more intimate familiarity with the elephant, Woody Elephant training is dedicated to the protection and preservation of the elephant and is currently raising funds for an elephant sanctuary.
4. Visit the Hill Tribes
Travel should broaden our perspective. One of the best ways to accomplish this goal is to encounter a cultural radically different than one’s own. Realizing that our own way of organizing ourselves is not a truth set in stone but one option among countless others can help loosen some of the grip that prejudice has on us. Obviously, the more different the culture is than ours, the more possibility for insight. Chiang Mai offers a variety of Hill Tribes, most of which have migrated into the region during the past 100 years from the Asian interior. Most famous among the hill tribes are the long neck Karen people. Other hill tribes include Lahu, Hmong, Lisu, Akha, Mien, and Padaung. While there is some debate regarding the ethics of such visits, it is undeniable that the income generated is a large part of the people’s sustenance and has been essential in eradicating opium farming as a way of life.
5. Get a Massage
Now admittedly all of the above takes a bit of effort: working your way out of the city to visit a temple or to ride an elephant or visit a hill tribe village. Even shopping can wear you out. So why not indulge in one of Thailand’s truly exquisite traditions: Thai massage. Lanna assures me there is no reason to spend more than $10 for an hour massage and if you know what you are doing, the best massages actually cost less. ‘After a day of trekking or training or temple climbing, it’s the perfect way to relax,” says Lanna. I would add that at this price there is no reason not to get one every day.