Close to the border with Laos, surrounded by lush and green mountain jungles, dotted with Buddhist temples, Chiang Mai is a destination that offers a completely different atmosphere, climate and life from the better known Thailand of beaches and parties. Actually it is very popular among tourist, but still attracts less visitors than the Andaman coast or the Gulf. Many people use Chiang Mai as a base for adventurous trekking, rafting and jungle experience; the city itself is very nice and able to offer any kind of service, but the surrounding nature is what attracts the most of the people. All in all, Chiang Mai deserves at least three days, if you just want to sightsee, but if you eager to learn more about northern Thailand culture or want to attend one of the numerous massage courses, as well a meditation retreat, you may consider a longer stay.
Getting around in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is relatively small, at least regarding a visitor needs, so the best option (as anyone does) is to rent a motorbike. The coast is around 150 bath per day for a basic automatic scooter, but it is possible to negotiate a good deal for a long term rental. Visiting Chiang Mai town centre by foot or bike is a good idea, but to get to the temples, the hotsprings and other attractions (like the small umbrella village, Bo Sang), a engine powered transport is suggested. Especially Doi Suthep temple, which is located on top of a very steep hill. There are not many alternatives in this sense, as the buses are actually vans, modified to pack up to 12 persons, and they usually leave when they are full. The price is fixed and depends on the distance.
Wilderness, ecotours and activities
Spotting wilderness is one of the attractions that brings people to Chiang Mai. Actually they usually ended up in elephant ride or elephant show tours, which are still good, but of course doesn't have the same charm as a wild encounter. These experiences are often combined with bamboo raft, rock climbing, or river rafting. There are so many operators that anyone can find the tour that fit his own requirements. Among them, Sabai Tour and Chiang Mai Tours have a very good reputation.
A rising interest for the long neck women is turning in a very profitable business; now everyone wants to get to Mae Hong Son (About 6 hours from Chiang Mai), in order to see their long neck. Well, despite the fact that a kind of tour is often combined with ecological activities, the reality is a bit different. The crowds are usually interested in taking pictures (for which they pay) and leave, making the whole thing a big, and miserable, circus. Visiting the tribal communities is fine, but please do that in a sustainable manner, avoiding to take part in the ridiculous business.
Different, interesting tours, are offered by Chiang Mai To Travel: 2 or 3 days budget tours, including sustainable accommodation, waterfall trekking, elephant riding, Thai massages, cave exploration, local tribe tradition discovery, hot springs and more.
A sustainable and eco activity, now spreading in Chiang Mai surroundings, is WWOOF'ing. They are usually organic farms and non-profit organizations, offering basic accommodation and food (often, not always) in exchange of some hours of work per day. To see a complete list, and make contact with them, is better to register with WWOOF and pay the annual membership fee (around 40 US$).
Meditating, or learning how to do it, is another main activity rising among Chiang Mai visitors. Bearing in mind that is not that as easy as for Julia Roberts, meditating requires commitment and a serious will, so it is not for fun, or just to say: 'I did it!'.
That said, the first thing to consider is a meditation course, if it's the first time. English speaking teachers are compulsory in order to understand techniques and have interviews with them.
Wat Rampoeng is suggested for beginners, as the monk there speaks a very good English, but it is overcrowded, and socializing could be distracting. Wat Tam Wua in Mae Hong So is also recommended, being very good for beginners; it offers a three days mini retreat and all the instructions needed for a beginner. It is about 5 hours from Chiang Mai, but it is located in a beautiful setting, with forested cliffs.
Doi Suthep and Chom Thong are for experienced meditators.
Green accommodation in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai doesn't lack in ecosustainable accommodation and, other than WOOF, there is a number of green homestay and eco lodge, usually outside town. Mae Kampong Homestay
Tin Thai Ngarm Eco Lodge is located 18 Km from Chiang Mai, but it offers a real touch of Thai and local culture. Accommodation is rustic and consists in en-suite rooms, bungalows and tents. This place is also a perfect base for mountain trekking and excursions.
A new type of eco tourism is developing fast: it is living among the Hilltribes, meeting them like friends and stay at their place. Accommodation, set in a beautiful and unspoiled mountain scenery, could be either basic or very comfortable, and the material used is bamboo.
Organic Food and Vegetarian Dining
When it comes to eat, Thailand is one of the most organized place in the world. It is possible to have a meal anytime during the day, and the choice ranges from Thai to Western food. Chiang Mai has it all, plus a wide variety of vegetarian dining options.
The best place to satisfy any king of indulgence is the Night Bazar, where shopping blends with food. The night Bazar is a huge area, full of stand and shops, offering any kind of goods and food (seafood, meat, organic and vegetarian food). It could be reached on foot or by tuk tuk, for a fairly cheap price.
Suggested vegetarian restaurants are Aum Vegetarian, conveniently located close to Tha Pae Gate, May Kaidee, famous for its delicious and cheap food (Khao Soi is not to be missed), and Tastes from Heaven, which also offer a Thai cooking course.
Shopping in Chiang Mai
Shopping lovers will find Chiang Mai a true paradise, as they will find a wide range of goods at affordable prices. Chiang Mai is considered to be one of the cheapest place for shopping in Thailand.
Night Bazar (open every night from 5 pm) and the Sunday Market are the most famous, crowded places for shopping. You can find any kind of good, from food to antiques, handicrafts and more.
Bo Sang is nice little village, known for its production of handmade umbrellas; you can visit it during the day and watch the artists creating and painting them. Bo Sang is located in San Khampaeng, just 5 Km outside of Chiang Mai.
Handicrafts (also typical hilltribes crafts) are popular everywhere in Chiang Mai and surroundings and are sold at night markets, day markets and by street vendors.
Photo by Yang Tee Mon flickr