Chiang Mai - A Lesson in Majestic Beauty and Resonant Culture

Though Bangkok and Phuket garner most of the tourist attention, the historical city of Chiang Mai offers visitors a chance to immerse themselves in the rich and diverse cultural heritage of Thailand. While the once sleepy northern Thai city is fast becoming a bustling urban force of its own, the province welcomes visitors with a world of lavish temples, majestic mountains and expansive emerald green rice fields.

Rice paddies of the Four Seasons Chiang Mai - by Christopher Eric Ng

Located 700 miles north of Bangkok, Chiang Mai was part of the Lanna Kingdom (meaning, 'the Kingdom of a Million Ricefields") and was a major religious, cultural and trading center from 1296 until the Burmese invaded in 1556. As a result of its location near the borders of China, Laos and Burma, there is a unique culture and dialect, as well as distinct architectural traditions and cuisine. The legacy left by the Lanna Kingdom can still be seen in its historic temples, city walls and even the moat that still encircles the city.

Tourists tend to flock to any one of the many elephant camps located throughout the province. The Chiang Dao Elephant Camp is probably the most highly regarded camp near Chiang Mai, although it can be packed full of tourists during peak season. Visitors feed the elephants and watch demonstrations of the elephants bathing and working in an unspoiled setting, followed by a one-hour elephant ride into the forest to visit a hillside tribal village. The exhibit concludes with a serene one-hour bamboo raft tour down the Ping River.

In the middle of the mountains. - by Christopher Eric Ng

Of course, not to be missed are Chiang Mai's ornate ancient temples, adorned with intricate latticework, glass mosaic and sweeping turned-up roofs, epitomizing Lanna design. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is the city's most venerated temple and is situated on the summit of the 5,500 foot high Doi Suthep mountain. The temple, which is accessible by either climbing 306 stairs or opting for the funicular, offers unmatched panoramic views of the countryside below. Wat Phra Singh, built in the 1345, houses well-preserved murals and some of the most venerated Buddha images in the north. Other revered temples worth visiting in the province are Wat Chiang Man, where local monks will explain the assortment of spectacular ancient Buddha images, and Wat Chedi Luang, with a magnificent triple-tiered viharn, housing ornate panels depicting scenes from Buddha's previous ten lives. For adventure seekers and eco-tourists, Chiang Mai offers a number of outdoor activities, including whitewater rafting, camping and bird watching, organized by a number of specialist travel agents, including Siam River Adventures ( Chiang Mai is also a popular base for treks into the mountains and jungles of northern Thailand. Active travelers will also find it rewarding to hike through the national park around Doi Inthaon, Thailand's highest mountain, to discover the country's highest waterfall, flourishing rivers and a medley of uncommon birds and plants.

The Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi - by Christopher Eric Ng

Where to Shop
Chiang Mai is home to a vibrant art community based in the area's rich cultural history. On Sankamphaeng Road, also known as the 'Handicraft Highway,' you'll find everything from silver, silk and precious gems, to lacquerware, pottery and handmade furniture. The bevy of shops just west of the city center off Nimmanhaemin Road are the focal point of the budding design scene. The high-end resorts offer free shuttle service to and from the 'Night Bazaar,' located in downtown Chiang Mai. While most of the outdoor booths sell typical tourist arts and crafts, you can find local wooden handicrafts, silverware, and intricate hand-weaved blankets and silk pillows from local artisans, at great bargain prices.

Where to Stay
The new Mandarin Oriental Dhara Devi (; villas from $295), scheduled to be fully complete by winter 2005, is located just 10 minutes from the Chiang Mai International Airport. Set in 60 acres of tranquility, the hideaway resort is an ideal venue from which to explore the region's culture and heritage. The all-inclusive resort, inspired by the ancient Lanna Kingdom, is a rural setting with working rice paddies, resident water buffaloes, horse-drawn carriages and tri-shaws (traditional tricycle-taxis). In addition, it is the only hotel in Chiang Mai to offer guests cultural programs and events to offer insight into the history and culture of Chiang Mai. It also features one of the world's most unique and beautiful spas, a cooking school and even its own 19th century style shopping mall selling high quality handicrafts, jewelry and textiles. The 144 luxurious villas and suites are private and spacious and feature local artifacts, Thai silks, hill-tribe textiles, spacious terraces and outdoor decks overlooking rice paddies or tropical gardens. The resort also offers a kids club with a slew of arts and crafts projects, including drawing, painting, Thai paper cutting and molding, folding lotus flowers, dance classes and more.

Located within the serenity of the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi resort, is the palatial Dheva Spa.  This one-of-a-kind spa, measuring over 10,000 square feet, was designed to mirror the ancient palaces of Mandalay in Mynamar. Golden teakwood architecture, ornate moldings and sculptures of Buddhist motifs and sacred animals, adorn the spa's exterior. From the lobby, a series of marble courtyards lead to 35 tranquil treatment rooms and suites which are each ornamented by Asian antiques, Thai silks and marble tile. The spa offers a diverse menu of holistic treatments, many of which were inspired by traditional Northern Thai, Burmese and Indian culture. For example, the Royal Thai Ceremony, inspired by ancient Thai practice, begins with a royal foot bath combining milk with Indian pennywort, evening primrose and other herbs which are known to help improve circulation, relieve stress and smooth skin. Next, an ancient herbal steam and sarong bath follows to cleanse and detoxify. A safflower scrub is then spread on the body to increase circulation and promote relaxation, followed by a kraw khruea toning wrap. Once the skin is left smooth, the ceremony concludes with a Royal Thai Massage.

With a 10 year headstart on the Mandarin Oriental, the perennially award-winning Four Seasons Chiang Mai (; villas from $375) is located 20 minutes north of downtown Chiang Mai, set among beautifully manicured tropical gardens and terraces, overlooking rice fields, lakes lily ponds, waterfalls, and mountains. The spacious Lanna-style villas are adorned with Thai silks and artifacts and polished teakwood floors and the attention to detail and exceptional service is characteristic of the Four Seasons brand. 

Where to Eat
Though there is still a good selection of traditional local cuisine, the sophisticated dining scene is starting to take hold. Good View (13 Charoen Rat Road) is a busy Thai restaurant-bar located on the Ping River with daily live music. In downtown Chiang Mai, the cushy bistro known as The House (199 Moonmuang Road) serves upscale international cuisine and is perfect for an evening of fine dining. Dalaabaa (113 Bamrungraj Road) is a local favorite offering Thai fusion cuisine, including an assortment of spicy seafood dishes and salads, in an stylish, yet easygoing setting. Two of the city's best restaurants are the Four Season Resort's Terraces, serving international fare in a stunning open-air setting, and Le Grand Lanna at the Mandarin Oriental, one of Chiang Mai's most sumptuous traditional Thai restaurants. Either candles or torches create the ambience in the Lanna-style pavilions or various open deck areas.

Chiang Mai is the perfect city for visitors of all ages and activity levels who are looking for adventure, relaxation or a little bit of both. Whether you are on your honeymoon, a family vacation or just a writer in search of little inspiration, there is no shortage of 'things to do' in Chiang Mai.

For more information, contact the Tourism Authority of Thailand at


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