Destination of the Day: Chang Mai

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IMG_1977Thailand, our favourite Asian destination, gives up its secrets willingly. It is comfortable with tourists, and 60,000 Irish a year take up the invitation.

Hotel standards are high and plentiful, with 16,500 new hotel beds opened in the past year. Four star Asia is half the price of three star Europe or America, with big modern bedrooms and more service.

Thailand is not just a physical place, it makes an emotional connection with everyone who stops by. All of the 77 provinces have something to offer, and although people tend to generate towards the same dozen familiar names, Bangkok, Krabbi, Koh Samui, Pattaya, Phi Phi, Phuket, the tourist taste for Thailand is far more versatile than would appear at first glance.

Sit beside anyone who has been there more than once and they will spend the 11-hour plane journey boring you about the will bore you about the REAL Thailand, which is basically anywhere without a beach or a girly bar.

There is a two word response: Chiang Mai.

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IMG_1966Green is the colour. A pilot for green tourism in the country, it looks and feels green as a tropical rainforest.

It is a city that defies categorisation, the most popular inland holiday destination in Asia, a wonder to behold before you do anything touristy like climb up the steps of its eagle’s nest temple.

Chiang Mai looks handsome as we arrive and start with a highly efficient check-in at the Furama Hotel, a three star offering that is better than many fur star hotels I have been in, with big rooms.

It has two pools surrounded by quasi-religious statues, one of which is an enchanting rooftop pool with a view across the valley to the mountain from which the town’s iconic temple beckons, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

The temple is a spiritual place, where people carry flowers as they do circuits and nests of candles fill the air with a spiritual sizzle.

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IMG_2003For that emotional connection, spend a day at the Chiang Mai school for the blind on Arak Road, splashing paint and generally making a mess as my taste of a Voluntourism project. At meal time the children put their hand up for more food and we rush down to fill their plates.

When they sing and perform a cacophany of local instruments and the whole experience is less awkward than I imagined. I am a critic of supply side well-meaning voluntourism, especially as the travel aspect of it is hopelessly marked up, but when you make a child smile it is difficult to chaff.

When I get one of the kids to feel the keys of my laptop he pulls the w off, which as orrying.

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IMG_2005Mountain towns in Asia are different from their crowded lowland contemporaries, Chiang Mai is villagey and almost sprawling, with a European style 17th century walled town at its heart. The night market is full of stuff from China. Aren’t all markets nowadays?

There are 30,000 rooms in Chiangmai and 350 hotels, ranging from the D2 discount chain to five star product at about Eu40 a night. Hoteliers complain there are too many. Hoteliers always do.

The Thai tourist board say the biggest number of complaints they get each year is because tourists are ferried into shops they do not want to go.

When tourists are brought to the Royal Gems shop, a 40pc commission goes to the driver which gives a hint of what the mark-up is like. One driver got Eu3,500 in one day last year.

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At night Chiang Mai offers one of the liveliest scenes on the planet, we spend several hours transferring by tuk-tuk between night clubs,

The Riverside restaurant, spread between indoor and outdoor sections, where there is a terrific live band.

The pounding heavy-bass Good View.

The high soaring singer in the Bali room in Fabrique, here the elders go while the young ones hang out in the techno dancing room.

The sardine-packed Mandalay where a woman in our group got hit on by twenty fresh-faced youths in the course of a thirty yard scrum push to the bar.

The Monkey Club, all screens and bounce.

On to the temple of the young night-lifers, Warm Up, where I felt like everybody’s grandfather.

There was a Shangi beer and Mekhong Thai whiskey in each one.

Thai whiskey is a misnomer: it is made from a sugar cane base which means it is really rum, best drunk with cola and a morning-after warning.

Shane MacGowan wrote a song about it, so it must be good.

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Eoghan Corry flew to Chiang Mai with Emirates from Dublin to Bangkok via Dubai and on an internal Thai Airways flight from Bangkok

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