October 2012: Chiang Man

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No beach, big draw. The most popular inland holiday destination in Asia, Chiang Mai is a wonder to behold before you do anything touristy like climb up the steps of its eagle’s nest temple.

Thailand was the first Asian country to cut it as a beach destination. Back in the 1950s and 1960s while the rest weren’t sure where to start, Thailand captured five major European markets, getting people excited about Phuket, Krabi, Phi Phi and Koh Samui.

They even got the movie with the best name, the Beach.

How did Chiang Mai fit into all of this? Even the people who oversaw the success are not sure.

There are bigger cities like Beijing and more handsome places like Hanan or Ankor Wat. But as a uniquely tourist destination, Chiang Mai tops the inland charts.

 

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 four 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.

 

Mountain 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 u40 a night. Hoteliers complain there are too many.

Hoteliers always do.

 

The highlight of the trip? 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 cacophony 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 is orrying.

 

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 Magowan wrote a song about it, so it must be good.

Is there a downside? Of course. Where you have tourists you have chicanery. 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 u3500 in one day last year.

 

  • Night Market Walking Street – Tha Pae Gate. An iconic market in the Old City, the heat and crowds become a bit oppressive but always worth a look.
  • Chiang Mai Safari. Travel through 300 acres of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park and interact with animals ranging from giraffes to zebras to rhinos
  • Chiang Dao Cave turned into a shrine and religious site.
  • Wat Umong 14th-century temple, built into the side of Suthep mountain and constructed of a series of tunnels.
  • Wat Chiang Man. This temple was oldest temple in Chiang Mai built in 1297 at the site King Mangrai used when he supervised the building of the city.
  • Elephant Nature Park, elephant rescue project set in Northern Thailand.
  • Eoghan Corry flew to Chiang Mai with Emirates via Dubai and Thai Airways from Bangkok.
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