The Thai rainy season greeted me in the form of monks in flowing orange robes holding little umbrellas. Their smiles beamed at me through the thick mist as I sauntered through the old section of Chiang Mai, trying unsuccessfully to avoid becoming wet and lost.
No matter the weather conditions, northern Thailand has much to offer. You can take part in a cultural experience with local villagers, be introduced to the mysteries of Thai cooking, even wash an elephant recuperating from abuse. While Bangkok assaults the senses and tends to overwhelm, Chiang Mai intoxicates with its natural and cultural beauty and dizzying selection of activities.
A quick flight or overnight train from Bangkok can transport you to the enchanting environment of Chiang Mai. A visit to the city and its surrounding hills often turns into a more memorable and beloved experience than a visit to Bangkok for first time visitors to Asia. More relaxed and attractive than Bangkok, Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second-largest city.
Once you arrive, the hotels are counting on you to choose from a plethora of available activities. Take a cooking class, visit an elephant refuge, go river rafting, take a massage class, attend a handicraft workshop, or join a trek lasting from one to three days. On the treks, you’ll generally have the opportunity to meet local village people. Know the customs well enough so you don’t inadvertently offend your hosts. (Some tribes, for instance, do not like to be photographed.) Your tour guide should advise you of such customs.
I visited a Hmong village along a hillside and waterfall. The Hmong are a nomadic tribe of farmers that settled in the area. They make a variety of colorfully designed handcrafted items, including sarongs, handbags and a variety of clothing. I wandered their village admiring their brightly colored fabrics and handicrafts and relaxed by a waterfall overlooking a beautifully landscaped garden.
Near the Hmong village, the Wat Doi Suthep temple offers a magnificent view overlooking Chiang Mai. Locals consider this a sacred site. View impressive pagodas, statues and shrines here, including one of a white elephant. Several young monks, some the age of grade school kids, sloshed around the temple barefoot on the rainy day I was there.
The following day, I took a trip to the Elephant Nature Park, an hour north of Chiang Mai. ENP and the Baanchang Elephant Park are worthwhile day trips for those with an affection and curiosity about these creatures that are so important to the Thai people. Both Elephant Nature Park and Baanchang Nature Park rescue elephants from unsuitable conditions and are worthy of a day trip. Be judicious and steer clear of elephant shows in Thailand that exploit elephants.
Chiang Mai is an excellent city for walking. The old town is an ideal area to explore on foot, and you should set aside time to explore it. My hotel was just a few blocks from Thapae Gate, the entrance to old town with its plethora of temples. Wat Chiang Man, Wat Pan Tao and Wat Chedi Luang are three of the most beautiful and noteworthy temples in the old town area. The latter is the largest chedi and marks the center of town.
Altogether, there are around 300 temples throughout Chiang Mai. Underscoring the cultural and intellectual richness of the area, there are several bookstores within and just outside of old town.
Northern Thailand has a milder climate than Bangkok, much more conducive to a lengthy trek. The hills outside town offer several such opportunities.
At night, Chiang Mai comes alive with the night market and bazaar that covers several blocks. I purchased a much needed pair of flip-flops – standard footwear in Thailand. I also practiced my negotiating skills in the process. A wide variety of items are sold at the night market, and visitors should come here, if just for the spectacle. Items on sale include colorful Thai fabrics, t-shirts, antiques, luggage, sunglasses, handicrafts, antiques, clothing, wood carvings and gems.
Once you've explored the wonders of Chiang Mai and its environs and want to explore northern Thailand further, check out nearby Chiang Rai, known as the "laid-back Chiang Mai."