Green hills! That is the abiding imagery as one flies into Chiang Mai, a one-hour twenty minute flight from Bangkok. As the plane lands, one sees a small but pretty airport, done in the classic Lanna style. Lanna is an all encompassing word to describe Northern Thai traditions, customs, art, music and culture.
As you step outside the airport and into the taxi, you see the hills that are green and verdant. The drive into the downtown area, where the Night Bazaar, or rather, the Night Bazaars are located. These are a mixture of modern highways and quaint back streets. The short drive conclusively proves that Chiang Mai is a city of temples. Wats are everywhere in the city and one can barely travel a few hundred yards without coming across one. A treat for temple goers. On the drive one learns that Chiang Mai is actually the second largest city in Thailand with a population of a million plus. It sure does not look it!
Food n' local beer
As it is already evening the fancier explorations are left for the morrow. One walks across to the other side of the Ping River to a street with a selection of bars and pubs along the river front. The river front itself is beautifully maintained and is spotlessly clean. Sitting in a bar and sipping a chilled local brew seems like a nice way to spend the evening. A live band plays and the crowd is a mix of both local and foreign tourists. The sky is occasionally lit up by lanterns floated into the sky to bring good luck. These lanterns work on the same principle as hot air balloons. They look pretty and certainly relax the mind. The occasional river barge with tourists having drinks and dinner on the boat cruises by with the remnants of music floating over the water. However enough of the liquid refreshments and it is time to eat.
Chiang Mai has a vast selection of cuisines to choose from. Our local friend informs us that the local Thai cuisine is not at it's best at night and nudges us toward Casa Antonio, a beautiful restaurant on the ground floor and garden of a large sprawling modern villa. Sitting outdoors under the stars in the cool weather sipping wine and enjoying a delectable home style Italian meal is a near heavenly experience. We chance upon Antonio's father Gregorio who started Gregorio's on Chang Klan Road a few hundred meters away. After a great meal it is time to walk back through the crowded streets of the night bazaar. Stalls selling clothes, gadgets, handicrafts, food and drink crowd the pavement. At 10 p.m. the night is still young and the tourists are out in force haggling and bargaining at the various stalls. It is an eclectic market with local artisans jostling for room with Bangkok fakes, Nepali imports, Kashmiri carpets and Bhutanese tankhas. Of course food is omnipresent and the sights and smells can be overpowering at times. Sawasdee Kha and Sawasdee Krap ring out constantly as sellers try to entice buyers to sample their wares. Enough, the eyes are closing and it is best to tackle the city on fresher feet on day two of the trip.
Following the temple trail
There is a lot to do in and around Chiang Mai and one needs to choose wisely and carefully. However a 'must see' is the Wat Phra Dat located on a mountain. It is often referred to as Doi Suthep but that is the name of the mountain rather than the temple. It is one of Chiang Mai's most famous attractions and this temple built in 1383 has a golden pagoda rising into the sky. The approach is daunting through a steep staircase of nearly 300 stairs. For those not so inclined there is a funicular car. The views from the top are truly stunning.
This area is the domain of the hill tribes of which there are six. To change tribal habits from the traditional 'slash and burn' cultivation the Royal Family has started a number of small horticultural projects to provide employment and livelihood to these tribes while maintaining the ecological balance of the hills. This has paid rich dividend as the hills are now resplendently green again. While going up into the hills a light jacket is recommended as it can decidedly chilly. If one wants to stay up in the hills there are a number of camping sites that are available complete with tents. The tribals are a simple lot and have set up small stalls selling local merchandise. One can halt for a coffee or coke and browse the colourful wares. Tribal silver jewelry is ornate and is worn on festivals and weddings.
Up close and personal with the tiger cubs
The temple and the hill views done, one drives down back towards town, stopping for a bite at a lovely deck restaurant on the hill side with a view of a small but forceful waterfall. It is peak time and there is a long wait for food. This is always a good sign as it means the food is worth waiting for. The Northern Thai cuisine is sharp and pungent and delicious and washes down well with the hugely popular Singha beer. Well fed, one heads down the highway towards Tiger Kingdom - a park where one can not only look at tigers but spend time with them in a cage, having photographs taken too, all at a price. Testimony to the novelty of the place is the 45-minute waiting time to have your moment with the big cat. Indeed, 45 minutes of waiting gets you your 15 minutes of fame in the cage. It is all too pat and artificial for my taste. I am obviously in a minority as evinced by the thronging crowds and beaming faces all around.
The next option is a butterfly farm which, after the experience in the Tiger Kingdom, is given the skip. The drive is in the opposite direction to the handicrafts village, Bo Sang. The street leading to the village is flanked on both sides by stores selling furniture and other home accessories and artifacts. So popular and famous is this little village that architects and decorators come all the way from Bangkok to order requirements in bulk. The furniture is beautiful and made with painstaking precision. The artifacts are colourful and exquisite. There are a number of small bylanes running perpendicular to the main thoroughfare where one can pick up trinkets and souvenirs or as the locals proudly call them 'new antiques'. One can easily spend a couple of hours at Bo Sang picking up little trinkets and baubles. Haggling is the norm rather than the exception and this is typified by the passing of a calculator to and fro between buyer and seller. A firm shake of the head and a disinclination towards punching in a new figure into the calculator signal the end of the negotiation process and there is nothing more to be gained by bargaining further. This is the moment of truth - either one reaches into the pocket to pay or walks away to another stall.
A not-so-happy food moment
Bo Sang done, the legs are crying for a little rest so one trudges back to the hotel for some well-earned R&R. A quick nap is a great restorative and one is ready to tackle the new avatar of a 50 year old Chiang Mai institution, the Jia Tong Heng Chinese restaurant. The original is in the heart of the city. The new ultra-modern version is a sprawling place with multiple sections, private dining rooms and even a souvenir shop. It is rumoured that it cost 90 million THB to develop the property. The decor is modernist Chinese. The lighting is good and the tables well spaced out. There is a minimalist air about the entire area. Food is ordered and appears miraculously quickly, the first sign that we are not part of a dining experience but a conveyor belt operation. A few bites and our initial apprehensions are confirmed. The food is passable at best and this time the Singha beer is required to make it more palatable. In 30 minutes the repast is over. One is left feeling a little short-changed as it took thirty minutes to reach the restaurant. Next is a quick stop at the souvenir shop where candied fruit and jasmine tea