Exploring the Thai North
Known as the Thailand Northern Capital, Chiang Mai city is located some 700 km (435 miles) north of Bangkok on the Mae Ping River basin, and serves as a major gateway to explore the North. Since founded in 1296 A.D., it was a capital and cultural core of the Lanna Kingdom, and till now has preserved its distinguished cultural heritage. Celebrated its 700th anniversary in 1996, the city's 700-year history of unique culture and rich traditional background coupled with the breathtaking scenery makes Chiang Mai one of Asia's most attractive tourist destinations.
Historically, Chiang Mai has been hardly accessible only by the river or by the elephants. The railway line from Bangkok was completed just in the late 1920's, and the first motor vehicle arrived in Chiang Mai in 1932. Albeit the late progress, this modern-day second largest Thailand city has developed into an economic, cultural, educational and trade hub of northern Thailand complete with sound road infrastructure and decent communications.
A warm hospitality is written all over the faces of Chiang Mai dwellers, whether you choose a 5-star hotel or drowsing guest house. It’s Thailand’s cheapest major travel destination with plenty of activities to get engaged in; from wandering along timeless Old City lanes, to trekking to remote hill-tribe villages, to whitewater rafting and riding elephants, to taking a long-tail boat cruise along the Mae Ping River with delicious Thai dinner, or relaxing during unique Thai massage and spa treatments.
As a prime location in its own right, the Old City of Chiang Mai is still marked by the moat and fortified gates and has some 300 ancient Buddhist temples (wat in Thai) in the vicinity. The most significant is the Wat Chiang Man, which homes the 1800 years old Crystal Buddha, the classic Thai northern style Wat Phra Singh, and the partially ruined Wat Chedi Luang.
A key tourist attraction is to the city's west, the sacred pillar Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, bearing the Lord Buddha holy relic never seen before. Doi Suthep rises 1,676 meters above the sea level providing panoramic scenery of surrounding landscapes. They say, if you're to see only one temple in Thailand, Doi Suthep is the one. Set on a mountain plateau overlooking Chiang Mai, this visually stunning site is steeped in history and religious significance. The temple is definitely living up to the hype not only scenically and spiritually, but also pop-culturally (the opening of the Rambo III movie was filmed on the temple steps).
Every evening the center of Chiang Mai comes alive with a massive Night Bazaar and turns to be the spot of choice for the city visitors. The biggest city attraction at twilights, it's crowded with lots of bargains and considered a shopping mecca for locally made handicrafts and souvenirs. Clustered around are many restaurants and other useful services, such as camera shops, Internet cafés and travel agencies offering an array of packages all over Thailand from 5-star holiday packages to group tours within Chiang Mai. One of the popular activities is to have your portrait done dressed up in traditional Thai costume. A two-story mezzanine arcade is the actual Vieng Ping Night Bazaar where the main focus is fixed on the trade of quality antiques, clothing and variety of crafts. Across the road at Kalare Center is a place to enjoy both Thai and international cuisine accompanied by traditional Thai music and dancers.
It is unthinkable to overlook trips to numerous hill tribes settled in the jungles and mountain terrain all around Chiang Mai. Many tours and jungle treks originated in Chiang Mai are focusing on visits to the nearby and remote hill-tribe villages, which are grabbing attention by unique ways of lifestyle, colorfully embroidered clothing and inherited the wealth of quaint cultures coupled with the picturesque diversity of ethnic tribes.
To be continued...