BE LIKE THE COOL KIDS

Head to Chi­ang Mai and get in on the ur­bane, hip­ster vibe, then take to the wilder side of Chi­ang Rai

Sunday Herald Sun - Escape - - DESTINATION THAILAND - JANE LAW­SON

If you’re Bangkok-batty but fancy a break from rum­bling in the jum­ble you’ll dis­cover trip gold with this tri-point itin­er­ary. Ex­er­cise your shop­ping de­mons in Bangkok, head north to rest­ful Chi­ang Mai then ven­ture deep into Chi­ang Rai where the things that dreams are made of pro­vide un­ex­pected highs.

THE NORTH STAR

Within two hours from Bangkok air­port you’ll be loung­ing by your ho­tel pool in charm­ing Chi­ang Mai city, the cap­i­tal of the north­ern prov­ince of the same name, for­merly the “King­dom of Lanna” (a mil­lion rice fields). Mod­ern ur­ban­ity grows around the at­mo­spheric old town still par­tially en­cir­cled by Tha Phae fortress ru­ins. Al­though gen­er­ally more hu­mid than Bangkok, the re­gion is much cooler and drier from Novem­ber to Fe­bru­ary.

A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME

Slightly bo­hemian in at­ti­tude, the 13th-cen­tury city or “Rose of the north” has earned favour with ex­pat cre­atives in film and ad­ver­tis­ing. Re­laxed, at­trac­tive streets which beg to be wan­dered and a “hol­i­day-town” ambience has tempted fans to de­scribe Chi­ang Mai as the Noosa of Thai­land – only there’s less white linen and pewter-coloured san­dals.

WAT TO SEE

In a city boast­ing more than 300 or­nate tem­ples (wats) you’ll no doubt note sev­eral fine spec­i­mens while lan­guidly ex­plor­ing, but don’t miss mag­nif­i­cent Wat Chedi Luang, fa­mous for its enor­mous stupa guarded by proud ele­phant and dragon sculp­tures.

Housed in a hand­some his­toric build­ing, Chi­ang Mai City Arts and Cul­tural Cen­tre dis­plays hand­i­crafts and ar­ti­facts from the re­gion in­clud­ing in­cred­i­bly de­tailed em­broi­dery de­pict­ing tribal scenes. Score high-grade hand­wo­ven tex­tiles and trin­kets from the gift shop.

YOU BUY?

Anusarn Mar­ket Night Bazaar is less crowded than neigh­bour­ing mar­kets which helps main­tain the fes­tive mood. Hy­drate with chilled co­conut juice and feast for a few baht on seafood plucked live from the tank. Shop for in­ex­pen­sive ac­ces­sories and home­wares in­clud­ing in­digo print bed­cov­ers, dec­o­ra­tive hand­bags, silk scarfs, Thai beer logo T-shirts and sil­ver jew­ellery.

“Lady-boys”, so glam­orous they make all on­look­ers feel like wrun­gout rags, strut their stuff gath­er­ing an au­di­ence for their nightly cabaret, though you might pre­fer to rest tired toot­sies in a pool of flesh-eat­ing fish­lings or peo­ple-watch from a seated two-hour mas­sage cost­ing less than a glossy mag­a­zine at home.

Hip Nim­man­haemin’s laid-back streets, just west of the old town, are per­fect for re­tail ther­apy. Hid­den in laneways loosely framed in tan­gled green­ery, sweet bou­tiques fea­ture lo­cally de­signed fash­ions in­clud­ing Chabaa, Chi­ang­maiCot­ton, Woo Cafe and Kit-Bit-S. Short on pool­side reads? Head to The Book­smith.

MOUN­TAIN HIGH

Take ad­van­tage of Nim­man­haemin’s strong cof­fee game. Beans grown in sur­round­ing moun­tains pro­duce a brew fine enough to write home about. Drink in the scene at su­per cute Ristr8to or Dol­cetto. For a top taste of north­ern Thai nosh don’t miss the Lanna nam prik at pop­u­lar res­tau­rant Tong Tem Toh – spicy Chi­ang Mai sausage and rich, porky naem khao guar­an­tee sen­sory peaks.

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER

Anan­tara Chi­ang Mai Re­sort is a breath­tak­ing prop­erty bask­ing on the cen­trally lo­cated Ping River. Ho­tel and apart­ment ac­com­mo­da­tion has been el­e­gantly de­signed and ap­pointed, with con­sid­er­a­tion given to the land’s his­tory. On-site restau­rants, lo­cated in a beau­ti­fully, and at times ec­cen­tri­cally, fur­nished 1920s Bri­tish Con­sul build­ing, are fa­mous for high cal­i­bre cui­sine, ser­vice and cock­tails.

The re­sort’s in­for­ma­tive tuk­tuk city tour is highly rec­om­mended but its pri­vate, twi­light pic­nic cruise un­der the river’s many bridges is es­sen­tial – as is HD mozzie spray. Take a yoga class with a view then flop into an invit­ing day bed, never more than a few steps away. Two swim­ming pools and sprawl­ing shal­low wa­ter fea­tures add to the tran­quil­lity.

EAST­SIDE DRIVE-BY

Take a bus or hire a car for the pic­turesque three-hour jour­ney north­east to Chi­ang Rai. Make a pit­stop at doily-white Wat Phra Kaew, and ad­ja­cent ea­ter­ies, be­fore con­tin­u­ing through lushly cov­ered hill­sides in­ter­jected with crops, wa­ter buf­falo and road­side stalls sell­ing just-picked fruit and home­made fish sauce. Once you hit the colour­ful river park mark­ing the Golden Tri­an­gle’s in­ter­sec­tion, take the steep drive sky­wards to a hill­top ridge, past the Hall of Opium mu­seum (a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into a once pro­lific in­dus­try)

THERE’S AN IN­EX­PLI­CA­BLE SENSE OF DRAMA – IT’S PER­HAPS THE FEEL­ING YOU’RE ON SET IN A SA­FARI FILM NOIR

to reach Anan­tara’s Golden Tri­an­gle Ele­phant Camp and Re­sort.

WEL­COME TO THE JUN­GLE

En­ter­ing the lux­ury re­sort’s lofty and ex­otic foyer is a bucket-list mo­ment. Panoramic views of Myanmar and Laos sur­round the re­gally carved dark-teak tree­house, ac­cented with tones of putty and cop­per and drip­ping in old-school glam­our. There’s an in­ex­pli­ca­ble sense of drama; noth­ing to do with the ana­conda found in the in­fin­ity pool some years back, the same pool from which you could prob­a­bly touch in­ter­na­tional bound­aries if you stretched a midge – it’s per­haps the feel­ing you’re on set in a sa­fari film noir. In­cred­i­bly, the ac­com­mo­da­tion is not the high­light and nor is the wet mar­ket visit and Spice Spoons cook­ing class in a ter­raced field …

WALK­ING WITH GI­ANTS

This ex­pe­ri­ence is re­ally all about ele­phants. When log­ging in the re­gion was banned, many ma­hout vil­lagers and their mam­malian ex­ca­vat­ing ma­chines were in­stantly un­em­ployed and forced into abu­sive sit­u­a­tions in or­der to keep breath­ing.

Anan­tara’s phi­lan­thropic owner de­vel­oped a pro­gram for eth­i­cally adopt­ing ele­phants and now more than 20 ele­phants and their ma­hout fam­i­lies live in a tra­di­tion­ally con­structed vil­lage in the re­sort’s tropical sur­rounds. Only a few of the more so­cia­ble crea­tures are avail­able to in­ter­act with re­sort guests. Walk­ing along­side these in­tel­li­gent beasts through a na­ture track, hand­feed­ing them sugar cane and sun­flower seeds, wit­ness­ing their river-play be­fore wash­ing them down with cool wa­ter is sur­real and hum­bling in a way this not-so-jun­gle Jane could have dreamt pos­si­ble. The price of a “cup-pooc­cino” brewed from ele­phant dungex­tracted cof­fee beans could seem a bit on the nose but the flavour, the­atre and colos­sal charity it sup­ports make it ab­so­lutely worth­while.

You’ll need to loop back to Bangkok en route to re­al­ity but you’ll for­ever trea­sure the tri­an­gle.

THE WRITER WAS A GUEST OF ANAN­TARA HO­TELS AND QAN­TAS

Don’t just dream it ... Anan­tara Chi­ang Mai Re­sort, cof­fee at Ristr8to Lab Cafe, and Anan­tara Golden Tri­an­gle Ele­phant Camp lobby.

PIC­TURES: MI­NOR HO­TELS; RISTR8TO.COM

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