Chiang Mai: The Heart of Northern Thailand

Chiang Mai is the heart of Northern Thailand – and a gateway to the hidden treasures of the Lanna Kingdom. Elephants are prominent in the history of the Lanna Kingdom.

Wasp eggs are soft and buttery, not dissimilar to the creamy texture of a white chocolate ganache. But my tastebuds know the origin of these jungle treats. I want to like them, and the Lisu tribeswoman selling them wants me to like them, but one egg is all I can handle before rinsing my mouth out with coconut juice.

Chiang Dao Market is a small roadside stop along the old route between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai that runs every Tuesday morning. Villagers come from the nearby mountains to sell homegrown herbs, rice, corn and a wide array of treats foraged from the forests. I find I’m more partial to the slabs of wild honey than I am to the wafers of wasp eggs.

Ethnic minorities are the majority here, the Lisu, Akha, Hmong and Karen being the most accessible to visit. You can head into the jungles on a week-long hiking trek, stay at the relative comfort of Lisu Lodge, or seek out the morning markets when the tribespeople come down from the hills to trade wild treasures for baht.

Northern Thailand is far removed from the bustling streets of Bangkok. The Lanna Kingdom officially became part of Siam in 1892, but has kept its own character and traditions. Lanna is also known as the Land of One Million Rice Fields, and sampling the variety is part of the local experience. Variations on red, brown and black rice strains are more common in the surrounding countryside. The colourful grains rarely make it to market as farmers grow just enough for their own needs while cultivating more conventional crops for sale. The purple hues of the black rice make northern style mango with sticky rice that little bit special.

Autumn is the time to sample khao lam. Roadside vendors stuff sections of bamboo with rice, red beans, sugar, nuts and coconut milk before heating over hot coals. The rice cooks inside the bamboo and is ready to take away once cooled. You won’t find this treat on the menus in town.

Elephants are prominent in the history of the Lanna Kingdom. When the King of Lanna was gifted a Buddhist relic by the King of Siam, a white elephant carried the relic into the mountains in search of a resting place. At the end of the elephant’s journey, the Doi Suthep temple was built to house the relic. Elephant refuges are common around Chiang Mai with some of the best-run elephant conservation camps within a short drive of the city. Chiang Dao also has several smaller elephant centres. A bamboo bridge leads visitors across the river at Chiang Dao Elephant Camp, where a dozen elephants give short performances and jungle rides along the river. Former logging elephants are given sanctuary in these camps, leading a life of leisure in comparison to their former duties hauling valuable tree trunks through the forest. Visitors gain an intimate appreciation of the elephants and the relationship they have with their mahouts.

The road past Chiang Dao continues towards the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Myanmar and Laos converge. Guests who venture this far north are rewarded at the Anantara Golden Triangle with special access to a unique elephant camp where guests have the unique opportunity to train as a mahout over several days. Not only are unemployed elephants taken off city streets, but their mahouts and families are given good jobs and benefits. This groundbreaking program has achieved great success.

Even if you make the journey north just to meet the mahouts instead of be one, the experience of communing with elephants at the confluence of three great kingdoms is good for the soul. In the cool morning air, you can spend quiet time on the edge of the jungle – just you, the elephants and a handful of bananas. Every guest that visits the Golden Triangle is helping to give these creatures better lives.

Doi Suthep has my vote for Thailand’s most beautiful temple, sitting in the cool mountain air overlooking the city and surrounding rice fields. It’s busy during the day, but becomes peaceful and quiet after sunset. Few people stay beyond 5pm, but when the sun goes down, the monks come out. The golden courtyard shines under floodlights as the night sky turns deep blue and the monks begin their chanting.

Doi Suthep | Ewen Bell
Buddha at Doi Suthep | image by Ewen Bell

This serene side of Chiang Mai is echoed by resorts such as Anantara Golden Triangle near downtown, and the Dhara Dhevi out in the countryside. The Dara Dhevi was designed as a miniature Lanna city, complete with rice fields, a moat and adaptations of Lanna architecture. It’s the place to stay when you don’t want to be in the middle of Chiang Mai.

If you can’t reach as far as Chiang Dao or Chiang Rai, there are still plenty of serene moments to be enjoyed in and around the city of Chiang Mai itself. It is one of the best places in Thailand to ride a bicycle, with flat terrain, gorgeous village temples and lots of satisfying food stops along the way. It also boasts one of the highest concentrations of cooking classes in Thailand.

Some parts of town are full of backpackers and cheap eats such as khao soi, yellow curry soup with noodles, but there are literally 100 temples to visit – and few travellers venture away from the big ones.

Most of the temple watching takes place inside the old city walls of Chiang Mai, but there are some beautiful places just off the tourist trail. One of them, Wat Umong, is in the jungle west of the city. After 700 years, the jungle is on the verge of reclaiming the temple, its stone carvings hidden among the vines.

And Wat Umong has a secret. Beneath the trees and a massive chedi are well-maintained tunnels that lead to a handful of Buddha statues, leafed with gold and draped in saffron robes. The monks bring lotus flower and incense offerings to them every day. Very few travellers discover the treasure of Wat Umong. It is a better-kept secret than Chiang Dao Market – and infinitely more peaceful.

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