A bustling city in mountainous north, Chiang Mai is the spiritual capital of Thailand and charms visitors with the ruinous remains of the walls, moats and temples in the historical old town. Surrounded by lush rainforests, waterfalls, jungles and elephant sanctuaries, Chiang Mai has a laid-back atmosphere that’s perfect for both restless and weary wanderers writes Jonathan Fraser.
Flying to Chiang Mai, has never been easier with Qatar Airways flying daily to Hamad International Airport from Birmingham Airport before heading to Chiang Mai, Thailand. We travelled business class and settled into our own little oasis of calm, comfort and quality with, what appeared to be, a never-ending glass of Lanson champagne, stunning food and over 4000 movies and TV shows to enjoy. The flight takes approximately 15 hours in total so it’s worth investing in.
Arriving in Chiang Mai we checked straight in to the luxurious Shangri-la Resort Hotel which is perfectly placed within the heart of Chiang Mai, just a short stroll from the vibrant Night Market. The marble lined reception and guest areas of the Shangri-la Hotel leads to a tropical garden and relaxing poolside- the perfect place to relax with a Tom Yum Mojito or two. The rooms at the Shangri-la offer a comfortable home from home with beds which are so comfortable that your forty winks may well turn into four hours.
Dining at the Shangri-la is a truly world class event with the hotel’s Kad Kafé, named after the local word for market, offering a delicious international spread that includes Thai, Chinese, Japanese, European and Mediterranean specialties.
Chiang Mai is a shopper’s delight. From the city’s street food markets where you can graze on plates of Pad Thai, fresh griddled satay and flavourful fish or succulent sliced mango and sticky rice to the weekly Sunday market offering a mixture of crafts, clothes, gifts, music, food and drinks, shopping is a fundamental part of the Chiang Mai experience.
Make sure you visit, The Night Market at Chang Pheuak Gate (North Gate) which comes to life the moment the sun sets. A wonderful atmosphere abounds as you wander through the fairy light lit stalls selling fabulous fakes alongside local crafts and clothing.
Located just around the corner from the city’s Night Market the Warorot Market offers fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and meat as well as prepared street food to enjoy on one of the benches on the central garden area. For those feeling adventurous it’s the perfect place to sample some crunchy crickets, deep fried grasshoppers and meal worms.
A real event in the city, all of Chiang Mai comes out for the Sunday Walking Market. It’s a great opportunity to see and buy products and crafts made and sold by local people. Walk down to the main square to see live music, dance and theatre from performers of all ages and abilities or take a seat at one of the many bars and enjoy some people watching over an ice-cold beer.
If the taste of Thai street food has tempted you into the kitchen then why not try one of the city’s cookery schools? Pon, our tutor for the day, tried valiantly to awaken our inner chefs with some simple recipes; a spicy Tom Yum Soup, a Thai Green Chicken Curry, Pad Thai Noodles and a Mango, coconut cream and sticky rice. As we were each cooking our own meals it was down to us to pay attention and make the most of the training we were given or starve!
Pon started each course in the classroom giving us an informative and funny demonstration of what to do, how to do it and why do it that way before sampling what the dish should taste like. After that we were led to our cooking stations where our ingredients awaited. The finished dishes were divine and I couldn’t believe I’d actually made them!
After preparing our own lunches it was time to think about feeding others and who better than some retired elephants? I’ve always been wary of trips that involve animals for fear of unwillingly getting involved in their exploitation so when I heard about a retirement home for elephants where you could go and help care for these amazing animals in their final years I have to say I was intrigued.
The Elephant Care Centre in Chiang Mai offers a home to elderly elephants once their working lives had finished. Previously, elephants who had spent their lives working moving logs in the depths of the rain forest were simply set free to roam the jungle but after a life of captivity and human contact there was no way that they could survive alone.
The peaceful camp is currently home to 12 elderly elephants, ranging in age from sixties to their early nineties. Each elephant is cared for by their mahout and enjoys a day mixed of exercise and roaming, feeding sessions, mud baths and showers- no visitors ride them!
Our day started as we were immediately greeted by an elephant enjoying ‘buffet time’ in one of the centre’s lush meadows. The elephants are always pleased to see visitors as their arrival indicates treats and our time with these amazing creatures was predominantly taken up with making sure they were fed! From baskets of bananas we moved on to preparing great vats of cut grasses mixed with rock salt and vitamins before organising desert – sticky tamarind balls loaded with added vitamins followed by sticky rice banana leaf parcels – a sort of elephant cereal bar that they absolutely adore.
Our reward for feeding our new friends was to take a swim with them, so after a good rub and roll in the mud we set about getting all that mud off with bamboo buckets and scrubbing brushes whilst our elephants suck up water and shower us with their trunks – a magical ending to a wonderful trip.
Despite its large size Chiang Mai offers visitors a truly Thai mix of adventure, hustle, bustle, history and relaxation. We can’t wait to return.
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