Thailand is South-East Asia’s most popular holiday destination, and there’s little wonder why. Its beautiful beaches, its temples gleaming golden under the tropical sun and the legendary Thai hospitality all combine to make the Land of Smiles one of the world’s favourite vacation getaways.
Going solo in Chiangmai
Having been to Bangkok several times, as well as to Phuket and Koh Samui, I was no first-time visitor to Thailand. But Chiangmai still managed to surprise me.
For one thing, despite being touted as Thailand’s second biggest city, I discovered that far fewer people live in Chiangmai than in Bangkok. Less than 200, 000, compared to some seven million in the crowded capital city. So there’s little of the hustle-and-bustle feel of a big city. It was also somewhat hotter than I had expected, even though I had arrived during the “winter” month of January, but it wasn’t unpleasantly hot.
If you’re travelling solo, but want to take in as much of the sights as possible, joining a local tour group is the smartest way to go. I comfortably took in three tours over five days. The first, a half-day city tour, covered the historically significant temples of Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chidee Luang within the old walled city, before moving eastward out to the countryside to the handicraft centre at Sankampaeng. There, artisans demonstrated the art of making lacquerware, parasols and Thai silk. Thanks to a scheduling snafu at the tour agency, I found myself the only passenger on that tour — an unexpected luxury, indeed.
I had picked a hotel just a few minutes’ walk away from the famed Night Bazaar. Vendors start setting up their stalls on both sides of Chang Klan Road by about 5 p.m. But unlike the Patpong night market in Bangkok, the road is not closed off to cars. Trying to get from one side of the road to the other in one piece was a little adventure in itself. The usual ubiquitous clothing stalls dominated the landscape, but if you’re looking for more exotic “gift ideas” and aren’t squeamish, worth checking out are the glass cases of scorpions, beetles and other insects, and the formidable looking swords and assorted weapons. The market only begins to wind down around 11 p.m. and is on every day, so there’s plenty of opportunity for hard-core shopoholics.
Climbing the tallest peak in Thailand
There’s rather more to Chiangmai than shopping, though. A day-trip up north to the Golden Triangle, a border meeting point between Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, is well worth the effort. At the border town of Chiang Saen, I boarded a small long-nosed boat across the imposing Mekong River to a Lao village for a fare of 250 baht. The Golden Triangle was once a notorious opium-producing haven, but its wild, lawless reputation has long since diminished. At the Lao village, the rows of gruesome bottled cobras in liquor now appear to be the main tourist draw. One shop generously offered a free sampling of the liquor, but unsurprisingly there were no takers from among my group.
The Golden Triangle tour included a break at Wieng Pa Pao hot spring, located midway between Chiangmai and Chiangrai, another large town in northeastern Thailand. A popular stop for travellers, Wieng Pa Pao has numerous restaurants, a fresh produce and flower market and a bazaar selling goods made by the hilltribes and lowland Thais. The spring water has a high sulphuric content, as was plainly evident in the pong, and is reputed to have curative and restorative properties. It was tempting to hard-boil eggs in the boiling water, and enterprising vendors offer attached baskets on long poles, making the activity safe and fun. Unfortunately, I had come at the height of the bird flu scare in Thailand and business had obviously taken a severe knock.
Doi Inthanon National Park is worth a look too. The highest point in Thailand (2, 565 m above sea level) is found here, but you don’t even need to break a sweat to get up there. A good road meanders up to the peak, where truck-loads of locals and tourists jostle to have their picture taken next to a signboard marking the highest spot. It was the easiest climb of my life and I have a photo to prove it! Just remember to bring along a light jacket, as it can get quite chilly here, even in bright sunshine.
A bit further down were two magnificent chedis (monuments), offering breathtaking views of the panoramic mountainous landscape. Built on the occasions of the Thai King and Queen’s respective 60th birthdays, the chedis face each other on neighboring hills, about 100 meters from each other. Both chedis have small but beautifully-kept gardens. If you’re a stressed-out city-slicker seeking an oasis of calm high up in the mountains, this could well be the refuge of your dreams…
A bit of advice: The best time to visit Chiangmai is during the dry season, from November to February, when it is also relatively cooler. The whole time I was there in January, the weather was beautiful, with clear blue skies and not a drop of rain. June to October is the rainy season, with September being the wettest statistically speaking.
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