As the Air Asia flight descends, I see wreaths of mist hanging over green hills, ornate temples peeking through lush cover and the river like a sleeping cat! Home to over three hundred temples, voted one of the top destinations to live in Asia, surrounded by a ring of mountains and misty forests, Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city. Located 700 km north of Bangkok, the name Chiang Mai literally means “The New city”, although it celebrated its 700th anniversary in the year 1996!
Like many ancient cities Chiang Mai too was once a walled city. Very little of this remains today, but a moat still encircles the old city. King Meng Rai founded the city as Lanna (land of a million rice fields) in 1296 to succeed the old capital of Chiang Rai. It remained rather isolated up to the 1920s when the railway lines were built. This factor has allowed Chiang Mai to preserve its unique character and culture and it is often called “The Rose of the North”. There are four main gates that offer access to the old Town which is veined by charming alleys with traditional teak homes. Inside the moat are many ancient temples and buildings. In 2001, Thakshin Shinawatra, a Chiang Mai native, became Prime Minister of the country and this region received a lot of investment. Today, the old city is surrounded by a glitz of shopping malls, luxury hotels, highways and Starbucks!
This is a city of temples: we first head towards Chiang Mai’s oldest temple, Wat Chiang Man, which used to be the residence of King Menrai. Here is a tiny crystal Buddha which is supposed to have the power to bring rain! I walk to the Wat Jet Yod, which has a lot of Indian influence in its architecture and has seven symbolic spires representing connections with Buddha’s stay in Bodh Gaya. There are seventy stucco celestial beings that decorate the walls. The Wat Doi Suthep is the guardian temple of Chiang Mai, located on a hill with panoramic views of the city. Legend has it that when a holy Buddha relic was brought to Chiang Mai, it was placed on a white elephant’s back to decide where it should be enshrined. The elephant climbed a mountain and at the place where it trumpeted and circled before resting, this temple was built. In ancient times the locals believed that the souls of their ancestors resided on the hill-top. There are mythical Nagaas lining the steps to the temple. The temple is ornate with extravagant murals on the walls, huge urns with hundreds of incense sticks and a collection of bells. I receive a blessing from a smiling saffron-robed monk!
We move from the world of incense and contemplation to a more material level. Our guide insists we visit a Meo hill- tribe village. It sounds like a tourist-trap and ‘voyeuristic’ but I yield .We don’t regret it at all. The women are clad in tribal regalia, with gorgeous silver jewellery and head-dresses. There is a necklace of native huts on stilts and the animals tethered below. I catch my acquisitive breath and head for the market bursting with local handicrafts. Exquisite dragons, Buddha figurines with painstaking Thai workmanship honed to perfection, straw baskets-I quickly succumb to the magic hour.
We are lucky to be in Chiang Mai for the flower festival, when the whole town is ablaze in Fuji film colours and there are parades with floats, hill-tribes in traditional garb and crowning of the ‘Flower festival Queen’. We see sculptures of temples, animals, birds, scenes from the Ramayana, even portraits of the King and queen, all crafted in red poinsettias, orange bougainvilleas, pink and purple petunias. Atop each float is a lovely Thai woman, contender for a beauty pageant in the evening. Spectators are handed out red roses and the roads are washed clean for this wonderful spectacle.
We drive to the Mae Sa Elephant camp to watch an Elephant show. It looks again like a tourist trap with souvenir vendors, sugarcane and bananas on offer to feed the elephants, and a gaggle of camera-totting tourists. But the show is an entertainer. About 20 elephants keep us amused with various tricks like throwing darts, playing soccer, performing Thai massage and logging duties. The piece de resistance however is when the elephants become artists! Easels are propped up and the pachyderms hold a brush and produce a gorgeous rose on canvas with some deft strokes! The art work is on sale (obviously at astronomical rates).
The crowning glory of our visit is the Night market. Chiang Mai is located at the confluence of mainland South East Asia-we see an exotic melting-pot of ethnic communities at this market. There are a dozen masseurs offering foot massages, blaring Thai music, and street food with the ubiquitous beef on skewers. I have been told-“Shop wisely, never accept the first price offered.” I embark on my shopping spree. I am greeted often with the codicil “OK,I do this only for you, only 100 Baht…”I continue to the Anusarn market where there are rows and rows of macabre herbal remedies straight out of a Macbeth play.
Suffering from shopper’s fatigue, we are desperately in need of revitalizing. We visit the Whole Earth Restaurant recommended by my guide-book. It’s a stunning Thai-style wooden house set amidst landscaped gardens. Brick pathways run through the gardens and the whole setting is one of serenity. We opt to sit on the verandah with the balmy breeze blowing and feast on a Thai vegetarian meal of Papaya salad, Green curry and rice with mango. The restaurant’s philosophy is “Eating for Enlightenment”! Chiang Mai really does have something for everyone!
PUBLISHED IN THE KHALEEJ TIMES, DUBAI,2011