by Percy Roxas.
It doesn’t really matter where our travels take us or how many times we have been to a certain destination. There is always something new to discover, something novel to learn about, and something new to explore and enjoy in any destination – as our recent visit to Chiang Mai succinctly proves.
Consistently voted as one of the Top 5 destination cities in the world by prestigious international travel organizations, Chiang Mai has a charm that grows on you with each and every visit. It is a place that easily tugs at the heartstrings. This could be because of its astounding natural beauty and delightful year-round temperate weather, its amazing breadth of cultural wealth and time-honored traditions. Or, it could be because of its rich and multi-checkered history, the diversity and range of activities and attractions on offer, the unique and delicious cuisine, and its genuinely graceful and friendly people.
What’s even more astounding about Chiang Mai is that the destination continues to evolve and grow – although that can actually be said about the entire country. It continues to find fresh stimulating activities to attract visitors and make you say, “Well, I haven’t seen this before” or “Why, I didn’t know Chiang Mai has this?” or something like that.
Even frequent visitors like ourselves still get amazed at how the city seems to be constantly reinventing itself. Credit, of course, goes to the general innate creativeness and innovative spirit pervading the city, and to the new young breed oflocals and expats who are ceaselessly working to make Chiang Mai a world-class destination.It is they who make the “Rose of the North” bloom further, so to speak.
Thus Chiang Mai today sees new bars and restaurants, new shopping centers, new art spaces, and perhaps more importantly, even more touristic activities and fun attractions to enjoy and experience. A new, better, Chiang Mai? Chiang Mai for the millennials?
Perhaps. But name it and Chiang Mai has it, or will have it, sooner or later.
This is not to say of course that this heart of the former Lanna kingdom has completely gone uber modern. Nope. One can still experience the graceful traces of this ancient capital city established in 1292, its mores and values, and its gracious culture and lifestyle, although the destination, especially the original city is also inevitably as modern a destination as any. Talk about finding equilibrium.
In the ancient city Chiang Mai alone, for example, modern structures and infrastructures are rising side-by-side with the ancient temples, ruins, and relics. Hip hotels and other high-rises now mingle with houses and buildings in the Lannastyle.
Modern bars and restaurants stand by side along traditional street food stalls and open-air riverside chill-out places. Elephant camps and trekking companies inhabit the same areas along with some five-star resorts offering the most cutting-edge luxuries and conveniences and theme parks such as Chiang Mai Night Safari with state-of the-art programs and tours. Some of course are mere rebranding (change of names). For example, the Mae Tang Elephant Camp, which is now called The Chang (Thai for elephants), but you get the gist.
Even as Chiang Mai tries to find a balance between preserving its unique cultural wealth and embracing the best that modernity has to offer, so the destination has become even moreattractive for all kinds of tourists tovisit. No wonder that the “Thailand Travel Mart,” an annual event held in Bangkok for years, is moving to Chiang Mai this year in June.
Here are some hotspots in Chiang Mai that makes even a casual visit to this destination such a blast:
NEW FACE OF LANNA
No Chiang Mai trip is complete without experiencing the local style of eating known as khantoke, and sampling the well-loved local delicacies such as khao soy and gaeng hang le, among the many, or exploring the hundreds of the temples (in the old city alone), or enjoying some time at the Night Bazaar and the Walking Streets. However, there’s a face of Chiang Mai that proves how it is also attuned with the times: the proliferation of newer, hipster hotspots where locals congregate and foreigners chill-out to sample fun and entertainment with a local touch. Here are some manifestations of the new younger face of Lanna:
Coolest Spot in Town
Nimman (Nimmanhaeminda Road) is actually one of the oldest streets in the city but in the last decade or so, it has become the “must-go-to lane” in Chiang Mai, as one of our hotelier friends who was recently in Chiang Mai puts it. Indeed, this is the hip, the “in,” the “now,” the trendy place to be and be seen.
The road can be described as a microcosm of Chiang Mai – both its ancient and the modern faces – and all it takes is a leisurely walk along the …km road. The beautiful shops that houses Lanna handicrafts, exquisite jewelry and exotic carvings that made Chiang Mai famous can all be found here; fashionable contemporary food created by celebrity chefs as well as innovative drinks by some of the most creative mixologists around, abound within this busy city center.
Originally a street of noodle shops and humble homes, the road – named after one of Chiang Mai’s oldest families – is now teeming with boutique hotels, restaurants, bars, art galleries and fashion and décor shops (Soi 1), and cafés, which has given it the name “Coffee Street,” though the cafes are actually concentrated on Soi 9. Visit Wawee Coffe Shop, 94 Coffee, and even Starbucks – among the about 90 or so cafes that line the street — and you will agree. A big highlight here is the Nimman Promenade, located in the intersection of the main street and Soi 4.
How did it become so trendy? No one really knows the answer, except that the street just took off after a few enterprising celebrities: movie stars, fashion designers, and models from Bangkok, took a liking to the street built shops and businesses here — and voila: the “Thonglor” of Chiang Mai was born!
Whoa over Cuppa
As we have mentioned earlier, coffee shops are definitely the “in” thing in Chiang Mai, mushrooming not only atNimman but also in other highly populated and touristic areas such as Changklan Road. It is often said that there are now more coffee shops in Chiang Mai than restaurants or bars. One blogger even attested that there are now more coffee shops than 7-Elevens in Chiang Mai city. Apparently a new coffee shop opens in Chiang Mai on average every 48 hours, with some doubling as art galleries too (another hot trend).
One popular new coffeehouse is Café de Oasis (202/9 Moo1 Route 4307, Changpuak, Muang // Tel: 053 414 190). An additional factor that contributes to the quick growth of the coffee house trend is the fact that Chiang Mai houses several universities and schools of higher learning, and their students just loved to hangout in these cool places!
Love the Nightlife
Chiang Mai is not Bangkok but there are numerous exciting places to hangout and bring your friends in for a drink or two or a chat. There’s probably one ideally suited to your preference. A place that might be considered a well-guarded secret is BKK Bar (Chaiyapoom Road), which is frequented by locals and expats more than by tourists. If you want to go where the locals go, this is the place. There is live music by well-known bands playing until late night. Chai Blues House and Tiger Bar (Charoenrat Raj Road) are also popular.
In Nimman, a well recommended hangout place is Blar Blar Bar (Nimmanhaeminda Road, Soi 7). JJ Market Zone (Assadathon Road), which is the street in front of a market where there are many bars such as Hualampong, is considered to be one of the most popular places in the area.
But the Top 5 nightclubs in Chiang Mai, according to hotels.com, are: Warm Up Café (Tel: 053 400 676) on Nimman Road; Infinity Club on Nimman Soi 6; Zoe in Yellow on Rajvithi Road (Tel: 081 951 8286); Monkey Club, also on Nimman (Tel: 053 226 997), and Fabrique (Tel: 053 256 028)at Chiang Mai President Club. Of course, there are more. Big or small, budget or expensive, kitschy or classy – they come in all forms and guises!
Music, and All That Jazz
Music has always been a part of local lifestyle in Chiang Mai, and arguably, this northern capital was even ahead of Bangkok in accepting international popular music. With characteristic passion, many young Chiang Mai folks took to playing musical instruments, formed a band, and began performing in the clubs and bars catering to foreign visitors.
Bangkok eventually caught up, of course. But in the old days, a foreign visitor who like international pop/rock music is bound to enjoy his time in Chiang Mai more than in Bangkok. Today, the pubs of Chiang Mai are playhouses of various musical genres and bands can be more easily found for some live musical entertainment, and especially in the riverside restaurants.
OK, the riverside restaurants are nothing new in Chiang Mai, or elsewhere in Thailand for that matter, but The Good View Restaurant (Tel: 053 241 866// firstname.lastname@example.org) and The Riverside (Tel: 053 243 239) continue to be major hotspots for Chiang Mai visitors who prefer to have some live music while enjoying diner in an exhilarating, al fresco setting.
Much Ado About Eating and Drinking
Thailand’s continually increasing appetite for more sophisticated dine and wine venues is not confined to Bangkok or Pattaya. While most Chiang Mai visitors still take the mainstream trail of dining and drinking in places that serve authentic local dishes in authentic Lanna ambience, there is no dearth of places to go today if you’re up for some classic fine dining and wining moments.
Two of the most popular hotspots – not necessarily new by the way – are Le Coq d’Or Restaurant (Tel: 053 141 555), which is one of the longest running restaurants in Chiang Mai. This restaurant serves excellent French food and wine in a lovely antique teak-built house. There’s also Le Crystal (Tel: 053 872 890), which is set in a beautiful garden setting beside the Ping River, making it a dining destination for its location itself.
There’s also a place called Giorgio (Tel: 053 818 236), located near the Night Market, which has built up a sterling reputation as a favorite of VIPs when they are in Chiang Mai.
Of course, the five-star hotels and resorts are “dependable” venues for this kind of sorties, and one need only to check out what’s happening at The Four Seasons Chiang Mai, Dhara Dhevi, Le Meridien Chiang Mai, and Shangri-La Chiang Mai, to mention a few, where celebrity chef events, gourmet dinners, wine tastings, and other trendy gastronomic promotions are now offered on a regular basis.
Oh, there’s a place called Sireeampan Resort, which might surprise you with its bespoke F&B offerings!
For Thai food, many Chiang Mai long-timers recommend Khun Nai Dern Sai (Tel: 053 222 208), which, locals say, is still the place to go for unusual Thai dishes. With an ambience that has been described as “bohemian” to match its cute décor and engaging background music, this recommendation is not surprising.
Among the first restaurants we’ve visited in Chiang Mai as a tourist are: Antique House (Tel: 081 724 6332), a beautiful 100-year-old teak house with good service and Thai food perfect for Western palates; and The House Restaurant (Tel: 053 419 011-12), which serves exceptional Asian fusion dishes and creative cuisine in an exclusive atmosphere.
If you are the health-conscious type, then The Whole Earth (Tel: 053 282 463) might be for you. This dependable restaurant serves a wide vegetarian selection as well as Indian food. One of the city’s most popular restaurants for so many years now, The Whole Earth is set in an antique house with a lovely garden, which enhances your enjoyment of the meal. These are but just a few choices, of course.
For the Sake of Art
Chiang Mai has recently emerged as an art hotspot of Thailand, and art shows are being featured in galleries exhibiting works of contemporary Thai painters, sculptors, photographers, and talented graffiti artists in neighborhood streets. Even some hotels here, in fact, are veritable art galleries in their own right, for they are living showcases of the Lanna art and antiques heritage, and helps promote artistic expression and appreciation.
On Nimman Soi 9, for example, the uniquely designed akyra Manor Chiang Mai Hotel allows guests to truly connect with the culture of the city. The new hotel has announced the first series of art installations as a “living gallery (Check out www.theakyra.com/chiang-mai for the schedule of on-going and upcoming events).” Needless to say, akyra is not
the only one trying to solidify Chiang Mai’s reputation as an art hotspot. Other organizations, such as the Chiang Mai Creative City group, are also very active in promoting regular activities to promote and connect visitors to the art and culture of the city.
To Spa or Not to Spa
Spas as hotspots? Well, why not! With Chiang Mai simply the spa capital of the North, spas are veritable hotspots of relaxation and pampering. You can go to one to enjoy a facial or any beauty treatment, or just to relax during a unique Lanna therapeutic massage. Wellness and spa centers have mushroomed in Chiang Mai and one must the experience the Lanna variations.
Of course there are Spa Cenvaree of Centara, the Devarana of Dusit, or the Spa at the Four Seasons – but there are also a number of homegrown spas like Rajinrindra where not only the treatments are also unique, but also the ambience and facilities, because they are always infused with the local touch. There are more than 40 legitimate spas in Chiang Mai and there are also a number of massage schools for those who want to learnabout the ancient methods. And while on it, try to experience a traditional Lanna massage and healing therapy (Thai Lanna Spa Association at 053 298-220; www.thailanaspa.org).
By the way, Chiang Mai is the birthplace of the award-wining Oasis Spa, which arguably is now the leader in the local spa industry, now with 11th branches nationwide, with the newest branch just opened in Chiang Mai.
Very Special Place
Of course there are many more attractions: shopping malls like the Promenade; festival floral, and theme parks; and more. Certainly for many, these hotspots merely play second fiddle to the traditional but diverse bucket list of tourism programs that include cultural activities, eco-tourism and adventure pursuits, and shopping in dedicated districts such as Sankhampaeng, Baan Tawai, and Hang Dong. But they certainly enhance the experience.
“I think Chiang Mai is the most special place in Thailand not only because of its culture,” says Toby Allen, CEO of Tap Technology in Chiang Mai. “This city has perfect size; It is big enough to have everything you want yet small enough to be able to find what you want. Also, I like the ease of getting here. With hourly fights you can come and go whenever you like. And the value you get for your money is great. I think it’s the best in Asia.”
Exploring the greater Chiang Mai requires more than the three-to-four days average length of stay; lots of money preferably (booking a daytrip isn’t cheap); and tons of reserve energy (staying on the road for hours back and forth to Mae Tang isn’t exactly a walk in the park). But as they say, if there’s a will, there’s a way.
If you are planning a more indepth experience, plan to stay longer. Enjoy Chiang Mai!