The North of Thailand
The North of Thailand
Traveling up through the central plains, there's no mistaking when you have reached the North of Thailand: Somewhere between Uttaradit and Den Chai, the train slows almost to a halt, as if approaching a frontier post, to meet the abruptly rising mountains, which continue largely unbroken to the borders of Burma and Laos. Beyond this point the climate become more temperate, nurturing the fertile and which gave the old Kingdom of the north the name of Lanna, ''the land of million rice fields''. Although only one tenth of the land can be used for rice cultivation, the valley rice fields here are three times more productive than those in the dusty northeast, and the higher land yields a great variety of fruits, as well as beans, groundnuts and tobacco.
Until the beginning of the last century, Lanna was largely independent region. On the back of its agricultural prosperity, it developed its own styles and distinctive handicraft traditions. The north is also set apart from the rest of the country by its exuberant way with festivals, a cuisine which has been heavily influenced by Burma and a dialect quiet distinct from central Thai. Northerners proudly call themselves 'Khon muang', ''people of the principalities'', and their gentle sophistication is admired by the people of Bangkok, whose wealthier citizens build their holiday homes in the clean air of the north's forested mountains.
Chiang Mai, the capital and transport centre of the north, is a great place just to hang out or prepare for a journey into the hills. For many travellers, this means joining a trek to visit one or more of the hills tribes, who comprise one tenth of the north's population and are just about clinging onto the ways of life which distinguish them for one another and the Thais around them. For those with qualms about the exploitative element of this ethnological tourism, there are plenty of other, more independent options. To the west, the trip to Mae Hong Son takes you through the most stunning mountain scenery in the region into a land with its roots across the border in Burma, with the option of looping back through Pai, a laid-back hill station for travellers.
Bidding to rival Chiang Mai as a base for exploring the countryside is Chiang Rai to the north; above Chiang Rai, the northernmost trip of Thailand is marked by the fascinating, schizophrenic border town of Mae Sai, and the junction of Laos and Burma at Sop Ruak. Fancifully dubbed the ''Golden Triangle'', Sop Ruak is a must on every bus party's itinerary- you're more likely to find peace and quiet among the ruins for nearby Chiang Saen, set on the leafy banks of Mekong River. Few visitors backtrack south from Chiang Mai, even though the towns of Lamphun, Lampang and Phrae are packed with artistic and historical goodies. Further out on a limb to the east, Nan is even less popular but combines rich mountain scenery with eclectic temple art.
The City of Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai feels less claustrophobic than most cities in Thailand, being scattered over a wide plain and broken up by waterways. The moat encircling the temple-strewn old town, the gentle Ping River brings a breath of fresh air to the eastern side of the pungent food markets above Nawarat Bridge and the modern, hectic shopping area around Thanon Chang Klan.
Getting to Chiang Mai: By Car
From Bangkok drive on Highway No.1 (Phahonyothin) to Highway No.32 passing the provinces of Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, Ang Thong and Nakhon Sawan, then take Highway No.117 to Phitsanulok and drive on to Highway No.11 to Lampang, Lamphun and Chiang Mai. The route is 695 kilometers. From Bangkok drive to Nakhon Sawan and then take Highway No.1 passing Kamphaeng Phet, Tak, Lampang and Chiang Mai. The route is 696 kilometers.
Accommodation in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is well stocked with all kinds of accommodation; usually there are plenty of beds to go around but many places fill up from December to February and at the festival time, particularly during Songkran on April and Loy Krathong on November. At these times, you need to book to stay at one of the expensive hotels and for guest houses it's a good idea to phone ahead-even if you can't book a place, you can save yourself a journey if the place is full.
A great many of the tourists visiting Chiang Mai make enquiries on hill-tribe trekking. Of particular interest to most are the six major hill-tribes which inhabit the Northern highlands. The largest group is Karen, followed by the Meo, Lahu, Yao, Akha and Lisu. They share animism beliefs and honor numerous forest and guardian spirits. Each tribe has distinctive ceremonial attire, courtship rituals, games, dances, agricultural customs, languages or dialects, aesthetic values and hygienic habits. Popular 'Jangle Treks', lasting from 2-7 days, take visitors through forested mountains and high valleys and include visits to remote hill-tribe settlements for overnight stays. The best guides are hill-tribe youths who customarily speak English, Thai and at least three tribal dialects.
Eating in Chiang Mai
The main difficulty with eating in Chiang Mai is knowing when to stop. All over town here are inexpensive and enticing restaurants serving typically northern food, which as been strongly influenced by Burmese cuisine, especially in curries such as the spicy kaeng hang lay (usually translated on menus as ''Northern Thai curry''), made with pork, ginger, garlic and tamarind. Another favorite local dish is Chiang Mai nem, spicy pork sausage- although the uncooked.
Courses in Chiang Mai
In recent years there's been a steady increase in the number of visitors who come to Chiang Mai looking to return home with a new skill by taking a self-improvement course. The most popular subject is how to cook Thai food, followed the Thai massage and meditation, but perhaps the most challenging of all, though vital for anyone planing to spend any length of time here, is the Thai language.
Shopping in Chiang Mai
Shopping is almost irresistible pastime in Chiang Mai, a hotbed of traditional cottage industries offering generally high standards of workmanship at low prices. Two main tourist shopping areas, conveniently operating at different times of the day, sell the full range of local handicrafts.