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Introduction to Chiang Mai

Doi Suthep Temple – Chaing Mai

"A day in Chiang Mai is long enough" affirms the travel agent, and the client nods, alas, knowing no better.

"Enough to see the main sights, and do the Night Bazaar" he adds confidently, as the computer screen confirms a one night hotel booking in Thailand's oldest continually inhabited city, thus depriving the tourist of some of the most interesting travelling experiences in Asia.

For years, the travel industry has mistakenly considered Thailand's northern capital to be a side excursion, or an overnight stop on a seven day "See All Of Thailand" coach trip. The truth is that like Venice or Vienna, this centuries-old city is a prime destination in its own right.

If Bangkok is to Thailand as London is to England, then Chiang Mai is to Northern Thailand as Edinburgh is to Scotland. Indeed, it is almost similar in size and population to the Scottish capital, and with a past equally as turbulent, and customs as distinctively different, a week here might not be long enough for the serious traveller.

Without delving into linguistics or history, it is interesting to know that the Thai word for twelve is Sib-song. A thousand is Pan and a million is Lan. A paddy field translates as Na, and by joining these words, we form two names that are fundamental to understanding Northern Thai history, ie. Sib-Song Pan-Na and Lan-Na. Respectively, they mean twelve thousand, and one million rice fields. For those who have thrilled to the irreproducible iridescent green of ripening paddy, this is a wonderful image to consider before we even start.

Much like Australia or America, modern-day Thailand is composed mainly of migrant races. Various ethnic peoples of the Mon-Khmer group, such as the Lawa tribe, which is still in evidence today, originally inhabited Northern Thailand. The majority of today's northern "Thais" are in fact are descended from "Tai" or "Dai" immigrants, mainly from Northern Burma, China and Laos, who displaced the indigenous races, and over centuries were eventually, and very often painfully, united.

Evidence of this clearly exists in archaeological and linguistic studies, but nothing is more compelling than a visit to Sib Song Panna (Xishuangbanna) in China's Yunnan province. This might be called China's Mini-Thailand, for it is indeed more Thai than Chinese, with the Buddhist "Dai" people in the majority, said to number over 800,000. They celebrate distinctly Thai customs, and worship in Thai-style temples. Familiar sights such as saffron-robbed monks are also common, and although it is clear that there are Tai origins elsewhere in Asia, many older Thai people look on Sib Song Panna as their ancestral home.

The fruits of these various migrations led to a unification of races, and the formation of the Lan-Na Kingdom (mostly written now as Lanna). According to historians, King Mengrai, the first fully documented Lanna ruler, founded Chiang Mai ("new town") on Thursday, 12th April 1296 - nearly 500 years before Bangkok rose from the muddy banks of the Chao Phya River. Chiang Mai not only became the capital and cultural centre of the Lanna Kingdom; it established itself as the centre of Buddhism in northern Thailand. At the height of its influence, Lanna extended far into Burma and Laos, and in Thailand, southwards as far as the town of Khampaeng Phet, near Sukhothai. The rich and often violent history that followed sets this region quite apart from the rest of the country in terms of atmosphere and feeling. Except for regional invasions of territory, influences from the outside world were minimal, and over centuries, Chiang Mai was almost unknown to the west, mostly because of its mountainous inaccessibility.

A few intrepids braved the journey, and survived the malaria. A curious consequence of this was the individual interpretation of the city's spelling and pronunciation. Over the centuries, Chiang Mai acquired over a hundred different names ranging from 'Jangoma', 'Tsieengh Maeij', to 'Zangnomang'. The adventurous Englishman Ralph Fitch who came here in 1587, called it 'Jahomey' and his impressions read as: "A very fair and great town with fair houses of stone, well peopled, and the streets are very large".

The Burmese occupied Chiang Mai from the mid 16th to the mid 18th century, their eventual expulsion achieved by military assistance from the King of Siam, when Lanna princes agreed to relinquish some of their tenacious independence. The Siamese government finally integrated the Lanna states in 1904, and Chiang Mai became an official province of Siam in 1933, The country was renamed Thailand in 1939. (This decision was reversed some years later, then reinstated)

The centuries-old isolation which did so much to nurture and preserve Lanna's unique culture is best illustrated by the fact that until the railway line was completed in the late 1920's, Chiang Mai was only accessible by river transport and elephant back, the perilous journey from Bangkok taking over a month. (It now takes 55 minutes by plane) Any form of navigable roads came much later. The first motor vehicle to be driven all the way from Bangkok on the rutted network of tracks arrived in Chiang Mai in 1932. More significantly, the last stretch of fully paved road into the city was not completed until 1972, three years after man landed on the moon.

Today, just thirty years later, Chiang Mai is the economic, cultural and communications centre of Northern Thailand. The forested mountainous province to which it gives its name boasts excellent infrastructure, good roads and efficient communications. It is home to a number of different peoples, each with their own culture and language, which gives it a fascinating indigenous cultural identity. It is this intriguing diversity, mixed with the spectacular scenery and myriad attractions which makes it one of Asia's most appealing tourist destinations, and not a place for an overnight stop. Unlike Thailand's other two main historical cities, Sukhothai and Ayuthya, whose ancient sites are mainly outside the town, Chiang Mai clasps its history close to its bosom. Centuries-old chedis and temples rub shoulders with modern convenience stores and car showrooms, right in the heart of the city. Chiang Mai is unique. Perhaps that is why Joe Cummings, author of the famous "Lonely Planet" guidebooks to Thailand, chooses to live and work here.

Located in the Mae Ping River Basin, 710 kilometres from Bangkok, and 305 metres above sea level, the original city layout still exists as a neat square surrounded by a moat, and vestiges of the fortified wall. Four main gates offer principal access to the old town, which is criss-crossed by main roads, and veined by charming narrow lanes with traditional teakwood houses and lovely everyday images of Northern Thailand, all begging to be admired. There are more than 30 temples in this area, some venerable sites dating back to the founding of the city in 1296.

This part of Chiang Mai can be explored on foot or bicycle (early morning is recommended) but it essential to have a good walking map. Nancy Chandler's edition, which shows many little workshops, tiny restaurants, and all kinds interesting tucked away places, is considered the best. Largely due to an absence of any public transport system (Tuk-Tuks and red collective taxis are the only way to get around) coupled with increasing vehicle ownership, Chiang Mai is facing growing traffic-related problems. If you are exploring on your own it is important that you know where to look, rather than investigate corners of the city in anticipation of making a discovery.

Radiating out from the old town, ring routes and good road systems allow easy access to the other parts of the city, and the beauty of the beckoning province. There are scores of reputable travel agencies offering a wide range of organised tours, from half-day trips to week-long adventures. Many visitors take advantage of the attractive rates for car hire, particularly if arranged on a weekly or longer-term rental when if you shop around, costs can drop below US$20 a day (for a Suzuki Caribean) - including mileage and insurance. Some independent driver-guides advertise their services for as little as 100 baht (approx US$2.50) an hour (excluding gasoline) with a pledge not to take you to commission-based shops. This opens up possibilities for endless enjoyment exploring Chiang Mai province, and even further afield to Chang Rai, the Mekhong River, and the "Golden Triangle" 

What to Do

Chiang Mai and the surrounding province offer a plethora of pleasures and pursuits catering for almost every taste. Even those with no interest in times past will be struck by the allure of ancient temples, built centuries ago by dedicated architects and craftsmen with no modern tools, only a natural sense of perfect proportion and aesthetic beauty. History buffs will revel in ancient relics and priceless exhibits in museums and private collections. Shoppers will discover absolute delights in what is one of the largest collections of cottage industries in the world - quite apart from all the other bargains on offer in markets and city shops. Sports fans will find everything from go-karts and golfing to ice hockey and hot air ballooning. Nature lovers will love the variety of flora and fauna, trekkers the fascination of hill tribes, mountain bikers will thrill to the countryside, gourmets can learn the secrets of Thai cuisine, holistic types will find dozens of alternative therapies, and would-be Buddhist meditators all the Dhamma instruction they need. Whether you take an organised tour, or explore by yourself, or a mixture of both, Chiang Mai, to allow us an appropriate clich?, has something for everyone. This web site can only highlight just a few of the possibilities.

Walking or Bicycling Within the City Walls

A convenient starting point is at Tha Phae Gate on the east flank of the moat, closest to the Ping River. The margins on both sides of the gate contain a host of tourism-friendly outlets, including restaurants, bakeries, pubs, entertainment places, vehicle hire (including bicycles) and the small market of Sompet. Tha Phae is also a focal point for performances and processions during major Thai festivals.

Close to the centre of the old city, Wat Chedi Luang is a recently renovated but impressive old temple dating back to 1441, which reputedly once held Bangkok's Emerald Buddha. It also houses the Lak Muang or city pillar. Inside the northern wall of the city, at Chang Phuak Gate close to the Thai Airways office is the oldest temple of Wat Chiang Man, which dates back to 1296, and was apparently where King Mengrai lived during the city's construction. It houses two small but precious Buddha images, the smallest "Crystal Buddha" just 10 cm high. Wat Pra Singh, close to the west Suan Dork Gate , is probably the most photographed temple, and dates to 1345. In addition to the main structures, its spacious sunlit grounds house an elegantly carved library, and a chapel containing a Buddha image thought to be 1500 years old, with origins in Sri Lanka.

Outside the Walls & City Environs

More ancient temples await serenely in all corners of the town. Some of the best known include Wat Suan Dork (built in 1383) with its whitewashed stupas, and the pleasantly tree-shaded seven spired Wat Jet Yod (1455) close to the Amari Rincome Hotel. Wat U-Mong, whose original foundations date to 1296, lies in a delightfully forested setting on the fringe of town, and its cool calm atmosphere makes for a lovely afternoon's outing. Buddhist talks in English are often conducted here on Sundays, and there is also a small open air zoo. In the same area of town, Wat Ram Poeng is a well-known and long established centre for Buddhist meditation, and the highly regarded courses for foreigners are often fully subscribed.

The many artifacts at the recently renovated National Museum, close to the Amari Rincome Hotel, give insights into Chiang Mai's compelling history whilst the Chiang Mai University Museum of Art always has interesting exhibits. The excellent Hilltribe Museum is a must-see for anybody fascinated by Thailand's ethnic groups, and provides comprehensive information as well as lifelike and colourful renditions of their dress and everyday activities.

Chiang Mai's multitude of local markets can provide hours of fascination as well as potential bargains. The biggest, best known and beautiful market is Warorot close tothe Ping River. The surrounding area also offers some colourful shopping opportunities. Because most visitors are on a short stay, very few experience the pleasure of exploring the Mae Ping River , which flows through the city. Starting out early with a hired bicycle along the winding riverside roads and tracks introduces you to a delightfully peaceful world of small villages where rural life goes on much as before, despite the proximity of the city. A stop for some noodles or a cold drink will usually bring an audience of smiling faces, and possibly some new friends. The organised boat excursions offer an interesting but obviously much less intimate perspective of the river.

Further out of town, and topping the list of most sightseeing options is the scenic 16 kilometre switchback ride up to the holy temple of Doi Suthep, where from an altitude of 1,000 metres, the views are stunning on a clear day. The revered temple dates back to 1383, and is reached by a long flight of some 300 steps, or an optional cable car when it is in service. Like most prime sightseeing attractions, it is much better to visit here in the early morning when the atmosphere is wonderfully other-worldly, and most fellow tourists are still in bed. You can easily spend several hours up here, and warm clothes are recommended, particularly between November-February. On Fridays, weekends and official holidays, an optional extension from Doi Suthep is a visit to the summer residence of the Thai Royal Family at Phuping Palace when the superb grounds are open to the public. On the way down from Doi Suthep, visitors can call in at Chiang Mai Zoo, (said to be the largest of its kind in SE Asia) which has an extensive collection of 6,000 animals, plus two waterfalls, and twisting roads offering nice views of the city. A vehicle is needed to navigate the wide area covered. Close to the zoo is the Chiang Mai Arboretum with a shady collection of many different tree species, and further down towards town, the main gate to the well tended grounds of Chiang Mai University , which also houses a small lake and useful collection of small shops, banks, and a post office.

There are a number of picturesque areas within an hour's drive from the city centre. Travelling north brings you to Mae Rim then westwards to the Mae Sa Valley, where you can stop at fascinating roadside orchid and butterfly farms, snake farms, and elephant camps. A "must stop" is the delightful and surprisingly little-visited Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden. Avid gardeners and plant lovers can do no better than spend a half day or longer at this extensive and beautiful site, home to a huge variety of tropical plants and flowers, including many rare varieties. Continuing on this road brings you to the small town of Samoeng through lovely countryside. You can then proceed on a loop southwards back to the city through Hangdong, a large handicraft centre, and the nearby wood carving village of Baan Tawai. A little further south of here is Sanpatong , site of an agreeably noisy cattle market every Monday morning.

Further Afield

To the south and south east of the city, the pretty towns of Lamphun and Lampang can be explored in a day. The former was the capital of the ancient principality of Haripoonchai, which predates Chiang Mai, and its lovely monuments still whisper echoes from the past. Lampang is another historic centre with splendid temples, and horse-drawn carriages providing a picturesque eco-friendly form of local transport. For many visitors however, the main attraction here is the Lampang Elephant Conservation Centre , home to more than 50 of the noble creatures, including Bo Thut, who appeared in the Walt Disney film movie "Operation Dumbo Drop". Established to protect working elephants affected by abandonment, illness, or simply lack of work due to restricted logging, the elephants receive excellent care, and happily entertain visitors by logging logs, playing musical instruments, and yes, painting pictures. This unique and colourful "elephant art" is for sale, and makes an excellent highly unusual gift, as well as helping to fund the thoroughly worthwhile activities of the centre.

To the south west of Chiang Mai, nature lovers and bird watchers can stand on Thailand's highest point in the 1,000 sq. kilometres of Doi Inthanon National Park where the misty peak reaches an altitude of 2,590 metres amongst mosses lichens, wild orchids and evergreens. The park entrance is approximately 60 km from the city, and the summit is accessible via winding roads by vehicles in good condition. The drive up here from Chiang Mai via Chom Tong with its splendid temple takes you through some lovely countryside, punctuated by tumbling waterfalls and tribal villages. This makes an excellent day trip on its own.

Basic accommodation is available at Doi Inthanon, but for those who prefer to combine comfort with an overnight amongst Mother Nature there is no better choice than a stay at the Angkhang Nature Resort. The 160-kilometre drive north to this mountain retreat winds through delightful scenery, and the impressive geology of Chiang Dao , with its famous caves. The resort was developed as part of a royal agricultural station for planting and researching flowering plants, temperate fruit trees, vegetable and other crops under the patronage of his Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

A 2 1/2 -3 hour drive roughly northeast from Chiang Mai brings you to the small city of Chiang Rai, the former Lanna capital, established in 1262. The main attractions lie beyond the city in the area of "Golden Triangle" where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Burma meet at the Mekhong River on a delta-shaped sandbar amongst panoramic views. Short boat trips on the river will let you "touch down" on official Lao territory, and local diplomacy permitting, it is possible to cross over into Burma for a few hours at the brashly effervescent town of Mae Sai, Thailand's most northerly point. Volatile Thai-Burma relations occasionally close this option, but the town itself is a rich broth of inter-country trading, with pavements often totally blocked by brimming displays of everything. Hardly sophisticated, but colourful and interesting, even if you buy nothing. This is unlikely, given the huge variety of things to eat, wear, place on your sideboard, or offer to friends back home. Although possible to explore this area in a one day trip from Chiang Mai (by leaving early and getting home late) an overnight stay in the area allows for a wider and more relaxed itinerary. This could include a visit to the Mekhong riverside town of Chiang Saen, (thought to be the birthplace of King Mengrai) with its ancient monuments and small but fascinating museum. Other options might include the hill resorts of Doi Mae Salong populated by families of the Nationalist Chinese Army who fled China in 1949, and Doi Tung with its revered temple and royal residence.

Another most pleasant and less energetic option is to take a short (35 minute) flight northwest to the appealing picture-perfect town of Mae Hong Son , the smallest and most remote provincial capital of the North, best known for its Burmese style temples, and the river excursion to see the "long necked" tribal women. This is an especially scenic region in November when the wild sunflowers (Bua Tong) are in blossom, often stretching in a stunning gold carpet as far as the eye can see.

Trekking & Hill Tribes

Exploring the forests and tribal settlements on foot with a local guide has become immensely popular over the last decade, particularly with Chiang Mai's influx of young travellers. Travel shops advertise a range of trekking options, from a basic overnight hike to arduous week-long safaris. The recipe is usually the same - basic accommodation in consenting hill tribe villages, mixed with varying degrees of soft adventure such as sectors on elephant back or exciting stretches of white water rafting. These itineraries vary from the memorable to the mundane, and some routes have suffered from tourism overkill, with a foreseeable negative effect on both authenticity and hospitality. There are still however a number of dedicated and eco-friendly operators who operate less-frequented routes, and a well-chosen trek can be a hugely rewarding experience.

Chiang Mai's tribal settlements are a separate fascinating study, with their origins in different parts of Asia, and correspondingly very different beliefs, languages, customs, laws, dress and traditions. Individual descriptions are well beyond the scope of this web site, but Chiang Mai's larger bookshops stock some excellent coffee-table publications with stunning photography enhancing the thoroughly absorbing text.

The Tribal Research Institute recognises ten hill tribes or Chao Khao (mountain people) most with origins in the Tibetan Plateau. Best known are the Karen, whose numbers are thought to exceed 300,000 in Thailand, (and several million in Burma) In addition to the Sgaw Karen and Pwo Karen there are several related subgroups including the oft-photographed Padaung, or "long-neck" Karen. The Akha are easily recognised by the women's distinctive "mini-skirts" and strikingly colourful headdresses of beads, old silver coins, and feathers. Other tribes include The Lahu who are specialised forest hunters, the turbaned Lisu skilled in silver jewellery, the Hmong (or Meo) with their love of embroidery and batik, and the Yao (or Mien), who brought their culture from far-off China. The Lawa (mentioned above) were known to have lived in Thailand before Lanna but some archaeologists postulate that they have ancestral roots in Micronesia, perhaps 2,000 years ago. Other lesser-known groups such as the H'tin, Khamu and Mlabri are thought to have origins closer to the Golden Triangle.

Shopping

Numerous articles on sale in Bangkok and the beach resorts originate in Chiang Mai, and many Thais make a special trip here to purchase furnishings and decoration. Wood carving, textile and ceramic companies regularly handle overseas orders from important clients, including international hotel chains and multinational companies, who appreciate the high quality products custom-made to their own designs and specifications. Whether you are looking for a trinket or a complete set of teakwood furniture, Chiang Mai is quite simply a shopper's delight, and this topic merits a section by itself.

In the city, growing numbers of high quality outlets add to the expanding variety and design of locally made products, no better reflected than the choice of excellent shops a few steps from the Amari Rincome Hotel, many of which sell exclusive or unique items which cannot be bought elsewhere. A short taxi ride from the hotel brings you to the Kad Suan Kaew shopping complex, which is home to hundreds of shops of all kinds, including a major department store, plus entertainment and sports (see below)

East of the city, the superb handicraft centres of Sankampaeng and Borsang feature on most excursion itineraries. Although 'invaded' by daily tour coaches, the wide area and sheer number of factories and workshops can make it seem surprisingly uncrowded. A guided tour can be advantageous, since groups are treated to interesting demonstrations and talks. If you are shopping for expensive items however, it is often better to return later on and conduct your bargaining alone, thus avoiding commissions traditionally reserved for accompanying drivers and tour guides. Many of Thailand's finest handicrafts originate here, finding their way not only to Bangkok, but also to quality shops in foreign capitals. The bewildering choice of items includes Lacquerware, Thai Ceramics, Silk and Textiles, Woodcarving, and exquisite Silverware. Less expensive but no less attractive options include lovely Hilltribe Crafts, and items made from durable Sa Paper (from the bark of the mulberry tree). This material is also used to make those delightful hand-painted and famous Chiang Mai Umbrellas, which come in an astonishing variety of colours and sizes, from miniature mantelpiece versions all the way up to giant garden parasols. The well known Night Bazaar, located between the old city and the river, has to some extent lost its originality, but interesting and unusual pieces can still be found amongst the abundance of standard souvenirs.

Sports and Leisure Activities

Active folks will find ample outlets for their energies in Chiang Mai. The Peak rock climbing center offers 20 climbing routes on the 4-storey "Mountain Wall" with professional instructors on hand to instruct and encourage. Bungy Jumping for brave leapers and admiring onlookers has the launch platform suspended over a pleasant pond. A superb way of viewing the city is by a 20 minute piloted Microlight aircraft which will greatly enhance your snapshot collection and boost your after after-dinner anecdotes. Horse Riding is available at the Thai Army Cavalry army base where the stables are open Saturday & Sunday evenings at 4.00 p.m. Elephant Riding, is available at the various elephant camps around the city, or on organised tours. Chiang Mai Go Kart Speedway has a 600 metre racing track and 4 kart models available according to age and experience, including two-up versions. Mountain Bike enthusiasts congregate early on Sunday mornings at Thapae Gate to set off on interesting local explorations. Enduro Motorcycle Tours take riders along scenic dirt roads either on one day sorties, or trips of 3 days or more. A recently introduced idyll that operates in the windless dawn of the November-February cool season is the free-floating hot air Oriental Balloon, which makes for a memorable experience. Chiang Mai boasts some excellent Golf Courses including the Royal Chiang Mai Golf Resort, the Green Valley Golf Club, Lanna Golf Club and the 100-year old Gymkhana Course. The city's well equipped "700 Year Stadium" which opened and hosted the South East Asian Games in 1995 has excellent public facilities for swimming, tennis, and field sports. Ice Skating is available in South East Asia's largest Ice Rink in Kad Suan Kaew, which also features a Bowling Centre. Lastly, cricket fans will be happy to note that the International Cricket 6's tournament is held in Chiang Mai every April.

Healthy Pursuits

A look in local tourist magazines indicates that Chiang Mai offers a wide range health-related and holistic practices. Increasing numbers of foreigners come to either study or submit to various body and mind therapies such as Thai and Chinese Massage, Acupuncture, Reflexology, Meditation, Yoga and Tai Chi, to mention just a few. There are also numerous Spas, and if you are tuned in, you may vibrate in sympathy with the practitioners of outer-fringe things like Quantum Healing, Aura-Chakra Balancing, Bio-Energetics, and Clairvoyant & Spiritual Healing. If however you prefer a more rational and scientific approach, Chiang Mai has excellent medical facilities and many visitors combine a holiday with a full medical check up, or skilled dental work, available at a fraction of the cost in Europe or North America. Nothing however is as health-giving as a good balanced diet, and Thai food, with its fresh herbs, and abundance of fruit and vegetable based dishes, is rapidly eclipsing other cuisines in global popularity. Not surprisingly therefore, Thai Cooking Lessons are very popular, and various establishments offer cooking courses, including the Amari Rincome Hotel who can arrange classes for groups.

Entertainment

Assuming that you have sufficient energy left after sunset, the city has no shortage of night entertainment. Certainly one of the most touristy, but arguably the most enjoyable evening excursion is the Kantoke Dinner at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre. The informative well-produced show features members of the main hill tribes in a colourful selection of music and dance - a tried and tested formula of audience enjoyment, which has been performed nightly for over 30 years. A larger and grander alternative can be found at the recently opened Khum Kantoke Restaurant. Another pleasant night out is assured on a Dinner Cruise along the Ping river, but if you prefer land-based dining, the growing number of Pubs and Restaurants on the banks of the Ping River provide excellent live music and entertainment, a combination which can keep you out much later than you had planned. Watch out for the latest movies (which often precede releases in Europe) and are normally screened in the original sound track - with seats at a fraction of the prices you would pay at home. Look out too for live performances scheduled at the modern 1800-seat Kad Theatre which features live theatre, music and dance by local and international artists. There are also regular and charming Folk Puppet Performances at Chiang Mai University.

Events

Chiang Mai has dozens of provincial fairs and festivals throughout the year. Many have religious or historical origins, others are simply joyous celebrations of Thailand's amazing agricultural bounty, or its wide range of crafts. Most of them are set against a background of music, dance, entertainment, market stalls, beauty competitions and a general air of "Sanuk" - that special blend of infectious joie de vivre which can only be found in Thailand.

Amongst the most important are the Borsang Umbrella Festival and the Baan Tawai Wood Carving Fair, both held in January. Early February brings the lovely Chiang Mai Flower Festival with parades, floats, cultural performances and exhibitions. In the heat of mid-April, city commerce closes down for nearly a whole week during the Thai New Year Songkran Festival, which is celebrated in Chiang Mai with more fervour and more water throwing than the rest of the country put together. This is a wonderfully wild time, and unless you are wearing quick-drying clothes and carrying your camera in a plastic bag, you should not leave the waterproof interior of a closed vehicle during the daytime. Evenings bring relative safety, and a host of splendid cultural events in many city venues. The Chiang Mai Mardi Gras takes place in October at the Night Bazaar, with food festivals, shows, music awards, and general merriment. The most beautiful Loy Kratong (Yeepeng) festival takes place during the November full moon when candlelit handmade floats or "kratongs" are placed reverently on any available stretch of water, creating an unforgettable backdrop for the processions, celebrations, and performances, which for most foreigners, make this the best-loved event of the year.

Conclusion

Chiang Mai has arguably more attractions, more fascination, more festivals and more appeal than any mountain resort in Asia. Blended with Thailand s unique hospitality, cuisine and carefree ambience, plus the comparatively low cost of hotel accommodation, it is quite simply unbeatable.

It is worth remembering however that apart from small sections of the town, Chiang Mai is spread out over a fairly wide area, and some form of transportation is essential to appreciate all there is to see. Newly arrived visitors who venture out on foot from their downtown hotel for "a walk" may discover that like most other cities in Asia, Chiang Mai suffers from some modern day problems. Traffic, and the veneer of modernity reflected by highways and tall buildings can conceal the real magic, and create a disappointing first impression.

Chiang Mai enjoys three distinct seasons. From November to March the days are beautifully warm, and the evenings cool enough to warrant a sweater or light jacket. At higher altitudes, heavier clothing is needed. April and May can be uncomfortably hot, especially in the afternoons, but the nights are cool, and early mornings perfect for sightseeing. The rainy season, roughly from June to mid-October gives a pleasant mix of tropical downpours and bright sunshine, transforming the countryside into lush quilts of green, and a profusion of tropical flowers.

The city is rapidly becoming a regional airline hub, and it is possible to combine Chiang Mai with other exotic destinations to create an exciting holiday itinerary. At the time of writing, there are flight connections with Kunming and Jinghong in China, Rangoon and Mandalay in Burma, Luang Prabang and Vientiane in Laos. There are also direct flights to Taipei and Singapore.

The Amari Rincome Hotel opened in 1969, and is the longest established first class hotel in the city. It has a long history of welcoming distinguished guests, including members of the Thai Royal Family, who are regular visitors here. It blends very high standards of hospitality with the perfect ingredients for rest and relaxation - large flower-filled grounds, shady trees, two swimming pools and a private tennis court. Located a few minute's drive from the National Museum, the immediate environs of the hotel combine some of Chiang Mai's highest quality shopping, excellent restaurants and night spots with an adjoining network of small leafy lanes which are lovely to explore by bicycle or on foot.

Chiang Mai of course has no beach, but for those who seek sand and sea combined with these mountainous northern delights, Thai Airways operates a convenient daily (2-hour) flight direct to Phuket - where the Amari Coral Beach Resort awaits, with an equally warm and special welcome.