The contemporary meets the traditional in Northern Thailand.
By Nick Barancyk, Photos by Nick Barancyk and Bharath Mohan
Acclimation is a peculiar process, one made stranger by the circumstances through which it transpires, like the breezes of an oscillating fan or a train car’s sway and its percussive discussion with the tracks. We seek out these natural rhythms, taking comfort in their order and predictability. And maybe, in some ways, they help us translate the exotic into the ordinary. When the train stops in Chiang Mai, Thailand, however, you’ll notice a different rhythm, one both fast and slow, alien yet strikingly familiar.
The heart of art
Thailand is a nation of color and spice and golden-tipped temples. In the South, vibrant boats grace the sea, but it’s the jungle-bedecked mountains of the North where artists from throughout the country flock. In the cultural city of Chiang Mai, woodworkers, potters and more hone their craft, submerging themselves in the act of creation. This collection of talent has nurtured some of Thailand’s best ateliers, music venues and hand-made markets.
The giving tree
In the walled and moated Old City, you’ll find all manner of hostels, homestays and boutique hotels, but for a real taste of Thai charm, book a room at Tamarind Village. Named for the 200-year-old tamarind tree growing in its courtyard, this boutique hotel blends the modern with the traditional. Rustic wooden furniture meets white marble in the bathrooms, while the bedrooms weave in wicker accents and ornate pillows. Under the shade of the tamarind tree, it’s easy to feel whisked into the jungle, an impressive feat, considering the hotel is located within the city center.
Thailand, like much of Asia, has a long-standing culture of street fare. Khao soi—wheat and egg noodles in a curry broth—is a Chiang Mai specialty and is served streetside or at the legendary Khao Soi Samer Jai restaurant. The city also has a growing food-truck scene, eerily reminiscent of that of Portland, Ore., or even Austin. However, most open and close early. At dinnertime, the best way to explore the local cuisine is to do as the locals do and grab a little something from each food stall at the night markets. Curries, cookies and, of course, pad thai can be bought and munched on while browsing the hand-knit scarves and artwork. Just make sure you have water—or better, some Thai tea—close at hand, as the spice can sometimes be a shock to the taste buds.
Buy by night
All those artisans and creatives in the city create a wonderful opportunity to purchase original art. At the night bazaar, you’ll find a fair mix of handmade goods and mass-produced tourist trinkets, but for more bespoke pieces, you’ll want to head to the Sunday Night Market, set in Old City. You’ll find the highest concentration of locally produced goods made by master craftsmen and craftswomen here. Other local workshops worth a visit include Mengrai Kilns Rop, with its massive collection of handmade pottery, and the Chiang Mai Batik School, where you can take classes in the batik screen-printing technique.
Over the mountain and through the woods
Chiang Mai is surrounded by mountains and trees, so it’s no surprise the outdoors are big here. For longer excursions, consider a trek through the countryside, but for a shorter stay, don’t want miss Doi Inthanon National Park. Sprawling across Thailand’s highest mountain, this park is home to waterfalls, royal gardens and mossy boardwalk trails. Back in town, temple hop from the crumbling Wat Chedi Luang to the opulent Wat Chiang Man. Afterward, soothe your muscles at one of the women’s massage centers that trains and employs female ex-inmates. All these attractions make Chiang Mai a difficult city to grow tired of and far more difficult to leave.
The elephant in the room
They’re intelligent, they’re compassionate and they’re massive in size and cultural significance. It’s hard to forget the elephant once you’re in Chiang Mai, as most clothing, signage and art has something to do with the country’s national animal. For many years, elephant riding was also used as a major tourist attraction. Foreigners would climb atop the gentle giants as their mahouts (elephant trainers) guided them through jungles and across rivers. It was entertaining for the riders but crippling for the animal. For an elephant to accept a rider, it must be spiritually broken. The process is grueling, even after it’s completed, as an elephant’s spinal structure is not built to withstand the weight of a human.
In the past few years, a new standard for elephant tourism has arisen. As more visitors demand a heightened ethical standard, there is less riding and more options to spend time with the animals rather than on them. Typical schedules include fruit feeding followed by playtime and then a mud bath. After the elephants have been slathered up, they lumber to the river, where they’re washed and bathed.
The caveat to this new surge in ethical tourism is the lexical adapting of former riding camps. Most now advertise a no-ride policy, despite the fact their elephants are still mistreated and abused. Some tried-and-true camps include the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and Elephant Nature Park. Both tend to be more expensive than the other camps, but if animal welfare is an issue for you, it pays to do some research.
Leaving Chiang Mai
It’s inevitable. Your time in Chiang Mai has come to a close and it’s time to change tempo. On the ride out, try to capture that essence of the North, to remember the beat of the local people and the thrum of life in the jungle.