Of Thailand's non-beach destinations, Chiang Mai is the one that has the country's widest range of attractions. Apart from water sports this city, somewhat insecurely dubbed the 'rose of the north' after a non-native flower, has it all. Located amidst the rolling foot hills of the Himalayan Mountains 700 kilometres north of Bangkok, it could until modern times only be reached by an arduous river or elephant-back journey. This isolation has kept Chiang Mai's distinctive charm relatively intact to the present day. It is pleasant to be able to report that a destination has improved over recent years, as has been the case in Chiang Mai, where the moats have been dredged and repaired, many roads repaved in attractive red bricks, lumpy concrete lamp posts replaced with ornate ones and the city walls restored.
On the one hand, the northern Thai city still holds on to its rural roots and the earthy local culture known as 'Lanna', which literally means 'one million rice fields'. On the other hand, Chiang Mai has its own airport, three universities and outlets representing all the country's main chains of shopping malls and restaurants.
Its main attractions, however, are its style and its splendour.
Wander the Old City's backstreets and you will stumble on some of southeast Asia's most alluring Buddhist temples. There are over 300 temples in Chiang Mai and its outskirts, of which maybe be most magnificent is Wat Doi Suthep, topped by a stunning 24 metre high gilded chedi, partially shaded by gilded bronze parasols. Established in 1383 and famous for its large gold-plated chedi, it overlooks the city from its 1,073m eerie on the slopes of 1,685 metre Doi (Mount) Suthep and is visible from the city on a clear day. The site was selected by sending an elephant to roam at will up the mountainside. When it reached this spot, it trumpeted, circled three times, and knelt down, which was interpreted as a sign indicating an auspicious site. Centrally-located Wat Phra Singh temple's small wooden Phra Viharn Lai Kham building is perhaps Chiang Mai's most beautiful. The front of the building's exterior is ornately decorated with gold leaf flowers on a red lacquer background whilst, in the interior, exquisitely carved window frames compete for the eye's attention with fascinating and detailed wall murals.
At each corner of the Old City moat, you will be distracted by the spicy aromas that waft from the woks used to cook the region's distinct cuisine, which fuses Thai, Lao, Burmese, Mon, and Chinese influences. For visitors whose bums are bored of bucket seat restaurants, the city has droves of restaurants that serve every kind of cooking imaginable, from water buffalo beef to tapas. Chiang Mai is Thailand's fifth biggest but second most-visited city and is a magnet for settlers from around the globe, many of whom are eccentric or unusual.
Meet silversmith Steve McCarthy, who designed the chalices that grace the spectacularly successful 2006 religious mystery movie The Da Vinci Code. McCarthy calls Chiang Mai "as close to paradise as you can get". He likes the way that locals know neither the time nor day, have few wants and no pretensions. "People laugh at people who spend money ostentatiously," he says, adding that everyone who visits Chiang Mai returns.
The temples and museums are as good as culture vultures would expect, but what you maybe wouldn't expect is that the shopping here is so good that even unreconstructed males might miraculously find themselves actually enjoying it.
Chiang Mai, along with Bangkok's weekend Jatuchak market, is one of the two best places to go shopping in Thailand. The city is the country's best place to buy art and sculpture, of which the value and the quality of the higher-priced items is amazing. It's best to buy it here as most of the best pieces never leave town: the best artists, like those the world over, are more interested in painting than selling. At the Sunday market here you can pick up beautiful oil paintings at less than a tenth of what comparable quality would cost you in the West. The market is open from 3 till 10pm, but don't leave too early, as the best painters are a bit bohemian and don't bother turning up till quite late, as they don't have to try too hard to sell their work.
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