Chiang Mai is already a popular destination but its offbeat art scene, delicious street food and night markets can still offer plenty of surprises.
Crowds of pilgrims jostle each other as they circumnavigate the golden chedi of Wat Phra That on Doi Suthep, clutching lotus flowers, their hands folded in prayer, as they make merit at Chiang Mai’s popular mountaintop temple. It is always crowded here but the number of visitors doesn’t detract from the cool air, exquisite religious design, and knockout views of Chiang Mai in the valley below. Doi Suthep epitomises the ability of Chiang Mai to continually attract and wow the visitor – and to reinvent itself.
Back in town, my hosts drive me over to Wat Suan Dok, the Lanna flower garden temple that might just be Chiang Mai’s best-kept secret. Despite the fact that the 48 metre high gold chedi can be seen from all over the city, for some reason tourists don’t seem to make their way over here and the rows of white washed stupas which house the cremation ashes of Chiang Mai’s royal family sit eerily deserted, with only the soft footsteps of monks breaking the silence.
Yet Chiang Mai, despite what the guidebooks may have one believe, is not only about the old temples and highbrow culture. Our next stop is at the cutting-edge new Art in Paradise 3D art museum, which has just opened its doors and claims to be the biggest 3D art gallery in the world. It is based completely on human interaction, visitors getting the opportunity to interact with all of the paintings and displays, using their imagination and creativity.
My Thai compatriots take to the photo ops like sharks at a feeding, as Art in Paradise caters wildly to the Instagram and Facebook crowd. Some of the paintings are outlandish sci-fi creations, with dinosaurs or giant sharks or gorillas leaping right out of the pictures to attack.
Sightseeing aside, the food in the north is one of the biggest attractions. First stop on our agenda is for a bowl of khao soi, Chiang Mai’s signature dish, composed of egg noodles, lime, shallots, chillies and a yellow curry soup base. Our hosts deposit us in front of a nondescript hole in the wall joint, where an awning blocking the sun hides a busy interior, packed to the gills with locals all clamouring for their daily bowl of noodles.
Khao Soi Lam Duan Fah Ham has been making local khao soi for over 70 years, and in fact claims to have invented the Chiang Mai style of the Shan-Yunnanese curry. Images of monks and royal patrons that have graced the unassuming restaurant hang on the walls, along with all sorts of awards from throughout the years, but the scene at our table really tells the tale, with six silent diners, heads bowed, slurping up the noodles.
Khao soi is not the only reason to come on a culinary journey to Chiang Mai. At Huen Muan Jai, modestly run by a former sous chef who has competed on the prestigious Iron Chef Thailand show, the décor is simple and the prices more attuned to a backpacker’s budget, yet the food is divine. The whole array of unique northern offerings here will amaze the toughest food critic, with perfect renditions of northern favourites like nam prik noom (green chilli dip) or gaeng hang lay (Burmese thick curry) coming out of the tiny kitchen every few minutes. Hard to find specialties like aeb pla, grilled catfish served with northern herbs and wrapped in banana leaves, or larb het top, seasonal mushrooms sautéed in a spicy salad are just a fraction of the items available here, and most of the menu will turn the Thai cuisine expert into a rank novice.
More northern specialties can be found at Chiang Mai’s vast array of markets. One of my colleagues has gotten wind of the best sai oua (Chiang Mai spicy sausages) being available from a vendor over at the Thanin open air market near the Rajabat University. Sure enough, the lady has a Shell Chuan Chim award for her zesty sausages, and we ensure that she will be going home early, buying out most of her stock between the six of us. The Thanin market is blessed with some of the best food vendors in the country, well off the tourist track and extremely photogenic.
Our last evening in Chiang Mai, we call in at the Walking Street Sunday night market. This spot, which alternates with the nearby Saturday night market, is anything but old-school or unknown, and although it has only been around for several years, it has surpassed the night bazaar as the No.1 night-time tourist draw in Chiang Mai and has grown immensely in popularity as a showcase for young artists and other entrepreneurs. From paintings to herbal soap, and even a singing cop who plays guitar in full uniform, helmet and all, to raise funds for poor kids, Walking Street is a real tourist attraction. Yet, just like the temples, it isn’t overwhelming nor schmaltzy.
One vendor, an enterprising young man, sidles up to try to sell one of his paintings, an image of Doi Suthep done on canvas. We have an early start and will be flying home without any check-in baggage, so his sales pitch proves unsuccessful.
“Don’t worry – you can buy the next time,’’ he says, apparently unfazed. “I am sure you will be back, no? Chiang Mai has a way of doing this to people.”
Getting There: Bangkok Airways, Asia’s boutique airline, flies several times a day from Bangkok to Chiang Mai from B1790. See bangkokair.com
Stay: X2 Chiang Mai Villa (1/10 Manee Nopparat Rd Soi 2, 0918-084-257, x2lobby.com) is adjacent to the ancient Lok Moli Temple. Located on the north side of the old city moat, the villa is just minutes from downtown, yet completely hidden away in a cul de sac with a feel of utter privacy and quiet. Best of all are the promotional Lanna chic packages, which include Champagne breakfasts for 10 people and Kantoke northern Thai dinners. Rates start from 17,500 baht a night for the entire villa.
Eat: Khao Soi Lam Duan Fah Ham (352/22 Charoen Rat Road, 05-324-3519) is famous for serving some of the best noodles around.