Firmly positioned as the epicentre of Thailand’s Northern tourism realm, Chiang Mai continues to offer more and more for people passing through
It’s no secret that Chiang Mai is currently one of the most visited cities in Thailand. In the past several decades it’s metamorphasized from a sleepy northern town into a bustling mini-metropolis. Upscale resorts and fine dining restaurants are now commonplace here, and the Chiang Mai International Airport will probably soon have to expand to handle the non-stop influx of visitors. In fact, The Chiang Mai International Airport Short and Long Term Development Plan (2016-2025) details the growth of the airport with the ultimate aim of handling up to 34 flights per hour, and expanding the facility’s capacity to 18 million passengers per year.
“With the integration of the ASEAN Economic Community, we aim to promote ASEAN as a single tourist destination,” said Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) Governor, Mr. Yuthasak Supasorn. “These initiatives will help boost awareness of the tourism connectivity for multi-destination itineraries in the greater Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Thailand (CLMVT) region. The TAT believes that expanding available flight services is crucial to the entire tourism industry to facilitate the flow of tourists travelling within the CLMVT as Thailand continues to develop its leadership role as the region’s aviation hub.”
One of the benefits of this increased airport capability is that it allows travellers a perfect jumping off point to explore nearby cities in neighbouring counties such as Mandalay and Yangon in Myanmar, and Luang Prabang in Laos. On a recent press trip organized by the TAT, a group of international journalists were taken on a whirlwind tour of this connectivity conduit, stopping in on three cities in just five days, and getting a guided tour of some famous, and occasionally lesser-known, landmarks.
The Silver Temple
Anyone visiting Chiang Mai will discover very quickly that there are many, many temples to explore, especially within the confines of the old city. However, just outside the old city walls is Wat Sri Suphan (100 Wua Lai Rd), an ornate, Lanna-style Buddhist temple originally built in 1502. Little remains of the original structure, so what visitors are treated to instead is an eye-popping recently constructed temple where the walls and roof, inside and out, are covered in embossed silver, nickel, and aluminum panels. The major restoration work began over a decade ago, and as a result the carvings combine a fantastical mix of ancient and modern iconography. Look closely amidst the Nagas and Garudas and you’ll see mythic figures holding electric guitars, modern day superheroes like Spiderman, and the coat of arms of several neighbouring ASEAN nations (note, however, that because this is an active ordination hall, only men may go inside the ubosot). It’s a fitting centrepiece for the surrounding village of silversmiths, and visitors can also watch these master craftsmen at work, and even try their own hand at tapping out a design on a small key ring (with some expert guidance from the staff).
Opened in 2016, the 3,000 sq.m modern, state-of-the-art MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, located 20 minutes from the centre of Chiang Mai in the Sankamphaneg district, was created in memory of founder Eric Bunnag Booth’s great, great aunt Chao Chom Iam—a royal consort to King Rama V—and is a direct result of the family’s desire to share their private art collection with the general public. During a recent visit we were lucky enough to have Eric’s father Jean-Michel Beurdeley (also one of the museum’s co-founders) give us a fascinating, and very personal guided tour. He explained his reasoning for choosing certain pieces, and gave us insight into the artist’s own inspirations. And while the impressive permanent collection belongs to the family, there are also temporary exhibitions of visual art, design, and fashion on display, and the museum also stages performances, film screenings, lectures, and workshops. Even the building’s exterior is a marvel, with small mirrored rectangles covering the whole of the front façade. The MAIIAM is open every day except Tuesdays, from 10am-6pm, and admission for adult/student is B150/B100.
Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sports supports local communities like the ones in Ban Hua Tung by organizing eco-tourism visits that help tourists gain a bit more of an understanding on the importance of conserving our natural environment. The Hua Tung community, who live at the foot of Chiang Dao mountain, is a good example of people living in harmony with their natural resources. For instance, the villagers ordain certain forest trees as “monks” so that no one will cut them down (the trunks are tied with a ceremonial cloth). Tourists and students can learn about this and other local ways of life, and visit the nearby rice fields, organic farms, and forests. Homestays are also available.
Chow Down Chiang Mai
There are two locations of the very popular Oh Ka Jhu restaurant in Chiang Mai (and one in Bangkok as well, at Siam Paragon). The original location is a bit off the beaten track—121 Outer Ring Road, Sansai—but the second outlet is located in a community mall near the airport, making it much easier to get to. Either way, a visit to this cheery farm-to-table restaurant ensures you’ll be treated to fresh, organic fare, as all the veggies are grown organically in the huge green garden just behind the Sansai branch. The leafy salads, served with a variety of homemade dressings, are delightful, but fruit is also in abundance, both in the fruit salad sundae—served inside a hollowed melon-half—and in the delicious fruit smoothies. Carnivores, meanwhile, should try the barbeque Flintstone-sized pork spareribs smothered in homemade BBQ sauce, the German style sausage platter, or the tender salmon steak. There’s also a wide array of homemade cakes and desserts available.
Another unique dining destination worth seeking out is Meena Riced Based Cuisine. The restaurant is set in a refurbished Lanna-style rice barn—surrounded by tall trees, greenery, and overlooking a small pond—and is located about 5 km to the east of the city centre. Inspired by the traditional ways of Thailand’s rice farmers, the menu offers diners dishes that deliver authentic recipe food and beverages, most of which have rice as an ingredient. Be sure to order the house specialty, a multi-coloured, pie-shaped block of rice that combines brown, jasmine, saffron, and butterfly pea rice with super dark riceberry (accompanied by colourful edible herbs and flowers).
The Ping River flows through the heart of Chiang Mai and the Na Nirand Boutique Resort is ideally located right on its banks. There are 45 accommodation units at this romantic resort—all with a private balcony or verandah—starting with the 39 Deluxe Suites (31-46 sq.m), and continuing up in size to the two Corner Suites (53 sq.m), and the four themed Riverfront Colonial Suites (65-73 sq.m). Each room is adorned with local fabrics and handicrafts, wooden and rattan furniture, colonial touches, and murals that reflect local art, as well as an array of luxurious modern amenities including flatscreen TV, mini bar and fridge, and in-room Wi-Fi. The central courtyard is dominated by a large open-air swimming pool, surrounding by greenery, and there’s a fitness room and spa on-site as well. But even if you’re not an overnight guest, try and pay a visit to the resort’s all–day dining venue, Time Riverfront Cuisine & Bar. With indoor and outdoor seating, including a rooftop wine bar, this eatery serves delicious Thai and international cuisine.
Chiang Mai Goes Michelin
Like all the X2 (cross-to) resorts in Thailand, the newly opened X2 Chiang Mai Riverside Resort offers holiday makers a chic retreat with flair to spare. However, this newest addition to the Chiang Mai hotel scene also brings Michelin star power to the city in the form of Chef Nicolas Isnard, the restaurant’s menu consultant. Born in the south of France, Nicolas cultivated his own culinary sensibilities while working all over France—from Matignon to Dijon. In 2009 L’Auberge de la Charme, the restaurant he co-owns in France, earned a Michelin star within a year of opening. This year he finds himself firmly ensconced in Northern Thailand, where he will be working alongside Executive Chef Alexandre Demard.
At the Oxygen Dining Room, the resort’s glass-walled, all-day restaurant venue, Nicolas and Alexandre have crafted a menu that pushes the culinary envelope—something the fine dining scene in Chiang Mai is not always known for. Even the breakfast menu here has intriguingly uncommon items on offer, such as the wonderful deconstructed vegan Khao Soi (which utilizes quinoa, of all things). During a recent media dinner the chefs and their team wowed diners with such culinary concoctions as: mackerel with roasted beetroots and raspberries in hibiscus broth; squid stuffed with zucchini caviar served with Thai basil pesto and pumpkin seeds; and pork confit served with carrot, orange, kumquat, and coriander. However, the most delicious dish that night for me was his prawn tartare, served with green mango, pea guacamole, and a calamansi jellyfish garnish.
Meanwhile, the resort itself is a stylish 5-storey red brick property with 30 elegantly designed units, ranging from the 50 sq.m Tamarind Suite to the 177.5 sq.m Pool Suite River View. I found myself checked into a spacious 3rd floor Riverfront Suite which includes a King-size comfort spring bed, 42” 4K Ultra HD LED Smart TV, mini-bar and capsule coffee maker, room safe, comfort-controlled air-conditioning, work station area, and in-room Wi-Fi. The private balcony, which looks out over the Ping River—offers a relaxing sunbed, while the large bathroom comes complete with a dual vanity and rainshower.
Other hotel amenities include the 5th floor Ozone area—a swanky rooftop bar and swimming pool, with sunbeds and cabanas, as well as an adjacent fitness room. And when the sun goes down the tiny fibre optic twinkle lights that cover the bottom of the pool make it look like stars are reflecting on the water’s surface. Another highlight is the ground floor H20 Water Bar & Tea Lounge which offers 50 brands of still and sparkling water, as well as an extensive selection of teas and tasty cocktails, mocktails, and healthy beverages.
Words and photos by Bruce Scott