Two faces of Thailand-A A +A
Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Part 1: Chiang Mai Charms
Chiang Mai, called the Rose of the North, is the second biggest city in Thailand.
Located on the banks of the Ping river, the city captivates visitors with its refreshing natural beauty and its indigenous cultural identity. Imagine verdant hills and mountains, misty valleys, lush forests with age-old trees, gushing rivers...What's there not to admire and appreciate?
Once upon a time the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Mai has its own distinctive culture and cuisine. Think of colorful hilltribes and their way of life, of tribal crafts, peculiar customs and traditions (the wearing of neck rings for Padong women), hand-me-down ways of preparing food... they all spell U-N-I-Q-U-E!
It must have been a decade or so ago when I first set foot in Chiang Mai. Less than an hour away by plane from Bangkok, the city seemed so laid back then. What has stuck in my mind on that visit were the fruit-laden longan trees in the garden of the guest house where we were staying, the handicraft village (where we bought hand-painted parasols), the night market, and of course, the almost blinding golden temple on a hill.
Last month's visit to Chiang Mai opened our eyes to more of what the city and its environs have to offer. The trip was organized by Nelson and Baby Dy of Grand Hope Travel in tandem with GTMC Holidayz and Thai Airways.
Our home was the Furama Chiang Mai, a member of Furama Hotels International. We were welcomed with dinner at the roof deck resto where we got an intoxicating view of Chiang Mai by night...a city all aglow against a panoramic backdrop of towering mountain peaks.
Since we had a cabaret show at the Chiang Mai Night Safari to catch, we hurried on and was just in time for the song and dance numbers performed by lovely "lady boys" (yes, this is how transvestites are called in Thailand).
Then there was the "Musical Fountain and Water Screen" show by the lake before it was finally time to go on the night safari itself. We boarded the tram for a spin around the South zone and afterwards to the North zone. We saw all kinds of creatures of the wild. It was a heady experience particularly when we got the chance to have giraffes, zebras, antelopes and donkeys eat carrots straight out of our hands!
The next day's destination was the Wat Prathat Doi Suthep, the most famous landmark thereabouts. The temple sits on a mountain top 3,520 feet above sea level. It can be reached by climbing 185 steps or riding a cable car.
The place is literally a mountain of gold. Golden pagodas, golden statues and golden urns were all over the place. The glittering temple contains the relic of Buddha, hence it is a most venerated treasure by Buddhist pilgrims.
For another touch of local color, our guide Benz, brought us to the Warorot "Kat Luang" market, the city's biggest market. Local food, fruits, souvenirs, clothes and other Thai treats were on sale. Another shopping place was the Sunday market which showed us an interesting mix of handicrafts, food and household items.
Dinner that evening was at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center. It was a Khantoke dinner highlighted by Northern Thai classical and folk dances, and Hilltribe presentations. A khantoke is a pedestal tray used as a small dining table. Diners sit on mats and cushions on the floor.
A visit to Thailand is not complete without an "elephant adventure." We had ours at the Maetaman Elephant Camp. We saw elephants taking their morning dip at the river.
Then came the show. How amazing to see elephants play some kind of soccer! And seeing them pick up paint brushes and come up with flower paintings was astounding! When we heard harmonica music coming from the elephants, we were totally overwhelmed!
The elephant ride was next on the agenda. It was an exciting trail which covered crossing the river, going up a hilly path and then back down towards the village. So thrilling especially for the first-timers! Another exhilarating ride was bamboo rafting down the Maetaman River.
Nobody skips a visit to the district of San Kamphaeng when one is in Chiang Mai because it is the handicraft highway of the city known as the handicraft capital of Thailand. The skilled artisans of Bor Sang Village create hand-painted parasols and fans. Also in the area are lacquerware factories where all kinds of items in wood, bamboo, metal, shell, among others, are enhanced by lacquer designs in black and gold as well as in other attractive colors. The district is also home to celadon products, the famed Thai silk, wood carvings, silverware, and more.
Our farewell dinner was at the new restaurant by the bank of the Ping River called The River Market. It is a quaint structure done along the lines of Burmese-Thai architecture.
The setting was dreamy on that drizzly evening. From our perch at the Garden Terrace, we could see the old Iron Bridge and the century-old house nearby framed by mist-covered lights. To top it all, we had a gracious host in resto owner David who saw to it that the menu was perfectly friendly to our Filipino palates (the spiciness in signature Northern Thai dishes toned down).
Chiang Mai is definitely one place to visit. Its natural beauty absolutely charms.
Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on August 23, 2012.