In northern Thailand, you’ll find the intriguing city of Chiang Mai nestled among rolling hills. An hour by air from Bangkok, its counterpart in the south, Chiang Mai is the capital of Chiang Mai Province and former seat of the Kingdom of Lanna, which still influences its culture. It’s the opposite of Bangkok in many ways, offering a more relaxed pace and opportunity to catch your breath after the hustle and bustle of the southern capital. The welcoming spirit of its people, breathtaking scenery and spicy food have been drawing more and more visitors in recent years. We’ve put together a list of must-sees that will have you communing with elephants, tasting the food and saying a prayer in and around beautiful Chiang Mai.
Wat Pan Tao in the Old City
In the heart of the old city is Wat Pan Tao, a small wooden temple that stands out from the rest of the temples in the country for its simplicity and natural materials. A golden statue of Buddha floats above a pond near the monastery. Remember that when visiting a wat, you must remove your shoes and cover your shoulders, so bring along a scarf or long-sleeve shirt.
Huen Phen Restaurant
Before you leave Chiang Mai, have lunch at Huen Phen, a famous restaurant that has been catering to locals, and now many tourists, since the 1960s. They specialize in traditional northern Thai food, called Lanna cuisine, that’s served in the Karan-style on a family-style tray. Pork is an important part of Lanna cuisine, so be sure to taste the larb khua moo, a heavy, dry-spiced curry made with minced pork, seasoned with cinnamon and cumin and garnished with shallots and crispy kaffir lime leaves. The best part: a delicious four-course meal comes out to about the equivalent of $6, including tip.
Chiang Mai Eco-Village in the Karan Valley
From Chiang Mai, the Karan Valley is just a bouncing and bumpy SUV ride away. If you’re lucky, the driver might just blast some Britney Spears hits from a thumb drive as you pass rice patties, banana trees and lounging elephants. Lying low among the hills is the Chiang Mai Eco-Village, a rustic hotel made up of six bungalows and an open-air kitchen. What it lacks in luxury it makes up for in elephants, which you can see from the window of your hut each morning when you wake up. Join a tour to a nearby watering hole. A cool, crisp spring trickles from the steep hills and gathers in a natural pool of sorts. It’s a delight to watch elephants relish their baths after a hard day of work. Eco-Village visitors can also go bamboo rafting. Just beware of the carnivorous snakes that lie below the surface of the muddy water.