36 Hours in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
BLESSED with a cooler climate than Bangkok and buffered by lush mountains, Chiang Mai has long served as a backpacker’s gateway to Thailand’s northern reaches. But an influx of Thai artists and Western expatriates has turned this quiet city into a vibrant destination in its own right. Design studios have sprung up in town, fusing traditional Thai with modern twists. Age-old curries are now paired with Australian red wines and croissants. The area around Nimanhaemin Road now looks like South Beach, packed with BMWs and Art Deco homes, alongside contemporary art galleries run by young Thais with purple hair and nose rings. But traditional Chiang Mai is still there. Walk away from Nimanhaemin into the old city and you’ll see shaved monks meditating and backpackers chowing down on banana pancakes.
1) OLD KINGDOM
Packed with crumbling old stupas, jewel-encrusted temples and wooden houses, Chiang Mai’s central old city hasn’t lost its old charm. And since Chiang Mai was once the capital of the Lanna kingdom, its temples and other historic sites have a unique look, with starker lines and darker woods. Start a long walk at Wat Chiang Man, the city’s oldest temple, built in the late 13th century, and then wander southwest, to Wat Chedi Luang, which houses a giant, partly damaged traditional Lanna-style stupa. Get your exercise by continuing on for about a mile, southeast, just past the old city walls, where you can stop for a break at a branch of Wawee Coffee, a local chain serving northern Thai joe. (Inside the Suriwong Book Center; Sri Donchai Road, near the intersection with Thanon Chang Khlan.)
2) BODY SHOP
The bumpy roads can take their toll on your legs. Rejuvenate them at the Ban Sabai Town (17/7 Charoenprathet Road). The spa offers aromatherapy and other treatments, but the specialty is, of course, Thai massage — a method that emphasizes stretching. The masseuse pulls and prods your limbs in every direction, like a chiropractor. Your muscles might be tempted to scream, but they’ll end up feeling like soft butter. An hourlong Thai massage costs 1,900 baht (or around $60 at 32 baht to the dollar), far less than you would pay at most hotel spas.
3) CRABS AND KARAOKE
For a taste of the city’s cosmopolitan edge, stroll along the Ping River, where university students and young professionals gather at a strip of rollicking restaurants that serve modern Thai, Japanese and Western food. Among the liveliest is the Good View, a sprawling pub and restaurant where the young patrons sing along to live Thai country and rock music, while downing pitchers of beer and shots of Johnnie Walker. Try the geng som, a soup flavored with a sour Thai orange, and the poo phat pong kari, crab stir-fried with yellow curry. Dinner for two people costs about 1,000 baht.
4) HOLY MOUNTAIN
Get up early — it’s worth it — for the classic Chiang Mai experience: a morning hike on Doi Suthep, the 5,498-foot peak that overlooks the city. Many residents consider Doi Suthep a holy mountain, and hike it as often as they can. Head to the base of Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, a Buddhist temple that, according to legend, dates from the 14th century, and is topped by a glittering gold chedi. On a clear day, the temple’s terraces afford views across northern Thailand. You’ll see Thailand old and new: monks in sandals begging for rice and young couples smooching in the corner (a taboo among older, more conservative Thais).
5) RENEWABLE DESIGNS
Chiang Mai has become a design laboratory, with foreign and Thai designers blending traditional styles with minimalist lines. Head to Nimanhaemin Road, a major design drag, for boutiques that sell textiles, pottery and other crafts. Thai art students wander the street in packs, occasionally whipping out sketchpads. Stores like Studio Kachama (10-12 Nimanhaemin Soi 1) and Gerard Collection sell funky lamps with shades made from local mulberry paper, furniture constructed from bamboo and women’s suits made from a traditional, thick-spun cotton.
6) CLASSIC CURRIES
New, stylish bistros have colonized the city, but true fans of northern Thai cuisine — which incorporates Burmese and Chinese spices, and is lighter than southern Thai cooking — congregate at the classic Huen Phen. The restaurant’s cramped tables are packed with taxi drivers who dig into heaps of steaming curries and fiery salads. Have the khao soi, a delicious mix of creamy curry, crispy egg noodles, slices of pickled cabbage and bits of shallot and lime. Lunch for two is about 300 baht.
7) ARTIST CROP
In recent years, many of Thailand’s best-known artists have moved to Chiang Mai from Bangkok. Several have won global recognition: Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, a performance artist who reads poetry to corpses, was featured at the 2006 Venice Biennale. And Navin Rawanchaikul, who paints cartoonlike murals inside taxis and tuk-tuks, has exhibited his work at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York. For emerging talents, visit La Luna Gallery).
8) SPICE MARKET
For a late dinner, the fashionable crowd migrates to Dalaabaa for cocktails and small Thai plates like spicy squid salad. The midcentury modern bungalow is furnished with eclectic furniture, polished wood and tons of glass, as if Frank Lloyd Wright had gone East. The young crowd includes rail-thin women in slinky black dresses smoking from long cigarette holders, Frenchmen tossing back martinis, and students with ponytails and wispy mustaches engrossed in conversations about Buddhism and art. Dinner with drinks for two is about 1,200 baht.
9) TUSK TIME
Every travel guide recommends an elephant ride, but the typical trip involves a short, bumpy elephant walk led by a bored trainer. Skip that and take a taxi instead to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center between Chiang Mai and the town of Lampang. The center will not only teach you how to command and handle a tusker, but also how to honor the pachyderm, a revered animal in Thailand. Classes, which last most of the day, start at 3,500 baht.
10) ROCK OUT
With its cooler climate and rugged terrain, Chiang Mai has become the hub for adventure sports, including rafting, trekking and mountain biking. An American expat, Josh Morris, pioneered the rock climbing scene, especially at Crazy Horse Buttress, a rock face that overlooks lime green, terraced rice fields. Mr. Morris’s outfitter, Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures offers introductory courses starting at 1,800 baht per person. After sweating to the top, head back to the bars along the Ping River to cool off with a Singha beer and cap off your adventure in style.
Read more at http://travel.nytimes.com/2008/04/13/travel/13hours.html