CHIANG MAI, 13 September 2019: It was a simple question. After touring Thailand, choose your favourite destination that captured your imagination, a place you would visit again?
The University of Washington students looked out at the impressive Mekong River that marks the border between Laos and Chiang Rai in far north Thailand. Then after a short silence, they voted unanimously for Chiang Mai, 250 km due south of the border river. It topped their holiday must-see list despite Chiang Rai’s impressive views.
For the master degree students on a regional study tour of CSR projects in Asia, Chiang Mai turned out to be the perfect gateway city surpassing even the pull of the Thai capital’s fast-paced lifestyle. From here, they could explore North Thailand and even venture north to the banks of the Mekong River in far north Chiang Rai. But Chiang Rai was a little too quiet and chilled.
“Chiang Mai has a buzz and great mix of traditional attractions blended with cool dining and entertainment options. It surprised us for both its charm and chill-out experiences,” they concluded.
Thousands of international tourists are discovering North Thailand, and most likely the trip starts with a flight that lands at Chiang Mai’s international airport.
Served by more than 25 international routes around 3 million international visitors annually make Chiang Mai their base to explore lesser-known destinations in North Thailand.
But the city also enchants visitors with its variety and quality of street food scenes that literally unfold kerbside on streets lined with five-star hotels, shopping malls and quaint restaurants and pubs. Close to ancient city gates and moats, visitors are drawn to night markets where food stalls owners are almost celebrity chefs rustling up fantastic food as the videos roll and the selfies click.
If Chiang Mai’s amazing food scene needs an endorsement, it received a mega push when the Michelin Guide confirmed the northern capital would be added to the third edition of MICHELIN Guide in Thailand due to roll of the press this December. It joins Bangkok and Phuket.
BEYONG CHIANG MAI
Beyond the city boundaries, other destinations beckon visitors who are keen to explore northern culture, heritage and ethnic minority villages.
One of the most attractive provinces close to Chiang Mai is Lamphun 38 km due south and the “Lamphun experience” begins as soon as you drive out of town on highway 106 better known as the “old Chiang Mai road”.
The trip follows a country road shaded by 2,000 rubber (yang) trees 30 metres high that provide a leafy archway for more 12 km of the journey south. It is one of the oldest roads in the north built during the reign of King Rama VI. Originally it started at the Nawarat Bridge that spans the Ping River in downtown Chiang Mai, but today you join the road on the outskirts of the city to ramble south to Lamphun an ancient town that sports the tagline “City of a Thousand Years”.
The trees were planted more recently in 1911, but you are heading for a quaint town where temples can date their history back to the 12th century, possibly the oldest examples of “Lanna” style temple architecture.
The earliest references identify the town as Hariphunchai, the northernmost outpost of the Mon kingdom. But by 1281 King Mengrai, who established the Lanna kingdom across parts of what is now northern Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, sequestered Lamphun to make it part of his kingdom.
Today, Lamphun is an oasis of heritage, ancient temples and village crafts the most famous being its handwoven fabrics. There are more than 11 handicraft outlets that sell traditional textiles, many of them handwoven.
The OTOP Khua Mung Tha Singh is a popular stop on a tour of the town, while there are at least 29 restaurants in town listed as serving Thai food and more than 19 coffee shops.
You can safely explore the town’s attractions and exquisite temples by bicycle or ‘samlor’ tricycles.
Wat Phra That Hariphunchai – A principal landmark with golden chedi that houses the relics of Lord Buddha called Phra That Hariphunchai.
Phra Nang Chamthewi Statue – The statue is memorial commemorating the first ruler of Hariphunchai that is now Lamphun province.
The Ku Chang-Ku Mah Chedi – It is special in terms of being the grave of Queen Chamthewi’s war elephant and her son’s warhorses.
Hariphunchai National Museum – The museum exhibits ancient artefacts from the Hariphunchai era.
Doi Khun Than National Park that features many exotic plants and wildlife.
More information: https://www.tourismthailand.org/About-Thailand/Destination/Lamphun
Further south a 75 km commute brings you to Lampang, a much bigger town than Lamphun. Signature attractions are ancient temples and horse buggy taxis.
Almost forced into retirement by the pickup truck, the horses are now making a comeback. They are considered more environmentally friendly than the combustion engine. Who knows Lampang may one day limit access by car to its inner-city historical sites leaving a zone for pedestrians, cyclists and horse buggies to enjoy?
In the meantime, it remains the only town in Thailand where horse buggies are still in use albeit exclusively for tourists to tour the town’s temples and historical sites. Horse buggy tours start at the City Pillar Shrine.
Lampang is famous for its traditional Thai silk featuring different patterns represents the creative skills of districts around the town. Ceramics made of the best china clay are also a signature handicraft along with mulberry paper, decorated with colourful patterns. The paper is used for making umbrellas, lanterns and paper flowers.
The city’s rooster statues that stand roadside and in the centre of town are symbols of Lampang, dating back to the city’s former name, Kukutthanakorn, or “The City of Roosters”, a name derived from local legends dating back 1,000 years.
On the road from Lampang to Chiang Mai travellers stop at the Elephant Conservation Centre, the oldest and only government sponsored elephant centre in Thailand where visitors can learn about elephant welfare. Lamphun and Lampang are two fascinating destinations residing in a tight 100 km north-to-south heritage triangle with Chiang Mai at the apex Once the day trip excursions are over millennial travellers trace their steps back to Chiang Mai to enjoy the buzz and lively restaurant scene.
More information: https://www.tourismthailand.org/About-Thailand/Destination/Lampang