Bangkok is great to see, but I really loved Chiang Mai and the hill-tribe villages to the North. Chiang Mai is the largest and most culturally significant city in northern Thailand. It has over 300 temples, excellent shopping, trekking facilities and upscale hotels and restaurants. It is much quieter than Bangkok and much more relaxed. In the morning you will see the monks busy getting their alms or food for the day.
I particularly enjoyed:
The Night Bazaar: Located on Chang Khlan Rd this is a must see or must shop on your trip. There are many stalls selling hill-tribe crafts, leather goods, and clothing. Don’t miss the second floor which specializes in antiques. They had a good number of Burmese laquerware items. Tuk Tuks are a great way to get around town.
Baan Kan Wat Artisan Village is outside of town featuring shops, craft studios, plus cafes and teahouses.
Doi Suthep: Located 7.5 miles northwest of Chiang Mai, this is one of the most revered Buddhist shrines and is located on a thickly forested mountain. The gold-plated Central Chedi is wonderful. Don’t miss the White Elephant Monument, the Temple Bells, the golden Buddha Images in the Main Wihan, and the Bell Tower. The views are well-worth the visit.
Factory Boulevard: There are many factories selling silver, teak, lacquerware (a northern Thai specialty) and celedon pieces. I did some major damage in the stores. Stop by Studio Naenna, the factory and store, founded by Patricia Cheesman that specializes in textiles with Indigo dye.
The Hill-Tribe Villages: This was by far my most favorite part of Thailand. The Six main groups are the Akha, Hmong, Lisu, Karen, Lahu and Mien. They settled here at the end of the 19th century, having been pushed out of their native Tibet, Burma and China. They have their own heritage, clothing, language, religion and culture. The native dress is wonderful and so colorful!! Their primitive villages were always clean and the people so friendly.
We started at the Hill-Tribe Museum outside of Chiang Mai which focuses on the six main groups mentioned above. On the way to Chiangdao we explored a market at the crossroads of the China and Burma Roads, and a Hmong village of 50 families after passing a large teak plantation. We also stopped at the Cave of the Elephants, where the outside is in the shape of an elephant. Chiang Dao is known for its trekking.
We visited a Lahu Red village, where we visited a school with its new teacher, a Karen village with a great village garden,and a Lisu village. I loved the Akha village where I purchased two great examples of the traditional headdress worn by the women. At the end of our trek was the PaLong village where we enjoyed buying several pieces from the women who laid out their handicrafts just for us. I bought a wonderful piece of weaving from a woman in the village.
Mae Hong Son: This is a picturesque small town located in a valley ringed by mountains. It was first founded as a small camp where elephants were tethered. This area of Thailand has traditionally been dominated by nearby Burma which is seen in its architecture. It is also home to many Shan and Karen people who have moved across the border to live here. It has become a resort and trekking center as you will see many outfitters in town along Khunlum Phraphat road. Chong Kham Lake in the middle of town is lovely and is the site of Wat Chong Kham which was built by the Shan people in 1827. Next to it is Wat Chong Klang with its painted glass panels. Outside of Mae Hong Son we saw villages of Karen Red, Lisu, where we had lunch in one of the small primitive houses, and Shan or Tai Yai.
Pai: This is one of the top-beauty spots of Northern Thailand and is popular with trekkers. It is an old Shan settlement that is now populated by people from the hill-tribes. Outside of Pai we also visited Lahu Black and a Karen White village on the way back to Chiang Mai. The wild poinsettia trees we saw on the trail were amazing !!
Seeing the wild orchids: The orchid is Thailand’s most famous flower. There are 1,300 varieties of which many can be seen on treks in the forests.
The textiles and crafts of Northern Thailand: Beside wonderful colored weavings from the hill-tribe women, there were high quality wood carvings, silver, ceramics, silk and lacquerware which have been made in the region for centuries. Just be careful that the antiques are really antiques.
Hotels outside the major cities in the north and hill-tribe area can be comfortable but not five star. I liked the Muang Pai Resort outside of Pai , the Chiang Dao Hill Resort in Chiang Dao, and the Fern Resort outside of Mae Hong Son. I prefer these types of properties rather than camping out or staying in a local home. The Holiday Garden Resort in the center of Chiang Mai has been expanded and improved since I was there. I just read about the Tamarind Village which is a stylish boutique property. You can stay in town or stay at more of a luxury property outside like the Four Seasons. Often we ate at our local hotel. However The Gallery Restaurant in Chiang Mai along the river was quite good.
Restaurants recommended by the NY Times in their recent 36 Hours in Chiang Mai, features Ginger & Kafe restaurant for rustic Thai colonial cuisine, their adjoining House Lounge in an old colonial mansion for cocktails, the rustic Huen Muan Jai, Blackitch Artisan Kitchen for local specialties and for imaginative seafood-rich dishes.