It was Andy, our guide, who repeated what the others had already told us: Chiang Mai is very different from Thailands capital, Bangkok. Bangkok is too crowded. Its a fast life. No time to relax. You will love it here, said Andy who moved from the capital to Chiang Mai a few years ago.
Thailands second largest city is 700km from Bangkok. But, the moment you land here, its obvious that the two cities are worlds apart. Chiang Mai, nestled in the mountains of north Thailand, has over 300 Buddhist temples, is full of lush greenery and you can almost feel the calmer way of life. The roads, for instance, are narrower but theres not all that much traffic.
We started by visiting the world famous Maesa Elephant Camp which is a 20-minute bus-ride from the city centre. You could call the 78 animals here the cleverest pachyderms in the world — anyway, they are certainly amazingly well trained.
Which would you prefer? To watch an elephant paint, play football or dance? Or, would you rather have an elephant massage your back — you lie on a mat and the elephant gives you an elephantine version of a Thai massage by placing its foot on your back. Yep, you guessed it, I chickened out and didnt try it out. We watched as a mahout in a blue uniform demonstrated the clever tricks that his ward, whom he lovingly called Boonchoo, could perform. The final coup de théâtre was when he placed an easel in front of the elephant which promptly picked up a brush from a table with its trunk. In a practised motion, the elephant dipped the brush into the palette of colours and began to paint on the canvas in front of it.
The painting session lasted about 15 minutes and the final product was unmistakably a flower. The elephant paintings are subsequently framed and put on sale at the curio shop.
The next stop was a little crafts village which is a five-minute drive from the elephant camp. The tiny village — which is funded by the Maesa Elephant Camp — tries to recreate the way of life of some Thai tribes.
Interestingly, the Thai tribals immediately reminded me of the people in Indias Northeast. The thatched roofs, for instance, were very similar in style and so were the colourful clothes and bead ornaments.
The tribals seemed to co-exist quite happily. In one place there was a woman from the Karen tribe weaving. Next to her a man from the Lisu tribe was weaving a cane basket. A little further away was a Lahu woman, busy making a bead necklace while children were playing with bows and arrows.
I headed back to my hotel room as evening approached, but I wasnt about to call it a day just yet. My next destination was Chiang Mais famous Night Bazaar which is a shopping paradise for anyone who enjoys bargaining.
As it happened I was in luck because my hotel was located a minute away from the Night Bazaar. I watched as scores of traders began unloading their goods from waiting tuk-tuks — the Thai equivalent of our autorickshaws — and placed them in their stalls.
The market comes alive by around 6pm and goes on till midnight. If you are an expert in the art of bargaining, you can strike plenty of good deals here. I managed to get a red silk cheong-sam (a Chinese dress) at less than half the asking price.
Shopping apart, the Night Bazaar is an enormous food emporium with a row of small eateries. I wandered from stall to stall, trying one small dish after another. The women were cooking local delicacies like Kaep Mu, a dish made of crispy fried pork rind that can be dipped into Nam Phrik Num, which is a Thai-style chilli dip.
I also tried Khao Soi which is a common street food in Thailand. Another popular dish is the sticky rice called Khao Nieow. I tried it with stir fried seasonal vegetables garnished with herbs. Having decided that this was no day for dieting, I also had some excellent beef satay in coconut sauce. I visited about seven stalls — in the interest of understanding the local cuisine, of course — before I decided it was time to call it a day.
The nicest thing about Chiang Mai though is its people. They are friendly and polite. Even for a first-time visitor, its easy to muster up confidence and walk around the streets, almost as if one was at home.
The next day, I decided that it was time for more shopping and slung my bag over my shoulder and walked to Warorot Road, a wholesale market thats bustling with life.
You can get almost anything under the sun here. Once again, I entered one shop after the other filling up my bags. When I couldnt walk any more, I stopped a speeding tuk-tuk and headed straight to one of the best spas in Chiang Mai.
At Rarinjinda Wellness Spa Resort, the aroma of fresh lemon grass helped to transport me to a different world. The resort is known for its ancient healing Thai massage. I decided to try the one-hour long foot reflexology which, you could say, put me back on my feet.
I needed the foot treatment because we were planning a long, wild night. We were going for a night-time ride around the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, about 20 minutes away from the citys airport.
The Chiang Mai Night Safari is one of the few of its kind. Visitors get into a 40-seater electric bus (its very silent and doesnt disturb the animals). The animals here are in enclosures but theyve tried to make the setting as natural as possible.
Our guide would focus a light every time we came close to an animal. We were able to spot a tiger taking a walk in its sprawling enclosure. Some of the more harmless animals like the zebras and giraffes are allowed to run wild and sometimes come quite close to the bus.
Spread over 324 acres, the park has three animal zones: the Jaguar Trail, the Savanna Safari (which has animals from Africa) and the Predator Prowl (the carnivorous zone). We were able to see a range of animals including lions, tigers, Asiatic Black bears, crocodiles, African hunting dogs, giraffes, deer and lots more.
What do I think of Chiang Mai? Well, our guide Andy was right. Chiang Mai isnt Bangkok and a few days there has a positively healing effect.
Getting there: There are direct Thai Airways flights to Chiang Mai from Mumbai.Thai Airways also operates three daily flights between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The flight duration is an hour. You could also go by rail from Bangkok. It is an overnight journey and takes up to 15 hours.
Best time to visit: Although Thailand is pleasant throughout the year, the best time to visit is between November and February.
Exchange rate: 1 Thai Baht = Rs 1.391 approx.