The Pearl of the North

Chiang Mai, or the “Pearl of the North” is where you can expect to uncover the true pulse of Thailand. The food is bolder, the people more hospitable (if that’s even possible), and the architecture more traditional. Many flock here from Bangkok to escape the big city, but don’t be surprised by Chiang Mai’s own size and modernity. Its unique cultural heritage is still present within the walls of the Old City (there is a wat on just about every corner), and high in the mountains. Wat Doi Suthep is one of Thailand’s most revered sights, and for those who make the trip to the top, it affords beautiful views of Chiang Mai. In the hills beyond Chiang Mai, many tribes have settled, most notably the Karen and Hmong. If you book a tour in Chiang Mai, most try to stop by one of the hill tribes. It’s interesting to gain a glimpse into their lives, or just to marvel at the length of the women’s necks or the way the grandmas eat betle nuts. The tour companies have a lot of flexibility, so depending on your preference you may want to expand one of the tour legs, and spend more time rafting, trekking, or visiting the hill tribes. Afterwards, you can book a traditional Thai massage at one of the places in town. During our stay, we went to Lila Thai massage nearly every day. It’s actually a rehabilitation center for women who are in prison, but don’t let a massage from inmates deter you from going. The ladies are all accommodating, and can give your travel weary body an impressive workout. Chiang Mai also offers the largest range of cooking schools in Thailand, with my personal favorite being the Thai farm cooking school. The school takes you to a local market where you are introduced to the different ingredients in Thai food, and afterwards you go to their organic farm outside the city to make a few signature Thai dishes (the commentary from our guide was enough to sell me on the school). You’ll find the food in Northern Thailand is slightly different from Central Thailand with its Burmese and Lao influences, and sticky rice and chili peppers are the norm in most dishes. If you plan on going to Chiang Mai towards the end of February or March, be prepared to encounter some serious smog from the farmers burning the fields before the growing season. The smog can leave your eyes stinging, and give you trouble with breathing. Make sure you visit the night market at least once while there, and if a festival is happening, DO NOT miss it. The Thais festivals are usually over the top with their vibrant costumes, decorations and food (Songkran and Loi Krathong are incredible). Lastly, if you have the luxury of time, Chaing Mai is a great starting point to head to Pai, Mae Hon Song, or anywhere along the Golden Triangle. You can take the bus or rent a motorbike (at your own discretion), and wind through rolling hills and emerald rice fields. If you get carsick I’d forego the trip to Pai- there’s 762 turns in the road to get there.

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