A ‘bucket list’ belt of Thailand rich in culture, delicious food and ancient temples; the Northern city of Chiang Mai is an area full of experiences waiting to be explored. Offering both a blissfully calm landscape that surrounds a quaint and character-filled city, the former historic Lanna kingdom state is nestled among mountainous terrain offering a fusion of architectural influences and a distinctive identity thanks to its interesting past.
A tangled mix of huge highways, hundreds of Buddhist temples, swanky and stylish hotels, a trendy restaurant scene, and a vast jungle, Chiang Mai effectively connects two identities: ancient kingdom and modern city. Whilst the historic center offers cool coffee hubs amongst temples, drive straight out of town and you’ll look find yourself hidden in lush green jungle dotted with rolling hills, cascading waterfalls, and gorgeous country villages, filled with secret 5-star hotels, elephant orphanages, and markets.
Since the revival of the airport in 2014, increased international and regional flights have put this northern delight on the map however Chiang Mai has never lost grip on its roots. With the younger generation embracing the elder’s traditions, the area has barely aged over the its many years of existence. Thanks to this fierce desire to hold on to days gone by, the city’s cafes and restaurants still serve and stand by its typically and customarily northern dishes like laab, sua ue and kôw nêung which are served proudly next to modern cafes and bars. Examples of this can be found in popular hotspots that remain busy throughout the year including the infamous The House by Ginger and My Secret Café, the latter known for its Khao Sai, Chaing Mai’s sensational noodle soup.
In keeping with this way of thinking, Chiang Mai’s outdoor bazaars still offer the same sounds and smells as they always have. A place filled with traditional treats, prepare to prowl the Chang Khlan Road market for kanom jin (rice noodles with curry) and the Warorot Market for Pad See Eiw, Pad Kra Pao and Som Tam. There is Wualai Road every Saturday and Ratchadamnoen Avenue every Sunday offering jewellery and other handicrafts, whilst Moon Muang Road sells kitschy objects, DVDs and local produce. If markets aren’t up your street, Nimmanhaemin Road offers boutiques, galleries, coffee shops and many restaurants! Drinks should be indulged at the trendy Yayee roof top bar, whilst the city’s best coffee can be found at Ristr8to, one of the many trendy treasures to be unearthed. Meanwhile Central Festival, the city’s biggest mall, offers a mix of international and local stores.
Providing a magical bolthole in the mountains, the mystical Four Seasons Chiang Mai meets your every escape need. Nestled amongst rice fields and gorgeous gardens with mountain views around every corner, the hidden oasis is an easy 30-minute drive north of the city, giving you some quiet away from the crowds. With its own shuttle bus running you into town every hour, you’re never too far from the action – that being said, a stay here means never having to comprise on the rest and relaxation that is required on holiday. Located within the handsome Mae Rim Valley, the best of northern Thailand, the property is sprawling with pavilions, residences, farmers, grazing buffalos and monks, adding an authentic element to this home-away-from-home experience. One of the major selling points comes in the form of 32 acres of landscaped gardens, flecked with lakes, lily ponds and waterfalls. Designed by the reputable Bill Bensley, Asia’s best-known hotel architect, the resort has successfully carved out a sense of place with a modern Thai aesthetic that reflects the country’s Lanna history.
In true Four Seasons style, the service is another huge highlight of staying here. Attentive but not over-bearing, knowledgeable and kind, every team member we engaged with was as caring and competent as the next, always ready with a recommendation. I was especially impressed with the service at Khao, the hotel’s all day dining outlet. The team of chefs bring a tremendous cache of local knowledge and culinary talent whilst the staff guide you through each meal. Breakfast offers a mix of local, international and wellness inspired cuisine, whilst lunch and dinner focus on local flavours. At a reasonable USD 65 per person, the Northern set menu is worth trying – just make sure you arrive hungry! Other options include Ratree Bar and Lounge which sits adjoining the pool area and serves fine wines and craft cocktails, whilst the Rim Tai Kitchen is home to daily cooking classes and private dining experiences.
Set amongst the sprawling gardens, Four Seasons Chiang Mai offers 99 pavilions and residences, all reflecting the style of the Lanna Kingdom, a historically significant period of Thai history when, in 1296, King Mengrai established his kingdom in this Northern part of Thailand. Pavilions are not only spacious, but offer alfresco Thai salas, perfect for afternoons looking at the landscape. The interiors are expansive with generous bathtubs; luxury amenities and beds that sink so deep, you’ll struggle to get out. There are also 12 pool villas, perfect for couples that desire total privacy and aquatic luxury. Aimed at families and large groups, the residences are the pièce-de-résistance – ranging in size (two to four bedrooms) all with varying private pools, these spaces are really impressive. Complete with a master bedroom, kid-friendly rooms, large lounge and dining space decked out with splendid local craftsmanship, here you can enjoy the turquoise waters, unwind on the terrace and spend time with loved ones in total privacy. For meals and merriment, you can order delicious dishes from the restaurants or whip something up in your personal kitchen and never fear, your personal housekeeper will make all the housework disappear!
The spa is another special part of the resort that should not be missed. With seven exquisite treatment rooms, an extensive range of Thai inspired treatments are available all based around local herbs, spices and aromatic oils. A recent addition to the current offering, the resort has also introduced a collection of wellness programs, each with a specific objective, ranging from detox and mini bootcamp to golf (off site) and spa combined with inclusions like daily yoga, healthy meals and holistic healing experiences. Our favourite comes in the form of the ‘mini-bootcamp’ – a package that starts with a personalised consultation and includes private yoga and meditation sessions, a detoxifying massage treatment, daily energizing breakfast, a power packed lunch, rejuvenating dinner and a private cycling tour. To compliment the wellness packages, other complimentary group experiences include the daily morning monk offerings at 6.45am, a walk around the local nature trail and buffalo bathing, an activity that sees you ‘suit up’ and bathe the property’s incredible beasts. There is also a fantastic range of chargeable group experiences that include fitness-based activities and hiking excursions. For the fitness obsessed there are also two hard tennis courts and a fully equipped fitness and exercise studio.
If you are travelling with children, there are plenty of opportunities for little ones to immerse themselves in Thai culture and tradition. The hotel offers an opportunity to experience rice planting, where kids can learn about the fascinating journey of rice and witness – first-hand – the hard work that goes into farming. They can also meet the resort’s resident buffaloes (and take part in the ritual buffalo bathing ceremony) and can try the art of making krathongs from banana leaves. A kids club for children between four and twelve offers some welcome respite to parents, whilst those under the age of four can join with parental supervision.
If you haven’t got the hint so far, food plays a massive part in Chiang Mai. Whilst Pad Thai might seem like a rather un-adventurous ‘must’, you will regret not trying the Northern take on this traditional treat. Make the meal a bit more exciting by trying a half-day cooking class at the Thai Kitchen Cookery Centre, located in an enclosed outdoor kitchen in the old city. Starting with a visit to the local market, prepare to get your hands dirty whilst making simple yet extraordinary dishes whilst learning about Thai culture and cuisine. If you fancy staying within the confines of the hotel, the Four Seasons cooking class offers an interesting insight into local cooking and cuisine. Starting at 7am sharp, the experience starts with a trip to the local market where you can sample local delicacies and collect your ingredients. Those who fancy trying something different can tuck into a hundred year old egg – an Asian tradition. The egg is preserved for several weeks or months using a process that combines, clay, ash, salt, quicklime and rice hulls and whilst the century egg might smell like ammonia and boast a mouldy green colour, it tastes like a slightly old boiled egg. If you’re not feeling quite as adventurous, then stick to the Chiang Mai sausage, a lemongrass infused version of the western favourite. Under the watchful eye of one of the instructor chefs, the morning class takes you through four northern dishes ranging from salads, soups and of course, curries.
One of the best things we did in Chiang Mai was bathing the elephants. Offering elephants a rescue and rehabilitation camp, The Patara Elephant Farm is a place where you can get an elephant education, plus feed and bath these magnificent animals. The park is located just an hour from the city and not far from Four Seasons Chiang Mai. Opting for the “Elephant Owner for a Day”, the special program has been created to give everyone the chance to learn and interact with elephants – from approaching your elephant correctly, knowing the elephant’s temperament, feeding and checking its health, the six hour morning or afternoon allows you the opportunity to feed, ride, bathe and brush an elephant that has been rescued or reared by the farm. We also got the chance to meet a one-week-old baby elephant – an experience I wont forget in a hurry.
A city waiting to be explored, there is no doubt that Chiang Mai is one of the most underrated, exhilarating and experience lead regions in Thailand – and dare I say, my favourite place I have visited in the country to date.