Thursday 19 August 2010

Chiang Mai - Beyond the Brochure

The following is an edited extract of an interview with me (I know I'm schizophrenic sometimes but no I wasn't interviewing me, someone else was!) that appeared in Traveltalk, Australia's leading travel agent publication. I hope it sheds some light on my passion for northern Thailand ...


Traveltalk Thailand correspondent, Stu Lloyd, has been travelling to Thailand since 1987 and had a house on Koh Samui for five years before settling in Chiang Mai. ‘If you hang around the pond long enough, you’re sure to fall in.’ He loves the cultural depth of Chiang Mai compared to the more one-dimensional beach destinations.

What has been your stand-out ‘tourism find’ in northern Thailand? 
Stu: That enchanting Chiang Mai is the gateway to so much else: the wonderful jungles of Chiang Rai and the irresistible evocative lure of the Golden Triangle just a few hours north, then the Greater Mekong Subregion (especially Laos, Cambodia and Yunnan) so easily accessible by plane, boat, elephant, motorbike … you can drive all the way to China now.

Everyone loves Thai food, but nothing comes close to eating this delectable cuisine in its country of origin. What tips can you offer someone keen to try the local delicacies?
Street food is good and cheap … pad Thai for 25 baht (less than $1). But for first timers, start somewhere ‘cleaner’ where they can adjust the spiciness to your liking. Huen Phen Restaurant (112 Ratchamanka Road) is regarded as the best northern Lanna food in town. Try soi khao (curry noodles), som tam (papaya salad), khao niao (sticky rice), naem and sai-ua spicy sausages, and khaao niao ma muang (mango rice dessert). You’ll be full for around $10, including a beer!

Thailand is also well-known for exceptional shopping. How does northern Thailand compare in this department, and where are the best shopping experiences to be had?
Northern Thailand is amazing value. For designer fashion in western sizes, you’re better off in Bangkok. But for sunglasses, shirts, jeans, artworks and hill-tribe handicrafts hit Night Bazaar (Chang Klang Road, nightly) or Sunday Walking Street (Rathchadamnoen Road and surrounds, weekly).

Where do you like to stay and why? 
Stu: At home in the Nimminheiman Road area. Stunning views of Doi Suthep sunsets, and hundreds of cafes, art galleries, restaurants, and nightclubs on my doorstep. Hotels: hard to beat the Mandarin Oriental Dara Dhevi for sheer epic romantic scale, and the Shangri-la’s lush inner city setting. Then there’s funky D2; and quaint Chedi. But the hidden gems are boutique resorts such as Ruen Raya Resort Residence in Mae Rim and the Field Village outside town.

 Is there a better time to visit?
Northerners celebrate with more gusto than elsewhere. So Songkhran  (Thai new year) water festival in April is craziness not to be missed. Bring plenty of spare clothes – or a raincoat – because tourists score extra points as targets for buckets of water and high-powered super-soakers.

What are one or two things that every visitor to northern Thailand should experience?
Peace and tranquility.

Nature-based tourism in this part of the world is simply awesome. Do you have a favourite nature experience?
'Flight of the Gibbon' is a high adrenaline jungle canopy zip-wire experience that tourists rightly rave about and has been voted Thailand's Number 1 tourist attraction. But it now has a competitor called 'Jungle Flight' which I think is even better, jing jing! I know this because I was far more shit scared at Jungle Flight -- which you can tell by the way I was hugging the centuries-old teak trees so tightly in all the photos.

What is the best way to get around?
: On a bright yellow BMW F650 GS motorbike, for sure! For tourists, song taew (red trucks) run set routes to just about anywhere for around 20 baht, or quintessential tuk tuk anywhere for less than 100 baht. Within the old city wall, walk it. It’s flat and you’ll appreciate the slow pace, the interesting sois (small side streets), and see more of the enchanting town.

Is there any health or security risks for travellers in northern Thailand?
Idiots that ride scooters and motorbikes without helmets! Otherwise, not really, unless you’re really far off the beaten track on the northwestern Thai-Burma border which is often disputed territory. In very remote areas, be vigilant about some of the Thai minorities and Burmese illegal immigrants who can be a little desperate, but I’ve never experienced anything other than the world famous warm Thai welcome.

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