From Thai cooking classes to leisurely explorations, there's something for everyone in Chiang Mai, one of northern Thailand's most engaging provinces.
Chill out in Chiang Mai
Of all the things for tourists to do and see in Chiang Mai, I'm drawn to a boat, maybe 10 metres long, shining like gold and shaped like a cross among an elephant, a duck and a dragon. In this landlocked Thai city, a tourists' favourite, the boat rests on dry land next to the towering ruins of a 14th-century stupa at Wat Chedi Luang, a Buddhist temple complex. The funeral pyre of Chiang Mai's head monk, the celestial vessel has nowhere to go but up.
As part of the funeral celebration, townspeople offer free meals to anyone who stops by, a display of hospitality that illustrates why so many, Thais and travellers alike, have fled the chaos of Bangkok for the peaceful atmosphere within Chiang Mai's ancient city walls. Just a few blocks from Wat Chedi Luang, I meet Soravit Komes, the owner of Barli, a pub with outdoor seating on one of the old city's main roads, Thanon Ratchdamnoen. A quiet man with John Lennon glasses and a Pink Floyd T-shirt, he's a typical Chiang Mai character: never pushy, content to let the world do what it pleases, allowing customers to linger as long as they like over a Tiger beer.
"I don't like the big city," Soravit says, explaining why he left Bangkok 22 years ago. But Chiang Mai's greater metropolitan area now has a population of about 700,000, and the urbanisation of recent years, fed by a steady influx of tourists, has led even long-time residents like Soravit to consider moving elsewhere.
Tucked away in the northern regions in what was once the independent kingdom of Lanna, Chiang Mai is at once a spiritual haven, an adventure tourist's paradise and a relax-a-thon with a distinctly New Age vibe. Local travel agencies offer a surfeit of packaged adventures: microlight flying, kayaking, rock climbing and camping treks into the hills. A brochure for a canopy zip line adventure, wherein tourists lock themselves into harnesses, strap themselves to a pulley and sail through the air from one tree platform to another, promises fulfilment of "your wildest fantasies of being Tarzan or Jane". (The canopy turns out to be pretty thin, and there's no face time with gibbons or macaques.)
Then there's white-water rafting, bungee jumping and, of course, elephant rides - plus training courses on how to become a mahout, or elephant handler. Or you can visit a school where monkeys learn to ride bicycles. There are yoga workshops, meditation courses at the local monasteries, classes in reiki and other alternative healing methods, schools that teach Thai massage (not to mention actually getting massages, at hourly prices that call into question the wisdom of doing anything else), Thai cooking classes (not to mention eating, perhaps the best way to pass the time between massages), and that's just a partial list of options.
Paralysed by choice, I spend a lot of time just wandering. During a midday stroll down one side street, the air fills with the clatter of spoons against woks, the knocking of knives on cutting boards and the sizzling of oil: cooking classes, a whole slew of them. I'm pleased to find myself the only student for the day at Mai Kaydee's vegan Thai cookery course. The teacher, Saengduan ("Saeng") Chaichong, a woman not more than a metre-and-a-half tall, came to set up a branch of her sister May's Bangkok restaurant and school - another refugee from the capital.
Saeng starts the class with a lesson in basic ingredients at the local market, where several gaggles of tourists have gathered for their own classes. It seems I'm the only one with a teacher to myself. Going from stall to stall, Saeng explains the difference, for example, between various types of Thai chilli (the tiny bird's eye being the most fiery) and aubergines of different colours.
"When you order Thai food, you say phet, it means spicy," she says. "Or you can say mai phet, it means not spicy. Or if you don't say anything, it's still spicy! You have to say phet nit noi! Little bit spicy!" She repeats that phrase, nit noi, throughout the lesson, noting that Thai cuisine is an amalgam of flavours: a little of this, a little of that. I can't help but see a similarity between my teacher and a bird's eye chilli: diminutive size, vivacious personality.
Here she is picking up a pre-packed tom yum set, with kaffir lime leaf, lemon grass and galangal, the flavour combo that defines tom yum soup. "Together in the soup you have to put! If you're missing, not called tom yum soup. Just called vegetable soup only!" On the woody texture of galangal: "Some people asking me in my restaurant, 'What's the piece of this woody one I found? I cannot eat!' This one not for eating, just for the flavour. If you like to eat, OK!" By the end, students have familiarity with the basic elements, if not precise mastery, of Thai cooking - not to mention enough dishes, many of them possible with or without meat, for a small dinner party.
Saeng's class is excellent. The problem, though, is that too many people become so beguiled by comforts like these that they don't explore the area beyond the walls and moat. Truth be told, after a while you get the feeling that Chiang Mai, like those bicycle-riding monkeys, has become much too tame for its own good.
One day I rent a scooter and impulsively head south through the suburban sprawl of Route 108, a road lined with shops selling outdoor statuary - not your average garden gnomes, but dragons, buddhas and seated Ganeshas. Approaching the village of Ban Thawai, a centre for the local wood carving industry, huge gnarled tree trunks sit by the side of the road, waiting for local artisans to release the figures within.
Ban Thawai itself is an interior designer's candy shop, with pieces that are self-contained menageries, with giraffes and elephants madly intertwined, alongside more functional items like tables, chairs and bedroom sets. Local shipping agents are ready to lease you a 20-foot container to take it all home.
Back on the main road there's a house known as Ban Roi An Phan Yang, whose owner, Ajarn Charuai Na Sunthorn, has created a private museum featuring thousands of pieces of carved wooden handicrafts, a centrepiece of Lanna tradition. Described as "a simple country boy" from Chiang Mai province, Charuai began his collection in 1968, riding around to local villages on his bicycle, picking up pieces that caught his eye. Funded entirely by donations, his collection has gained the support of, among other wealthy patrons, the Thai queen.
Behind a house overflowing with decorative woodwork, a garden or "dhamma sanctuary" unfolds in five successive sections. Monks sometimes come here to meditate, and serenity-seeking guests are invited to stay in one of the garden huts. "How many baht? Never mind," says Charuai. "You can donation."
The Mae Sa valley loop to Samoeng and back makes for a popular day trip on a rental scooter, the easiest way to see the lush countryside of Chiang Mai province. Circling the peak of Doi Suthep, the mountain that rises above Chiang Mai town, the route cuts through a national park, past waterfalls, botanical gardens, elephant sanctuaries and villages of the Hmong, one of northern Thailand's numerous hill tribes.
For some reason I'm drawn further south, to Doi Inthanon National Park, home to Thailand's highest peak. The suburban sprawl is left behind as the road winds toward hills shrouded in a bluish haze, forested by figs, ferns, banana trees and bamboo, the occasional stupa rising in the distance like a steeple in an Alpine village. As the road rises into the park, the temperature plunges along with the sun and I realise I'm under-dressed, having packed only a flannel shirt.
At a self-styled eco-resort near the park visitors' centre, I ask for a room, but instead of one of the regular (and more expensive) cabins, I end up in a bizarre structure of crumpled, granite-coloured fibreglass. It could easily be mistaken for a boulder were it not for the hidden door that opens into the side of it. Happy for a warm bed, I crawl into my en suite troglodyte's cave without asking questions about the inexplicable disguise.
Woken by a chorus of roosters early the next morning, I refill the scooter's petrol tank in the nearest village, a Hmong hill tribe settlement, and then rise above the clouds to the peak. The fog crawls silently across the roadway like steam from an ultrasonic humidifier. Despite the crowds at the summit, the place has an otherworldly tinge, with monks circling in the mist and visitors prostrating at a shrine in a woody copse, the burial place of the last Thai king's ashes.
"You went all the way to the top of Doi Inthanon?" Back in Chiang Mai, the man at the scooter rental shop can hardly believe it. I've already paid for a second day, so before returning the vehicle I drive up to Phra That Doi Suthep, the mountainside monastery overlooking Chiang Mai. It's a major tourist draw, but even here, the crowd is humming pleasantly amid the wafting incense, rather than oppressive - a bit like the city as a whole, in fact, which spreads out down below, with its numerous temples inside the walls and the wooded hills rising beyond.
I haven't forgotten about that boat, but when I finally reach Wat Chedi Luang for the evening funeral ceremony, I find the pyre already razed to the ground. I've missed the show. Watching the embers burn themselves out, I take it as a stark reminder that, even given all the time in the world, it would scarcely be possible to do everything one would like here.
If you go
The flight Return flights on Gulf Air (www.gulfair.com) from Abu Dhabi to Chiang Mai via Bahrain to Bangkok and cost from Dh5,035, including taxes.
The stay Double rooms at 3 Sis Bed and Breakfast (www.3sisbedandbreakfast.com; 0066 053 273243) cost from 1,215 Thai baht (Dh151) including breakfast and taxes. The hotel (owned by, you guessed it, three sisters) is in the heart of Chiang Mai's old city and within walking distance of major attractions.