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Recharging in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Published in Australian Doctor, 16th October 2009

High on a hilltop at the end of a curling mountain road, far above the glitter and smog of the city below, sits Chiang Mai’s must-see temple, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep.  I share my visit with hundreds of visitors: curious international tourists, devout lay-Buddhists who have made the pilgrimage to walk the 309 steps up to the temple, and its keepers; the serene, shaven-headed, orange-clad monks who live and worship within its gilt edged pagodas and walls.

Located in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains some 700km from Bangkok, at 40km2 Chiang Mai’s metro area is not even a tenth of the size of Bangkok’s, but it has nearly as many temples, or Wat. They sit at street corners and emerge from leafy enclaves, and are particularly enchanting at dusk, when the monks chant their evening prayers.

There is always something more to do, and there is much more to this city of 170,000 residents than its temples. The walled and moated Old Town is at the heart of the modern day tourist district, where a thriving community of expats and outward-looking locals bring the comforts of home to its walled and moated confines – Thai style.

Spend a day wandering or cycling around its small, winding streets, or Soi, and you will stumble across cafes and restaurants offering food and drink to rival any cosmopolitan city. Blue Diamond on Soi 9 and Little Tibet on Soi 6 feast the senses at any time of day, while the upmarket Whole Earth Restaurant on Th Si Donchai will serve you an evening meal to remember. Keep the party grooving with a relaxed yet sophisticated jazz experience at the North Gate Jazz Co-op on Th Si Phum.

Like most Asian cities, Chiang Mai rises early and sleeps late. Early birds can shop with the locals at the Wororot market, an easy walk from the Walled City on the corner of Th Changmoi and Th Changklan, while night owls will prefer the tourist-oriented Night Bazaar, open from sunset until midnight, where hundreds of street vendors offer stunning handicrafts from around the region.

Yoga and meditation classes, steam saunas, beauty treatments and massages are aplenty. For something a little out of the ordinary, take a walk to the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison on Rachvithi Road, where strong armed, smiling female prisoners give spine-cracking massages to tourists as part of a rehabilitation program designed to give them above-board skills to utilise upon their release.

Chiang Mai has been continually inhabited since the ancient days of Siam, but until the 1920s could only be reached by an arduous journey upriver or atop an elephant. Today Chiang Mai is much easier to get to; it’s harder to leave. It might only be the country’s fifth largest city, but it’s Thailand’s unofficial second capital, its smiling spiritual soul. You’ll leave enriched.

Factfile

Visas and inoculations: Australian tourists arriving via an international airport may enter Thailand for up to 30 days without obtaining a visa in advance. If entering via an overland border crossing, you may enter for up to 15 days without obtaining a visa. A visa is required for longer stays and business trips. Visit www.thaiconsulatesydney.org for information and application forms. Various vaccinations are recommended; check with a travel medicine clinic.

Getting there: Various international carriers offer flights to and from Chiang Mai, see your local travel agent. Connect domestically with Bangkok Airways, Thai Airways, or Air Asia, or make the journey by bus (9-12 hours) or overnight train (12-15 hours) from Bangkok.

Where to stay: The Old Town is overrun with reasonably priced accommodation for the penny conscious traveler. Go cheap but clean and cheerful at Montrara Happy House on Chang Moi Kaow Rd (AU$32/night), be sensible at the Rimping Village (AU$100/night), or blow the budget at Chedi Chiang Mai on the grounds of the former British Consulate on Charoen Prathet Road (AU$375/night).

More information: Visit www.guidevietnam.com, www.tripadvisor.com.