The hustle and bustle of Bangkok&rsquos narrow lanes, or the pristine palm-fringed beaches of Krabi island - the mental image that pops up at the word &lsquoThailand&rsquo is eclectic and on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. Somewhere in the middle of this cacophony lies Chiang Mai - a city in Northern Thailand that belies all preconceived notions and competes with most in-your-face southern places like Phi Phi and Koh Samui with its adventurous and scenic offerings.
Chiang Mai is the perfect mixture of tradition and modernity - its Lanna culture is coloured perfectly in contemporary flavours, making it a vibrant province that is still seeped in age-old religious fervour. Here is a quick guide to making the most of your time in this city
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
While Chiang Mai is a city of temples, one of the most iconic places in all of Thailand, Doi Suthep Temple lies on the top of a tall mountain that offers uninterrupted views of lush green vistas and downtown Chiang Mai.15kms from the city centre, this temple is sacred to Thai people with many climbing 300 steps to reach the site, but some also opt for a complimentary cable car service that takes you to the stupa.
A White Elephant statue once you make your way through the entrance, tells the story of how the temple came to be. The temple is a representation of Buddhist architecture, with influences from Myanmar but the most remarkable aspect is the popular belief that the temple was constructed to hold a piece of bone from the Buddha&rsquos shoulder. From a circular outer terrace, climb to the inner terrace for a walk around the chedi (stupa) which has quiet spots for a contemplative evening or vantage points for a view of the city.
Doi Inthanon National Park
Doi Inthanon is Thailand&rsquos highest mountain. Covering an area of over 1,000 kms of this mountain is a national park that abounds in biodiversity amid a varied geography. Locals recommend Doi Inthanon for a phenomenon of Mae Kha Ning - during sub zero temperatures, the vegetation on the mountain gets coated with a layer of frost, covering the ground white. Coupled with misty mornings, Inthanon is popular for a view of the city, and if you&rsquore lucky, you&rsquoll have to peer through a mystical morning mist that floats like clouds around the area. The national park boasts of nature trails, waterfalls and Thai National Observatory, one of the most advanced optical astronomy facilities in ASEAN.
Thai Elephant Conservation Centre
A short drive from the city takes you to Lampang, where Thailand&rsquos only state-owned elephant camp, the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre (TECC) was established in 1993. Housing almost 100 elephants, with the youngest being 3 years old, the centre is not just a tourist pit stop but an important space for the promotion of elephant welfare and research. With an on-site hospital and a mobile clinic, many Asian elephants are cared for and trained here to keep them agile and active TECC also has space for older animals that have been surrendered by their owners.
Here, elephant rides are offered, and mahouts put on a 40-minute show three times a day to raise funds as well as highlight the agility and intelligence of the elephants. You can also feed fruits to the elephants and pose with them, under the watchful eyes of their handlers. Make sure to catch the gentle giants as they indulge themselves in water but stand a little away from the edge of the water body for the elephants are known to douse tourists
Baan Tawai Handicraft market
In a bid to promote Thai handicrafts that are a reflection of local craftsmanship and wisdom, Baan Tawai is a large handicraft village that offers brilliant wood carvings and sculptures to travellers. Situated in Chiang Mai&rsquos Hang Dong district, the village began as a centre for teak items owing to its proximity to teak forests which allowed families to settle and pick up the sculpting.
Today, all kinds of wood, including bamboo and rattan, ceramics, silver, cotton and glass are used to make artefacts at Baan Tawai which are exported worldwide. A major cultural attraction in Chiang Mai, you can walk around in the market and find the perfect souvenir or utility good, but be sure that you drive a hard bargain at this wood carving village.
Night Markets and Walking Streets
Chiang Mai has a vibrant nightlife, with night markets and walking streets dotting the landscape every few kilometres. Perfect place to pick up handicrafts and clothes, these markets also allow you to immerse in the local culture. From fresh food to antique items and accessories, it is heavenly for travellers wishing to bite into Chiang Mai&rsquos slice of life. Choose from Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, Anusarn Night Market, Kalare Night Market and Saturday/Sunday Walking Streets when you&rsquore in the city.