The Thai city of Chiang Mai has fantastic temples, a fabulous night market and no shortage of good restaurants - and it's the perfect antidote to UK winter blues
‘So come on then, pitch me. Why should I go to Chiang Mai?’ my companion, a marketing woman down to the tips of her matt varnished fingernails, demanded. She had been to Thailand four or five times and had done the snorkelling scene down in Phuket, taken in all the major sights in Bangkok and had island hopped around Ko Samui. But she had never ventured north of Bangkok up into the mountains.
‘Well,’ I started, ‘the beautiful thing about Chiang Mai is that it is small, a little chocolate-box gem, with just as many fantastic temples to visit as Bangkok, some great places to eat and some wonderful markets to shop at, and it’s a fraction of the size, so is much, much easier to get round and find your way about.’
‘OK, ‘ she said, ‘so there are hundreds of temples and I don’t want to go and see all of them. And anyway, I remember when I last went to Thailand why I didn’t go to Chiang Mai, because I read that the moat around the old city smelt like someone had crawled in there and died. And aren’t there some really hideous new buildings on the outskirts?’
‘No, no, that has all been sorted out. The moat around the old city has been cleaned and is now crystal clear. So much so that it provides home to loads of fish and terrapins. When you go, follow the moat around the ancient city and you can see remains of the original earth ramparts. Chiang Mai may well be Thai for New City but it was built as far back as 1296.
‘And yes, there are some ugly high-rise buildings on the outskirts of the city, and some pretty grim lower level shopping blocks near the centre but what there is to see more than makes up for it. And let’s face it some of the outskirts of Paris and London are hardly glamorous.
‘So let’s take a look at some of the things we ought to do on a long weekend in Chiang Mai. It is only an hour’s flight north of Bangkok and is the perfect place to take a break from the noise and hurly-burly of the capital city or if breaking the journey up towards the Thai, Laos or Burmese border and taking in Chiang Rai. And unlike so many venues further south, you won’t suffer from the dreadful humidity, which is why many wealthy Thais like to visit, as it gives them a chance to show off some of their designer winter clothes.
‘So let’s do the culture first. Must-see temples, or wats as they are called in Thailand, include the stunning Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and there is no excuse for not being able to find it, as it soars above the city skyline. Having made the 1,676-metre climb to its top you will also get a fabulous view across the city and the Ping valley. The river Ping runs to the east and you cross it on the way to Chiang Mai railway station. Other temples to head for are Wat Chiang Man, the city’s oldest, and the charming Wat Phra Singh, built to house the bones of a northern Thai king in 1337.
‘But culture can be exhausting so it is time for us to seek out a good restaurant, and there is no shortage of those, offering a huge variety of dishes. If you want to grab a coffee and a snack at lunchtime head for JJ Bakery, which will serve you a northern Thai curry or a cheeseburger and fries with equal pleasure. It is also great for breakfast. But there is an enormous range to be found everywhere, from Buonissima Italian restaurant and deli overlooking the river to fabulous Thai food available in the open markets, especially the night market.
‘’You can get almost anything at the night market, from gold jewellery to curry paste, only don’t forget to barter, as the first price you will be quoted is pitched high because you are a westerner, or farang as the Thais call you. But don’t be afraid to haggle because it is expected. And don’t miss Sili-Aat, a restaurant hard by the market, for regional delicacies the locals tuck into at great prices.’
My companion looked languidly across at me, ‘Well, should I go, when would be best?’ I can barely contain myself: ‘When it was the coldest January in Britain for 13 years I was sitting in shorts in the courtyard of the beautiful Ratchamankha Hotel eating breakfast.’