Chiang Mai See And Do
For centuries, timber elephants played a crucial role in northern Thailand's economy. The Thai government banned commercial logging in 1989, but the skills of these huge yet graceful animals are still displayed at tourist-oriented elephant camps scattered around the province. Pang Mae Sa, about 15 miles northwest of town, is the closestand most commercialoperation (66-53-297-060). At Chiang Dao Elephant Training Centre, 35 miles north of Chiang Mai on Highway 107, the mahouts and their charges demonstrate more traditional forest talents (66-53-298-553). You can also clamber atop a howdah, or elephant saddle, for a rumble through the jungle. Tour companies usually include hotel pick-up and round-trip transport in their packages.
Wear drip-dry clothing for Songkran. The mid-April Thai New Year celebration is a blow-out splash party throughout the kingdom, but Chiang Mai's water festival is less hysterical—and more mindful of history and ritual—than Bangkok's. The celebration kicks off when Wat Phra Singh's sacred Buddha statue is paraded through the streets and sprinkled with lustral water. The following day, the devout also deliver handfuls of sand to build small chedis at various temples, symbolic of the dust they carry away on their bare feet throughout the year. The most magical event, however, is November's Loy Krathong. On the full-moon night, tens of thousands of Thai launch small banana-leaf boats containing candles, flowers, and incense on the Ping River in thanks for the life-giving waters or release paper lanterns into the sky to carry away bad luck.
Once notorious for its poppy farmers and drug lords, the Thai-Burma-Laos frontier has largely cleaned up its act. In northernmost Chiang Rai province, a three-hour drive from Chiang Mai, the hill tribes of Doi Tung mountain now cultivate coffee and macadamia nuts for sale at boutique shops across Thailand (66-53-767-015; www.doitung.org). Skip the seedy border crossing of Mae Sai and head instead for sleepy Chiang Sean, a Mekong River port with ruins dating to the sixth century. The "triangle''—actually the confluence of the Mekong and Sop Ruak rivers—is just seven miles upstream, complete with an enormous, surreal Buddha; a lonely Burmese casino; and an excellent and informative museum, the Hall of Opium (66-53-784-444; www.goldentrianglepark.com). Bed down at the spectacular Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, 15 air-conditioned pavilions set in a lush, bird-filled forest inhabited by the resort's private herd of elephants along a quiet bend in the Sop Ruak (66-53-910-200; www.fourseasons.com).
Society here has traditionally been organized by altitude, with Buddhist Thai living in permanent lowland settlements and animist ethnic minorities scattered on mountain slopes. Dozens of outfitters, including Maeping Riverside Tours, offer day trips and multiday treks to hill-tribe hamlets (66-53-302-121; www.norththaitour.com). These excursions often include an elephant ride, bamboo raft trip, rock climbing, or a dip in a mountain waterfall. Sadly, some villages near Chiang Mai have become detribalized, with the attendant big-city commercialization and social problems. Before you book, find out the packing list and degree of hiking difficulty, the size of the trekking group, and whether other tourists will visit the same villages on the same day. Avoid any "opium tours" or programs that include the Padaung, or "Long-Neck Karen,'' whose women encase their necks in brass rings. Though indigenous to Burma, the Padaung are frequently exhibited in Thailand in zoo-like conditions. Check with the Tourism Authority of Thailand for a list of licensed operators. Staffed and managed by hill-tribers, the 24-room Lisu Lodge near Chiang Dao is a soft-adventure base for trekking, river rafting, and mountain biking, with more amenities (hot water, Western-style toilets) than many other operations (66-53-278-338; www.asian-oasis.com).
With a large collection of religious antiques and royal artifacts, the Chiang Mai National Museum, located one mile northwest of the old city on Highway 11, makes a pleasant half-day stop (66-53-221-308; www.thailandmuseum.com). Next door is Wat Chet Yod, a temple built in 1477 for a World Buddhist Council. It features an unusual square, seven-spired stupa modeled on the famed temple at Bodh Gaya, India. One mile further north, off Highway 107 in Rama IX Park, the exhibits at the Tribal Museum, including silver-encrusted Akha headdresses and Hmong embroidery, are an excellent introduction to the major hill tribes of the north (66-53-210-872).
The trade caravans that trod for centuries between China and Burma gave Chiang Mai its cosmopolitan flavor. This is exemplified by the unique Lanna architectural style: multiple, overlapping roofs and elaborate teakwood finials on the gables of the viharn, a building that houses important Buddha images. In the old city, Wat Chedi Luang once enshrined the sacred Emerald Buddha now displayed in Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaeo. The chedi (a cone-shaped monument that holds relics) towered more than 300 feet upon completion in 1481; partially destroyed by a 1545 earthquake, it still remained the city's tallest structure for 500 years. But don't expect any fortune tellers or trinket sellers; this noncommercial temple houses a Buddhist university and offers daily "monk chats.'' Don't overlook the all-teak viharn of Wat Phan Tao, just next door. A few hundred yards to the west, Wat Phra Singh's exquisite 14th-century viharn contains the city's most venerated Buddha image. Ten miles west of town, mountaintop Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep provides exceptional vistas, except during March and April, the hazy, hot season. Shorts and halter or tank tops are not considered acceptable dress for entry into any temple compound.
Doi Inthanon National Park
Tel: 66 53 268 550
Located 60 miles west of Chiang Mai, Doi Inthanon is one of the kingdom's best national parks. It takes its name from Thailand's tallest peak, the 8,415-foot-high centerpiece of the park. Within the preserve's 186 square miles are lush forests of teak, mountain pine, rhododendron, and vanna orchids, which shelter tigers, gibbons, and deer. Numerous self-guided trails will appeal to day hikers; camp sites and cabins are also available and are popular with bird-watchers. Because of the mountain's broad range of altitude, habitats, and climates, more bird species have been recorded here than anywhere else in Thailand (362 different species, including the rare ashy-throated warbler and green-tailed sunbird). Prepare to be profiled: Foreigners pay a 400-baht admission fee (about $12) to all national parks, five times the price charged to Thai citizens. Many Chiang Mai tour companies offer guided day trips and overnight trekking packages inside the park as well. The Chiang Mai Zoo has a decent display of Asian animals, including a pair of giant pandas, scattered in the foothills of Doi Suthep. If you want to see the cuddly pandas, however, it'll cost double the $3 entrance fee (66-53-221-179; www.chiangmaizoo.com).