Six ways to escape the crowds and see the real Chiang Mai
It's a city of trees, colour, and markets - and a place that encourages introspection. Finding places away from the crowds will help you get so much more from your time there
There is a sense of romance, of intrigue, that comes with a trip to Chiang Mai. Thailand's unofficial second city is in the far north of the country, surrounded by the mountain ranges of the Thai highlands, and it is much celebrated as the cultural capital of the country. Here, in the city that was once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, there are more than 300 Buddhist temples. It's a city of trees. A city of colour. A city of markets. It's also a place that naturally encourages introspection, and finding places away from the crowds will help you get so much more from your time there.
Talk with monks at the Silver Temple
Just south of Chiang Mai's old town is the city's silversmith district. The streets are packed with stores selling everything from silver earrings to bracelets to photo frames. Down one of the side streets is a temple called Wat Srisuphan (Moo 2, Tambon Nong Kaeo, Amphoe Hang Dong). It's rarely visited by tourists, which is strange, as it's both exquisite and unusual: the entire temple is made of silver. Inside the complex you can see the metal being battered into intricate plates, as the tradition of silver working is passed on to the next generation. The temple offers "monk chats" every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 5pm, where visitors can speak with monks and learn more about Buddhism.
"Give back" while you receive a massage
Foolish is the traveller who visits Thailand without having a traditional Thai massage. Why? Thai massage is a healing process that incorporates stretching, energy meridian work and specific pressure points to relieve stiff and sore muscles, boost circulation and reduce stress. There are so many places offering massages you'll never be short of choice, but if you want to give something back, you should visit the Chiang Mai Women's Correctional Institution Vocational Training Centre. (100 Rajvithi Road, Chiang Mai old town) Here, massages are given by women who are nearing the end of their prison sentences. They have been meticulously trained and all the money they earn is saved and given to them when they leave prison. They leave with a skill and experience, and a fund to help set them up a new life. The centre also has a small restaurant and shop, where food and souvenirs are made and sold by prisoners.
Open Monday to Friday, 8am-4.30pm; Saturday and Sunday, 9am-4.30pm
Get a taste of the city
Thailand is much loved for its cuisine, which is a fine balance of flavours, fragrances, textures and colours. Fresh ingredients are central to almost every meal, and if you visit one of the morning markets you'll see women stocking up on provisions. Dash Teak House dashteakhouse.com, a superb restaurant in Chiang Mai's old town, gets its ingredients every morning from local farmers and serves up delicious Thai meals in a traditional Lanna-style teak restaurant in a quiet back street. The restaurant's owner, who is originally from Chiang Mai, studied and worked many years in the US and is a certified Le Cordon Bleu cook, so you can be sure that the food is of a high standard.
Spend time near a hill tribe village
Northern Thailand is synonymous with "hill tribes", people who live in the mountains along the country's border. Many tour companies in Chiang Mai promise a "hill tribe experience". Some are, unfortunately, less genuine than others. For an authentic experience, spend a night at peaceful Lisu Lodge asian-oasis.com less than an hour's drive from Chiang Mai. The lodge is just outside the town of Baan Ton Lung, which is inhabited by Lisu people who came south from the Tibetan plateau a few generations ago. The friendly local staff at the lodge will show you around their community and introduce you to characters and small industries. Take a ride in an ox-drawn cart, and spend some time speaking with the village shaman.
Ride a bicycle through the back streets
There are few better ways to experience a new place than on two wheels. You have the freedom to stop when you see something interesting, and you can travel paths that you would miss on foot or in a car. There are bicycles for hire all around Chiang Mai old town, but if you book a tour with Backyard Travel (backyardtravel.com) you'll be taken out of the city to explore the small back roads — known as "soi" in Thai — in the university district. Here you will find quiet temples, small markets, food stalls and rolling farmlands, with a backdrop of distant mountains.
Reconnect with nature at a forest temple
Almost everyone will tell you that you must visit Chiang Mai's Wat Phra Doi Suthep temple. It's enormous, it's elaborate, and it offers exceptional views across the city — but it does get very busy with busloads of tourists who climb the 300 steps to the beautiful temple. When you need some breathing space, head for Wat Umong (135 Moo 10 Suthep, Chiang Mai), a very quiet temple complex in the foothills of Suthep mountain. Here, giant trees cast shadows across the stupa, and mosses cling to concrete walls; frangipani flowers are often scattered across the grass and the air is wonderfully cool. The temple takes its name from a system of tunnels ("umong" means tunnel in Thai) which was built in the late 14th century; walk through them and you'll discover an altar and some shrines. There is also a small lake, where you can feed the ducks and birds, which are protected at this temple. Here, you will be sure to find peace.