Chiang Mai’s ugly modern hinterland continues to grow, but its old centre continues to retain its attractions. A big square moat and remnants of its walls form a rectangle, filled with little lanes and temples, while outside the moat runs a major racetrack road which draws most of the traffic away. I suppose the centre is now almost entirely given over to tourism, apart from the temples of course, but it still retains its charm. There are little boutique hotels, spas, second hand book shops and coffee houses. Some of the best of the wats are the oldest ones. This was once the capital of the northern Lanna kingdom, and at its centre stands a huge, ruined, but still impressive chedi in one of the larger religious compounds. These places are an odd mix of the spiritual and the banal. The ancient carved teak temples contrast with the cafes and school rooms and car parks found within the walls. Monks chant and drum long into the night; or tune in to their ipods in shady corners in the heat of the day. People make fervent obeisance before a golden Buddha image; or give packages of foods wrapped in cling film to the monks; or chat loudy and raucously; or try to sell you postcards.
It’s a great town to walk around at random and just see what you come across, and there’s a calmness about the place (now that Loi Krathong has ended!). There’s also some great countryside nearby, once you get past the ribbon development along the arterial roads. Looming over the city is the great mass of Doi Suthep, with its golden temple and royal palace. We hired a car and drove a great loop round behind this mountain, to the beautiful densely wooded hills and eventually to the pretty village of Samoeng. It’s poor and relies entirely on agriculture, but the people obviously take a pride in the place. There’s a very well kept public park and unlike many Thai villages, an air of tidiness.
Another day, we took the trip to Doi Inthanon. Travelling out of Chiang Rai towards Lamphun along a road lined with mature trees (which is much more pleasant than the other routes into the city, lined with car repair workshops and furniture showrooms), you cross fairly unexciting agricultural land until you turn off the main highway. Then suddenly you are into the national park and rising continuously mile after mile towards Thailand’s highest point. This is also a rather sacred place for Thais, and has been heavily invested in with projects to help the local hill tribe populations. There are lots of market gardens amongst the forested hills, and roadside markets with fresh salads and dried fruit. Passing the pair of modern chedi dedicated to the king and queen, you eventually approach the summit. The temperature here is almost chilly, perhaps 20C less than in the plain below. The trees moss encrusted and wizened, often in cloud, and you come to the little altar with a plaque announcing the height above sea level (accurate to 1/10 of a millimetre!). They grow good coffee up here too and we sample a cup at the Vatchirathan waterfall, just as the rain starts to pour down for a brief spell. Suddenly – the chill and the mists and the rain – you could be in the Pennines! Although the banana trees are a bit of a give away.
So back to the city for a meal at one of several old teak houses we visited, set in its own gardens – pleasant food under the stars and the moon, now past full and on its back, recuperating no doubt from the earlier festivities.