Done the usual touristy things in Chiangmai? No worries, there are other attractions to be had.
Would you like to visit the temples here? We can put together something that will have you visiting about 10 temples.”
My answer was a very firm, “No!”
For the first-time visitor to Chiangmai, the temple part of the tour usually takes them to the famed Doi Suthep or further afield to Doi Inthanon. Then comes the elephant rides and the paltry attempt at giving you a glimpse of the hill tribes.
And the other highlight — the tourist trap called the Night Bazaar, where all manner of ethnic handiwork, handicraft, antiques and touristy clothes are on offer.
All this, I had done on my previous trips, so it was time to sample the other delights of Chiangmai. And first-up was a favourite local breakfast fare, kao soi. It is a scrumptious bowl of flat green noodles in a curry gravy served thick chilli paste and your choice of chicken, beef or pork.
Thus fortified, we proceeded to a popular local destination, Sankhampang Hot Springs (www.skpHotsprings.com). It’s about 45 minutes from the city and is run by the Tourism Authority of Thailand together with the Agricultural Cooperative and Sankhampang Village Cooperative. Entry fee: 40 baht (RM4).
The first thing that greets you here is the slight smell of rotten eggs. Yes, that’s right, there’s sulphur in the air. Then you will hear the sound of spouting water. The place has two small geysers. There’s a small well where you can boil eggs. And where do you get the eggs? At a nearby stall, of course. It takes 15 minutes of dipping in the hot water for the eggs to be ready.
There’s also a little stream running through the park where you can soak your feet or any other body part of choice. Of course, you can also take baths. There are individual rooms (separated by gender) just for that, and facilities for group baths as well, for a price. There’s even a big sulphur swimming pool if you’re game for it.
And if you plan to spend the night, there are rooms and chalets available. You don’t have to worry about food because there is also a restaurant that serves pretty good food, and reasonably priced, too. The tom yam kung and the vegetable salad I had was scrumptious.
If the therapeutic effects of the mineral bath is not enough, why not drop in at the booths that offer Thai massage.
Another calming activity is a night cruise on the River Ping, which runs through Chiangmai (www.chiangmai.bangkok.com). The operators pick you up from your hotel and take you to the docking bay. You pass through all the local markets to get to it.
For some reason, all our companions — save one — were couples from Australia. Food is served once the boat starts its journey. We found the whole experience not especially memorable, but the sights and the cruise were pleasant enough.
Because of recent rains, the level of the river had risen so that we couldn’t pass through one of the bridges and had to turn around and head in another direction. There were a lot of dining establishments along the river ranging from humble stalls to five-star restaurants. Patrons, though busy with their food, invariably waved whenever our boat passed.
Before we knew it, the cruise was over. Let’s just say that some experiences are not meant to be repeated.
Perhaps a glimpse of the local culture would be better? I was recommended a Khantoke dinner show at the Old Chiangmai Cultural Center (www.oldchiangmai.com). Again, they pick you up from the hotel and take you back. The tour came with dinner, too, but do note that it’s not halal. It was a seven-course meal served at one go, and totally worth it. We were so stuffed we couldn’t finish the food.
But the “main” course is supposed to be the performances, of course. The dances originate from the courts of the old Lanna kingdom of Chiangmai, and there are at least 12 dances before the intermission. While they may be fascinating at first and some of the costumes beautiful and colourful, they tended to drag on a bit.
My friend remarked, “The moves seem the same; it’s just the costume changes that differentiate the dances.”
Sitting in lotus-position did not do my knees any favours. Most of the audience seemed equally comatose but everyone woke up when a guy came on to do a sword dance. Wow, what moves, what daring, what dexterity! Now that’s what I call a show.
When the show moved on to the courtyard for some hill-tribe dances (11 actually), I decided it was time to take my leave. My friend was just as relieved as I was at this.
I much preferred our trip to Chiangmai Zoo (http://chiangmaizoo.peam.biz/) just 15 minutes outside the city. The zoo, open from 8am-5pm daily, is internationally acclaimed. The locals are proud of the fact that they have pandas, one of the few outside China — three, in fact. So that was our first stop but you need to pay extra to view them — another 100 Baht on top of the 100 Baht entrance fee.
The pandas were truly adorable and quite oblivious of the visitors. I wished the surroundings could have had more of the bamboo patches favoured by the furry cuties.
Visitors to the zoo can expect a varied terrain, for there are loads of slopes to walk on and lots of greens. If the heat gets to you, just pay a small fee and take the tram (like we did). And if you want an aerial view, why not take the monorail which offers just that and some great views of Chiangmai too.
There’s also the usual animal shows and animals. The Siberian tiger and the Humboldt penguins were the standouts. The penguins were charmers, playing with visitors by the window.
Chiangmai certainly has a charm all its own, and if you visit near the end of the year, you get pleasant weather — nice and chilly, the way Cameron Highlands was 10 years ago.