The many charms of Chiang Mai

  • Asia
  • Saturday, 05 Apr 2014

The charms of Chiang Mai....a cherubic little girl in traditional costume greets tourists outside a restaurant in Chiang Mai's Old Town.

There’s more than meets the eye in this northern Thai city apart from its in-your-face titillation.

LET me be honest here. I had never heard of Chiang Mai until my boss signed me up for an AirAsia junket to this northern Thai city, 30 hours before the plane took off.

Having led a sheltered life in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, my only exposure to Thailand up to that point had been (1) A terrible Nicolas Cage movie; (2) tom yum-flavoured instant noodles; and (3) the lovely ladies I meet on police raids are usually from there. That last bit got my family a little worried.

As I was packing, my mother incessantly reminded me of Christian values, the joy of waiting for the right girl and the horror of AIDs. Though I now realise there is more to Thai nightlife than its sleazy reputation, my first night in Chiang Mai seemed to reinforce that first impression. My insides palpitated due to the trashy club beats blaring down dimly lit Chang Klan Road in the centre of Chiang Mai’s Old City where dolled up women, bathed in red light with high heels and skimpy dresses, blew kisses to people who pass by.

Tourists rushed about, gawking at three things the city night market is famous for – heavenly street food, inexpensive shopping goodies and sex. All of which can be bargained for.

The elephants of the Maesa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai displayed unbelievable artistic prowess besting even the writer's best efforts while in school.
The elephants of the Maesa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai displayed unbelievable artistic prowess, besting even the writer’s best efforts in school.

Even our tuk tuk driver got into the act and tried to peddle “it” to us. But as the morning came, the city seemed to detoxify itself of the party crowd, transforming into a carefree, slow-paced city of mystical architecture and beautiful weather. The city had just come out of its chilliest season yet with temperatures around 20°C; perfect climate for people who enjoy sightseeing.

The first thing that struck me about daytime Chiang Mai was how empty it was, which was baffling for Thailand’s third largest city. And the people I did see covered their mouths with face masks.

“It’s the haze. The cold season is over so farmers are slashing and burning the land to plant,” said Chaiwat Piakie, my tour guide.

“What haze?” I thought aloud. The air was clear.

“Maybe for you it’s different,” he joked.

The majority of Chiang Mai folk, Chaiwat said, work in the paddy fields. It is the city’s biggest rice exporter since 1296 when it was called the “Land of a Million Rice Fields” in the Lanna Kingdom.

Unfortunately, the tour agency did not have time to take me to the fields. But they made up for it by taking me to see the epicentre of Thailand’s woodcarving industry – Baan Tawai village, located in the Hang Dong district. Woodcarving became an occupational culture in Baan Tawai in response to the booming teak wood logging industry in the North, around 1957. Today it hosts some of Thailand’s leading craftsmen, selling exquisite handicrafts at flea market prices.

Take a walk down the street and you can see magnificent works of carved art from the small and intricate to the larger-than-life Thai décor and furniture, on display outside dozens of workshops and factories there.

If you are lucky, you may even spot the master craftsmen chipping away or meticulously applying layers of gold foil on their latest work. But they would react poorly to those who try to take pictures.

However, you can snap away in a Lanna-style house along Chiang Mai-Sanpatong highway which former teacher and woodcarving enthusiast Charoui Na Soonton turned into a museum to preserve some of the North’s rarest wood art.

On the Flying Squirrel in Pong Krai, one goes on an adrenaline-filled ride across the green canopy of Chiang Mai's jungle.
On the Flying Squirrel in Pong Krai, one goes on an adrenaline-filled ride across the green canopy of Chiang Mai’s jungle.

It’s hard to keep your jaw shut when you step into his house. It is like entering the maze of a lost world where hundreds of elaborate wood carvings tell the stories of Thailand’s fables.

As I gawked at a giant glass-top teak wood table with the detailed carvings of a forest, waterways and traditional deities in the middle of the room, Charoui grinned from ear to ear. His collection, which he amassed over 30 years, is beautiful and he knows it.

“I love making and collecting wood carvings about religion, literature of course, and the Lanna way of life,” said Charoui, who, despite wearing cologne, could not mask the smoky smell of sawdust on his robes.

But despite his love for the traditional items, the 67-year-old admits his favourite woodcarvings are erotic ones. As he led me up the wooden steps made out of cartwheels, Charoui showed me a garden of wooden penises he carved himself. On the second and third floor, there are pillars depicting freaky elephant-on-women action. But what takes the cake is an elaborate doll house, with a dozen wood-carved men and women rigged to animatronics, forced to engage in a never-ending cycle of coitus, to Charoui’s delight. The museum opens from 8.30am to 4.30pm daily; admission is 20 baht (RM2).

A steady theme for woodcarvings in Baan Tawai is the mythical elephant, which is very much part of Thailand’s history and the North’s wood culture. In the past, the Northerners used them to carry logged teak wood. But when logging was banned in 1989, the elephants found themselves out of work and the target of traffickers. As their population started dwindling, conservationists in Chaing Mai set up elephant camps where the beasts could find sanctuary.

The biggest of them is the Maesa Elephant Camp just 20 minutes’ drive from town. A lush sanctuary in the heart of the Maesa Valley, walking through its wooden gates was like stepping into a scene from Jurassic Park.

These grey giants roam free around the grounds like little children, taking every opportunity to bask in the attention of the puny humans. At the river, they cheekily spray water at anyone who comes near them and playfully poke their trunks through the gift shop window to “pat” unsuspecting tourists on the head.

The first elephant I met there was 12-year-old Songnap who immediately wrapped her trunk around my neck and pulled me in for a hug. Her trainer, called a mahout, handed me some bananas and gestured to me to give them to her.

Her trunk made a dive for the fruit but I hid them behind my back, chuckling stupidly to myself for not realising I had denied a 4,000kg animal her snack. She went for it again, this time wrapping her trunk around my torso and lifting me a few inches off the ground.

Squealing, I handed over the bananas. Songnap dropped me before gulping them down in a heartbeat. She patted me on the head and I took in the texture of her rubbery hide and the smell of fermented fruit in her breath.

A Baan Tawai craftsman applying layer upon layer of gold foil on her  masterpiece.
A Baan Tawai craftsman applying layer upon layer of gold foil on her masterpiece.

Malaysian actress Siti Saleha Baharom, 24, who was part of the trip for AirAsia’s travelogue, seemed to enjoy her time with the friendly, playful pachyderms too.

There are 72 elephants in Maesa Elephant Camp, some of which are rescued captives and others who were born and raised in the forest nursery by their mahouts.

The blue-robed men in straw hats say their philosophy is to create a natural habitat for the elephants.

And it shows. The elephants seem genuinely happy to be there. The bond they exhibit with their mahout is that of best buds. The men splash in the streams with the elephants and some even have the brass to spank them when they misbehave.

The extent of the mahouts’ rearing dazzles in the camp’s elephant show which runs at 8am, 9.40am and 1.30pm daily. The elephants and their trainers show off their dancing skills, give each other back massages and play football with each other in a joy-filled hour.

The show slowly becomes borderline depressing when the mahouts pull out canvasses, brushes and sheets of paper for their elephants to paint. Not scribbles, mind you; I’m talking about full-blown abstract and floral artwork that make my school art projects look like the scratchings of a monkey. Their paintings can be purchased in a gallery here for a reasonable price.

Price per entry which includes the elephant show is 120 baht (RM12). You can also take a ride with the elephants through the camp’s jungle terrain starting at 800 baht (RM80).

Another 30-minute drive and I found myself in Pong Krai where eco-tourists, rollicking on the serene jungle floor, were periodically annoyed by shrieks from the adrenaline junkies zip-lining above them. Here, I was taken 150m up into the canopy and introduced to the folks from Flying Squirrels, who chain people to a cable and push them off a platform for a living.

“It’s my first day on the job!” said my affable instructor Kitty. That didn’t calm my nerves one bit as he strapped me with a helmet and gear before giving me a crash course on how not to die while gliding 90km per hour between hundred-year-old trees.

Stepping over the platform and peering into the darkness of the jungle below was the hardest part. Almost instinctively I just sat, glued to the floor, but that didn’t stop Kitty from nudging me over the edge.

Carvings on teak wood in Baan Tawai, usually tell stories of the Lanna way of life hundreds of years ago.
Intricate: Carvings on teak wood in Baan Tawai usually tell stories of the Lanna way of life hundreds of years ago.

Soon my feet were dangling over a blur of green with the wind in my face, taking in the spectacular view of the jungle before me. I tumbled into the next platform with a hard thud, and the instructor immediately chained me to the next cable and cheekily asked if I was ready to go again while I lay breathless on the floor.

I went through another 22 platforms over a two-hour thrill ride that includes a monster 600m zipline, a series of rope ladders and a ridiculous bicycle ride over a tightrope. Halfway through, I started losing the jitters and actually looked forward to the next jump, experimenting with poses as I went along.

The instructors were a playful bunch, looking for every opportunity to give you a fright, whether it is pretending to push the girls overboard or tugging on the cables so your glide is extra rocky. However, their commitment to safety was exemplary.

People who are either pregnant, above 110kg, or with back, heart, hip or knee problems are not encouraged to go for this activity.

Back in town, I decided to give the night markets another whirl in Wualai Road which hosts the city’s famous Saturday Walking Street market which opens from 4pm till midnight. I highly recommend this place which has some of the most mouthwatering street food I have ever tried.

In the 1km stretch, I found twister chips, a spiral of potatoes on a stick deep-fried and topped with barbecue and cheese sprinkles for 20 baht (RM2). Hearty white tom yum soup (25 baht / RM2.50) and smoky dim sum (40 baht / RM4) were crowd favourites during the chilly night. Special mention goes to the barbecued German sausages and crispy egg spring rolls.

The night market is also a festive buzz with live street music and store owners throwing fits with haggling tourists. You can find almost anything in Wualai Road, from flowers, handwoven rattan bags and Buddhist paintings to crossbows, techno lighted T-shirts and samurai swords.

I enjoyed my time in Chiang Mai. This colourful city of bizarre and beautiful things has certainly given me many a story to tell.

The trip was sponsored by AirAsia, which flies twice daily from Kuala Lumpur to Chiang Mai. For details, visit

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Travel , Chiangmai , AirAsia , Thailand , Siti Saleha


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