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The Charm of Northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai

About an hour flight from Bangkok, the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city and the former capital of the Lanna Kingdom, it’s known both as the “Rose of the North” and the “City of Temples.” Along the Ping River – a major tributary of the Chao Phraya – Chiang Mai is a veritable architectural mecca for Buddhist Temples or Wats, with over 300 in the city and its surrounding areas.

However, Chiang Mai is not only for those interested in seeing temples. There are fantastic restaurants, abundant shopping, and of course magnificent spas. Chiang Mai is also the gateway to Thailand’s far north and the incredible temples en route to Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle. More on that another day. 

The Bed

Just 10 minutes from Chiang Mai International airport, the Shangri-La Chiang Mai brings new meaning to the term, “location, location, location.” One block from the Chiang Mai’s popular Night Market, the 277-room property is a true urban resort set on seven well-manicured acres in the heart of the city, with a state-of-the-art fitness center containing LifeFitness equipment, free weights, and a wet area with steam, sauna and indoor jacuzzi. 

If you are traveling with children, the hotel’s lovely, expansive pool area has an outdoor water slide, splash zone and several amenities and activities designed just for them. There is also an onsite herb garden providing Executive Chef Guillaume Comparat and his team with the freshest greenery. 

Our modern Horizon level room included access to the 11th floor Horizon Club where lovely breakfasts, high tea, and happy hour were enjoyed. The room had Shangri-La’s marvelous signature bed and bedding with high-count sheets, a large working desk, mini-bar, hot pot, espresso maker, and a comfortable, velvet-upholstered seating area overlooking the lush hotel grounds and pool.  

The Meals

If you eat only one meal in Chiang Mai, it should be at Shangri-La’s China Kitchen. The first Sichuan restaurant in the city, it was awarded a Michelin Plate in both the 2020 and 2021 Thai editions. Here, Sichuan-born Chef Tony Zheng Wei will wow you beyond your imagination. We had duck three ways, including minced with peanuts and onions, with garlic sauce, and then crispy skin, all of which were outstanding. The fried prawns with dried chili were so delectable that I then realized that any additional family members would be named Tony, even if female.

One of the highlights of this Chiang Mai visit was our Vespa adventure progressive dinner experience where two drivers with their two-seater Vespas collected us at Shangri-La for a memorable and delicious evening. Our first stop was at Gom Market where we bought mangoes for immediate snacking and pork crackers. We then popped into the hip P’lar Café – inside the Old City’s boutique Inside Hotel – selecting squid, chicken, and mushroom skewers for grilling.

Our next stop was Eats Mania, where much to my surprise I was handed an apron, and using the aforesaid pork crackers learned to make fresh papaya salad under the comical guidance of my charming Vespa driver who had learned nearly flawless English from a steady diet of Netflix. Happily, I managed to poison exactly no one. 

The third stop was a delightful dinner of Tom Kha Gai, stir fried shrimp, and pork with red curry at Chef’s Together by Aod & Dan on a glorious outdoor patio by the Ping River with lit lanterns overhead, and live, easy-listening music. Our final stop was at Boys Blues Bar, an open-air second floor club with live, light rock being performed. It was a perfect evening and a great way to see Chiang Mai by night. 

There’s also no shortage of excellent street food in Chiang Mai. If you are there on a Saturday night, a good sampling is at Wua Lai Walking Street Market near the landmark Tha Pae Gate. 

If you’re craving European fare, head to Kad Kafe which nightly has quite the Mediterranean spread, except on Fridays when they turn their culinary efforts to a seafood buffet worthy of Jacques Cousteau.

The Finds

Given the sheer number of temples in Chiang Mai, unless you have six months to see them all, choices must be made. Up a winding, hilltop road six miles outside the city center, like a Phoenix rising, is one of northern Thailand’s most sacred temples, Wat Phra Doi Suthep. The 309 steps to the top are marked by seven-headed serpent statues and flanked by serpent body railings. You can also take a tram, but either way you go, you are rewarded with a breathtaking view.

Established in 1383 by King Naone to enshrine a bone fragment said to be from Buddha’s shoulder, it was ultimately brought to Lanna by a wandering monk from Sukhothai when it broke into two pieces at the mountain’s base. At the top of the steps, the terrace has a white elephant statue that according to legend carried the Buddha relic here to its resting place. There are also pagodas, pavilions, and a museum.

At Wat Phra Singh, worshippers honor the famous image known as the Lion Buddha. Believed to have originated in Sri Lanka, it was consecrated in Thailand in 1367. Another 14th century temple in the Old City in Wat Phan Tao with colorful mosaics and gilded accents. Nearby Wat Chedi Luang with its gold stupa has three temples on its grounds.

An hour north of Chiang Mai is Araksa Tea House, where we learned about the growing, picking, and processing of organic tea cultivation. After collecting some leaves – spoiler alert, it’s far harder than it looks and takes a mind-boggling amount to make a single cup – we were rewarded by our efforts by a delicious meal overlooking the plantation, served of course with refreshing iced tea.

West of Chiang Mai is Patara Elephant Farm where guests can learn about, feed, bathe, and hang out with these glorious pachyderms. In operation for 34 years, there are now 87 elephants, 38 of which have been rescued and 49 born at Patara, including two babies both born within 10 days of our visit. Asian elephant calves are as cute as Cupid, and while smaller than their African counterparts, you’ll want to watch your feet since after 22 months gestation they’re about 250 pounds at birth!

After all those temples, tea picking, and elephant washing, we took an excellent respite at Chi Spa situated in ethereal, architecturally significant structures with nine private villa treatment rooms set amid dense green gardens. Talented masseuses brought on bliss in a truly Eden-like setting.

If you want to leave Chiang Mai looking younger than when you arrived, conveniently there’s an aesthetic dermatology clinic for Botox, laser, and other cosmetic treatments by Dr. Tida in Shangri-La’s lower lobby arcade.

The Lessons Learned

No trip to Thailand would be complete without spending a few days in Chiang Mai. You’ll sensory overload on magnificent Buddhist Temples, shop until you drop and have some incredible dining experiences. Being able to hang your hat at the lovely Shangri-La Chiang Mai just makes it picture perfect. Happy Travels!

Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney, and the author of the award-winning memoir: “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” Her work has appeared in several major publications around the world, including The LA Times, The SF Examiner, The Asia Times, The Jerusalem Post, and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, among many others. She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com.

Julie L. Kessler

Written by Julie L. Kessler

Julie L. Kessler is Money Inc's Senior Travel & Luxury Editor and writes for several major media outlets in the U.S. and overseas. She is also an attorney and legal columnist and the author of the award-winning book "Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight." She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com

Read more posts by Julie L. Kessler

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