While Thailand is a mainstay with holidaymakers the world over thanks to its paradise beaches, tropical weather and mouthwatering food; the northern city of Chiang Mai is attracting a new breed of traveller. One that is passing over the beaches and boozing elsewhere in the country in favour of wellness, wellbeing and spirituality.
Here hill tribes, green mountains, ornate temples and rolling green hills take the place of the surf and sand, and in the town centre yoga and meditation studios jostle for space with organic eateries, day spas, green juice joints and esoteric shops.
But regardless of whether you’re a longtime wellness-warrior or simply in the market for some much needed peace and serenity in picturesque surroundings, this hippy haven has something for all tastes. Read on to get the jump on what to see, eat and do.
The spiritual heartland of the country, Chiang Mai is overflowing with Buddhist temples, or ‘wats.’ In fact, there are more than 300. And given their prolificness it’s almost impossible to not organically absorb some of the Zen that emanates from each beautifully designed and brightly painted structure.
Given the number of wats, you obviously can’t visit them all, but you can’t leave the city without at least visiting the three most famous. In the north-east corner of the old walled city, Wat Chiang Man, is the oldest temple (constructed back in 1296 when the city was founded) and houses the rare Crystal and Marble Buddha statues. Following on around 100-years later, Wat Chedi Luang is one of the most popular temples in the Old Town. But undoubtedly the most famous is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Overlooking the city from its mountain top position and reached via a strenuous, 306-step climb, it’s northern Thailand's most sacred temple.
Chat With A Monk
Travelling in the north of Thailand is an opportunity to absorb the rich cultural heritage of the country, particularly its unique Thai Buddhist framework. The population are 95 per cent Buddhist and the religion infiltrates almost every aspect of life.
To develop an appreciation for it during your stay make time for the aptly named ‘Monk Chat’ - a one-on-one chat with a real life monk. These informal talks are held at several temples in the city during specific time periods during most days and visitors can ask the saffron-clad monks anything they like.
From superficial queries, such as what DO monks wear under their robes? How do they spend their days? How do they make money? Through to more profound ones covering the Buddhism belief system, reincarnation and meditation. It’s also a two way street. Many of the Monks or novices have never been outside of the country and will be curious about you and will be keen to practise their English.
The two main temples offering regular chats are Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Suan Dok, but the MCU. Buddhist University also offers Monk Chats on campus.
Get Your Om On
Set in 20-acres in the Mae Rim valley, a short drive from the city centre, the Four Seasons hotel rules the luxury resort roost in Chiang Mai. Surrounded by paddy fields and mountains, this property is all lush gardens, rice terraces, lily ponds and small lakes. Facilities include two beautiful pools, a gym, Pilates studio, steam rooms, plunge pool, bicycles, tennis courts, multiple restaurants and spa with seven treatment rooms. Yes, there are ample reasons to base yourself here, but for yoga-lovers especially the offering is almost unparalleled.
Led by resident yogi Dheeraj Singh Patwal, who learnt his art as a child growing up in what is renowned as the yoga capital of the world, India’s Rishikesh, the yoga program is extensive to say the least. Daily complimentary group classes and private paid sessions held in either the lakeside yoga barn, or - depending preference and weather conditions - in your villa or at the spa. Classes include sunrise yoga, evening asana yoga (designed to open the energy centres), yoga nidra - otherwise known as ‘yogic sleep’ - Hatha yoga and breath work classes. There’s even pregnancy yoga for mums-to-be.
Anyone who has visited the massage school at Bangkok’s Wat Pho temple will be familiar with the longstanding relationship Thais have with massage. Indeed, Thailand is one of the best destinations for massage fans and Chiang Mai’s increasing reputation as a wellness capital has seen even more hole-in-the-wall reflexology joints and high-end day spas open catering to the demand.
The Old Town is littered with options and whether you’ve been pounding the pavements sightseeing, or working up a sweat doing some serious downward dog-ing; bargainous massage therapy is within easy reach here.
One of the oldest - almost 20 years - and best is Let’s Relax. The day spa boasts seven foot-massage chairs, five Thai massage rooms and 11 spa suites all complete with inviting, open air bathtubs. The range of treatments include body scrubs, Thai massage, reflexology and their treatment the aromatic hot stone massage.
With more restaurants plucking produce from their own gardens and a growing passion for organic, sustainable, locally produced food; there’s a steady stream of farm-to-table restaurants opening their doors. One of the best is Anna Farm and Eatery.
Serving a mix of international and Thai cuisine, all made with ingredients form their own organic farm, dishes are delivered right next to the rice fields, where lush mountains act as a scenic backdrop.
Another great option is Ohkajhu Organic. Situated out of town in Sansai, this eatery also uses produce from its several organic farms. Fresh, organic salads are a specialty and carnivores are also taken care of with ample portions of barbecued pork ribs.