Discover what life is like in the northern Thailand city Chiangmai. Join us at a resort with traditional wooden architecture and its own organic farms as well as visiting a Hmong Village in the mountains.
For the last 15 years, I have travelled around the Northeast, the central, and the southern parts of Thailand, but never in the north. In June 2017, I rectified this situation. As soon as I stepped off the plane, I felt the difference from Bangkok: the airport was smaller and less chaotic, the town had a more relaxed vibe, and the weather was cooler and not as humid. Of course, the capital city has 12 million people, whereas Chiangmai has just under a million inhabitants. Even the taxi drivers and market vendors, often the ones in other Thai cities that price gouge, were fair.
We stayed for a week at the Ruen Come In resort. It is family owned with an attentive staff, and the buildings and rooms are gorgeous. Made of teak and built in the Northern Thai traditional style, the resort makes you feel as if you are the proprietor of a lovely Thai mansion. A welcome drink of clitoria ternatea greeted us, and when we squeezed lime into it, the blue drink became purple.
Our room had a large wooden balcony, glassed-in shower, and a large bathtub. A window over the tub could be opened to see the sleeping quarters. Our room was large and well-appointed. When we checked in, towels in the shape of elephants—the north’s pride and joy—greeted us on the bed. After a week in Yangon at a tourist-level hotel, the Ruen Come In resort was a welcomed treat and a bit of luxurious indulgence. In addition, the resort had delicious organic food. The resort’s owner has organic farms that provide the sticky black rice, vegetables, and fruits. And we enjoyed dishes at the pool side dining area. The pool was kidney-shaped with a hot tub that overflowed into the pool. The lapping water coupled with mountain breezes made for enjoyable dining experiences.
Normally we don’t go in for tours and tour guides, but we wanted to see a Hmong village and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, or for short Doi Suthep. The mountains around Chiangmai make for treacherous roads, and instead of renting a car and travailing the mountain roads on our own, we hired a tour through our hotel. The van they picked us up in was new, clean, and well stocked with bottled water and cool towels. One other traveler joined us on the morning trip, making for an intimate and pleasant experience. Our tour guide told us to call him M—his Thai name was too long and too difficult for farangs to pronounce—and after filling us in on the itinerary, Thai and Chiangmai history, he told us about the Hmong people and village that we were going to see. King Rama IX came to the mountains in the 1970s to bring in the Hmong and other hill people to be members of Thailand. This meant building schools, roads, and providing them with new agriculture cash crops like coffee to replace their traditional opium. As we neared the village, the road choked to one-lane, and our driver’s expertise was tested as other vehicles came towards us. Adroitly, our driver weaved and paused until he had us at the village’s center. Before disembarking from the van, M warned us: Do not buy diamonds from the locals. Sure enough, I wasn’t in the village’s market two minutes before an older man approached, unfolded some paper, and offered me diamonds. I nodded and waved him away. But I wonder: How did the diamond trick come to be here? I’ve never heard of Thailand or the Hmong as diamond merchants. Was this a fraud that originated with tourism in the village?
The village, by the way, was a real village. The Hmong had been living here since after the Vietnam War, when they left Vietnam and Laos for Thailand. Thus, this village was not built for tourists.
M showed us traditional Hmong clothes, a traditional house, and traditional tools used around the house to thrash rice. After being shown these items, we made our way through the market and back to our van. The vendors were mainly women—the men’s occupations seemed to be idling talking or selling fake diamonds—and the women smiled and some spoke a little English. I couldn’t help wondering if tourism was a blessing or a curse for the Hmong? Tourism brings in money, but does it make the people servile?
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is famous in Chiangmai, and the locals say that if you come to Chaingmai but don’t see Doi Suthep, then you really didn’t go to Chainagmai. We saw it. And we did it the old-fashioned way: climbing the 309 steps up the mountain to the temple. 309 steps sound intimidating, but they are not too steep, and they are lovely, with a naga --- a deity Hinduism and Buddhism that resembles a serpent --- greeting you at the end of the railing. The naga’s body, golden and green, runs the length of the steps, which are shaded by trees. As we slowly walked up, we felt the temperature cool off.
Once at the top, the temple and its grounds were extraordinary. There was an observation deck from which you can see Chiangmai stretched out below you. Green mountains and wispy fog were in the distance, and just when I thought the mountain range ended, another popped into view.
Five days in Chiangmai was enough to let us know that we want to return for a longer stay. The cool weather, the laid-back ambiance, the honest taxi drivers all add up to a gem of a city in northern Thailand.
Essays and Photos by Natthinee and Hardy Jones