Though it’s hard for many to understand why the legendary Taiwan pop singer Teresa Teng gave up her life of glittering stardom to spend her last days in this remote Thai city, one visit is all you need to uncover her motivations.
Chiang Mai is a truly remarkable place.
Having suffered the terrible traffic jams of crowded Bangkok and been beset by the decadent tourist morass of Pattaya, I was basically at the end of my tether before Chiang Mai rescued my long-awaited holiday.
Around 700 kilometers north of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is nestled among the largest mountains in this vast Buddhist country, and compared to the streams of people packed on the streets of Bangkok and Pattaya, the two most frequently visited cities for foreign tourists flocking to Thailand the first time, Chiang Mai is tranquil and spacious.
This 700-year-old city boasts 300 ancient temples and is guarded by a peaceful moat. Surrounded by verdant mountains and full of people who seem to cherish every breath, Chiang Mai has a particular ability to rest the tired heart of every outsider who wants to escape from the big-city hustle-bustle.
A mere 10 minutes was all it took for us to find the guesthouse we booked online, a six-floor green and white building covered by verdant tropical plants.
Walking across the flower-and-plant-hung passage leading to the lobby of our hotel, Royal Guest House, we were greeted by a tiny but clean swimming pool in the front yard, an amenity we would later realize are widely installed in many family-run guesthouses in Thailand for tourists who tire easily after a long days exploring the local attractions in the blazing heat.
A sweet voice from the reception counter attracted our attention as the slim young receptionist folded her hands and delivered a reverent bow in our direction.
My tourist guide book says that sawatdee kaa is the most common greeting in Thailand, basically equating to "hello" in English, though it should not be used when facing a person who is younger or in a lower social position than you.
However, during my trip to this enthusiastic and hospitable country, I easily forgot this custom and found myself repeating the same chirpy greeting to everyone I met over the course of our three-day journey, which is what guide books will tell you is the perfect length of time to satisfy a first-time comer who wants to sample the main attractions in Chiang Mai, and though I tried to take that assertion with a grain of salt, I found it to be mostly true.
Green lung and dead elephants
After renting a motorbike through a local travel agency, where we also booked our one-day elephant trekking tour, we headed to the 1,676-meter-high Doi Suthep, one of the twin peaks of a grand granite mountain located west of Chiang Mai.
Driving along the twisting hill road lined with lush trees, we relished the cool wind sweeping across our faces, vanquishing the oppressive heat of monsoon season.
Known as Chiang Mai's "green lung" for its luxuriant vegetation, the hill is spread with a diverse range of attractions, from ancient sacred temples to more modern structures.
Tourists can start by embarking on a pilgrimage to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, one of the country’s northern-most sacred temples, which sits at the highest point of Doi Suthep. The temple was first established in 1383 under Keu Naone, ruler of what was then known as the Lanna Kingdom, and though the temple itself is something to see, the myth of its founding is perhaps even more notable: A visiting monk instructed the king to take a sacred relic to the mountain and build a temple.
The relic was mounted on the back of a white elephant, which was allowed to wander until it "chose" a site. The elephant climbed slowly up the slopes of Doi Suthep, trumpeted a last call and then dropped dead, and this spot was then chosen as the site to house the enshrined relic.
After climbing up the temple’s 306 steps, sandwiched by intricate dragon-style handrails, we reached the entrance. In its center, a splendid gold chedi, or stupa, one of the holiest in Thailand, glimmered under a five-tiered golden umbrella.
As we entered, pious disciples circled the chedi in bare feet, fresh lotuses in their hands and soft prayers passing through their lips. Some of them dipped the lotuses into a bronze jar to absorb water and then sprayed it on their heads and bodies, believing it will bring them good luck.
On the way back downtown, we passed the Chiang Mai Zoo and Chiang Mai University, the first Thai university established outside of Bangkok.
Stopping off at the zoo, we boarded a shuttle bus to circumnavigate the vast expanse of animal habitats. Such peculiar experiences as being "harassed" by a naughty elephant, which suddenly stretched its long nose into the bus, not satisfied until bribed with a bundle of bananas, were major highlights of our trip.
Indeed, as elephants are the symbol of the nation, elephant rides are some of the biggest attractions in Chiang Mai, and we weren’t going to pass up the opportunity to take a jaunt of our own.
Picked up by a local agency’s minibus from our hotel on the morning of the second day, we headed to the Maesa elephant camp, home to one of the largest elephant assemblies in northern Thailand.
In a muggy yard, we saw dozens of elephants being raised in a loose wooden enclosure. For such colossal animals, it seems like it'd be a piece of cake for them to crash down the barrier and flee to freedom.
However, elephants raised in captivity usually show obedience to human beings – meaning that when they grow up, they haven't realized that they might be strong enough to rebel against their human masters.
In addition to the wonderful view of the tropical forest we were treated to, the elephant show, which includes dancing, acrobatic performances and creative drawing, is a must-see highlight in the Maesa camp. It was truly a bizarre sight to see a two-year-old elephant not only paint his own stunningly accurate self-portrait, but even sign his name – "Suda" – in the space below. This young genius then auctioned off his masterpiece, though he may be one of the few artists in the world who will accept bananas as payment.
If strolling in elephants' village is an easy-going tour, our experience in Tiger Kingdom, a private farm raising "good-tempered" tigers to amuse tourists, is more like watching a horror film – exciting but scary.
Located in a scenic garden, the farm is home to nearly 20 tigers of all ages. Terrified but too tempted to resist the opportunity, we decided to take the ultimate plunge – getting up close and personal with one of the beasts.
Passing through a narrow iron gate, we quietly and gently approached the three adult tigers we’d be greeting that afternoon.
Assured by our guide that they were "recently fed" and "totally harmless," we came up to pet and nuzzle against the biggest of the fearsome felines, our hearts nearly stopping entirely when its huge hairy tail swept against our faces – indeed, it was all I could do to stick to the guide's advice to remain calm and not leap back and start screaming.
Though I ended up surprising myself by just how much courage I exhibited, it goes without saying that those of the faint of heart had better sit out this part of the Chiang Mai journey!