Free Press Journal

The other Thailand: Visit to Chiang Mai could change your perception of the country

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Hill Tribe-Chiang Mai

From communing with the indigenous hill tribes to learning the nuances of Northern Thai cuisine and a whole lot more in-between, the picturesque city of Chiang Mai nestled in the verdant hills of Lanna, Northern Thailand has a lot to offer and will change your perception of Thailand forever, says Raul Dias. 

Raul Dias

Let me start with a very honest confession. I’m much more of a city person than one of those travellers who head to the hills to ‘find’ themselves and come back with halcyon tales of dew-covered leaves and other similar idyllic montages. Give me the cacophony of an urbs primus like Bangkok—blaring traffic din, et al — any day, vis-à-vis nature’s serene bounty and I will be your best friend.


In love with Lanna
But all that changed a few weeks ago when I signed up for a trip curated by the newly launched Airbnb Experiences, Chiang Mai to discover a part of Northern Thailand and all it had to offer. And boy, was I convinced about the unhurried way of life or what just after a few days there! From learning about tribal life to trying my hand at weaving to even cooking my own curry, this was one trip that literally ripped me from the cocoon of my city-cushioned comfort zone and plonked me slap bang in the lap of Mother Nature.

Weaving traditional hill tribe fabric with villagers

With its raw, untapped, natural beauty, Lanna, the Northern region of Thailand is the perfect foil to the brassy commercialism one usually encounters in the more ‘touristy’ South. And the sleepy, mist-shrouded city of Chiang Mai is the perfect introduction to this kind of unhurried travel. Try as hard as you may, but it is virtually impossible to believe that this cosy, artsy town is the second largest in Thailand after the capital, Bangkok.

Culturally rich and mind-numbingly beautiful, Chiang Mai and its surrounding hills are the places to head to for some much-needed down time. Learn the finer nuances of Thai cookery, meet the tribal people, or perhaps marvel at the handicrafts made here, you will find a lot to tempt you. Enough to give this region a shot on your next Thailand trip? You bet! Same, same…yet different!

Cookery class on classic Thai dishes

And speaking of food, with a more herbaceous take on the coconut milk-redolent Southern and Central Thai food, the Lanna cuisine is a unique and flavourful one. From typical street fare like the spicy and lemony Chiang Mai sausage and yum hed — a spicy mushroom salad — the markets of this town abound with unusual flavours. Other dishes to try here are the light Kiew Wan Kai chicken curry and the Northern Thailand version of the ubiquitous Som Tam Thai papaya and prawn salad, all served with sticky black rice that is a speciality of the region.

One of my very first Airbnb Experiences was that of learning to whip up local dishes at Air’s Thai Cooking Class. Here, Chef Chanrat Karatna — or Air as he prefers to be called—helped me discover the secrets of authentic Northern Thai cuisine with a four-hour cooking class in his beautiful open-air kitchen that’s surrounded by a herb garden. Designed in such a way that you get to select the dishes you wish to cook (and yes, eat later!), I chose the aforementioned spicy Khew Wan Kai that Air first demonstrated, post which I got to work. And the result? A very competent curry, I may as well add, bursting with the taste of sweet basil and kaffir lime leaves!

Indigenous wonders
For a glimpse of the elusive Hmong, Shan and Karen hill tribe people of this region, the weekend handicrafts market in the Chiang Mai town centre is the perfect place. Descending down to the valley from their hilly villages to sell their wares, these colourfully kitted out tribals are as distinct as they are fascinating to look at. With the Mon women sporting large metal-beaded headdresses and the Karen women the high coiled neck pieces, they will break all your preconceived notions (as they did mine) of the typical ‘Thai look’ as it were.
But, as I wanted a more in-depth experiences with the tribes, the mononymous ‘Pat’, my guide du jour picked me up from my accommodation for a long drive into the hills for another Airbnb Experience that I had been looking forward to. The heavily-tattooed, chain-smoking, rockstar-like Pat is a member of the Shan tribe and has lived and worked with ethnic minorities in Northern Thailand all his life. His passion, he told me, is the sustainable development of hill tribes, that includes channelling tourism in a way that benefits them, not harming them.

Learning about the Hmong and Karen hill tribes

And so, an hour or so outside Chiang Mai, we got off-road to visit a remote, authentic Karen village where villagers still live in traditional stilt bamboo houses. Once there we not only enjoyed a very traditional lunch of a light herb-redolent chicken curry with stir friend pumpkin leaves — all washed down with home distilled rice whisky — but we also got a wonderful insight into the Karen culture and their fascinating way of life. The enthusiastic villagers were only too happy to share with us everything from their rather complicated fabric weaving techniques and rattan basket making to planting the all-important rice crop and herb foraging.

Rice planting with the hill tribes

With a wealth of new-found knowledge of—and not to mention respect for—the rural way of life under my belt, I headed back to the hustle and bustle of the cityscape, not once complaining about the rather bumpy ride en route. Well, I did say I was a changed person, didn’t I?

Fact File

Getting there: There are daily connecting flights from India to Chiang Mai on airlines like, Thai Airways and Bangkok Airways via Bangkok. Travel within the Northern Thailand Lanna region is easy with many buses, mini vans and car hire companies offering their services.

When to visit: The months from October to February are the best time to travel to Northern Thailand, when the region experiences a pleasant to chilly climate with plenty of cultural and artistic events taking place in Chiang Mai.

Accommodation: Though Chiang Mai has an excellent selection of hotels to choose from to suit all budgets and tastes, why not get more up close and personal with the city and live like a local? Airbnb has an amazing portfolio of vacation homes that you can rent out. Visit www.airbnb.co.in for more information.

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer and restaurant reviewer. Follow Raul on Instagram @rauldias123