Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Chiang Mai, Thailand.

'The rose of the north'

THEY are just like children playing in a water park at the height of summer.

Mums, dads, babies and the young-at-heart take the muddy water in their stride and wallow in its refreshing coolness on this 35C day.

They kneel down, roll over, splash themselves, each other and even some of the crowd who have gathered to watch this thrice-daily ritual.

Bonds between family members are obvious, with abundant tender caresses and playful exchanges.

Size does matter here, so their minders lend a hand, throwing buckets of water over backs and scrubbing skin to remove stubborn dirt.

Their slow, graceful movements, unguarded moments of bliss and natural exuberance in the water have us mesmerised.

We are peeping toms at bathtime and, despite their mammoth naked pleasure, the subjects of our attention don't mind our presence in the least.

The Thai elephant bathing at Chiang Mai's Maesa Elephant Camp is a sight to behold at 8am, 9.40am and 1.30pm daily, before the main show program.

This unscheduled stop on my Chiang Mai itinerary – although lasting less than 15 minutes – rated as a highlight of a recent seven-night media trip to Thailand.

The elephant camp also boasts the elephant artist show (where the animals paint abstract and realistic style, with their efforts displayed and for sale in Gallery Maesa), rides, the elephant football league and a basic mahout course for visitors among its attractions.

Aussie tourists will find that spending 48 hours in Chiang Mai offers a completely different experience and perspective on Thailand from, say, Bangkok or the southern beach provinces.

Thailand's second-largest city, built 700 years ago, still has evidence of the old walled town with its moats. But today, Chiang Mai is visited as much for its handicrafts as its history, architecture and scenery.

Our home for the next two days is the centrally located Centara Duangtawan Hotel.

After settling into our suites on a Saturday afternoon after the 55-minute Thai Airways flight from Bangkok, we journey up the winding road (reminiscent of the trip from Cairns to Kuranda, with rainforest on either side and glimpses of the city below) to Chiang Mai's most famous and sacred temple: Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

The “temple in the clouds” is 1073m (3520 feet) above sea level, 15km from town, and is reached by about 300 steps with magnificent balustrade (the less energetic can buy a ticket on the cable car from the main entry).

Built in 1383, the temple has a gold-plated Chedi, housing holy Buddha relics, in the middle of the square marble-tiled courtyard.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which incorporates a monks' school, is a photographer's paradise, with picture-perfect angles at every turn as well as majestic views of Chiang Mai city.

Things to do

DON'T forget to ring a bell for good luck and perhaps have your photo taken with your own personal Buddha (mine is Thursday – the day I was born).

On returning to Chiang Mai proper, an early dinner awaits in the Lord of the Rings-like Khaomao-Khaofang Restaurant in Ratchaphruek Road, Nongkwai, Hangdong.

Opening only four years ago, the restaurant is an elfin land of man-made waterfalls, with a lake, and walks through the leafy surrounds that turns into a twinkling fairyland after sunset.

Tasty food at good prices ensures the restaurant is well-patronised by families and social gatherings.

Back at the hotel, we are only steps from the popular Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, where tourists can buy virtually anything their hearts desire, including souvenirs, gifts, T-shirts, handcrafts, homewares, fashion, handbags, beads and necklaces, plus accessories.

Undercover stalls are joined by others running side by side for kilometres up main streets and down alleyways – operating under the stars and in the rain from about 4pm to midnight.

Breakfast is in the hotel's Tawan Restaurant on Level 2, but soon we are back up the misty, cloud-shrouded mountain, passing the Maesa waterfall and the ever-popular Chiang Mai Zoo, with pandas, including a baby, as its main attraction and a host of other animals in natural habitats.

After leaving our elephant friends, we arrive at the extensive and aesthetically pleasing Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden, where even those without a green thumb will find something beautiful, intriguing and unusual.

Covering an area of about 1000 hectares, the garden highlights include the glasshouse complex with man-made waterfall and rainforest in one section, bromeliads, rock garden, cacti and orchids in others.

Chiang Mai is known as “the rose of the north”, so naturally there's a rose garden in the grounds, but the delicate water plants are a personal favourite.

More amazing and varied flora is on offer at Bai Orchid Restaurant and Orchid Farm, where we sit down for an inexpensive buffet in the casual surrounds of its dining pavilion.

The eye-catching “jewels” burst with colour in the heat, and the farm also has a small butterfly enclosure.

The much-anticipated handicraft villages are on the afternoon agenda.

Over the course of the next few hours, we see the full process of handmaking paper umbrellas at Bor Sang Umbrella Village – from fibre preparation to construction and painting.

At Thai Silk Village, we are taken step-by-step through the creation of magnificent pure silk – from eggs to silkworms eating mulberry leaves, through the cocoon stage to weaving of the delicate thread and finally, production of fabric – before stocking up on silk products. At the silversmiths, we learn how a silver bowl is made, then buy jewellery for loved ones in the extensive gallery.

After such a busy day in Chiang Mai, a spa treatment at Rarin Jinda Wellness Spa Resort offers some well-deserved pampering in a cool green paradise for the mind, body and soul.

Our final night dinner at Huen Suntree is a casual affair, offering something for everyone: Northern Thailand delights on the menu, an Asian fusion décor, live folk music, cold drinks, and a two-storey TV screen showing World Cup and English Premier League highlights.

After another glory day in Thailand, I count myself as a member of the Chiang Mai Fan Club. I intend renewing my membership and visiting again sometime soon.

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