Travel Watch: What’s Up Chiang Mai,
Epicurean Adventure In Arty Chiang Mai

        CHIANG MAI, THAILAND’S Northern Rose, is in full bloom. Founded more than 700 years ago, the former capital of the loose confederation of city-states called Lanna Thai (One Million Thai Rice Fields) has always felt itself apart - in geography, culture and attitude – from the rest of the country. Artisans and traders from nearby China, Burma and Laos, who for centuries settled in the northern mountains and lush river valleys, have contributed to Chiang Mai’s rich artistic heritage. Today, as increasing numbers of disaffected capital for the relative serenity of the north, the country’s second-largest city is enjoying a mini renaissance.

        With a population of 180,000, Chiang Mai has its own traffic gridlock and air pollution problems. Many classic Lanna-style wooden houses have given way to ugly modern developments. Yet plenty of the ancient temples – 36 within the original city walls alone – and charming buildings still remain. And an influx of talented artists and designers has created exciting new shopping opportunities for visitors.

        No expedition would be complete without a visit to the sprawling Chiang Mai Night Bazaar on Changklan Road – if only to appreciate the better quality of products available elsewhere. While a few second-floor stores in the main building sell reliable antiques and reproductions, the endless rows of tiny stalls in the two-block area offer mainly mass-produced schlock and dreadful knock-offs. Still, if your time is short, nobody back home will know or care that what you bought them was definitely not one of a kind.

       But if you’re looking for a unique gift or eager to redecorate your home on a budget, there is no better city in Asia. To start, take one of the semi-enclosed red Chiang Mai taxis (fares range from $1 to $4 depending on your bargaining abilities) to Sop Moei Arts, 31-35 Charoenraj Road, (66-53) 260-844, a lovely two-storey teak house on the other side of the Ping River from the town center. International designers have teamed up with Karen hill tribe artisans from Sop Moei village to develop a line of beautifully crafted decorative items and soft furnishings. Everything looks modern yet retains its ethnic sensibilities. A pumpkin-seed basket is transformed into an ingenious wine bottle holder, a woven bamboo knife sheath becomes a napkin ring.


         Your next stop should be Living Space at 276-278 Tha Phae Road, (66-53) 206-423, opposite the Thai Farmers Bank. This gracious old house is filled with premium-quality locally made green celadon pottery, shinning Vietnamese Lacquer-ware in both pastel and primary colors, original fabrics and other quirky objects d’art. Close by at 234 Tha Phae is Lost Heavens, home of the unique Joy of Sax bamboo instruments (shape and reed are sax-like, the fingering is related to the recorder). A “G” or “F” instrument, complete with instruction sheet and hemp bag, costs roughly $100.

      Several interesting shops are clustered around Nimmanhaemin Road near the Amari Rincome Hotel. At 6/23-24 is Gerard Collection (www.cbex.co.th/thailand-bamboo), three floors of European-style modern bamboo furniture – not a nail in sight – including sturdy sofas, lamps, cabinets and environmentally responsible flooring materials made from pressed bamboo instead of the rapidly dwindling local hardwoods. Gerard also showcases work by other local designers, such as bowls and containers made from mango wood (a politically correct timber). A couple of doors down at 95/19 (don’t let the numbers confuse you) is Sipsong Panna Silver, an impressive collection of reliably vintage silverware, custom-made jewelry, opium weights and beads from Thailand and neighboring countries. And around the corner at 301/1 Soi 1 Nimmanhaemin is Gong Dee Gallery, home to affordable decorative items by young Thai designers.


        Need some revitalizing after your shopping spree? Chiang Mai restaurants cater to every palate and pocket-book. The city has become something of a vegetarian mecca since the World Vegetarian Congress held its annual meeting here in January – and gave the Novotel Hotel an award for best vegetarian food in town. Not to miss is Khun Churn, Soi 13 Nimmanhaemin, where a mere $1.25 buys a delicious and varied Thai buffet at lunchtime. When night falls, an interesting place to eat is the Come-In House, 79/3 Sirithorn Rd. (66-53) 212-516, which serves traditional Thai fare in an old teak home where you can eat outdoors or in the comfort of air conditioning, lounging upon cushions on the hardwood floor. With its blossoming reputation as a delight for the senses, Chiang Mai is well worth a visit. - By Jennifer Gampell



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