Sun, 14 Oct 2001

Diverse Chiang Mai has a bit for everything

Pandaya, The Jakarta Post, Chiang Mai

The Tourism Authority of Thailand and Thai Airways invited The Jakarta Post and Jakarta-based travel agents to have a brief view of major tourist attractions in the northern city of Chiang Mai.

The ancient city of Chiang Mai is the gateway to mountainous northern Thailand which charms world travelers with its natural beauty and exotic culture.

Founded 706 years ago, it is proud of being a historical city with a distinct beauty. Its cultural heritage is a unique blend of Burmese, Laotian, Indian and local Lanna styles.

Indonesian travelers liken Chiang Mai for Thailand as Yogyakarta is for Indonesia as far as culture and traits are concerned. People of both cities are proud of their own culture, special dishes, dialect, customs and architecture.

Chiang Mai's unique architecture is recognizable from its ancient temples which blend the styles of Burma, Laos and India.

In recent years, Chiang Mai has proved that it has a lot more than temples, dances, massage parlors and museums. Ecotourism, golf courses and handicraft have been aggressively advertised.

Decent discotheques, a wide choice of wining and dining and night bazaars light up the night in the cool city which is increasingly popular among cultural and eco-tourists.

Tickled by a jingo that reads, "If merely contemplating nature leaves you yawning, you may consider elephant treks through the jungle or river rafting," we started off a half-day trip to the northern green resort of Chiang Dao.

It really is a jungle out here.

The first thrill is when you cross the swaying suspended bridge over the slow flowing Mae Ping River. As son as you get across the river, the edge of the forest already gives a typically religious sight: places of offerings as you will see everywhere in Bali.

Rows and rows of makeshift kiosks are attended by women and children in their peculiar hill tribal costumes. The unexceptional smell of dung and the sound of insects fill the air. In sight are dozens of elephants and their mahouts pulling each others' leg in an open-air stable.

Welcome to Chiang Dao Elephant Training Camp.

This is one of a few places in the world where you can go on the trail of riding the giant beast for an hour in a convoy of two dozen elephants. On the animals' backs are smiling people of all nationalities.

In Chiang Dao, trained elephants spellbind the audience with a million tricks other than giving you an hour's slow ride on jungle paths and into the ditches.

After taking you around about four kilometers of muddy and smelly track, they will bathe in the river for every visitor to see and photograph. While bathing, they do tricks and tease their mahouts.

But the best attraction is the elephants demonstrating their forestry skills, working together with logs, dragging timber from the forest and heaping them in a perfect order.

When the show was over, we took an alternative route to exit. Going down the Mae Ping near the elephant training center and water rafting to Tha Rhua.

The 40-minute rafting down the river was quite an adventure.

The thrill starts right at the moment you step onto the bamboo raft when millions of small cockroaches and insects -- big and small -- hiding in bamboo slats swarmed onto the surface as soon as the raft lowered a bit from your weight.

They ran, crawl and flew all over the place as the raft gently moved in the shallow, quiet river. The pristine river runs through a forest which has been developed into an ecotourist destination.

In the first 15 minutes or so, our attention focused on the insects and we wondered if the water so close to our shoes would jump onto our pants on the curve.

The landscape along our 40-minute journey continued to shift from virgin forests to other elephant training centers --ones that look like makeshift hamlets with the bare-chested residents herding the mammoths.

On arriving at the highway and still fascinated by the natural beauty of Chiang Mai, you can go to the famous sacred Chiang Dao caves which are filled with Buddha images.

It was an enthralling trip.