Thailand’s north is still largely unspoiled territory, with two key cities to explore – Chiang Rai close to the borders of Laos and Myanmar, and Chiang Mai, a 700-year-old ancient city rich in history and the more popular.
Chiang Mai, the “Rose of the North”, has been voted by readers of the popular travel guides as “the best destination in Thailand.” With ancient city walls, beautiful temples on every corner, Lanna culture dinner shows and art exhibitions, excellent food (traditional northern cuisine) and a laid-back lifestyle, it is hard to disagree.
The city has grown more cosmopolitan in recent years, yet some of the old world charm remains admidst top hotels and resorts. Still, the pace of life is different from bustling Bangkok.
For lesbian and gay visitors, Chiang Mai does have gay areas, attractions and heaps of accommodation – from 300 guesthouses to equal numbers of hotels and everything in between. There are several gay owned and gay welcoming restaurants and bars, including men only and women-only venues (these seem to come and go as everywhere, but a new Rainbow Bar for lesbians is on the horizon for mid 2013). The gay owned accommodation have mixed guests (straight-friendly) and many of the straight ones promote being LGBT welcoming. Take your pick.
The two main gay areas are outside the moat (that surrounds the walled old city). The Chang Pueak – Santitham area is north of the moat and home to two long-established businesses, Adam’s Apple Club and Lotus Hotel and Garden Bar. The Santitham strip has many hip and happening “Go Go” bars, restaurants and massage places. Check out the Santitham Guesthouse and its adjacent Sabbaidee Santitham Restaurant with organic produce meals – with or without that famous Northern Thailand spice.
Chiang Mai is also home to good shopping at the Night Bazaar, Day Markets and new shopping centres. Highly recommended is shopping for wares produced by talented artisans – from silk fashion to excellent wood and jewlery crafts. Ask you gay friendly tour guide to take you past the night venues and restaurants enroute to the handicraft highway so you can purchase unique items in the boutiques along the canal. It’s just 30 minutes south of the CBD.
Baan Tawai is the original and largest handicraft village in Thailand. The tourist buses generally go to other marketplaces with bigger parking lots, so you can find more genuine articles like gemstones and fine teak wood carvings and nicer souvenirs and less touristy trinkets at Baan Tawai.
When you return to the city, explore the tiny laneway bars and small restaurants which are friendly, low cost places to tipple after hard yakker shopping. The beer is very good, the wine so-so and expensive, the cocktails full of juice. Enjoy your time in Chiang Mai.
Not into shopping, eating or cultural experiences? Chiang Mai happens to be a great destination for trekking and adventure tours involving elephant rides, kayaking, rafting, rainforest canopy tours, birdwatching and a 2km long zipwire called Flight of the Gibbon. Now there’s an adventure for the fearless to match the steely nerves needed to visit a cobra farm in this land of serpents. No worries, you can also experience a tame tortoise village or total zen at your modern resort.