By Ted Sherman
Chiang Mai is a city in Northern Thailand sometimes overlooked by American tourists. While Bangkok and island resorts like Phuket get a lot of attention, travelers seeking a more authentic Thai experience should consider Chiang Mai. We visited as a family a few years ago and were all quite captivated by this exotic city. The lower cost of living and of doing business in Thailand means a luxury vacation here can be less expensive than one might think.
Our family has always been fascinated with elephants and the city is home to Thailand’s elephant training and breeding industry. The animals are still used for rural labor, in place of tractors, backhoes and similar machinery. The Thai Elephant Conservation Center is the best place to see elephants, we took a day trip there and it was one of the highlights of our visit. The TECC offers a two-day mahout course and we plan to do it when we return. A mahout is an elephant trainer and guests get a intense experience with elephants, learning how to care for them and train them. There is an overnight stay and the adventure is all-inclusive. The two-day course, with overnight accommodation and meals is only $195 per person. The city’s two main museums, the Chiang Mai City Museum and the Chiang Mai National Museum are also must-sees. Each offers a good overview of both the city and the region.
Proof that Chiang Mai is a luxury destination is the presence of a Shangri-La hotel. The five-star Shangri-La Chiang Mai is in the center of the city and provides a luxury experience, with a Thai influence. Our son is a regular Shangri-La guest, he recommends paying the extra money for a Horizon Club room, as they come with access to a lounge with free food and drinks, along with a 6 p.m. late check-out. A Horizon Club room is about $206 per night with their Exclusive Stay offer, which also includes airport transfers.
Shang Garden in the Shangri-La is one of the city’s best Cantonese-style Chinese restaurants and we enjoyed a full meal there. The chef is from Hong Kong and they do a great Peking duck and great dim sum. Local favorite Huen Phen (112 Rachamankha Road) is popular with travel writers, but it lives up to the hype. They serve real Northern Thai cuisine which is a lot different from the coconut soup and pad Thai served at American Thai restaurants. Street food here is excellent, just follow the crowds and try to stick with hot, freshly-cooked items.
American tourists do not need a visa to visit Thailand, only a valid passport (and a return plane ticket). For a very comfortable travel experience we’ve flown Cathay Pacific’s Premium Economy service, which goes through Hong Kong. The service saves a lot of time and aggravation, offering convenience for the added cost, including priority check-in and boarding, same meals as Business Class and nice wide seats with a lot more legroom. LAX to Chiang Mai fares are about $1,300 for Economy and $2,150 for Premium Economy (both roundtrip).
By Ted Sherman