The tourist attractions in Chiang Mai, Thailand, are often touted as must-sees. If you know anyone who’s been to northern Thailand, you’ve probably heard tales of zip-lining, tiger-petting, and elephant-riding. In the city, ardent tuk-tuk drivers rumble through the busy streets, honking their horns in search of vacationers to whisk away to tourist destinations like Doi Suthep, Tiger Kingdom, or Walking Street. Many travelers come to Chiang Mai to see these things but leave without experiencing the charm and beauty tucked away in the village countryside.
Outside the city, the busy streets and crowded bars give way to miles and miles of green rice paddies that stretch earnestly into the horizon. The air clears and the sky opens, offering the most striking pink and orange sunsets. The world gets quieter, older.
This is the Chiang Mai that belongs to the locals. The homes here are simple—some of them constructed of nothing more than wooden planks and tin panels. There are gardens in the backyard and hammocks strung between trees. Villagers spend the evenings chatting and laughing in the street as chickens and dogs dart through their legs. From the bank of the canal, crickets chirp and frogs bellow. Wind chimes dangle from the eaves, clothes hang on the line, children play in the stream.
Here village markets are thronged with locals who have come to buy ingredients for the evening’s meal—rice, chicken, cashews, eggs. Here weather-beaten Christian cemeteries lie silently next to modest Buddhist temples. Here the leaves of mango trees sway in the warm breeze and water buffalo graze in the fields.
This is God’s country—the kind of landscape that reaches into the core of your being and awakens a new sense of self. In the countryside, the rainclouds are not a damper on your plans but a complement to the scenery. There are bicycles rather than motorcycles, butterflies rather than street rats. It is only in these places, away from the immutable thrum of the city, that you will experience the essence of Chiang Mai—the very foundation of Thai culture and community.
In the morning you will be awakened by the sunlight streaming through the window and the cry of exotic birds calling from the trees. You will shower with a bucket of water and a ladle; you will be fed chicken legs and sticky rice for breakfast. And when you step outside onto the porch, you will not hear the rumbling of engines or the shouting of street vendors but the laughter of children andthe hum of insects in the reeds. You will smell the sweet scent of eucalyptus and jasmine. You will see the sunrise reflected in pools of still water.
This Chiang Mai, the whimsical countryside of the locals, stands as a reminder that Thailand is not only a place of adventure and excitement but also a place of rejuvenation and introspection. Here, outside the city limits, the beautiful, quiet energy can be just as gratifying as the fast-paced city life if you just slow down to notice it.
Leaving the City
Tourists seldom visit the outskirts of the city, but the countryside of Chiang Mai is accessible to those who are willing to be a little adventurous. Local transportation is the fastest and easiest way to get there. From the city, ask a tuk-tuk driver to take you to the central market, known as Warorot or Gat Luang. Near the entrance of the market, blue, green, white, and yellow trucks converge at the truck station. Each color coincides with a province outside Chiang Mai. The yellow trucks, specifically, take passengers to Doi Saket―a small town about 45 minutes from the city. In Doi Saket, you can stay a few nights in a Thai-style bungalow and rent a bicycle to explore the winsome villages and rolling farmland.
Pam Headen, an American who is a longtime resident of Chiang Mai, says: “This has been my home for 37 years, and I still feel the sense of adventure. I love the people, the food, the weather, the garlic smell when we eat, the croaking frogs keeping me up at night, the language, the market place. I could go on and on. Thailand will always be a part of me.”