Travel: Exciting sights, culture and food on a budget that tastes good, too
Thailand remains a long-standing favourite with UK travellers '“ for many good reasons.
Among them is exciting food, invigorating sights, fascinating culture – and pocket-friendly prices; important if travelling with kids.
Keen to sample a Thai tradition in charming Chiang Mai, this writer’s joints and muscles were pummeled and twisted in the name of posture, health and research during a massage.
An audible back crack concluded an hour-long session delivered by former female prison inmates taught skills as part of their rehabilitation.
At about £4, the treatment was made better knowing it somehow supported a project putting thousands of ladies back into work.
Thankfully, less impactful pursuits beckoned a short walk away through narrow, bustling streets: the pool at dusitD2 hotel (dusit.com/dusitd2/chiangmai).
Modern design and bright, earthy colours comprise a refreshing escape from often-frenetic urban activity at a hotel that doesn’t abandon its surroundings.
Its Café SOI (meaning street) restaurant delivers a sophisticated spin on Thai food favourites; guests can eat cheaper elsewhere, but really should sample this still relatively inexpensive menu.
Upstairs, modern comforts counter Thailand’s often-sticky summer, making dusitD2 an ideal central base to explore a city resplendent with temples and nightlife.
Enjoy the former via guided or self-curated tours; a QR code trail offers easy sightseeing, so long as you’ve phone data. Tuk-tuks remove the footwork for a modest price.
Arguably the most significant temple lies up a mountain road out of town, past the city zoo.
Private tours, taxis or public bus get you to the foot of hundreds of steeps beneath Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Panoramic views and the 600-year-old golden ‘chedi’ justify the climb.
Many central temples rival its architecture and tranquility, with fewer tourists. Among them, Wat Suan Dok, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Sri Suphan – stunning at night – and Wat Phra That Doi Kham, revered for its huge seated Buddha. Wat Chiang Man once served as home to city founder King Mengrai.
Chiang Mai is also the base for various day trips – bamboo raf –ing, hikes to waterfalls and aerial forests, such as Don Angkha, or overnight excursions, including elephant adventures of varying ethical demeanour. Research, recommendation and slightly higher prices get you to a sanctuary where the gentle giants are cared for and protected rather than exploited.
Chiang Mai itself promises much from simply walking where curiosity takes you; a fun-loving place with budget but quality eats and copious opportunities to shop.
Minutes from dusitD2, a substantial street market offers just about every souvenir and clothing trend.
Extensive covered markets mix antiques and handmade trinkets with imported goods, t-shirts, suits, ceramics, masks and glass art, flanked by myriad dining choices.
Many tourists head for the Lady Boy Show, for over-priced drinks and a cheeky, poorly produced ‘spectacle’ with occasionally redeeming dance routines.
Depending on entertainment appetites, baht can be better spent at nearby blues bars, where musicianship levels are high. Or Thai boxing; the atmosphere is palpable and for £11 we also witnessed competitors - men and women, different weight categories, nationalities - warm up ahead of bouts.
It’s a compelling, sticky, noisy thrill of an evening that, unlike the massage, leaves competitors nursing bruises rather that the tourists.
Reminded of our aches, that dusitD2 bed proved a welcome sanctuary in this ancient, eclectic, culturally rewarding destination.
- Thai Airways flies direct to Bangkok from Heathrow for £487 based on May 25 departure. Connect to Chiang Mai from Bangkok via a domestic airline for as little as £30.