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TRAVEL: Thailand: the beauty beyond Bangkok

From: CountryClubuk Magazine.
Thailand: the beauty beyond Bangkok

The real beauty of Thailand and its people lies beyond Bangkok and the beach resorts. This tropical kingdom is a land of peaks and valleys in unbelievable hues of green, the waves of rice lapping at the foothills of forested mountains, and the silver rivers teeming down their slopes to refresh the valleys. There are four regions of Thailand, but it is the North, including the Himalayan Mountains and encircled by Burma and Laois, which has the most varied scenery and culture.

The North’s principal town, Chiang Mai, is the country’s cultural capital, reflected in thousands of beautiful temples and works of art.

Within its narrow streets can be found the lacquerware, silver jewellery, bronze images, wood carvings and ceramics for which Lanna—the old kingdom meaning Land of a Million Rice Fields—is famed.

Now named Rose of the North, Chiang Mai is the place to go to soak up the real Thailand, in the city itself as well as in colourful journeys into the nearby countryside. Here, the colours are mainly orange and green, the bright roofs of the Buddhist wats peeking through the green trees of villages set like islands in chartreuse seas of rice. Farmers still live in stilted houses, under which buffalo ruminate, and the Buddhist temple remains the spiritual centre of village life. In the hills are the mountain tribes, among them the famous Pawdawn, whose women encircle their necks with brass rings.

The northern teak forests built the palaces and the economy here.

Elephants and their mahouts were the power of the industry, the only element capable of penetrating the thick, steep-sided jungles to bring out the timber. This ended with a logging ban in 1989. Elephants are still trained at schools north of Chiang Mai, but now they demonstrate their skills to visitors, whom they carry on rides through the hills.

Each year, at the elephant round-up in the north-eastern town of Surin, ancient battles are re-enacted by opposing armies of dozens of elephants and hundreds of soldiers.

Chiang Mai is a 700-year-old city surrounded by a pretty moat, preserved gates and ramparts, and resplendent with beautiful and ancient temples and chedis. Three of its most famous temples, Wat Suan Dok, Wat Doi Suthep and Wat Sriket, are truly spectacular, rivalling any religious architecture in the world. Chiang Mai still houses the workshops of superb craftsmen—among the silversmiths and woodcarvers being their famous umbrella makers. Works of art to this day, these beautifully painted and lacquered pieces range from tiny, ornate sun parasols to vast garden umbrellas.

When the cool air of winter (December-February) brings the northern flowers to their brightest bloom, Chiang Mai blossoms. In celebration of Nature’s beauty, the annual flower festival exhibits the best of the town’s gardens. The highlight is a grand procession, with floral floats and beauty queens parading through the streets. Another parade happens on April 13, when the sun burns its brightest. The principal Buddha image is drawn through the streets, and what starts as participants sprinkling water on each other becomes a spirited drenching—even monks are not spared; you have been warned.

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