Be good to yourself in Chiang Mai
The hills around Chiang Mai have long been a major tea growing area, and visitors can sample the hot brew at the zen Cha Tea House. (Nutexzles/Getty)
Chiang Mai, once well-known on the backpacker trail for little more than elephant treks and bars, has had a change of heart. Organic cafes, eco clothing boutiques and wellness retreats are popping up all over Thailand's northern city, inspired by its long-held traditions of arts and crafts.
And as more travellers flock here in search of alternative breaks combined with authentic cultural experiences, you are increasingly likely to find yogis sipping detox tea instead of beer-drinking backpackers.
The best place to start your Chiang Mai day is at Pun Pun Santitham, a vegetarian cafe and organic store. The café, part of the larger Pun Pun Centre for Self-Reliance, was established in February 2012 to support local organic farmers and in turn, help give rise to sustainable food systems in northern Thailand.
Wander into the leafy courtyard, sit at one of the sprawling wooden tables and order the delicious kao tom samunprai, a traditional Thai rice soup breakfast. This version is pure organic goodness in a wholesome combination of brown rice, enoki and shitake mushrooms, sesame seeds, ginger and coriander.
Other favourites include the sweet potato roti, laden with homemade cream cheese and fresh sprout salad, or the porridge made with red rice, shredded rice grain, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts and sundried banana. They also serve a delicate purple-coloured butterfly pea flower tea with lime, which is light in flavour and full of antioxidants. On extra steamy days, opt for the iced tea, which infuses mint, cinnamon, ginger, passion fruit and honey.
Yogis (or wannabe yogis) should seek out the Yoga Tree, a new sanctuary within Chiang Mai’s old city walls. Here everything is on offer, from a gentle Hatha class to a roaring session of Laughter Yoga. A rewarding session is Yin Yoga, where stretching and strengthening postures are held for long periods of time to rebalance the body in a slow and restorative way. For those open to a little self-exploration, there are ever-changing dance classes and esoteric workshops run by local and international practitioners living in Chiang Mai. Dance Mandala, meditation through music and dance, is a good one to start with.
The beautifully zen Cha Tea House, which opened in 2012, is located a few shops down Soi 6 from Somphet Market off Moon Muang Road. This sweet little cafe is fitted out with naturally finished wooden furniture and offers 100% vegetarian Thai food made by a local woman named Mau. She keeps the menu to just a few dishes and it feels as though you are eating in her home. Recommended is the Massaman curry (made with pineapple, apple, potato and cardamom), followed by a desert of black sticky rice with mango.
To unleash some pent-up creativity, dedicate time to the Nova Art Lab. They run small group jewellery-making workshops from one to five days in length; be ready to go hands-on with design, cutting, filing, hammering, soldering and polishing under the steady guidance of talented local silversmiths. In five days a complete beginner can create a ring, pendant and learn how to set a stone.
With 36 active Buddhist temples within the walls of the old city alone, it would be shameful to leave without visiting one. Monk Chat runs a popular conversation exchange at the Wat Suan Dok temple between monks from Chiang Mai Buddhist University and anyone with a desire to learn more about their culture. It is not all talk — the program also offers a two-day meditation retreat at the temple to give curious visitors a taste of Vipassana, mindfulness meditation based on the observation of breath, the mind and the body.
Complete the wellbeing experience with a massage at Green Bamboo Massage, where the owner Methaphon Faekhom (known locally as Mae) creates her own massage oils from local ingredients, such as the versatile coconut. True to the shop’s motto of “Certified, Organic, Fair”, Mae set up her boutique in a traditional wooden house tucked down a little lane in the old city and uses fabrics, linen and ceramics produced by small businesses around Chiang Mai. Internal structures, like the changing rooms, are made from bamboo. At about 250 baht, you can reward yourself with one every day.