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
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.
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.