Thailand 1Thailand’s second largest city, Chiang Mai, offers the best of the Bangkok experiences – the markets, the malls, the fabulous food, the beautiful temples – with an added layer of charm and cultural heritage thanks to its 700- year Lanna history. KRISTIE KELLAHAN gives us the low down on the city that comes second to none.

Chiang Mai is famous for its excellent Thai massage, known as yoga for lazy people, for its restorative powers of stretching and circulation. While it’s true Chiang Mai is far from the nearest beach, it is surrounded by lush green mountains and rivers, making this a popular destination for hikers, cyclists and river-rafters.

Many tourists don’t make it to Chiang Mai on their first visit to Thailand. Seduced by the skyscrapers of Bangkok and the beach vibes of Phuket, they run out of precious holiday time before heading north to the second largest city in the Land of Smiles. It might take a second or even third visit to the Kingdom before they hop on the one hour flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai’s International Airport, but once they do, most return again and again.

In the past decade, Chiang Mai’s metamorphosis from a charming, traditional city where the people and pace were gentler than Bangkok, to a booming metropolis of luxe condominium-residences, funky malls and dynamic young entrepreneurs has changed the face of the city. The modernisation and growing popularity has brought with it more and improved shopping and dining options, increased international flights and a spirit of energised creativity. Whether sipping Melbourne-quality lattes at coffeeholics’ fave Ristr8to or enjoying the local noodle soup specialty, khao soy, this is a destination that is sure to excite the spirit and the tastebuds.

Historic charm still lines the banks of the Mae Ping River, where centuries-old buildings and temples remind us of what was once a major trade route. Here you’ll find the elegant beauty of Anantara Chiang Mai Resort & Spa; the hotel’s dining rooms and seductive bar areas are housed in a heritage building that was once home to the British Consulate. A new concept, The Service 1921 Restaurant & Bar, was recently launched and plays on the imagined history of top-secret dealings within the consulate’s walls. Mystery and intrigue sets the tone, with a spy peephole in the entrance door and a private dining room accessible by a secret book shelf door.

Increasingly, what sets Chiang Mai apart from other Thai cities is its thriving arts scene. In the Nimmanhaemin district, galleries of all sizes have opened to display the works of local artists. Expect to find handmade jewellery, ornate furniture, bold and beautiful paintings, breathtaking photography and delicate works on paper at galleries including Gallery Seescape and Gongdee.

Thailand 2Stylish locals and expats love the trendy cafes and boutiques lining the laneways of Nimman, as it’s known. At the end of 2015, Nimman finally got the gorgeous all-suite boutique hotel it deserves, when Akyra Manor Hotel opened its doors. An art-focussed property, the hotel features animal sculptures throughout its public spaces, sells artisanal wares in its curated gift selection and will happily arrange a guided tour of local galleries. The hotel’s own walls serve as exhibition space for Chiang Mai artists. For the ambitious or curious novice student of the arts, Akyra Manor’s team will organise private lessons in various styles of arts and crafts. Esteemed academics from nearby universities come to the hotel to share their knowledge in the finer aspects of woodcut printing, sculpture-making and painting with watercolours. A self-made souvenir is a delightful way to remember a holiday.

A 30-key all-suite luxury hotel, the Akyra Manor Hotel features a rooftop swimming pool and RISE bar, perfect for sunset drinks. The hotel’s signature restaurant, Italics, is gaining a fan following for its fusion cuisine and woodfired pizzas. All suites boast lavish bathrooms and a spectacular centerpiece – an al-fresco marble bathtub, complete with privacy screens.

The hotel is located in the very centre of Nimman, and just a couple of blocks from Maya Lifestyle Shopping Center, a trendy new mall. Lined with fashion boutiques and restaurants, Maya also features an open-air rooftop space where many of the city’s most popular bars have opened.

Down the road from Maya, a cluster of art galleries draws on the talent of students from nearby Chiang Mai University (CMU). At the unmissable Sunday Walking Street Market in the old city, CMU art students and craft hobbyists give Etsy a run for its money at a fraction of the price. Hundreds of stalls offer market delights including one-of-a-kind woodblock prints, Buddhist-influenced paintings, handmade lamps and delicately sewn slippers.

Local micro-entrepreneurs have embraced this market, which now sprawls across dozens of blocks, with Thai home cooks serving up family-recipe pad thai, papaya salad and fish cakes for the equivalent of a dollar. Thais love to eat, often and well; a fact that has remained true for centuries.

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