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With its many elaboratetemples and palaces,crowded streets, andexotic neighborhoods,Bangkok is a unique cosmopolitanworld visited and enjoyed by an ever-increasingamount of tourists—nearly8 million in the past year. But when theintrepid traveler needs a breath of freshair, they can take an easy yet rewardingtrip out of the city to a much differentside of Thailand.
About 400 miles north of Bangkoklies the ancient city of Chiang Mai,Thailand's "rose of the north," onetimeroyal capital, and present-daygateway to the many attractions ofnorthern Thailand. Modern ChiangMai is perfect for walking or cycling. Itis a relatively small old town about 2square miles, with numerous ancienttemples and teak houses, and ofcourse, a sprawling bazaar areabetween the city walls and the PingRiver, where contemporary Thais marketan endless cascade of merchandise.
Chiang Mai seems to be the regionalcenter for the full outdoor menu ofjungle trekking, bungee jumping, handgliding, and ballooning over the surroundingfoothills, paddies, andorchards. Excursions can be arrangedto visit the local hill tribe villages of theindigenous Hmong, Karen, or Kayahpeoples. You can even stay overnightin their primitive huts. Not surprisingly,Chiang Mai also serves as a departurepoint for excursions into themountainous "golden triangle" to thenorth, where Laos, Thailand, andCambodia border each other along theupper Mekong River.
One mandatory day trip beyondChiang Mai takes you north a dozenmiles in the National Park on SuthepMountain, to the unusually ornateBuddhist temple complex called WatPhra That Doi Suthep. If your armsand legs are covered and your shoesare off, you may ring the temple bellsor rub gold leaf on the statues ofBuddha that fill the courtyards, all forgood luck. A few miles up the roadpast the temple lies the royal family'swinter residence, Phuping Palace,sometimes open to visitors.
One day my wife and I drove 2 hoursnorth of Chiang Mai to the elephantpreserve on Chiang Dao Mountain. Forcenturies, elephants were the backboneof Thailand's logging industry, butwhen the government sharply curtailedlogging in 1989, thousands of elephantsand their keepers, or mahouts, foundthemselves out of work. For a warm-bloodedmachine that consumes hundredsof pounds of food each day,unemployment can be a problem. Onesolution was the establishment of semiofficialelephant preserves in the sameteak forests where logging originallytook place. The elephant show atChiang Dao features elephants bathingin the river, feeding on bananas andbamboo shoots, parading in formations,dragging and piling logs, liftingmahouts, throwing hats, taking bows—everything but elephants singing "OneNight in Bangkok."
Then we saddled up for a ride overthe river and through the jungle, ultimatelyto a small Hmong village wheremany of the mahouts lived with theirfamilies. Our mahout rode bareback,feet hooked behind his elephant's ears,while behind him my wife and I enjoyedall the comfort and stability of yourbasic carnival ride, sitting in a largewooden bucket strapped to a gentlegiant. At first you wonder how you canendure more than a few minutes rockingup and down the jungle trail, but intime you get used to the rhythm and theoccasional awkward lurch, and youactually come to enjoy the bully pulpitfor what it is—the best jungle transportationaround. Look at the blue vineblossoms way down on the ground,take in the teak trees stretching upwards80 feet, and watch out for the really,really big spider webs.
After the elephant ride, and a bit of astretch on terra firma, we enjoyed a typicalThai lunch of fruits and spicedsoup, after which we drifted down theTaeng River for an hour on a bambooraft, past fishermen, villagers, and, ofcourse, elephants. Our escort met us atthe riverside miles below the camp anddrove us back to Chiang Mai, this timeinside an SUV.