Take in a bird’s-eye view of Chiang Mai from a hot-air balloon. // © 2017 Balloon Adventure Thailand
Feature image (above): Chiang Mai offers both nature and culture. // © 2017 iStock
With a population of about 1 million compared to Bangkok’s 8-plus million, Chiang Mai is often seen as a peaceful alternative to Thailand’s dynamic capital city. But travelers would be remiss to discredit this lush northern province as merely another stop on a Thai holiday — its verdant hills are alive with a rich culture, an intriguing ancient history and enough attractions to warrant a return trip.
Tucking away as many helpings as possible of "khao soi," a Northern Thailand staple, should be at the top of every traveler’s to-do list in Chiang Mai. And at no-frills restaurant Huen Phen, they can do just that while in the company of northern Thailand locals. Here, I practically swan dived into my order of the Burmese-influenced dish: crunchy, wobbly egg noodles awash in a thick, spicy-sweet curry soup and dressed with chili paste, raw shallots, pickled greens and a generous squeeze of lime.
If patience wears thin while waiting to be seated at the eclectically decorated Huen Phen, just keep in mind that the shared plates at delightfully low prices (an order of fragrant khao soi falls shy of $2) will be worth the wait. Other must-order items: spicy young jackfruit; a grilled, pickled pork paired with a dipping sauce; and a fresh young coconut for tasty hydration.
Ten bumpy minutes on a tuk tuk takes guests from the heart of downtown Chiang Mai to the secluded five-star RatiLanna Riverside Spa Resort Chiang Mai, a 75-room oasis tucked onto the banks of the Mae Ping River. The boutique resort’s tranquil design harks back to the 13th-century Lanna kingdom and feels authentically Thai — abundant use of beautifully carved teak wood and other ornate decor presented in deep, rich colors — without compromising any modern comforts.
Available in four room categories, accommodations are airy and impressive: Not only do all guests score a private balcony with a daybed, but they’ll also have a spacious bathroom featuring a built-in LCD television, a large bathtub, a separate rain shower and a private, closed-in waterfall. If that isn’t enough to defeat any lingering jet lag, guests can grab a drink at the infinity pool’s swim-up bar, which overlooks the nearby river, and laze the day away.
Insider tip: With at least one day’s notice, RatiLanna can provide guests with offerings to give to the Buddhist monks who visit the property by boat for morning alms.
The beauty of Chiang Mai is obvious with one’s feet planted firmly on the ground, but gaining a bird’s-eye view only magnifies how remarkably green the region is. I rose well before sunrise to catch a ride on a hot-air balloon with Balloon Adventure Thailand, though not before grabbing fuel from a coffee, tea and breakfast pastry station near the launch area.
After a smooth takeoff, and once the hot-air balloon had climbed through several thick layers of early morning fog, we were at last greeted by the sun shyly peeking its head, illuminating the stunning scene. Otherwise, nothing but clouds, endless sky and distant mountain peaks were in view. But this spectacle up high didn’t stay peaceful for long. Curiously enough, a near-deafening din from Chiang Mai’s countryside below had reached us even at 2,000 feet. Locals chatted, casually shooting the breeze, and neighborhood dogs barked while trotting to and fro.
Not including the pilot, four or five people can clamber onboard for the surreal 60-minute experience. If possible, request longtime hot-air balloon pilot Andre for clients — he’s happy to regale passengers with tales about his star-studded past client list, which includes the likes of Tina Turner and Julie Andrews.