Gulf of Thailand Paradise Preserved – Santhiya Koh Pha-Ngan

Gulf of Thailand Paradise Preserved – Santhiya Koh Pha-Ngan

Koh Pha-Ngan, or just Pha-Ngan in local parlance, is a heart-shaped dot in a remote corner of the Gulf of Thailand, and an island with a split personality. For several decades now, it has been popular among world-trekking backpackers who have been known to congregate by the tens of thousands on Haad Rin beach, the southern tip of the island, for its now (in)famous monthly Full Moon Party.

Pha-Ngan-easterm coastline.

The steep eastern coastline of the island of Koh Pha-Ngan is covered with forests rising from its rocky shore.

But topography has been kind to Pha-Ngan. Almost three-quarters of the 168 square kilometer (65 square mile) surface of this tropical paradise are covered with mountainous terrain that has safeguarded it from the invasion of mass tourism. Its mainly inaccessible interior remains covered with great swaths of pristine rain forest. Its small local population and most of the tourism activity have settled on the narrow strip of sand and coconut groves that outlines the southern and western sides of the island.


Phangan - Santhiya

The bay of Thong Nai Pan is home to Santhiya Resort and Spa.

The eastern side, however, is an entirely different world, an unspoiled coastline of steep hills covered with dense tropical forests rising from the rocky shore. And at its remote northern end, the secluded bay of Thong Nai Pan, rightfully reputed as one of Pha-Ngan’s loveliest beaches, is home to the idyllic Santhiya Resort and Spa.



Recreating the Mystique of Siam

It’s a pleasant thirty-minute ride in the resort’s private speedboat from Koh Samui, Pha-Ngnan’s larger and more established sister, to Thong Nai Pan. Santhiya emerges from the white sand of the bay, visible only as sharply peaked roofs randomly peering through the lush tropical foliage.


Antique panels of intricately carved wood provide a backdrop for the reception desk.

The natural and cultural preservation ethos of Santhiya is instantly apparent, in myriad details that evoke the timeless elegance of its Thai heritage and harmoniously blend it with twenty-first century concerns for environmental sustainability and comfort expectations. The property is conceived to take full advantage its glorious ocean views while respecting the topography of the land and its existing mature vegetation. Its architecture, inspired by the soaring nineteenth century teakwood structures of the King Rama V period gives a timeless grace to the decade-old property.

Santhiya-Garden gate;

The privacy fence of my villa’s entrance patio is constructed from repurposed planking.

From the grand pavilions of the common areas with their elaborate filigree carvings to the guest quarters and the gardens, much is constructed from recycled wood.

In the gardens especially, the original function of the landscaping timber is still discernable. Former barn beams have become garden path railings, with orchids blooming from cracks in the wood. Gates are held by water buffalo yokes, and planking that was once the hull of longtail boats now fences the secluded patios of guest villas.

Santhiya - Villa 313 plunge pool.

My villa opens onto a  plunge pool with its own waterfall,

My own accommodation, a 110 square meter (1200 square foot) Ocean View Pool Villa (Number 313) is designed for optimal indoor-outdoor living and superb privacy. The glass-fronted teak pavilion has a soaring peaked roof that dwarfs the king-size four-poster bed. It opens onto a tree-shaded deck and a 7.5-meter (25-foot) long whirlpool plunge pool with its own rocky waterfall, a separate oversized bathtub and a sweeping view of the bay. At the rear of the bedroom, a walled-in courtyard houses a bathroom with the latest in water-saving fixtures and an open air shower. It is the ultimate tropical haven to return to after enjoying the varied attractions the resort has to offer.

Keeping Traditional Lifestyle Arts Alive

Santhiya - Chantara

At the Chantara restaurant, the classic Thai cuisine is at sumptuous as the decor.

At Santhiya, there is a concerted effort to preserve, and give guests every opportunity to appreciate, traditional lifestyle arts. The world-renowned Thai cuisine is not only showcased on the restaurant’s menu, but also transmitted to interested guests in cooking classes offered by master chef God Keawpeth. I thoroughly enjoy my private lesson with him as he demystifies some of my favorite dishes, including Tom Yam Goong (spicy prawn soup) and Phad Thai.


Santhiyana- Thai dances.

On Thai Evening, staff members perform traditional dances from the various parts of the country.

On the weekly “Thai evening” at the main restaurant, Chantara, a wide selection of classic Thai dishes is served buffet-style for an opportunity to sample lesser-known specialties. The evening also features a performance by Santhiya’s own dance group. Staff members, who come from various provinces around the country, are encouraged to transmit their regional dances to each other and to young girls from the local school, and to perform for the guests.


Santhiya - Ayurvana.

Ayurvana Spa’s enjoys a panoramic view of the bay.

Then there is the Ayurvana Spa, an intimate retreat of private treatment rooms and covered terraces overlooking the bay. Their ninety-minute signature massage combining hot oils with the best of traditional Thai and international methods is one of the finest I have enjoyed anywhere. But equally memorable is my return visit for an lengthy cooling massage with freshly extracted aloe gel, which greatly relieves my discomfort when I return from a morning of snorkeling to discover that yes, you can sunburn while floating below the surface of the water.

With its idyllic location on one of the most pristine islands of the Gulf of Thailand, strong commitment to the conservation of its natural and cultural heritage, and outstanding Thai hospitality, Santhiya excels in putting in a contemporary context the mystique of the exotic Kingdom of Siam.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – There are near-hourly flight connections from Bangkok to the nearby island of Koh Samui (a one-hour flight), as well as a couple of daily flight from Chiang Mai (a two-hour flight) and Phuket (one hour). The main carrier serving the island is Bangkok Air, although Thai Air also has twice-daily service. From the airport, the easiest option is to have Santhiya arrange a shuttle for you to the Petcharat Pier, where you catch the resort’s speedboat.
  • Getting in touch – Santhiya Resort and Spa, 22/7 Moo 5 Bantain, Koh Pha-Ngan, Surat Thani, 84280, Thailand. Contact: e-mail Tel. +66 77 428 999, mobile +66 81 968 2026.
  • The property includes 59 private villas and 40 rooms nestled among seven hectares (18 acres) of lush tropical grounds cascading down a to private bay. It can accommodate up to 202 guests and employs a staff of 200.
  • Beach – The pristine private white sand beach is lined with cushioned lounge chairs beneath white canvas umbrellas. Cheerful attendants are always on hand to offer fresh towels and bottled of chilled water. Complimentary equipment is available for guests interested in snorkeling, sea kayaking or sailing around the bay.
  • Pool – The stunning 1,200 square meter (13,000 square foot) bi-level free-form swimming pool with its own 30 foot (10 meter) manmade rock waterfall stands at the edge of the beach. A second lagoon-like infinity pool is built high on the hillside. This pool, which features handcrafted floating beds reminiscent of traditional Thai boats and an endless sea view, is reserved for the exclusive use of the guests in the adjacent Supreme Deluxe building.
  • Restaurants – Chantara, the property’s main restaurant has a refined menu that combines a variety of classical Thai dishes and continental offerings for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and an extensive international wine list. At the edge of the beach, the casual By the Sea iproposes a lighter fare of grilled fish, meat and vegetable, and exquisite fresh juices and smoothies.

Location, location, location!

Santhiiya Resort and Spa

Chiang Mai at its Lanna Thai Best – Tamarind Village

Chiang Mai at its Lanna Thai Best – Tamarind Village

I can think of no better place than Tamarind Village to channel Chiang Mai’s glorious Lanna Thai past. Located a mere five-minute walk from the iconic Wat Chedi Luang, the charming boutique hotel is a haven of timeless grace in the very heart of the Old City. And it is a prime example of the positive impact of responsible tourism in the preservation of local cultural heritage.

Chiang-Mai-Tamarind Village courtyard.

An ancient tamarind tree dominates the main courtyard of Tamarind Village.

In 2002, award-winning architect Ong-ard Satrabhandhu used a rare 4,000-square-meter (one-acre) vacant lot just off Rajdamnoen Road, one of the most vibrant historic arteries within the medieval moat, to construct the first Lanna-style hotel in Chiang Mai. Here, he revived the use of centuries-old design, building techniques and materials to translate distinctive Northern Thai architectural elements into an inviting contemporary version of a traditional village. Today, Tamarind Village is credited with playing a key role in the current revival of the popularity of traditional architecture throughout the area. Ong-ard’s contribution was recognized in 2007, when Tamarind Village was awarded a commendation in the prestigious UNESCO Asia-Pacific awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation.

A Village Around a Tree

Chiang Mai-Lanna Thai contemporary.

The revival of centuries-old architectural elements creates the contemporary version of a traditional Lanna Thai village.

From Rajdamnoen Road, a path shaded by an arch of soaring bamboo leads to the discrete gate of Tamarind Village. Named after the towering 200-year-old tamarind tree that dominates the property, the complex of public areas and guest quarters is laid-out around intimate courtyards filled with flowering trees. With its typical whitewashed plaster walls, dark timber beams and peaked roofs of thin clay tiles, it is a reflection of the simple elegance of the local Lanna Thai culture, in harmony with the ancient temples and historic sites that surround it.

Chiang Mai-Tamarind Village pool.

The common areas open onto an ornamental swimming pool.

The common areas are dominated by a swimming pool tiled in royal blue ceramic for an ornamental garden feel. Its length is outlined by a covered walkway leading to a vast reception and lounge area. Under a peaked tiled roof held by high masonry pillars, the entire room opens onto the pool on one side and the main Village courtyard with its ancient tamarind tree on the other. The lounge is decorated with distinctive crafts from the nearby hill-tribes, and from the tall paintings behind the reception desk to antique side-tables holding oversized ceramic bowls filled with sumptuous arrangements of orchids, every detail pays homage to the Lanna Kingdom artistic legacy.

Contemporary Lanna Thai Flair

Chiang Mai-Tamarind Village Lanna Deluxe.

My Lanna Deluxe Room combines Lanna Thai architectural elements and decorative touches with contemporary comforts.

My second-floor Lanna Deluxe room (Number 1201) lives up the promise of its name, with its whitewashed rough-plastered walls, high cathedral ceilings and dark grey polished concrete floors. The comfortable dark wood and rattan furniture creates an effective backdrop for the striking display of lacquered boxes and intricately embroidered tribal children hats. Behind a partition of floor-to-ceiling closets, the bathroom successfully preserves the feel of rustic simplicity while delivering all the contemporary trappings of a luxury property. It is partitioned into three distinct areas, a water closet, a roomy shower, and in the center, a vanity made from a deep copper washbasin of the type used by rural populations, resting on an antique table against a backsplash of jewel-colored ceramic tiles.

Timeless Romantic Retreat

Chiang Mai-Tamarind Courtyard Dusk.

At dusk, the golden chedi of a nearby temple shines over the Village wall.

But the ultimate charm of Tamarind Village rests in its tranquil atmosphere throughout. It’s on the roofed balcony of my room, where I settle into the deep cushions of a loveseat built into the railing to gaze through the branches of the ancient tamarind tree as the last rays of sunshine brush the golden chedi (pagoda) of the seven-centuries old Wat Umong right over the Village wall. It’s all along the garden paths lit at dusk with dancing oil lanterns, and the swimming pool where their reflection shimmers in the water. And it flows in on the gentle evening breeze, carrying with it the sounds of temple bells and the spirit of a culture reaching back a millennium.

It is even in the restaurant, Ruen Tamarind, on the far side of the pool, with its series of French doors opened onto a waterside terrace for candle-lit indoor or outdoors dining. The serene attentive presence of the staff as well as the menu contributes its own homage to the Lanna past.

Northern Thai Delights

Chiang Mai-Ruen Tamarind

Ruen Tamarind poolside dinning.

At Ruen Tamarind, an extensive selection of Northern Thai dishes from original family recipes handed down through generations complements the classic Thai and international offerings. To make the most of this culinary opportunity, I order all my meal from the Northern Thai menu, including breakfast when is forgo the standard buffet offering in favor of traditional Thai soup, a delicate broth filled with nuggets bursting with flavor. I discover superb dinner dishes as well. My favorites are deep-fried bamboo shoot stuffed with ground pork, served with a hot but sweet peanut sauce and fresh-water fish filets marinated in curry, then served in banana leaves en papillote over jasmine rice.

The Village Spa

Chiang Mai-Village Spa

The reception lounge of the Village Spa.

The Village Spa is a serene sanctuary located on the second floor of the most secluded courtyard at the far end Tamarind Village. Its public space embraces the Lanna Thai architectural concept of open galleries under a tiled roof. Loveseats are built into the gallery’s railing to face the doors of the six treatment rooms. This is where I am invited to enjoy a complimentary traditional footbath and foot massage before entering my treatment room.

Chiang Mai -Village Spa Treatment.

A treatment room at the Village Spa.

In consultation with the spa supervisor I select the treatment that best suits me, and from an assortment of essential oils, the scent I prefer for my massage. The spa uses only herbal products drawn from the Lanna Thai heritage of natural healing. To restore my travel-weary body, I chose the 90-minute Village Signature Massage, a heavenly combination of deep tissue massage and applications of heated herbal pouches that soothes and relaxes every fiber of my body and leaves my spirit in a state of zoned-out bliss. I do wish I could package the experience and bring it home with me.

Exploring the Old City

Chiang Mai-Wat Duang Dee offering.

Traditional daily food offering to the monks of Wat Duang Dee.

The Tamarind Village concierge is also its resident expert on Lanna history and northern ethnic crafts. She leads me on a fascinating morning walk in the neighborhoods of the Old City. Our first stop is Wat Duang Dee, a small temple where we deliver the hotel’s traditional daily offering of food to the monks and receive their blessings. Then we walk on to some of the nearby historic sites. This complimentary tour is available daily to hotel guests by previous arrangements.


Good to Know

  • Tamarind Village is at 50/1 Rajdamnoen Road Sriphoon, Muang, Chiang Mai, 50200 Thailand. Contact: e-mail Tel. + 66 53 418896-9.
  • The 45-room property includes three suites. It consists of two-level structures set around three courtyards. It can accommodate up to 90 guests and employs a staff of 60.
  • There are no elevators on the property. Consequently the upper-level rooms do not allow for mobility-impaired guest access.
  • If your itinerary includes a weekend-stay, the famous Sunday Night market is ideally located just a few steps away from the bamboo archway entrance of Tamarind Village.
  • The hotel is a 15-minute taxi ride from Chiang Mai Airport.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Tamarind Village

Thailand’s Lanna Heritage Shines Through in Contemporary Chiang Mai

Thailand’s Lanna Heritage Shines Through in Contemporary Chiang Mai

Founded in the thirteenth century as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, a powerful state centered in present-day northern Thailand, Chiang Mai still retains within the perimeter of its fortified moat the rich heritage of its glorious past as a cultural and religious center. However, its geographic and business center has moved eastward in more recent times, from the Old City to the area between the moat and the Ping River, where it is dominated by the famous Vieng Ping Night Bazaar.

A Nightly Tradition

Chiang Mai-Night Bazaar.

The Night Bazaar is a time-honored destination for tourists.

A vast three-story shopping arcade under a temple-style roof filled with stalls bursting with crafts, clothing and antiques (real and fake), the Vieng Ping Night Bazaar tradition traces back to the Chinese trading caravans that traveled the ancient route from Yunnan to the sea ports of Burma. In front of the arcade, both sides of Chang Khlan Road are a gauntlet of street vendors hawking souvenirs and mass-produced articles of all kinds. Open from dusk until around midnight, the bazaar is not merely a place to shop but also one of the most popular tourist attractions in Chiang Mai.

Across the street, the less hectic Kalare Center is host to a more varied array of shops that range from artist studios, jewelers, upscale clothing and home décor outlets to tour operators. It also includes a vast food hall and entertainment area where traditional Thai dancers and musicians perform at random intervals throughout the evening.

Coupon Dining

Chiang Mai-Kalare Food Hall.

The Kalare food hall offers a broad range of dining options.

The Kalare food hall is unusual in that it operates on a “coupon system.” The outside perimeter of the hall is lined with small stalls offering a broad range of choices. There are varied Thai specialties, but also but also Chinese, Indian, Japanese, seafood, vegetarian, etc.. Vendors have their dishes on display, usually about six to eight options, with the price prominently indicated, i.e. 20 TBH, 40 TBH, 60 TBH, etc. (yes, that’s fifty cents to one-fifty dollar U.S.!). You browse the offerings and purchase a handful of small denomination coupons from a central booth. Then you point at your selections, hand over the appropriate coupons, and your meal is cooked on demand by the time you’ve found yourself a place to sit at one of the many tables in the center of the hall.

Warorot Market

In Chiang Mai, you don’t have to wait till dusk for a dizzying market experience. Just a few minutes’ walk from the Night Bazaar, the Warorot Market is where locals do their shopping. In Northern Thai (or Lanna) language, it’s called Kat Luang (big market). Warorot actually refers to the entire district, which also happens to be the city’s Chinatown.

Chiang Mai - Worarat Market.

The Warorot Market is a favorite shopping destination for locals as well as tourists.

The side streets are a pandemonium of shops, stalls and street vendors selling everything you can imagine, or not (fried insects anyone?). And in the middle of it all stands the covered market itself. It’s actually two city-block-size, three-story buildings, the Warorot and the Lam Yia markets, linked by a footbridge. Their offerings are similar, all manner of foodstuffs on the ground floor, with plenty of noodles and rice stalls thrown in. Then everything from household goods, clothing and beauty supplies to handicrafts, electronic gadgets, herbal medicines and fireworks are on the upper two floor mezzanines.

The covered markets are open from around 6:00 am to 7:00 pm, but in the surrounding streets the action keeps going well into the evening. And, by the way, the prices are some of the best in the city.

Textile Treasures

The Hmong are one of the most populous “hill-tribe” groups across Southeast Asia, and a number of them are settled in the mountains above Chiang Mai. They are famous for their vibrant costumes, the quality of their textiles and beautiful handmade clothes.

Chiang Mai-Hmong Lane.

The Hmong people are famous for their vibrant clothing.

Just off the southwestern corner of the Warorot Market, the narrow “Hmong Lane” is the ultimate textile extravaganza. Mountains of elaborately pleated skirts, brilliantly embroidered tops, bags and accessories compete for space with bolts of colorful batiks, quilts of all sizes made from repurposed ancient fabric panels  and bins overflowing with antique notions. The sky, or your airline’s luggage allowance, is the limit here.

Wat Saen Fang

Chiang Mai-Wat Saen Fang Chedi.

With its rainbow of mirrored tiles, the chedi of Wat Saen Fang shows a strong Burmese influence.

After an overwhelming couple of hours in Warorot, you may long for the serenity of a Buddhist temple (of wat). At a busy corner of Tapae Road, Wat Saen Fang announces itself by a tall bright red iron gate sandwiched between two grubby storefronts. Through its elaborate latticework, two imposing Nagas (dragon-like serpents) show the way. Follow their undulating bodies to the end the alleyway and you find yourself in the flamboyant compound of Wat Saen Fang. The Burmese influence dominates here, especially in the spectacular whitewashed chedi (pagoda) with its rainbow of mirrored tiles. With its rambling buildings guarded by more Nagas and other spirits, it is not only a peaceful retreat but also a timeless photographers’ haven right in the heart of contemporary Chiang Mai.

Taking to the hills

Chiang Mai-Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

Doi Suthep is one of the most sacred temples in Thailand.

A visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (of Doi Suthep for short) is the ultimate must of a trip to Chiang Mai. Built in the late fourteenth century on a promontory some 1,000 meters (3,200 feet) high, 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from the city center, it offers scenic views of Chiang Mai and the Ping Valley. With its golden central chedi said to enshrine a relic of the historical Buddha, the wat is a flamboyant example of Lanna architecture and considered one of the most sacred temples in Thailand.

Young Hmong girls walk up the great Naga stairs at Doi Suthep.

It is reached by a 306-step staircase guarded by a pair of imposing stone Nagas (or a funicular ride to the top for 20 TBH). A walk through the  buildings of the compound reveals a number well preserved murals that depict everyday life in the Lanna Kingdom.




Good to Know

  • Getting There – Chiang Mai is easily accessible from Bangkok via multiple airlines with flights scheduled throughout the day. The flight takes about 70 minutes.
  • Getting Around – Like the Old City, the downtown area is fairly compact and easily walkable. But if you don’t feel like walking or are loaded down with your purchases from the markets, rickshaws are for you. These traditional man-powered tricycles are everywhere and quite inexpensive. Short hops are between 10 and 20 TBH, or you can hire one to show you the sights around town, (100 to 150 TBH for a half day). If you prefer motorized transportation, three-wheel open-sided tuk-tuks are lined up near all the tourist areas. The cost varies with your destination and bargaining talent and can be anything within the 50 to 150 THB range. Lastly, the ubiquitous songthaews (two rows), canopied red pickup trucks with twin bench seating are Chiang Mai answer to a bus service. The price is 20 THB within the Old Town and downtown area. Then it increases the farther you go.
  • Getting to Doi Suthep – My preferred option to reach the famed wat on the hilltop is to hire a taxi for half a day to go to the site. Negotiate the price before the trip. It should be between 500 and 600 TBH. It will wait for you while you visit, and you do not pay until the end of the trip. Guidebooks give a number of public transport options that usually involve taking a songthaew bus to either Chiang Mail University or the zoo, then another one to Doi Suthep. These budget solutions may save up to 200 TBH (or five dollars U.S.), but considerably increase the complexity of the operation and the waiting time.
  • Where to stay – With tourism now a major economic growth factor for Chiang Mail, a vast array of lodging options have developed throughout the city, from traditional guesthouses to slick new hotels. My personal favorite in the downtown area ist he dusitD2 Chiang Mai, or simply D2as it is affectionately called by the hip local community and visitors alike. Located right across the street from the Night Bazaar, this ultra-modern property combines the highest standards of traditional hospitality with avant-garde East Asian décor to create a chic urban retreat in the midst of the city’s bustling downtown. The restaurant, Moxie, is nationally acclaimed for its eclectic fusion of western and Asian cuisines. dusit D2 Chiang Mai,100 Chang Klan Road, Amphur Muang, Chiang Mai, 50100, Thailand. Contact: e-mail e-mail, Tel: +66 (0) 5399 9999
  • Where to Eat – Moxie, of course, and the Kalare food court, and everywhere! Thailand is famous for it cuisine bursting with flavors and spices, but Chiang Mai is a foodies’ Nirvana. From street food, noodle and rice stands to the new extravagant fusion dishes from a new generation of chefs who add intriguing touches from the world over to traditional cooking, it’s easy to eat your way around Chiang Mai.
  • Visiting – Most wats are open from early morning to late afternoon. Whenever you pass a one that looks interesting, just take off your shoes, step over the threshold (not on it) and you are welcome to walk in. You may find that monks and novices are often glad to speak with foreigners. Make sure to dress appropriately (no tank tops or shorts). And don’t forget to leave a few coins in one of the offering bowls lined near the entrance.
  • Bargaining – You are expected to bargain for your purchases. Good-humored bargaining is practically a national sport in Thailand. Even though the prices may appear quite reasonable by your normal standards, you should always bargain and try to get at least another 20 to 25 percent off the asking price. It’s part of the fun.
  • What to avoid –There is a Hmong village located a short drive from Doi Suthep. Most packaged excursions and chartered cab drivers will offer to include it in your visit to the wat. While the scenery is lovely and worth the detour if time allows, it is now little more than a staged commercial attraction site with a nominal entrance fee. You may notice credit card logos in the stalls of the sprawling textile market at the entrance of the village (variety, quality and prices tend not to measure up to those of the downtown market). For an additional fee, you can visit the small museum perched in a “typical” garden where you can take selfies in full Hmong regalia in front of an opium poppy patch. The Kayan, or “Long Neck Karen” Village is arguably northern Thailand’s most contentious “tourist attraction.” The opportunity to visit the famed “giraffe women” presented me with a dilemma. After researching the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and other reputable displaced persons organization files, I concluded that the village was irreconcilable with any principles of responsible tourism and I did not visit. In a nutshell, the Kayans are one of the minority tribes from Burma (now known as Myanmar) displaced by the brutal conflict between the country’s ruling military junta and its ethnic minorities from 1962 until 2011. Because of their tourism value, ring-wearing “long neck” women and their families were granted “conflict refugee” status by Thailand. Today, approximately 500 Kayans live in guarded villages near the northern Thai border. The villages are managed by local businessmen and said to be sustained by the revenue brought by tourism. A second major area of controversy are the rings themselves. Traditionally, only girls born at certain auspicious times were required to wear the rings. Today, the tourist trade is encouraging all the girls to wear them, a practice that must start at the age of 5 or 6, and will severely limit their option to ever leave their current living conditions. For more information about plight of the long-neck women, see Epicure and Culture-Thailand Long Neck Women.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Chiang Mai Warorot Market

Thailand’s Lanna Past Comes Alive in Chiang Mai – The City within the Moat

Thailand’s Lanna Past Comes Alive in Chiang Mai – The City within the Moat

Landing on a sunny fall afternoon in Chiang Mai is a breath of fresh air after the overwhelming sensory overload of Bangkok. Spread across a valley framed by steep, verdant hills, Thailand’s third largest city is a mosaic of contemporary buildings and the elaborately gabled roofs of its some 300 Buddhist temples (or wats). At the heart of this panoramic vista, a 2000-meter (1.25-mile) square medieval moat surrounds what was once the capital of an ancient state that spread from eastern Burma (also known as Myanmar) to the western valleys of Laos, the Lanna Kingdom.

Thailaind - Chiang Mai fortifications

Si Phum Corner is one of the recently restored bastions in the Old City fortifications.

Founded in 1296 A.D., Chiang Mai (new town in Thai) quickly became an important cultural and religious center. It also prospered as the main trading hub between southern china and the seaports of Burma. Until successive military invasions by its neighbors set off its decline and ultimately caused its rulers to abandon the city in the eighteenth century. Far away and hard to reach from Bangkok 430 miles (700 kilometers) to the south, Chiang Mai became an overlooked provincial town in the foothills of the Himalayas. This helped preserve its cultural legacy and laidback charm until it was re-discovered by late-twentieth century tourists. Today, it is considered the cultural capital of Thailand.

A Major Center of Buddhism

Little remains of the walls that once rose behind the moat, other than the four entrance gates and corner bastions that were extensively restored a few decades ago. But within the ancient perimeter, the medieval heydays of the Lanna Kingdom endure, with over thirty wats and their adjoining monasteries, a reminder that Chiang was and remains an important center of Buddhism.

Chiang Mai - Wat Chiang Man.

The golden chedi of Wat Chiang Man is supported by 15 life-size elephant carvings.

Wander around the maze of narrow side streets of the Old City, lined with homes and every manner of small businesses. Between browsing for local crafts and sampling the offerings of the ubiquitous food stalls, you are sure to come across some of the most ancient and revered wats in the city. The most visited are Wat Chiang Man, the oldest in Chiang Mai, constructed in the early fourteenth century during the reign of King Mengrai, who lived in the temple while overseeing the construction of his capital, and Wat Phra Singh.

Heavily damaged in 1545, the monumental ruin of Chedi Luang remains the most iconic image of the Old City.

Built in the latter part of the fourteenth century, Wat Prah Singh houses Phra Chao Thong Tip, the most venerated Buddha statue in northern Thailand, made of an alloy of gold and copper, cast in 1477. Equally prestigious is the nearby Chedi Luang (royal chedi, or pagoda), once part of the official temple of the Lanna kings. Built as a reliquary to house royal ashes, Chedi Luang grew to be 144 feet wide and 282 feet tall before being heavily damaged by an earthquake or invaders (or both, depending on who you ask) in the mid-sixteen century. Its imposing ruin remains an iconic structure in Chiang Mai.

The front gable of Wat Pan Tao is an intricate  metal and glass plates mosaic evoking the zodiac sign of its original occupant.

My personal favorite, however, is the nearby mid-nineteenth century Wat Pan Tao, for its stark viham (main assembly hall) made of ancient teak. It was originally constructed and briefly used as a royal residence for the then local ruler, Chao Mahawong before being refurbished as a monastery in 1876. But traces of its previous purpose remained, especially the unusual front gable of the temple, decorated with the image of a peacock over a sleeping dog (the zodiac symbol of the king’s birth year).

Secular Arts and Culture

Chiang Mai - Three Kings Monument.

The monument of the Three Kings is a popular meeting point in the center of the Old City.

When you need a break from all this temple hopping, the Chiang Mai City Art and Cultural Center, located in the old town hall, features permanent exhibits that touch on all aspects of Chiang Mai’s history, people and culture. And right in front of the building you can’t miss the large bronze statue of the Three Kings. No, not those three kings. This monument pays homage to the founding fathers of Chiang Mai, King Mengrai and his two friends King Ramkamhaeng of Sukothai and King Ngam Muang of Payao who, according the city lore, worked together to create the city.

For those interested in the evolution of the unique northern style of building design, the Lanna Architecture Museum is located on Rajdamnoen Road, just a few minutes’ walk away from the Three Kings.

Sunday Walking Market

Sunday Walking Market merchants get ready for the onslaught of locals and tourists.

A colorful Chiang Mai tradition, the Walking Market unfolds every Sunday from late afternoon until midnight along the whole 1.2-kilometer (4,000 foot) length of Rajdamnoen Road, the Old City’s main east-west axis. The street is closed to traffic then and becomes a street bazaar that offers a vast range of local handicrafts, clothing and bric-a-brac. Food stalls set up shop in the courtyards of the temples, and with five of them along Rajdamnoen Road, including Wat Prah Singh, there are plenty of opportunities to sample real Northern Thai food. It’s a favorite spot for local people to browse and socialize as well as for tourists, and by early evening it becomes seriously crowded. As for the shopping? It takes a bit determined browsing and friendly bargaining, but some quality items can be found at very reasonable prices.

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Chiang Mai is easily accessible from Bangkok via multiple airlines, with departures throughout the day from both Suvarnabhumi Airport, also known as (New) Bangkok International Airport and Don Muang International. The latter is now used mainly by low cost airlines. The flight takes 60 to 70 minutes.
  • Getting Around – the Old City is a compact, near perfect square. Distances between two points are rarely more than a 30-minute walk. And with so much to see along the way, the best way to get around is by foot. But if you don’t feel like walking, tuk-tuks are for you. These three-wheel open-sided taxis are lined up near all the tourist areas. The cost varies with your destination and bargaining talent and can be anything within the 50 to 100 THB (one-twenty-five to three dollars U.S.) range. For the daring souls, there are songthaews, the red pickup trucks that are the standard means of travel for locals. You can wave one down anywhere, as long as it’s headed in your direction. The driver normally doesn’t speak English so you need to give him a reference point. When you see your destination, just ring the bell to stop the truck. The price is 20 THB (fifty cents U.S) within the Old Town and a few kilometers out. It then increases the farther you go.
  • Where to Stay – Tourism has become an important economic growth factor for Chiang Mai, which now welcomes millions of visitors annually. A vast array of hospitality options have developed throughout the city to accommodate every budget and preference, from traditional guesthouses to slick new luxury hotels (although the latter are mainly outside the moat.) My personal favorite Old City hotel is Tamarind Village, a charming contemporary version of a traditional Lanna mountain village. This intimate two-story property is laid out around a internal courtyards filled with fragrant tropical vegetation. Within the tranquil walled compound, every detail pays homage to the Lanna Thai cultural and artistic heritage. Tamarind Village, 50/1 Rajdamnoen Road, Sriphoom, Muang, Chiang Mai,50200 Thailand. Contact: e-mail Tel: + 66 53 418896-9
  • Where to Eat – Anywhere! Thailand is famous for it cuisine bursting with flavors and spices, but Chiang Mai is a foodies Nirvana. From sai ua (spiced lemongrass sausage), a Chiang Mai signature dish from a stall at the market, to the perfectly grilled mu ping (pork skewers) stand, and the ubiquitous bowl of khao soi, soft cooked egg noodles and minced chicken, served with a mild, coconut-based curry and topped with crisp fried noodles, it never tastes quite the same twice but it’s always wonderful. Then there are all the restaurants where a new generation of chefs blends traditional local flavors with touches from the world over for extravagantly delicious fusion dishes. The main dilemma is that you can only eat so much in one day.
  • Visiting – Most wats are open from early morning to late afternoon. Whenever you pass a one that looks interesting, just take off your shoes, step over the threshold (not on it) and walk in. You will be welcome and you may find that the monks and novices are often glad to speak with foreigners (and practice their English). However, make sure you are dressed appropriately. Tops should cover your shoulders and bottoms should reach your knees.
  • Shopping – Remember to bargain for your purchases, it is expected of you and it’s all part of the fun. Good-humored bargaining is practically a national sport in Thailand. Even though the prices may appear quite reasonable by your normal standards, you should always bargain and try to get at least another 20 to 25 percent off the asking price.


A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Chiang Mai

Bhutanese rural life on the westward road to Paro

Bhutanese rural life on the westward road to Paro

We are entering the final week of our itinerary around Bhutan. From Tashingang back to Mongar over Thrumshing La pass toward Jakar, we are retracing our steps on the only main road that runs the breadth of the country and will ultimately take us back to Paro. On the second day of this westward drive, we turn onto a side road that leads to the highest valley in the Bhumthang district and the village of Ura (altitude 3,200 meters or 10,170 feet), where we will be the overnight guests of a local family. The people in this remote rural community are mainly sheep and yak herders, and believed to be the descendants of Bhutan’s earliest inhabitants.

The valleys where time stands still – Part two

Bhutan - Ura home

The home of our local hosts in Ura.

While our hostess prepares the evening meal, our guide Kezang encourages us to explore the village, partially to pre-empt any offer of help in the kitchen, I suspect. The ensuing walk is one of my most memorable moments of the entire trip. Time seems to have forgotten this cluster of ramshackle Himalayan farmhouses scattered along narrow cobblestone lanes and dominated by a modest temple. Under a crystalline blue sky the high altitude air is thin and crisp. A light breeze carries the sound of a nearby rushing stream and a faint smell of wood fires. We pass a few villagers, a woman bringing in her cows, a young boy carrying on his back a large bale of hay. Soon the pale sun drops beyond the mountain range and dusk instantly engulfs the village.

Bhutan - Hymalayan rural life

The remote village of Ura offers a glmpse of Hymalayan rural life.

Suddenly the air vibrates with the soaring baritone wail of Dungchens, the giant horns used in Buddhist ceremonies, punctuated by the deep beat of drums coming out of a nearby barn. Male voices join in. The sound stops abruptly, only to start again an instant later. We stand still, mesmerized by this unexpected gift of music from what we surmise to be a rehearsal, until a rumble of hooves gives us notice to get out of the way. Four long-haired yaks, squat and powerful, barrel by on their way to the river. I am awed by this fleeting experience of the essence of Bhutan.

Bhutanese rural home kitchen.

Our Ura host family’s kitchen.

We share a traditional meal of red rice, dry yak meat stew and hot chilies in a cheese sauce with our host family, all of us sitting in a circle on a floor mat in the center of the kitchen, exchanging questions about each others’ world under the vacillating light of a small light bulb. Kezang translates. We are in the home of a local state official, one of the most spacious and best kept in the village. However creature comforts as we westerners understand them are still a relative concept. Other than the warmth from the woodstove in the kitchen, the house is unheated, and the temperature has dropped precipitously at nightfall. In my room, a glaze of ice is forming on the window panes. I gratefully burrow in the low temperature sleeping bag I have (needlessly until now) dragged around the country. Plumbing is symbolic here, with a common water closet consisting of a sink, a commode and a large drum of (ice cold) water with a scooper. All and all a unique opportunity to experience authentic Bhutanese village life.

Bhutan -Gangtey Gompa monastery.

Recently restored Gangtey Gompa monastery features exceptional wood facade details.

We continue our exploration of the high valleys and rural life with a stop in Phobjkha Valley. The weather is clear and we get exceptional views of the Black Mountains range along the way, with several snow-covered peaks rising above 5,000 meters (16,000 feet). Phobjkha is a vast U-shaped glaciated valley known as the winter habitat for black-necked cranes. Unfortunately we are a couple of weeks early and the famous Himalayan migratory birds have yet to return from Tibet. Absent cranes notwithstanding, we enjoy sunny nature hikes in the valley, and visits at various times of day to the nearby Gangtey Gompa. This monastery, one of Bhutan’s oldest was recently the object of extensive renovations. The woodcarvings of the façade and the vivid murals inside are exceptionally beautiful.

Back to contemporary life

We go over Dochu La pass, once again cocooned in thick clouds. We are now inexorably on the road back to Thimphu. The capital of Bhutan is a mere 30 kilometers (19 miles) southwest of here, with Paro only one hour farther via the best stretch of blacktop road in the country.

Bhutan - Paro Gangtey Palace Hotel

Inner courtyard of the Gangtey Palace Hotel, once a royal residence in Paro.

In Paro, thanks to Karen’s determination, we stay in glorious splendor at the Gangtey Palace Hotel. The palace was built over a century ago for Dawa Penjor, uncle of the first king of Bhutan and governor of the Paro Valley. It was also for a time the residence of the king when he visited the city. In addition to its traditional décor and gorgeous antiques the palace offers a stunning view of Rinpung Dzong (or “fortress that sits on a heap of jewels”). More commonly known as Paro Dzong it is itself a jewel of Bhutanese architecture with its high inward-sloping walls rising high above the Paro River.

Bhutan - Tiger's Nest Monastery

The Tiger’s Nest monastery overlooks the Paro Valley.

On our last day in Bhutan, we visit the Taktsang Palphug Monastery. Better known as the Tiger’s Nest, the temple complex was built in the late seventeenth century on the site of one of Guru Rinpoche’s meditation caves. This sacred site clings to a vertical rock face about 900 meters (3,000 ft) above the upper Paro valley. The eight century holly man is said to have been transported here on the back of a flying tiger. With no such conveyance at our disposal, the only option is to hike up, with the possible assistance of a sturdy Himalayan pony for the lower half of the trek. Jan takes off on foot. Karen and I opt to admire this iconic architectural wonder from afar.

Good to know

  • Tourism in Bhutan is subject to strict regulations that are managed by the National Tourism Council of Bhutan. All travel within the country must be planned and booked through a tour operator registered with the council. Travel guidelines as well as a complete list of registered tour operators and the yearly festival schedule are available on the council’s website:
  • We selected Blue Poppy Tours and Treks for their responsiveness in tailoring a tour to our personal interests and requirements.

I want to express my profound gratitude to my friends Karen and Jan Abadschieff who planned this amazing adventure in the Land of the Thunder Dragon down to its smallest detail and welcomed me to share it with them.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Paro, Bhutan

White-knuckle road travel in Eastern Bhutan

White-knuckle road travel in Eastern Bhutan

As the tiger flies (in Bhutanese lore, tigers do more than their fair share of flying. Why should crows have all the fun anyway?) the distance between Jakar, capital of the Bumthang district in central Bhutan and Mongar, gateway to the eastern part of the country, is approximately 57 kilometers (35 miles). For humans however, the only option is a 200 kilometer (125 mile), daylong roller-coaster road trip that includes a steep ascent to Bhutan’s highest pass, Thrumshing La (altitude 3,780 meters or 12,402 feet).

Driving into the clouds

Thrumshing La National Park roadside shrine.

Roadside shrine near mountaintop Thrumshing La Park.

Before entering the Thrumshing La National Park, we make a quick stop at a roadside teahouse. A small adjacent one-room temple is aglow with flickering butter lamps. Considering the road conditions, it seems a wise idea to make our own offering.




Bhutan - Thrumshing La Pass

Thrumshing La is the highest pass in Bhutan.

As we near the pass, the stunning panorama of distant snowcapped mountains vanishes. By the time we reach the top, we are deep in shifting clouds that go from gloomy gray to gleaming white as they part to allow us glimpses at the bottomless valley below. Hundreds of prayer flags snap in the cutting wind.


Eastern Bhutan Panorama.

Eastern Bhutan Panorama.


The landscape is breathtaking, the ride hair-raising. We leave the Thumshing La Park area to emerge into the upper Kuri Chu valley. The narrow road has been hacked into the side of a vertical rock face streaked with waterfalls that thunder straight down for hundreds of meters and sometimes spill onto the road. Then there is the occasional rockslide. We stand by and watch while our driver Tshering takes the van at crawl speed over whatever rock and dirt are obstructing the way. He once explained that he had grown up in a monastery. I hope he accumulated enough divine protection in his youth to see him through. He has. We get back into the van and continue on our way.

Bhutan - transport truck.

These bright trucks move all of Bhutan’s freight around the country,

Other than local busses, we mostly meet the ubiquitous huge, brightly painted trucks used to move every imaginable kind of freight across the country. Crossing path with them is always a tight squeeze, and guardrails are still a remote concept in these parts.


Panda Country

Eastern Bhuthan roadside market.

Local farmers sell their produce at an impromptu roadside market.

We wend down an endless succession of sharp turns. The vegetation becomes lush with giant bamboo and ferns. “This is panda country,” our guide Kezang volunteers, but the legendary bears are nowhere to be seen. The temperature warms noticeably as we continue our descent through cornfields, rice terraces and tropical fruit orchards. At an unusually wide curve in the road, local villagers have lined up to sell their products. We stop at this impromptu roadside market for a bag of juicy persimmons.

Bhutan - Rice harvest

In the valley below local women harvest the rice .


We finally reach the valley floor (altitude 570 meters or 1,900 feet) and the Kuri Zampa bridge that takes us across a white-water river to start the hour-long, 25 kilometer ascent to Mongar (altitude 1675 meters or 5500 feet). This fast-growing, unlovely modern town is notable only for the medical facility built a couple of decades ago to serve the people of eastern Bhutan.

As far East as it gets

Bhutan -Tashi Yangtse prayer drums.

In Tashi Yangtse, we join the villagers at the Chorten Kora.

The next morning, we are on our way to Tashi Yangtse, as far East as one can travel and still be in Bhutan. Very few western Bhutanese and even fewer western visitors make it this far. There is no tourism infrastructure here, so we are welcomed for the next two nights in the home of a lovely elderly woman, where guest quarters have been arranged, complete with basic modern plumbing. This small rural town near the border of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh is gathered around the large white-washed Chorten Kora, a serene sanctuary on the bank of the Kulong Chu river. At dusk, we join villagers and a handful of pilgrims in their daily perambulations around this revered site. The next day, we enjoy a hike in the countryside, a visit to the local monastery and a welcome rest before departing for nearby Tashigang in the morning.

Ancient devotion tiles at Gom Kora temple.

Gom Kora temple is built around a sacred cave.

We stop on the way at the temple of Gom Kora, built in the seventeenth century in front of a rock where Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated and left his body imprint. The temple is home to 30 monks and what are considered to be some of the most beautiful paintings in the country.

The eastern-most point on the main road, Tashigang is a bustling city. Area residents come to trade here, and there is a busy station where busses leave several times a day for Thimphu and Paro in the west, and for India only a few hours to the southeast.

Tomorrow we start our own long journey back to Western Bhutan.


Good to know

  • Tourism in Bhutan is subject to strict regulations that are managed by the National Tourism Council of Bhutan. All travel within the country must be planned and booked through a tour operator registered with the council. Travel guidelines as well as a complete list of registered tour operators and the yearly festival schedule are available on the council’s website:
  • We selected Blue Poppy Tours and Treks for their responsiveness in tailoring a tour to our personal interests and requirements.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Trumshing La National Park, Bhutan

Thrumshing La National Park, Bhutan