Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Chiang Mai Hill Tribe Tour - Part II

The Karens originate from Southern China, Tibet and Burma. Numbering around 400,000, they are one of the largest Hill Tribe groups in Thailand. They used to live mainly in bamboo houses raised on stilts - with their livestocks like chicken, pigs and buffalos living underneath. Nowadays due to hygienic concerns, the livestocks are mainly kept outside or in separate huts. Their main source of living is still agriculture.

Visiting the Karen village is not unlike visiting some of the native villages back in Sarawak. Amid the simple traditional homes, you see signs of modernity poking out here and there - like electricity poles and satellite dishes. It is good to see that the people - though not rich by any standard, seem to be having a comfortable life.

The houses - though simple, provide plenty of shade and ventilation.

Livestocks are very much a part of the village life.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Chiang Mai Hill Tribe Tour - Part I

Besides the temples and historical attractions of Chiang Mai, one of the big draws to Northern Thailand are the Hill Tribes. There are about 7 main hill tribes living in this part of Thailand - Karen, Lisu, Akha, Hmong, Yau, Lahu and Palong. They all have slightly different origins ranging from Myanmar, China, Tibet and Mongolia.

To really see the Hill Tribe villages, you need to spend a few days traveling from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son or Chiang Rai. However there are day tours to nearby villages in Chiang Dao - about 80 kms from Chiang Mai. Many of the Hill Tribes have settled down closer to Chiang Mai and become a part of the tourist trade. They supplement their income by selling souvenirs to the hoards of visiting tourists.

As I did not have much time, I decided to join a Hill Tribe Day Tour. Most of the local agents offer similar packages, and prices are about the same - around 1,200 to 1,500 THB for large groups inclusive of a simple lunch. The agent will pick up from the hotels around 8.30 a.m., and drop off around 5.00 p.m. The drive to Chiang Dao takes around 1 1/2 hour, and along the way there is a stop at an orchid and butterfly farm on which I have just posted.

The first village we visited was a Red Karen village. The houses are raised from the ground on stilts. The roofs are made of tatch, and walls from mostly timber scraps and bamboo. The Red Karens are very gentle people, and subsist mainly on farming.

The surrounding countryside is quite beautiful.

Unlike many of the other Hill Tribes, the Red Karens do not like to get mixed up in the tourist trade. The souvenirs peddlers you see here are actually from the Lisu Tribe who live nearby.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Chiang Mai - Orchid and Butterfly Farm

With its cool sub-tropical climate, Chiang Mai is quite ideal for the growing of orchids, and it is no wonder that orchid-growing is big business here. If you join some of the local tours, a visit to an orchid farm is sure to be on the itinerary. The buying and selling of orchids is a tightly regulated business. Usually you are not allowed to bring whole plants out of the country, and there are hefty fines for flouting the restrictions so do be careful should you decide to bring some home. They do sell seedlings in sealed flasks which are certified to be exported. These are much easier to carry, but whether or not they will survive and grow into beautiful flowers is hard to say.

Orchids are exotic tropical plants, and some of the species are notoriously difficult to breed from the wild. Orchid aficionados and collectors would search far and wide for that rare specie which nobody else has discovered and try to breed it successfully. The amount of fanaticism and intrigue involved is quite fascinating coming from a fragile little blossom. It is really a world unto its own. For an interesting account read Eric Hanson's Orchid Fever. For me I'm just happy to enjoy viewing the beautiful flowers and leave the "lunacy" to others.

Beautiful orchids. You can see why some people obsess over them.

The butterfly farm inside looked like it was just thrown in to sweeten the deal. It is very small, and I could only see one specie of butterflies.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Chiang Mai Hotels & Resorts - U Chiang Mai Resort

U Chiang Mai Resort is another unexpected discovery on this trip. It is located right along Ratchadamnoen Road in the town centre. The entrance is very understated - just a break in the wall along the street. Once you pass through this opening you are in the reception which is a space open on 3 sides - very tropical. The reception is surrounded by lush landscape, and you have a clear view to the main pool which is just next to the reception - an unusual arrangement which is probably a result of the very compact site.

The design of the resort is kind of Tropical Modern - a style that is common in Thai and Balinese resorts. Here, it is quite tastefully done - not overly ornate, quite well finished and the proportions are nicely judged. The arrangement of the accommodation blocks gives it a village feel, and provide full privacy from the street and surrounding properties.

The entrance from Ratchadamnoen Road.

The reception area.

The accommodation blocks.

U Chiang Mai is another stylish resort within the old town centre. The rates are not cheap, but for comfort and convenience it can't be beat.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Chiang Mai Hotels & Resorts - Tamarind Village Resort and Spa

Before I arrive at any destination I usually make a list of all the places to visit, but I'm always happy to deviate from the plan and stumble upon unexpected discoveries. On this trip, I have bumped into quite a few very nice resorts, and Tamarind Village is one of them. Located right in the old town, this resort is an unexpected oasis in the middle of the city. You arrive at the resort through a bamboo covered driveway from Ratchadamnoen Road, or a long covered walkway from Rachpachmai Road. Once you reach the reception, you are presented with a beautiful courtyard which look like a place outside of time. The resort has a timeless quality that is very rare in this modern, restless and forever changing age.

The architecture is vernacular but done in a tasteful and understated style. Long covered walkways link the reception wing to the accommodation. These long corridors and verandahs become the main architectural character of the resort.

The bamboo covered driveway from Ratchadamnoen Road.

Covered walkway from Rachpachmai Road.

The reception area. Pretty low key.

The quiet, timeless feel of the resort is quite captivating.

The restaurant.

The Tamarind Village is one of those places that make you feel relaxed once you arrive. Should be on top of your list if you are looking for quiet escape in Chiang Mai, and is yet within walking distance to all the attractions.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Chiang Mai Umbrella Factory

Did you know Chiang Mai or "Bo Sang" Umbrellas are actually made with mulberry paper ? The paper is made from mulberry tree bark in the factories using a traditionally process, and these are then transformed into colourful umbrellas. In the village of Bo Sang - about 10 kms from Chiang Mai, you will find many of these umbrella factories and a visit should definitely be in your itinerary. The best time to visit is in January during the Bo Sang Umbrella Festival.

Colourful Bo Sang umbrellas are a unique icon of Chiang Mai. The frames are made from bamboo, and then covered over with either mulberry paper, or silk for the more deluxe version. The skill and patience involved in the making of these beautiful objects are amazing. Buy some to support the craft, and they also make great home decors and gifts.

You can see how mulberry paper is made using traditional methods.

Making the frame in bamboo.

The raw umbrellas being put out to dry.

Beautiful designs are then applied.

The shop. They sell more then just umbrellas.