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A journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is the best possible side-trip for an impression of the old-time Siam' of elephants and teak forests, beautiful girls, flowers and traditional craftsmanship. 

Second city of Thailand, Chiang Mai is 470 miles up-country, due north of Bangkok. Access is by road, rail or air. If time permits, the most interesting route is by road.

Until early last century, the north was isolated from Bangkok, reached only by river transport and elephant trails. Today the journey takes nine hours by numerous bus services, or twelve hours or less by train.

Making the journey in more leisured style by tour coach is far preferable, with an overnight stop en route. There is good sightseeing along the way, but especially there is all the fascination of seeing first-hand the rural life-style of central Thailand. 

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The north is much drier than central or southern Thailand. The dry season goes from mid-November till May. 

Night-time temperatures also drop during the cool season, so it's worth packing long-sleeved shirts and a pullover.

Cheerful tuk-tuk and pedal samlor drivers, some speaking remarkably good English, offer a leisured view of Chiang Mai and its colourful markets, temples and local craft industries.

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Along the highway, pick-up trucks are crammed with bamboo baskets of fruit and vegetables. Cute village girls ride motor-bikes and scooters. Gaily-decorated lorries are picked out in vivid green, red and yellow, with Thai pop art around the cabin exterior. Occasionally a few buffalo straggle across the road. 

Chiang Mai, just over a thousand feet in altitude, is located in a fertile rice-growing plain overlooked by the 5,500 ft Doi Pui mountain peak.

In contrast to the 20th-century capital, Chiang Mai is the much more relaxed market and administrative centre of the North. Serenity is the keynote, though the population is now 170,000.

Well-built teak houses are raised on stilts for good ventilation, with daytime family activities in the cool shade beneath. Luxuriant gardens are filled with roses, hydrangeas and rhododendrons. 

Light and airy public buildings are set amid lawns and flowering trees with flamboyant displays of red and pink blossom. The region is also rich in orchid cultivation.

Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 by King Mengrai. Several temples are now 700 years old, including Wat Chiang Man which was a former residence of the king. From 1556 to 1775 the city was ruled by the Burmese, who built numerous teak temples in Burmese style. Parts oDoi Suthep, near Chiang Maif the city wall, forming a square about 700 yards each side and surrounded by a moat, are still intact. 

A half-day excursion goes up the Doi Suthep mountain, offering wide panoramic views of the Chiang Mai area. The hill starts four miles out of town, and the main highlight is the 14th- century temple of Wat Phrathart.

Visitors climb 301 steps flanked by brown and green tiles that form a serpent from end to end. Wat Phrathart is a major shrine thronged weekends with colourfully-dressed pilgrims.

Seeing elephants at work makes a popular excursion based on travelling out to teak forests where elephant camps are located. A short forest walk is usually necessary to reach the lumber site. 

Some tours include a visit to one of the hill-tribe villages either White Karen or Meo. 

The far northern corner of Thailand, where the borders of Burma and Laos converge on the Mekong River, is the traditional location for opium-poppy cultivation in the rugged mountain areas. 

War-lords were able to cross borders unchallenged, so that great riches were made by those who controlled what became known as the Golden Triangle. The Thai government has made major efforts to encourage hill- tribe people to abandon their slash-and-burn farming methods in remote forest clearings, by trying to resettle them in lowland areas which permit other cash crops. 

The policy has had some success, while occasional army forays into the remote hill areas result in destruction of poppy fields. In general, however, illicit production has merely shifted across the frontiers.

A journey to the region must rate among the most scenic of anywhere in Thailand, through the hill-tribe territories.

The tribes originated mostly from China and Tibet some two thousand years ago. For various historical reasons, they moved southwards into Indo-China and Thailand, with the trek into Thailand having accelerated during the 20th century. 

Each of the six main hill tribes has its own distinct culture, religion, language and style of costume. Normally, they live above the 3,000-ft level. They preserve many of their original Tibetan or Chinese traditions, living in extended families. 

On the drive north from Chiang Mai along Highway 107, the initial broad valley looks like a green parkland, through areas that specialise in horse breeding. There are occasional plantations of tea, and of lamgai fruit trees (resembling lychee). Big irrigation canals water the region, with the network still being extended throughout a wide and fertile area. Two rice crops are grown annually, with virginia-type tobacco as a major cash crop. 

Chiang Dao: The scenery grows steadily more dramatic, with thickly forested hillsides reaching close into the Ping River valley, swollen with yellow mud. A side track leads into the Chiang Dao hill tribes reservation. 

Ready to go on a river trip There are plantations of lychees, pears, pomelo (a fruit somewhat akin to grapefruit), tea and oranges. Near harvest time for the lychees, the fruit is protected in plastic bags against insects, birds and bats. 

Tha Ton is departure point on the Kok River for boat trips to Chiang Rai, taking from three to five hours depending on the water level and the type of craft used. Some travellers go by raft. 

Here you are very close to the Burmese border. The journey down-river goes past several villages that offer access for trekking parties into hill-tribe territories, staying overnight in bamboo huts. Some treks include elephant transport.

Chiang Rai: The 700 year old city is Thailand's most northerly provincial capital and possesses numerous impressive Buddhist temples. In the heart of the Golden Triangle, the city is overlooked by majestic mountains. Chiang Rai is the principal trekkers' gateway to the surrounding countryside of lush green valleys and hill-tribe villages.

In Thailand, all traffic keeps to the left Mae Hong Son: Wedged between Chiang Mai Province and the Burmese border is the Province of Mae Hong Son, with a tiny provincial capital of the same name, population under 7000.

Nestling in a valley, this frontier town with its Burmese- style temples thrives on cross-border trade. It is also developing as a tourist centre and starting point for jungle safaris, giving an opportunity to meet hilltribe people Meo, Karen and Shan. 

Check out these other Thailand features:

BANGKOK - Visit the capital "City of Angels'                                        

PHUKET - Holiday pearl  of the South

THAI CUISINE- Try that spicy food

THAI ENTERTAINMENT  - Sample the night-time scene

SHOPPING IN THAILAND - The enjoyable search for good quality trditional handicrafts

TRIPS OUT OF BANGKOK - Looking at the rich variety of excursion possibilities from the capital.

"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Chiang Mai Insight Pocket Guide" - an excellent handbook if you're going to spend more than just a few days in Chiang Mai, the 'Rose of the North'

Thailand (Footprint Travel Guide S.) - A general guide to Thailand which includes good coverage of the north and the hill tribes.

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