Traditionally, tourists have trekked to the star of Thailand’s north in search of M.E.A.T.: markets, elephants, artisans and temples. And Chiang Mai, a laid-back old riverside city whose population (fewer than 200,000) is a fraction of Bangkok’s (more than eight million), obliges those fantasies. But these days the 700-year-old city is brimming with far more modern attractions, too, namely the works of artists and designers. Thanks to a blossoming creative scene, a Chiang Mai weekend now offers the chance to soak up contemporary art in world-class exhibition spaces, purchase stylish 21st-century design in new shops and craft villages, and sleep in gallery-like new hotels, from the frivolous to the fancy. The culinary and night life scenes are also thriving, with ambitious upstart restaurants and a buzzing bar district joining the city’s traditional eating rooms and street-food zones. Just be careful to avoid Chiang Mai in March and April, when the region’s farmers burn brush and overgrowth en masse, filling the air with smoke and ash.
Handmade creations abound along Charoenrat Road. Siam meets Soho at Woo, a cafe and concept store that blooms with Thai creativity — literally — starting with plants and exquisite floral arrangements. The upstairs art gallery exhibits painting and sculpture, while the boutique’s wide-ranging collection includes rice extract lip balm, minimalist ceramics, kaleidoscopic hippie-chic dresses and a skull covered with tiny white seashells that would make Damien Hirst jealous. Down the street, The Meeting Room Art Cafe is piled with stacks of prints and canvases by local artists — all for sale — while elegant Sop Moei Arts sells textile creations to decorate your body or home, from scarves to embroidered wall hangings.
For a sunset drink on the Ping River, the most stylish hangout is On the Ping (outdoor lounge), in the Sala Lanna hotel. With its swimming pool, white lanterns, white canopies and white couches, the back lawn channels the spirit of St.-Tropez. The menu, meanwhile, includes house cocktails like the Ping River (vodka, lychee, lemongrass and lime; 290 baht, or about $8.70), Thai craft beers and even Thai rosé.
It looks as if some eccentric, globe-trotting English lord is behind Ginger & Kafe restaurant. Who else would dare add sliced cucumber and toast points to the chicken satay? Who else would include scones in the dessert menu? And who but an aristocratic British bloke would decorate the space with chandeliers, armchairs, Oriental rugs, lacquered chests, flickering candles and other drawing-room accouterments? English lord or not, Ginger & Kafe is a quirkily romantic place to pop the question, or simply your gut — courtesy of braised beef in lime-coconut reduction, pork ribs in tamarind sauce, or a red curry with duck breast and tropical fruits. (A three-course meal for two costs around 1,800 baht.)
Then move to the adjoining House Lounge, another elegant throwback where monkeys and birds frolic (on the wallpaper) and vases of plants and flowers complete the jungle lodge vibe. A Colonial Cordial (Scotch, Papidoux calvados, Grand Marnier, thyme liqueur, bitters; 350 baht) is practically a must, and dress code is B.Y. O. P. H.: Bring your own pith helmet.
First the bad news: “All things arise, exist and expire.” On the other hand: “Detachment is a great way to relax.” Such are just a few of the maxims on signs that adorn trees in Wat Umong, a forested sprawl of temples, pavilions, statues, fountains and lakes. Founded in the late 13th century and still home to many Buddhist monks, the complex is best known for its bell-shaped, 14th-century stone pagoda — reached by stone stairs lined with scaly beasts — and rock caverns filled with Buddha statues and figurines in the niches and alcoves. Beat the heat by arriving in the morning and taking a meditative stroll amid a soundtrack of birds, roosters, chants and bells.
The mood shifts from contemplation to creation in the nearby forest clearing containing Baan Kang Wat artisan village. Meandering paths lead to cafes, teahouses, juice stands, funky shops and craft studios selling everything from handmade paper goods to baby clothes. Follow the sound of hammer-tapping to Saprang, where the award-winning jewelry designer Supat Suwannasing makes delicate earrings and bracelets that often employ nature motifs like leaves and vines. Wood and ceramics are the choice materials at Bookoo Studio, which sells smooth and simple creations like bowls and chopping boards.
Your lifelong quest to consume spicy frog soup and stir-fried ant eggs ends at Huen Muan Jai restaurant, another village-like sprawl of rustic wooden houses and pavilions. Porcine dreams are also satisfied, with a menu that features pork wrapped in banana leaves, tossed in jackfruit soup, stir-fried with mushrooms, encased in an omelet or cooked to cotton-ball softness in a red curry as thin and powerful as a flyweight boxer. More mainstream meats and fish also make appearances in local specialties like khao soy — a mix of chicken or beef with boiled and crispy noodles in sweet coconut broth — while desserts combine coconut milk with either bananas or corn and sticky rice to ambrosia-like effect. Two can lunch copiously for 600 baht.
You can hardly hurl a beret without hitting an art or design business on Nimmanhaemin Road’s side streets. Local artists have contributed to almost every space in Art Mai? Gallery Hotel, from the themed rooms to the restaurant’s recipes, but nowhere more so than the ground-floor art gallery (well curated, with artist biographies in English) and boutique (which sells drawings and canvases, along with artist-designed scarves and bags).
Southward, Gallery Seescape has rotating exhibitions and also showcases the work of its founder, Torlarp Larpjaroensook — including his dreamy abstract paintings and playful robot sculptures — while Jojo Kobe specializes in screen prints by artists like Kittisak Chaimoonta (notable for his surreal, dark humanoid figures) and Thaiwijit Puengkasemsomboon (a devotee of colorful abstraction). Farther south, a sculptural white unicorn announces Chiang Mai University Art Center, a Le Corbusier-inspired concrete-and-glass structure filled with airy white galleries, modernist Bauhaus lines, rotating contemporary art exhibitions — and puzzlingly few visitors.
How do you like your crab fat? If you answered, “As a warm brown gravy for a crispy crab meat won ton with pickled local cabbage, please,” then you will get along swimmingly with Blackitch Artisan Kitchen. Another hidden gem off Nimmanhaemin Road, the cult restaurant is not fancy (simple cement floor and tile tables), not romantic (bright lighting), not large (barely space for a dozen), not easy to reserve (you must book the day before you want to dine), not easy to find (one floor above street level and almost unmarked) and not abounding with choices (the nightly set menu, at 1,800 baht, is the only option). But the imaginative seafood-rich dishes are exceptional: roasted, basted catfish in a juice made from its own head and tail on a velvety sweet purée of lotus seed boiled in coconut oil; or perhaps a seaweed-wrapped mackerel nugget topped with salmon roe on a cube of smoked yuzu-marinated rice larded with river shrimp and pink petals. Whatever the chef’s whim, it will likely be precise, daring and exquisite.
Along nearby Nimmanhaemin Road you can travel the world in 80 beers — more, in fact — at Beer Lab. The convivial outdoor bar draws college kids, N.G.O. workers, expats and local young professionals with its menu of beers from the United States, Australia, Europe, Asia and beyond, including Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale from Japan (310 baht) and Chiang Mai’s own Tropical Wheat beer (220 baht). Or you can soar above the city at the open-air rooftop bar of the Hotel Yayee. Plants hang from the rafters and sometimes end up in your drink, too, thanks to botanically infused cocktails (260 baht) like Ananda’s Flyboy (juniper spirit, aloe vera, thyme and white grape).
Surely you have wondered: What would happen if Hieronymus Bosch was reincarnated as a LSD dealer with a pop-culture obsession in 21st-century Thailand? He might create something similar to artist Navin Rawanchaikul’s “Super(M)art Bangkok Survivor,” a huge, frenzied, feverish, cartoonish wall-size painting that bursts with debauched Thai characters, real and invented, including a Kalashnikov-toting Buddha; vomiting tattooed monks; elephants; Vespas; blimps and the famous twins, Chang and Eng Bunker. The work is the marquee attraction of MAIIAM, a world-class museum that opened in 2016. The permanent collection of Thai contemporary art also features playful and sinister severed sculptural limbs by Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, and paintings of pained, howling faces by Chatchai Puipia. MAIIAM is about 30 minutes from the city by taxi or ride share. Admission: 150 baht.
Somebody likes bikes at Room No. 7 Hotel (9 Nimmanhaemin Soi 7, 66-63-797-7997), which opened in 2016 in the Nimmanhaemin Road district. Some of the 21 rooms have a motorcycle theme (others are more minimalist white or gray), and common areas are decorated with vintage Vespas and motorbikes. Doubles from 1,250 baht.
A luxurious and stylish option along the riverfront, the 19-room Hotel des Artists Ping Silhouette (181 Charoenrat Road, 66-53-249-999) is a jigsaw of right angles and dark colors with pool, spa, tearoom, restaurant and large groomed backyard lounge along the water. Doubles from 4,000 baht.
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