Chiang Mai, a dose of affordable art
THINK of Thailand and most Singaporeans will turn their thoughts to Bangkok, where cheap shopping, coconut ice cream and the Chatuchak Weekend Market is.
But for a more low-key, artsy retreat and to escape the crowds while maintaining a hold on city life, head to Chiang Mai, just a three-hour flight away in the north, instead.
The city, set in a mountainous region, is a charming mix of beautiful countryside with blue peaks, lush padi fields and graffiti-covered alleyways.
Some locals still lead rustic lives in the mountains or valleys, and a trek along the hills in the Mae Sa Valley offers picturesque views of rice fields and encounters with farmers hiking the hills for wild mushrooms.
If you intend to visit the countryside, go in October, when the rice fields turn a brilliant yellow.
Chiang Mai has several waterfalls, one of them the Wachirathan waterfall, on the way to the summit of Doi Inthanon, Thailand's highest peak.
On my visit there in late June, I stayed in a hostel in the heart of the old city for $20 a night. Locals said the street food there is very good as many of them still stick to traditional recipes and methods handed down through the generations.
Along most lanes in the square-shaped old city, you can find hawkers selling noodles in broth from as little as 40 baht (S$1.50), streetcarts touting meat morsels on sticks or fruit in cups.
There is a temple on nearly every street, and this - according to locals - is because every time a king takes the throne, he builds a temple to establish his reign.
My friend and I visited many temples but the most beautiful to me was the Wat Chiang Man temple, the first to be built in the city in 1296.
Walk around the back and you will find a gold chedi on the back of ancient stone elephants - the country's national animal.
A cheap way to get around is by songtaew - an open-air bus/taxi hybrid.
They come in different colours for different routes, much like our coloured MRT lines, but with much more flexibility.
A short five-minute ride can cost as little as 20 baht but expect the driver to stop for other passengers along the way.
Alternatively, you can take a tuk-tuk or rickshaw, which is more tourist-catered and can be twice or thrice as expensive.
A regular air-conditioned taxi goes for about 150 baht for a half-hour ride, depending on your destination.
For shopping, visit the Saturday Night Market, which sells handicrafts.
You can pick up local handmade goods such as necklaces of flowers stuffed into glass vials, tie-dyed loose pants, leather purses and hand-woven pouches.
The regular Sunday Night Market is decidedly more touristy although it is still worth a visit. Both markets begin at the outskirts of the old city and go on for kilometres.
Stop for a mouthful of pad thai, salt-baked fish, grilled seafood in egg on pandan leaves or the ubiquitous tom yum soup at the food enclaves along the market stretches.
Chiang Mai has a strong cafe scene - most outlets offer free Wi-Fi on top of their dark brews - and an indie art movement with museums and galleries dotting the city.
Some cafes display free brochures with art trails and maps for visitors to explore.
One cafe to visit is aptly named My Secret Cafe In Town, at Rachadamnoen Road. It has rich, moist cakes such as the signature flourless passionfruit cake and old-fashioned chocolate cake.
Just outside the old city stands Nimman, said to be Chiang Mai's most chic neighbourhood or the city's "equivalent of Tiong Bahru".
A popular cafe there is the artsy iberry Garden, which sells ice cream in flavours such as milk tea, guava and salt plum, and coconut sorbet.
With so much to see, eat and do, Chiang Mai somehow retains its tranquillity, and is a perfect escape for the city dweller who does not exactly wish to bathe with well water in a grass hut devoid of Wi-Fi - although that is an option you can take too.
If you would like to visit, now is as good a time as any, for tourist numbers are climbing yearly as more seek a slice of its charming culture.