CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Nearly seven centuries ago, in the first known use of a Thai alphabet, the beloved King Ramkamhaeng wrote on stone:
"In the Kingdom of Sukhothai, whoever wants to play can play; whoever wants to laugh can laugh; whoever wants to sing can sing." For some reason, he forgot to mention dancing, one of the most beautiful of all Thai pastimes.
Within a few years of the king's joyful proclamation, the lovely city of Chiang Mai was founded here in the Golden Triangle formed by the borders of Burma and Laos.
Everything about Chiang Mai justifies its reputation with Thais as the nation's Shangri-La. Thailand's cool and misty foothills give it a serenity that is almost absolute;mimosa-like kulik trees paint ribbons of vibrant yellow along banks of the city's placid canals; roses and a panoply of other flowers bloom everywhere, and women of the region are noted throughout Asia for their sublime beauty and grace.
Isolation and former status as the independent Kingdom of Lan Na Thai caused natives to develop their own dialect, cuisine, architecture, songs and dances.
So heed the words of Thailand's long-ago king and come to one of his kingdom's loveliest regions.
Here to there: United, Japan, Singapore, Philippine, China and Korean airlines get you to Bangkok, all with stops. Thai Airways flies on to Chiang Mai in an hour.
How long/how much? Give it two days, another for visiting the hill-tribe villages and elephant farms north of town. Hotels are excellent and moderate in cost, fine dining is inexpensive anywhere in the country.
A few fast facts: Thailand's baht exchanged recently at 26 to the dollar, about 4 cents each. Unlike much of the country, Chiang Mai is cool enough to visit any time of year, although June through September gets a bit wet. Take a tuk tuk three-wheeler cab anywhere in town at moderate expense.
Getting settled in: Best location is Hotel Suriwongse (110 Changklan Road; $38 double), just opposite a day-and-night market. Lobby uses teak as if it were quarter-inch plywood to create a marvelous traditional ambiance; exquisite flower arrangements border on the unreal. Rooms bright and well-furnished, pool, lobby entertainment in the evenings, dining room and convenient coffee shop. A most enjoyable place.
Chiang Mai Orchid (100 Huay Kaew Road; $44 to $54) is probably the city's best, although it's a five-minute ride from town center. Another handsome lobby with lots of teak, beautiful rooms, large pool, two restaurants and bars, disco for revelers.
For anyone seeking solitude in a setting of lush hills and gardens, Mae-Sa Valley Resort (hour's drive north of town; $30 double) has to be the spot. Separate thatch-roof cottages are sprinkled on hillsides, flower-strewn paths connecting them with main house and dining hall, rooms furnished in northern style with floor matting and raised beds. Choice of excellent Western or Thai food, it's a short distance to hill-tribe villages and elephant camp. Mae-Sa is a place to forget the real world.
Regional food and drink: Northern Thai food has been influenced by Burmese cooking, dating back to long-ago invasions, with sticky rice the ever-present staple. A typical Khan Toke ("small tray on low table") meal usually has five dishes: hungley, a Burmese curry; namprik ong, pork mixed with tomato, onion and chilis; cap moo, fried pork skin; kang kai, chicken and vegetable curry, and larb, minced meat mixed with chilis and served with various vegetables. The sticky rice goes with everything, along with a chilled Singha beer.
Moderate cost dining: Chang Peuk (90/7 Superhighway, opposite city museum) is a typical outdoor place serving only Thai food. Dine under palm fronds on the likes of tom yam goong, a clear lobster soup so hot it will melt your fillings, fried chicken or beef with basil, also hot, and nam gon, Chiang Mai pork sausage served with green salad. Nothing fancy about the White Elephant, but it has hill-tribe musicians to entertain you with regional music in the evening.
For the traditional Khan Toke dinner and entertainment, head for Khum Kaew Palace (252 Phra Pok Klao Road). You're met by young women with garlands of marigolds. Lie on the floor with your back on a bolster and dine reclining as singers, dancers and musicians entertain from a small stage in their regional costumes. Good food and show, an enchanting evening for $8 per person.
For a change of pace, we ducked into Al Shiraz (123 Changklan Road opposite a night bazaar), an Indian-Pakistani-Arabic restaurant that also serves Thai food. Not much in the way of decor, but excellent tandoori lamb and chicken, and those great Indian breads at moderate prices.
Just across the road we found the best place for breakfast in town, Black Canyon coffee shop. Wonderful papaya, croissants and coffee, and pictures of your favorite Western star on walls.