Chiang Mai, Thailand, is known for its elephants, tigers, resorts, parasols, temples, hill tribes and mountains.
So what's in it for Levelers? All of the above and more.
Old city gates
Tip: Arriving by plane today is a breeze. Although you will have to walk down the stairway and across the tarmac, the airport is blissfully small and no long hikes are required to get from the plane to your luggage to a car and driver.
A short drive gets you to the heart of Chiang Mai. The city is in a river valley and thus flat, though ground and pavement are often uneven. Stop before you gawk.
Hotels in Chiang Mai
RarinJinda Wellness Spa & Resort
They range from small, no stars but clean to elegant, architecturally dramatic resorts. I stayed at the beautiful Shangri-La which is in the heart of the city with an ATM across the street and the popular night market three blocks away. Also downtown is the RarinJinda Wellness Spa Resort with a delightful wellness spa and elevators to facilitate going from one floor to another.
Warning: The Ratilanna Hotel has a lovely spot on the river as well as a spa and a huge pool but I can't recommend it to Levelers because of the many sets of stairs. Also afflicted with stairs is the Four Seasons Resort outside of Chiang Mai but the ambiance and the cooking school are worth the effort (20 steps to the stairs).
Wherever you stay, there are a variety of fascinating and nearby side trips to take.
Temples and monks
Don't miss the main temples, most within easy and flat walking distance from the market (which you also do not want to miss; very photogenic)).
It's easy to appreciate the devotion to detail in these interesting structures and to photograph it because they are blissfully free of tourist throngs.
Warning: Novices and monks are not allowed to be touched by any female so be careful. No hugs or handshakes from normally demonstrative Americans please.
I dare you to visit The National Thai Elephant Conservation Center and not fall in love with these remarkable beings. I say beings because their actions and emotions so often mirror our own.
Tip: There are several opportunities in the Chiang Mai area to get up close and personal with elephants, but I recommend this one. It is less touristy, your money goes to support responsible practices and the experience is far superior to the tourist traps most tours favor.
Parasols and tigers
Photographers will have a field day Bor Sang, known to all as Parasol Village, because that's the major product. Either as a cottage industry supplying the basic structures or in a "factory," where the finished products are created in an assembly line or sorts, the colorful images are addictive to picture takers.
No joke. We drive in, walk up some stairs to the main building and its restaurant and there are enclosures separated by electrified wires. Inside are tigers - sleeping, wading in a pool, using a huge tree trunk as a scratching post - and people, tourists posing with the tigers and photographers taking their pictures.
There's a sliding scale of cost - about $10 to go inside with the tigers for 15 minutes to about $28 to have a professional photographer take 50-100 shots to record your interactions with the beasts and download them to a CD - if you're interested.
My pals and I resisted temptation but one colleague tried it later at the night market and said it was great.
Good for him. I couldn't keep Siegfried and Roy from flashing through my consciousness.