A feast for the senses... and the stomach in a Thai city that has become more accessible - thanks to a new Qatar Airways service from Birmingham Airport. Tim Hughes checks it out

For her enormous size, my elephant was a nimble beast. Weighing five tons and with legs like tree trunks, she picked her way down the riverbank with all the grace of a ballerina.

Bending her knees, she slid into the cool water making barely a ripple, relishing this respite from the fierce sun. Then, with a flourish of her trunk, she rolled over – sending water flying through the air.

I waded beside her, scrubbing brush in hand, ready to give her a good wash – and was instantly soaked. Down came the trunk, sucking up more water and blowing it all over me.

Could I detect a smile? A twinkle of mischief in those deep brown eyes? She was loving it.

The Thai Elephant Care Centre (thaielephantcarecenter.com), in thick forest along the Mae Sa river is a remarkable place. The handlers – or mahouts – describe it as a retirement home for these kings of the forest, all of whom have spent their working lives in the logging industry.

There is no more logging in Thailand and, consequently, no more need for elephants – which are expensive to keep, eating for a good 16 hours a day – nor their mahouts. The centre gives both animal, master (and their families) a place to see out their retirements. And we are invited to join them, spending a day learning how to look after these majestic creatures.

The centre is typical of a flourishing environmental sensitivity in Thailand’s lush mountainous north. Where once tourists would have paid for elephant rides they now come to feed and wash them.

We got out of the sun in a thatched shelter and learned from a vet with the kindly bearded face of a wizard, how to make herbal pachyderm medicine balls, some to aid digestion, others to keep them cool. We wrapped them in banana leaves, like fist-sized Thai sweets, and fed them to the elephants under strict instruction on how many of each should be proffered to each of those snaking trunks.

An incredible experience, this is just one of the highlights of a visit to Chiang Mai, the cultural centre of northern Thailand.

While the kingdom's second city, it is a mere market town compared to sprawling Bangkok. For while the neon-lit capital thrills with its ultra-modern skyline, traffic-choked streets and constant buzz, Chiang Mai exudes a lazy charm, with shady streets and a sleepy Old Town bordered by a square of water-filled moats as wide as canals, the crumbling remains of its 13th century fortifications, and lush lawns kept green by scores of sprinklers.

While a trip up here used to be a real project, involving either a change of flights in clamorous Bangkok or an all-night bus or train journey, it has suddenly become easy with the launch of direct flights on Qatar Airways from its hub in Doha.

We flew on the new service, launched earlier this year, from Birmingham, which makes even a short break in Chiang Mai a ridiculously easy proposition from Oxfordshire.

Whether you are an experienced traveller or a complete novice, Chiang Mai is an appealing destination – with the best of Asia, none of the hassle and all on a manageable bite-sized scale.

If one thing defines this gem of a place, it is its temples. There are more than 300 in the city and more than a 1,000 across the surrounding province. Each is different – from graceful wooden structures adorned with delicate carvings, to brightly mirrored halls and golden pagodas – or chedis – which shimmer in the sun and dazzle the eye. All are, without exception, beautiful.

Perhaps the finest is Wat Chedi Luang (Temple of the Big Pagoda) in the heart of the walled old town. An oasis of shady trees and ancient buildings, its centrepiece is the towering base of a brick pagoda which was toppled in an earthquake in 1545. The hulking ruin, studded with carved stone elephant heads, still towers above the low skyline of the old town.

It was once the largest building in Lanna – the historic kingdom of which Chiang Mai was capital – and once held that most revered of figures to Thai Buddhists, the Emerald Buddha, now housed in the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

It remains a special place for Chiang Mai folk, housing the City Pillar Shrine – the embodiment of the town’s prosperity and stability. While only men are allowed to enter the shrine, such rules are rare. As long as you are dressed modestly with legs and shoulders covered, and act with respect, you are allowed in any temple. To escape the heat in a temple while orange-robed monks chant hypnotically is a magical experience. Most Thai boys and men spend time as a Buddhist monk, and many speak English and are keen to chat about their faith over silver cups of iced water. I certainly found it enlightening.

The crowning glory in this city of temples, though, is the riot of gold which sits glimmering on the mountain which towers over the city – Doi Suthep. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which dates back to the 1300s, is one of Asia’s most sacred temples, perched high on a forested peak on the edge of the national park which shares its name.

The temple is believed to house a piece of the shoulder bone of the Buddha. The site was selected by mounting the bone on a sacred white elephant which wandered the jungle until it died – that being the site for the temple.

The temple is reached by taxi or one of the shared two-bench 'red trucks' up a steep mountain road into the forest, followed by a 306-step staircase lined with glazed dragons. The complex, centered on a blindingly bright golden pagoda surrounded by Buddha statues and shrine is awe-inspiring, almost too beautiful to be true, the only sound that of chanting, the rattle of fortune-tellers' sticks and tinkling temple bells.

Thai Buddhism is laid-back and tolerant but taken seriously. And it’s not just spiritual sustenance which is taken seriously – so is the feeding of the body. Food is a passion without equal here, and there can be nowhere on earth that offers so much variety of flavour.

For a real taste of Chiang Mai head out to the streets and browse on such delights as mango in coconut cream, rich red and green curries, sweet jackfruit and pungent durian, spicy curry noodles (Kao Soi) or Pad Thai – the ubiquitous feast of rice noodles, egg, dried shrimp, peanut and chilli. If you are more adventurous than me, you can also have your fill of crispy-fried mealworms, water beetles and grasshoppers. I preferred to fill up on delicious fried chicken and fiery ‘som tam’ green papaya salad.

If you also love Thai food what better thing to take home with you than a basic grounding in the cuisine handed down by a master chef.

We spent a fun afternoon at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School (thaicookeryschool.com) learning how to prepare spicy tom yam soup, perfect Pad Thai and the creamiest most fragrant green curry among other delights. Our teacher Pon ("Call me Pon-tastic!") was hilarious – turning the serious business of cookery into a hoot.

Back in chilly Oxfordshire, Chiang Mai seems a distant dream. Fortunately I can still summon up a bit of the magic in a few minutes at my wok. The sweet smell of fresh basil, coriander and lemongrass takes me straight back to that lovely city surrounded by hills and paddy fields. I can almost sense the elephant about to give me a good soaking!


  • GET THERE: Fly Qatar Airways from Birmingham

Known for industry firsts, Qatar Airways is the national carrier of the State of Qatar, and is one of the fastest-growing airlines operating one of the youngest fleets in the world.

Qatar Airways offers a daily non-stop service from Birmingham to Doha where passengers can seamlessly transfer at the state-of-the-art hub, Hamad International Airport, to over 150 destinations in regions including Asia, Australasia, Africa and the Middle East. On board Qatar Airways Boeing 787 Dreamliner, passengers have a choice of 22 seats in Business Class and 232 Economy Class seats. All seats feature individual television screens and on board Wi-Fi, with Business Class seats reclining into a fully flat bed.

Go to qatarairways.com/en-gb/onboard.html

  • STAY at the Shangri-La Hotel - 89/8 Chang Klan Road, Muang, Chiang Mai 50100, Thailand +66 53253888. Shangri-la.com

Part of the international luxury hotel group, this oasis of calm is an easy walk from the night markets and central area. It features a pool with bar, spa and choice of Thai/ international and Szechuan restaurants. Rooms are finished to a high quality with Thai teak and silk and look out over the city or to the mountains. The perfect base from which to explore and then wind-down.