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Thursday 14 December 2017

Living the high life in spirited Chiang Mai

MONDAY: Chiang Mai looks good as we arrive and start with a highly efficient check-in at the Furama Hotel, a three-star offering that is better than many four-star hotels I have been in.

It has two pools surrounded by quasi-religious statues. One is an enchanting rooftop pool with a view across the valley to the mountain from which the town's iconic temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, beckons.

TUESDAY: The temple is a spiritual place, where people carry flowers as they do circuits and nests of candles fill the air with a spiritual sizzle.

Mountain towns in Asia are different from their crowded lowland contemporaries, Chiang Mai is villagey and almost sprawling, with a European-style, 17th-century walled town at its heart. The night market is full of stuff from China.

WEDNESDAY: There are 30,000 rooms in Chiang Mai and 350 hotels, ranging from the D2 discount chain to five-star product at about €40 a night.

THURSDAY: A day at the Chiang Mai school for the blind on Arak Road, splashing paint and generally making a mess as my taste of a Voluntourism project. At meal time the children put their hand up for more food and we rush down to fill their plates.

Then they sing and perform a cacophany of local instruments and the whole experience is less awkward than I imagined. I am a critic of supply side well-meaning voluntourism, especially as the travel aspect of it is hopelessly marked up, but when you make a child smile it is difficult to chaff.

FRIDAY: At night Chiang Mai offers one of the liveliest scenes on the planet. At the Riverside restaurant, where there is a terrific live band.

In the Bali room at Fabrique, the elders listen to the high-soaring singer while the young 'uns hang out in the techno dancing room. In the sardine-packed Mandalay, a woman in our group got hit on by 20 fresh-faced youths in the course of a 30-yard scrum push to the bar. At the youth magnet, Warm Up, I felt like everybody's grandfather.

SATURDAY: The Thai tourist board says the biggest number of complaints they get each year is because tourists are ferried into shops they do not want to visit. When tourists are brought to the Royal Gems shop, a 40pc commission goes to the driver, which gives a hint of what the mark-up is like. One driver got €3,500 in one day last year.

SUNDAY: It is worth travelling with Emirates just to watch movies on its new seat-back video screen. At 20in in business class, it is way ahead of the competition, and economy passengers get a 12.1in screen, bigger than most business class and an increase from the 10.9in screen of old. The wine and food are good, too, and the lounge in Bangkok has the best lounge menu I have ever seen.

I need it. From Bangkok I have 3,279km to go to Perth (I looked it up in the lounge, Chateauneuf du Pape in hand), so I am about to fly 4,892km in the wrong direction to fly to Dubai to then fly another 9,022km to get to Perth.

What a strange life I lead.

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