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Take a Trek to the North

By Bertil Lintner

Exploring Chiang Mai: City, Valley & Mountains, by Oliver Hargreave. Within Books, Chiang Mai. 495 baht ($11.50)

Chiang Mai & Northern Thailand, by Joe Cummings. Lonely Planet, $17.99

Map: The Mae Hong Son Loop: North-West Thailand, (scale: 1:375,000) The Golden Triangle Rider. 175 baht ($4)

Map: Thailand North, (scale 1:750,000) Berndtson & Berndtson. 189 baht ($4.40)

TRAVELLERS HAVE BEEN COMING to northern Thailand for decades to see the old walled city of Chiang Mai, and visit hill-tribe villages in the surrounding mountains. But in more recent years, the area has begun to attract a new kind of adventure traveller keen to venture out into the countryside on motorcycles or mountain bikes, or paddle down the rivers in canoes or kayaks. There is now a flurry of new guides and maps to meet the demand.

Among them, Lonely Planet's new guide to northern Thailand and the third, updated version of Oliver Hargreave's Exploring Chiang Mai stand out above the rest. And rather than being competitors, these two guidebooks complement each other.

The Lonely Planet guide, written by old Thailand-hand Joe Cummings, follows the travel-book company's usual format: detailed information about hotels, guest houses, restaurants, health, how to get around and general facts as well as maps of even smaller places such as Mae Sariang and Nan. It also covers all 13 northern provinces and includes a wealth of information not available in the general Lonely Planet guide to Thailand.

Here are details about how to go trekking in the hills, where to rent motorbikes, what to look for when you rent one, and what to look out for when you ride through the countryside. You can also find out about where to get the best steaks in Pai, how to explore the caves north of Mae Hong Son or go kayaking in the area's rivers, and where to find a meditation retreat in Chom Thong or a herbal sauna in Mae Sot.

Hargreave's guidebook covers only the Chiang Mai valley, and out-of-town trips to nearby towns and villages. But what it lacks in breadth it makes up for in depth, with detailed coverage of the people, culture and history of the area as well as the ancient Lanna kingdom. There is even a chronology of important dates in Lanna history and detailed drawings of Chiang Mai's main temples. The book is also full of very useful maps, information about hotels, resorts and restaurants--and even a list of dishes and phrases that will guide you though the maze of Thai cooking. It is much more than a guide book: It is a collection of well-written essays about northern Thailand and northern Thai culture, interspersed with attractive photographs and other illustrations.

For out-of-town trips, some additional maps may be needed for the bigger picture. Thailand North is the most up-to-date map and it covers roughly the same area as the Lonely Planet guide. It also has city maps of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son.

The Mae Hong Son Loop refers to the network of roads that goes west from Chiang Mai via Mae Sariang and Mae Hong Son to Pai and back again to Chiang Mai. The big scale of this map makes it useful even for bikers and cyclists, and the condition of each road is clearly marked: you can see whether it's asphalt or all-weather dirt, suitable for four-wheel-drives or motorable only during the dry season. A new version will include city and environs maps.

Both maps have been carefully researched to avoid embarrassing mistakes, which are all too common in many other maps of the area, such as showing nonexistent reservoirs or roads that have either not yet been built or which have disappeared.

Happy travelling.

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, November 21, 2002

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