The fast, the slow and the full stop enthrall Neil Lancefield.

"Ooh, ahh, hot," I yelp, as an elderly Thai man dips his foot into a bucket of warm charcoal before pressing sesame oil on to my back.

The sizzling sound makes me wince, but the soothing effect on my muscles reveals my initial fear of being cooked like a piece of fried chicken was unfounded.

I presume the man's foot has developed a Kevlar-like quality, as he grins at me while returning it to the heat, before going to work on my legs.

A yam khang massage - using a technique dating back hundreds of years - is one of many unexpected treats on my trip to northern Thailand.

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The country's authorities have ambitious plans to boost annual revenue from overseas tourists by 8 per cent, and they hope to achieve this by encouraging people to explore lesser-known areas.

Chiang Mai, the former seat of the Lanna kingdom, is renowned for its temples and has been on the southeast Asia backpackers' trail for decades.

Holidaymakers coming to Thailand for a week or two have often preferred to head south to islands such as Phuket and Ko Phi Phi Don, as I did on my only previous visit to the country more than a decade ago.

But in recent years, Chiang Mai has developed a reputation as a city-break destination and the perfect base for exploring this relaxed and fascinating region, which is largely rural and has swathes of rich forestry.

Wat Pharathat Doi Suthep temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo / 123RF
Wat Pharathat Doi Suthep temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo / 123RF

It seems like every street corner, shop or restaurant has a portrait of the king and queen.

One of their most notable achievements has been to persuade the hill tribes of northern Thailand to stop growing opium poppies, which harmed the land and provided only a tiny income.

The royals ensured they received help in switching to crops such as coffee, carrots, peaches and flowers. Beginning in the late 1960s, the project resulted in the tribes becoming self-sustained with a better quality of life.

The scheme also led to community-based tourism initiatives, like the village of Ban Rai Kong Khing - the site of my unusual massage.

With rising debts and few jobs available, residents began using locally-sourced organic produce to make items to sell, such as soap with honey extracts and mosquito repellents from lemongrass oil.

After wiping the excess oil from my back, I am introduced to a woman who has the unenviable task of showing me how she uses paper to make decorative flags sold for use in homes during a celebration.

My ragged attempt is destined for recycling rather than the village shop, but my instructor upholds her nation's Land of Smiles reputation by beaming at me.

One place where my shabby attempts at getting hands-on would not go down well is Chiang Mai's Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden. It's Thailand's first international-standard botanic garden and features a number of rare plants. And for those of us not particularly green-fingered, the main attraction is the canopy walkway.

Meandering through treetops along the 504m long route ensures a panoramic view of the mist-shrouded Doi Suthep-Pui mountains.

It feels as if I have the entire walkway to myself and with nothing but the sound of birds, the environment could not be more different to the chaos of Bangkok.

The Dhara Dhevi resort is another location where it feels I am the only person around, thanks to its 24ha size. It's a 10-minute drive from the centre of Chiang Mai but it looks as if I'm entering a separate city as I pass over a bridge and through a gate, surrounded by high walls.

I'm not surprised to be told that the site was designed to look like a city of the Lanna kingdom, which covered much of what is now northern Thailand from around the 13th to 18th centuries.

There is a prayer hall modelled on a Buddhist temple, amphitheatre, market, paddy fields and buffalo. It looks incredibly old but has been open for only 10 years.

The villa I am staying in is equally impressive. Laid out over two floors, it has a four-poster bed, huge bathroom with whirlpool bath, lounge and even a piano.

I also stay at the Siripanna Villa Resort & Spa, closer to the city centre. Its most striking feature is an outdoor swimming pool based on the region's ancient Mae Ping river.

People enjoying a walk on the canopy walkway in in Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden, Chiang Mai. Photo / 123RF
People enjoying a walk on the canopy walkway in in Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden, Chiang Mai. Photo / 123RF

The perfume of frangipani trees wafts as I breaststroke my way around a lap of the pool, shaped in the outline of a square.

The Siripanna's location means it's just a few minutes in a taxi for a visit to Chiang Mai's night market.

Dozens of stalls line the streets selling traditional northern Thai food, such as spicy sausages, mild curries and sticky rice.

A sign in the Siripanna's reception stating that pungent durian fruit are banned from the premises has made me determined to give it a try, so I am thrilled when I find a stand selling dozens of them.

They have a reputation of smelling like hell and tasting like heaven, but one revolting mouthful is all I need to know the hotel management is spot on.

My last few days in Chiang Mai are spent experiencing some of the city's more adventurous activities.

Leaping off a 50m platform, I hurtle between jungle tree tops at the Flight of the Gibbon zipline tour.

The 5km course consists of a combination of ziplines - including one said to be the longest in Asia at 800m - and swaying bridges.

It's impossible not to let out a loud "whoa!" on the first few crossings, until the thrill of flying replaces the fear of falling.

Next up on my adrenalin-pumped itinerary is racing a wooden cart down a steep, bumpy track at Mon Cham.

The controls are simple - steer with your feet and keep hold of the brake - and I am soon in first place. But just as I begin thinking of victory, I hit a rock and veer to the right, crashing into a ditch.

After eventually reaching the finish line, I climb out of my vehicle to discover we're on a hill ridge overlooking a spectacular landscape of green mountains.

My heart rate settles down and I sit on a bench to soak up the panoramic view, accompanied by a butterfly.

The pace slows further on a visit to forest monastery Wat Umong, where a group meditation session led by a monk leaves me with calm, positive thoughts.

Sitting on a mat for half an hour, I have nothing to do but breathe.

Like everything I've encountered in Chiang Mai, it's another unexpected treat.

Transports of delight

Once you've arrived, getting around Thailand is easy, writes Eli Orzessek.

Tuk Tuk
Everyone knows a trip to Thailand isn't complete without a hoon on one of these ubiquitous open-air taxis. Essentially a rickshaw with an added engine, the three-wheelers are a popular way for tourists to get around Bangkok. Fares vary depending on the distance travelled, the time of the day and even the mood of the driver - so be prepared to haggle. Be wary of tuk tuk scams, when a driver offers to take you on a tour of "secret" shopping spots - where they get a handy commission - just say no, and continue.

Longtail Boat
Often spotted on the beaches of Krabi and Phuket, these distinctive, traditional vessels are a memorable way to get out on the water and around shallow bays, creeks and caves. They're also found around the khlongs of Bangkok, where you can explore the wats, riverside houses and temples of the area. You'll want to get a group together to do so, as you need to rent the entire boat. The cost depends on how long you'll be out, but they're generally cheap and cheerful.

Overnight train
One of the most popular ways to travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is by sleeper train - it's an experience in itself. It's best to book in advance, as it can get crowded, and you'll need your passport handy on the journey. First class gives you a private cubicle, which isn't that expensive compared to other overnight train trips. Second class varies depending on the train, but usually involves open bunks in a space shared by four people. Otherwise, if you're as brave as you are cheap, you can sit on a seat for 15-plus hours in third class.

FACT BOX
Getting there
Thai Airways flies from Auckland to Chiang Mai, via Bangkok. Return Economy Class fares start from $1079.

- AAP