Landing on a sunny fall afternoon in Chiang Mai is a breath of fresh air after the overwhelming sensory overload of Bangkok. Spread across a valley framed by steep, verdant hills, Thailand’s third largest city is a mosaic of contemporary buildings and the elaborately gabled roofs of its some 300 Buddhist temples (or wats). At the heart of this panoramic vista, a 2000-meter (1.25-mile) square medieval moat surrounds what was once the capital of an ancient state that spread from eastern Burma (also known as Myanmar) to the western valleys of Laos, the Lanna Kingdom.
Founded in 1296 A.D., Chiang Mai (new town in Thai) quickly became an important cultural and religious center. It also prospered as the main trading hub between southern china and the seaports of Burma. Until successive military invasions by its neighbors set off its decline and ultimately caused its rulers to abandon the city in the eighteenth century. Far away and hard to reach from Bangkok 430 miles (700 kilometers) to the south, Chiang Mai became an overlooked provincial town in the foothills of the Himalayas. This helped preserve its cultural legacy and laidback charm until it was re-discovered by late-twentieth century tourists. Today, it is considered the cultural capital of Thailand.
A Major Center of Buddhism
Little remains of the walls that once rose behind the moat, other than the four entrance gates and corner bastions that were extensively restored a few decades ago. But within the ancient perimeter, the medieval heydays of the Lanna Kingdom endure, with over thirty wats and their adjoining monasteries, a reminder that Chiang was and remains an important center of Buddhism.
Wander around the maze of narrow side streets of the Old City, lined with homes and every manner of small businesses. Between browsing for local crafts and sampling the offerings of the ubiquitous food stalls, you are sure to come across some of the most ancient and revered wats in the city. The most visited are Wat Chiang Man, the oldest in Chiang Mai, constructed in the early fourteenth century during the reign of King Mengrai, who lived in the temple while overseeing the construction of his capital, and Wat Phra Singh.
Built in the latter part of the fourteenth century, Wat Prah Singh houses Phra Chao Thong Tip, the most venerated Buddha statue in northern Thailand, made of an alloy of gold and copper, cast in 1477. Equally prestigious is the nearby Chedi Luang (royal chedi, or pagoda), once part of the official temple of the Lanna kings. Built as a reliquary to house royal ashes, Chedi Luang grew to be 144 feet wide and 282 feet tall before being heavily damaged by an earthquake or invaders (or both, depending on who you ask) in the mid-sixteen century. Its imposing ruin remains an iconic structure in Chiang Mai.
My personal favorite, however, is the nearby mid-nineteenth century Wat Pan Tao, for its stark viham (main assembly hall) made of ancient teak. It was originally constructed and briefly used as a royal residence for the then local ruler, Chao Mahawong before being refurbished as a monastery in 1876. But traces of its previous purpose remained, especially the unusual front gable of the temple, decorated with the image of a peacock over a sleeping dog (the zodiac symbol of the king’s birth year).
Secular Arts and Culture
When you need a break from all this temple hopping, the Chiang Mai City Art and Cultural Center, located in the old town hall, features permanent exhibits that touch on all aspects of Chiang Mai’s history, people and culture. And right in front of the building you can’t miss the large bronze statue of the Three Kings. No, not those three kings. This monument pays homage to the founding fathers of Chiang Mai, King Mengrai and his two friends King Ramkamhaeng of Sukothai and King Ngam Muang of Payao who, according the city lore, worked together to create the city.
For those interested in the evolution of the unique northern style of building design, the Lanna Architecture Museum is located on Rajdamnoen Road, just a few minutes’ walk away from the Three Kings.
Sunday Walking Market
A colorful Chiang Mai tradition, the Walking Market unfolds every Sunday from late afternoon until midnight along the whole 1.2-kilometer (4,000 foot) length of Rajdamnoen Road, the Old City’s main east-west axis. The street is closed to traffic then and becomes a street bazaar that offers a vast range of local handicrafts, clothing and bric-a-brac. Food stalls set up shop in the courtyards of the temples, and with five of them along Rajdamnoen Road, including Wat Prah Singh, there are plenty of opportunities to sample real Northern Thai food. It’s a favorite spot for local people to browse and socialize as well as for tourists, and by early evening it becomes seriously crowded. As for the shopping? It takes a bit determined browsing and friendly bargaining, but some quality items can be found at very reasonable prices.
Good to Know
- Getting There – Chiang Mai is easily accessible from Bangkok via multiple airlines, with departures throughout the day from both Suvarnabhumi Airport, also known as (New) Bangkok International Airport and Don Muang International. The latter is now used mainly by low cost airlines. The flight takes 60 to 70 minutes.
- Getting Around – the Old City is a compact, near perfect square. Distances between two points are rarely more than a 30-minute walk. And with so much to see along the way, the best way to get around is by foot. But if you don’t feel like walking, tuk-tuks are for you. These three-wheel open-sided taxis are lined up near all the tourist areas. The cost varies with your destination and bargaining talent and can be anything within the 50 to 100 THB (one-twenty-five to three dollars U.S.) range. For the daring souls, there are songthaews, the red pickup trucks that are the standard means of travel for locals. You can wave one down anywhere, as long as it’s headed in your direction. The driver normally doesn’t speak English so you need to give him a reference point. When you see your destination, just ring the bell to stop the truck. The price is 20 THB (fifty cents U.S) within the Old Town and a few kilometers out. It then increases the farther you go.
- Where to Stay – Tourism has become an important economic growth factor for Chiang Mai, which now welcomes millions of visitors annually. A vast array of hospitality options have developed throughout the city to accommodate every budget and preference, from traditional guesthouses to slick new luxury hotels (although the latter are mainly outside the moat.) My personal favorite Old City hotel is Tamarind Village, a charming contemporary version of a traditional Lanna mountain village. This intimate two-story property is laid out around a internal courtyards filled with fragrant tropical vegetation. Within the tranquil walled compound, every detail pays homage to the Lanna Thai cultural and artistic heritage. Tamarind Village, 50/1 Rajdamnoen Road, Sriphoom, Muang, Chiang Mai,50200 Thailand. Contact: e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Tel: + 66 53 418896-9
- Where to Eat – Anywhere! Thailand is famous for it cuisine bursting with flavors and spices, but Chiang Mai is a foodies Nirvana. From sai ua (spiced lemongrass sausage), a Chiang Mai signature dish from a stall at the market, to the perfectly grilled mu ping (pork skewers) stand, and the ubiquitous bowl of khao soi, soft cooked egg noodles and minced chicken, served with a mild, coconut-based curry and topped with crisp fried noodles, it never tastes quite the same twice but it’s always wonderful. Then there are all the restaurants where a new generation of chefs blends traditional local flavors with touches from the world over for extravagantly delicious fusion dishes. The main dilemma is that you can only eat so much in one day.
- Visiting – Most wats are open from early morning to late afternoon. Whenever you pass a one that looks interesting, just take off your shoes, step over the threshold (not on it) and walk in. You will be welcome and you may find that the monks and novices are often glad to speak with foreigners (and practice their English). However, make sure you are dressed appropriately. Tops should cover your shoulders and bottoms should reach your knees.
- Shopping – Remember to bargain for your purchases, it is expected of you and it’s all part of the fun. Good-humored bargaining is practically a national sport in Thailand. Even though the prices may appear quite reasonable by your normal standards, you should always bargain and try to get at least another 20 to 25 percent off the asking price.