Thailand doesn’t only need to be about beaches and nightlife; Chiang Mai, the cultural centre of the north of the country, is so much more. Situated on the banks of the Ping river, at the foot of the Doi Pui mountain, Chiang Mai is surrounded by hills and mountains covered in dense teakwood forests, where woodcutters will still use working elephants to move and transport heavy tree trunks.
When approaching the city from the air (there are regular connecting flights from Bangkok at very reasonable rates) the golden roof of the Wat Prathat temple on top of the Doi Suthep holy mountain are among the first things that catch the eye, and a sight that is likely to be remembered for a long time.
However, there are ways of approaching Chiang Mai and see even more – much more in fact, as the journey lasts some eight hours – and that is by train. Using the local buses is not recommended; roads are narrow and traffic unruly. Once safely arrived in the city, you can choose to explore it on foot, as the city centre is quite compact, or to go in local style, either in so-called Tuk-Tuks, a kind of motor-powered rickshaw, or by Songthaew, an open pick-up truck with seats. Seasoned travellers advise giving preference to the Tuk-tuks.
This 700-year old city, which is also called ‘The rose of the north’, is still steeped in traditional Thai ways and customs and offers a wealth of experience to the traveller. Inhabited by a colourful mixture of northern mountain tribes and the northern Thais, or kon mueang, which consider themselves to be the ‘true’ Thais; it has retained much of their cultural values and traditions across the centuries. The friendliness in this city is legendary, and as a visitor you could not wish for more gentle and polite hosts.
Although Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand after Bangkok, it only has about 5% of Bangkok’s population, making it an ideal escape from the busy hustle and bustle of the capital. Despite the unavoidable modernisation of recent years, the charming and laidback city provides plenty of tranquil spots and literally hundreds of splendid teakwood temples, a wealth of unspoilt tradition and a multitude of other sights such as a moat and bustling street markets. As a result, Chiang Mai is not only popular among tourists, but also among the Thai themselves, who in summer seek refuge from the sweltering heat of the south. There are also highly recreational hot springs in San Kampaeng, only 45 minutes from Chiang Mai, which offer a unique bathing experience and recreational huts for the perfect relaxation.
There is also plenty of excellent shopping to engage in: Chiang Mai lives up to its reputation as the Thai centre of traditional handicraft and art and there are high-class silk, wool, silver and pottery products to buy and to admire.
Even the more adventurous tourist will find plenty to keep you busy, from adventure trips to the national parks, waterfalls and elephant riding to river rafting and trekking in the mountains to the north of the city.
History of Chiang Mai
The origins of Chiang Mai, also called ‘The rose of the north‘, can be traced back more than 700 years. The city had an unusual start – not, as one might imagine, in Thailand, but in Southern China, in the Yunnan province. This province housed a successful Siamese Kingdom named Nanchao, reigning from the middle of the 7th century for 604 years. However, in 1254 the kingdom was invaded by Kublai Khan, whereupon many of its inhabitants fled south towards the northern Thailand of today.
The migrants laid the foundation for several cities, including Chiang Mai, (meaning New Town), at the foot of the Doi Suthep and on the west bank of the Ping river, in 1256. However, at first the founder of Chiang Mai, King Mengrai, had to defeat the Haripoonshais, who been ruling culture, art and religion for 600 years.
Luckily, the many spectacular architectural styles and Buddhist art forms were maintained during King Mengrai’s rule, and can still be admired today, for instance in the small town of Lamphun, about 30 km south of Chiang Mai. King Mengrai settled about 180 km further north in a town called Chiang Rai, where he founded the Lannatai Kingdom, the ‘Kingdom of 1,000 paddy fields’, originally a very small kingdom indeed, which however expanded over the next 30 years to include the entire north of the country.
In 1291 Chiang Mai became the new capital of King Mengrai’s kingdom, and a town wall and a moat were built to protect the new capital. A wise foresight as it turned out, as there was trouble on the horizon: The southern part of Thailand, earlier Kingdom of Sukhothai under King Ramkhamhaeng, had, after initially being supportive of his dwarf neighbour, started attempts to subordinate it. Due to its position between Burma and the areas under Siamese influence, Chiang Mai was subsequently destroyed several times. Today the crumbling town walls, built of red brick, bear witness to a violent past.
Between 1556 and 1774 Chiang Mai was ruled by the Burmese, who imposed many strict and downright cruel restrictions on the population. The population was finally so distraught with the imposed rulers that it abandoned the city altogether, making Chiang Mai a ghost town for the 20 years to follow.
In 1799, King Taksin, a Prince from the Lanna dynasty, won a major battle against the Burmese and drove the occupants out of Chiang Mai. The town was reinhabited and for the next 100 years remained the capital of the Lanna kingdom, blissfully ignored by the richer areas to the south of the country. Only when Laos and Burma were invaded by France and the United Kingdom, Chiang Mai was rediscovered by the Thai government which promptly sent a governor to the town to ensure Thai territorial rights and forestall a takeover by the colonial powers.
1921 saw the completion of the railroad line from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, opening up the region to the rest of the country.
The province of Chiang Mai, known for the friendliness and politeness of its people, is located about 700 km from Bangkok, on the Mae Ping River basin. The ‘Rose of the north’, as the city is also called, sits at 300 metres above sea level and is surrounded by high mountains, amongst others Doi Inthanon, which with 2,565 metres is the highest mountain in Thailand. The area stretches across about 20,000 km², with its widest point being about 130 kilometres, and the longest 320 kilometres.
A stretch of mountains to the north as well as the Kok River in places separate the province from Burma. The mountains are mostly covered by jungle, and some of it lies within the national parks Doi Inthanon, home to the country’s most beautiful waterfall, the Mae Ya, and more than 300 species of birds, Doi Suthep-Pui, popular among botanists, astronomers and bikers, Mae Ping, Sri Lanna, where visitors can stay in houses floating on the river, Huay Nam Dang, Ob Luam, famous for its hot springs and limestone caves, and Chiang Dao, a tranquil resort also ideal for bird watching, all which display an abundance of flora and fauna.
Many areas here are still home to the hill tribes, which still amount to more than 13% of the population of the Chiang Mai province, including the Hmong, Yao, Lahu, Lisu, Akha and Karen. The river Ping, one of the major tributaries of the Chao Phraya River, also originates in the Chiang Dao Mountains.
The mountains and forests covering most of the province give birth to several streams and tributaries (such as the Mae Jam, Mae Ngud, and Mae Klang) which in turn feed important rivers and irrigation canals (such as the Muang and Faay), proving the water needed by Chiang Mai’s agriculture. Along of the banks of Chain Mai’s largest river, Ping, lies the flat and fertile valley area.
The popularity of Chiang Mai is partly due to its temperate climate. Temperatures from mid-November to January average between 13C and 28C (56F and 83F) in Chiang Mai; the hills are even colder. The temperatures in Chiang Mai begin to climb in February, to range between 17C and 36C in the hottest season, in March to May.
During the monsoon, which begins in May and ends in October, the temperatures drop somewhat, but the nights are much like daytime which makes air conditioning (or the traditional ceiling fans) seem like a very good idea.
During August and September the streets in the city can flood on occasion. Otherwise rainfall is more sporadic and even invigorating.
The cool season, November to February, is ideal for visiting the province as the temperatures range between 15 degrees Celsius and night and 28 degrees during the day. Thai city dwellers also visit Chiang Mai at this time if they can get away, to escape the humid heat of Bangkok. Higher up in the mountains there is even occasional sleet, however no snow ever adorns the mountain peaks of Chiang Mai.
This beautiful part of Thailand, with its warm and friendly people, breathtaking mountains, stunning waterfalls, traditional and rich architecture and a culture of its own also offers many attractions that the tourist can visit at leisure.
Walking around the quaint little lanes the tourist will come across many temples within the former city walls, such as Wat Pan On, which is close to the bustling Thae Pae Gate. Between this gate and the river Ping lies the main shopping area, also home to the popular night bazaar.
The Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is a must for anyone wishing to get a feeling for ancient Thai culture. Located about 15 km west of the city, the easiest way for a tourist to get there is by taxi or Tuk-Tuk, a journey of about half an hour. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is one of the most important and picturesque temples in Thailand, and alone the view from its location on the Suthep mountain, at an altitude of 1,150 metres, is worth the 300-step climb from the parking lot. But don’t worry, there is also a cog railway for those less athletically inclined!
Having reached the temple, which is also very popular among the local population, there is a whole range of colourful buildings with gilded roofs, stupas with extravagant golden carvings, monuments, statues and bronze elephants on display.
And the view from the temple across the city of Chiang Mai is spectacular – one of the most beautiful that Thailand has to offer – and that says it all.
Please note: Visitors are only allowed to enter the inner courtyard when properly dressed; shorts, tops or sleeveless shirts are not permitted. The monks have an array of sack-like garments on the ready, but ideally be aware that you are visiting a sacred place and dress adequately before leaving your lodgings. Also please be prepared to remove your shoes before entering a temple.
A few km further down the road that passes Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is the Phu-Phing –the winter palace of the royal family, situated on the Doi Buak Ha, a hill next to Doi Suthep. The palace was built in 1962 and the grounds, including beautifully landscaped gardens that are famous for their orchids, are open to visitors when the royal family is not in residence.
But Chiang Mai has so much more to offer. The sunset at Wat Suan Dok is something that no photographer would like to miss, (there is also a 500- year old bronze of Buddha, one of the largest in Thailand, to see there), or take a day trip to the sprawling Chiang Mai Zoo, but arrange for transportation as the grounds are vast, and need to be as they are home to 6,000 residents!
However, if you should happen to have fallen in love with the elephants, and many tourists have, an even better way of meeting these unique giants is at the Mae Sa Elephant training centre, where you can watch them playing a game of football, or even take a ride through the countryside on your special favourite. But only after first having pampered it with sugarcane and bananas of course!
What to do
In Chiang Mai, boredom will be the least of your worries. Time management might be a bigger worry, as the picturesque city, also known as Rose of the North, has so much to offer that you will never want to use your return ticket. And that’s a promise.
Having visited the most important architectural treasures and landmarks, shopped art and handicraft till you drop, and explored the scenic alleyways and narrow winding roads of the old town, you might wish for something new and slightly more adventurous than bargaining for carved and delicately painted artwork. You are now ready for what tour guides call ‘soft adventures’.
And even these are not far away; you can start your adventure in Chiang Mai itself! River rafting kicks off right in the town, outside some of the hotels on the bank of the river Ping. For the more experienced, and adventurous, Chiang Mai is probably the best place in Thailand to go whitewater rafting as the nearby Mae Tang River has a number of spectacular grade three and four rapids. Kayaking is also offered for those with experience, and so it trekking, which has been one of the main attractions for tourists for more than two decades. The mountainous landscape is ideally suited for experiences beyond the beaten track, such as, for instance, visiting some of the remote hillside tribes that have inhabited the area since history began. There are plenty of inexpensive guesthouses catering to trekkers, embracing the tourist with traditional Northern Thai hospitality and delicious regional cooking. There are several trekking packages available from tour providers, featuring between one to five days of unique trekking experience.
There are also comprehensive tours, which provide appetizers of the various activities to the participants. A one-day tour for instance manages to incorporate elephant rides, oxcart rides, bamboo raft rides, a visit to a mountain tribe, watching elephants at work, and visiting an orchid and butterfly farm. But you can also do all of these things, as well as visit the monkey centre, swim in the waterfalls, and pet a few snakes at your own leisure, providing you’ve got the time and courage (especially for the latter activity).
Trekking is not recommended without a guide, and white-water rafting can be very dangerous, here caution is strongly advised.
As for the elephant camps, there are several where you can watch these (usually) gentle giants bathing, or even painting, there are also show elements such as elephant bands (with the elephants playing the drums etc. However, as an animal lover, do take care to only give your business to such camps that treat their animals well. And if you always wanted to try your hand at being a mahout, there are classes to teach you this too!
The most recent addition to Chiang Mai’s range of adventure activities are treetop canopy tours, with sky bridges and platforms high up in the tree tops and ziplines suspending you from 40 metres above the ground for three km.
Other available activities include mountain and quad biking, and if you feel ready for more tranquil activities after all this, there are also classes in Thai cooking available – enabling you to recreate the feeling of this wonderful experience when you’re back home again.
Map of Chiang Mai
Map of Chiang Mai