Features on Asian Art, Culture, History & Travel
Archives > THAILAND > Visit Chiang Mai
Visit Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai: Thailand’s Northern Rose
Chiang Mai has just entered its 710th year – and, happily, it shows. This sophisticated northern city, long praised for its temperate fruits, delicious regional cuisine, and beautiful women, is steeped in history. Crenelated battlements, crumbling walls, wide, deep and silent moats – Chiang Mai has them all, as well as many historical buildings, glittering temples, the best zoo in Thailand, a national park on its back door, a night safari, and a plethora of colourful national minority peoples.
Yet that's not all. Visitors to the "northern rose" will also find a wide selection of world-class hotels, an array of restaurants offering a wide selection of different cuisines from Thai, through Chinese and Vietnamese, to Indian, Arabic and Italian.
For those seeking activity by day, the city offers first-class sporting activities, including well-equipped gyms, Olympic-size swimming pools, and some of the best golf courses in Southeast Asia. Night-time amusements are also plentiful, with the biggest and best appointed disco north of Bangkok, a stunning new theatre, and traditional Northern Thai historical drama and dancing at a number of beautiful venues.
Chiang Mai – "New City" in Thai – was first established as the capital of the Lan Na Kingdom by King Mangrai the Great in January, 1297. The city grew and prospered throughout the 14th and 15h centuries, before succumbing to Burmese conquest in 1558. Over the next two and a quarter centuries, until its liberation by Prince Kavila in 1774, Burma remained the dominant influence in the north.
At the time, the Burmese wars were disastrous for the people of Lan Na. When Kavila first entered Chiang Mai he found the city deserted and in ruins, with the population scattered. In 1796 he began the task of rebuilding, surrounding his city with massive, ochre-coloured brick walls and wide moats to keep the enemy at bay. Today these walls and moats delineate the heart of the old quarter, and lend the city much of its charm. Walking by the shaded moats, a popular haunt of local fishermen and splashing children, remains an enduring delight.
Other positive effects of the long Burmese occupation are not hard to find. At several locations within the moats, and especially at Wat Pa Pao in the city's historic Chang Pheuak ward, are gorgeous examples of Burmese and Shan architecture – Kipling's ‘winking wonders' transported, unexpectedly, to northern Thailand. Perhaps the finest example is at Wat Pa Pao, where, amidst crazily-tilted gateways and time-warped walls, Shan teachers can be found teaching second and third generation migrant children to read the complex, rounded Shan script.
Also redolent of Burma is the traditional northern cuisine. Visitors to Chiang Mai may best experience this during the day at one of the city's many noodle restaurants serving khao soi, a chicken curry broth popular throughout North Thailand. Served with flat wheat noodles, coconut milk, fresh lime, pickled cabbage and chopped red onions, optional additions include thick soy sauce, fried chilli paste and fish sauce. Always halal, this dish was first introduced to Chiang Mai by Muslim caravaneers from neighbouring South China.
One very good reason for visiting Chiang Mai is the Night Bazaar. Here, at a modern covered market by the city's central Changklan Road, an incredible variety of goods are offered for sale every night between about five PM and midnight. Here one can find a wide range of antiques (some genuine, though most are high quality reproductions), handicrafts in every shape and form, hilltribe clothing and ornamentation. Also on offer is every sort of modern garment from silk-screened tee shirts to brand-name jeans and dresses – all at discount prices.
Another popular shopping destination is Sankampaeng Road. Here, along a length of tree-lined highway running east from the city's Thapae Gate, are literally dozens of well-stocked, budget-priced shops and markets offering everything from hand-painted parasols to silk evening dresses. For the man who has everything, there are even life-size wooden lions and baby elephants on offer. Transport home should prove no problem as the town has numerous shipping agents only too willing to help with even the largest of items.
An important destination, for visitors and residents alike, is Doi Suthep. This forested hill – doi is a northern Thai word for mountain – looms to the western side of the city, offering easy access to fresh air, forest walks, and a Hmong hill tribe village. Half-way up the mountain stands Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. After a drive of about twenty minutes from the city centre, the complex may be reached by a steep flight of steps flanked by naga-snake balustrades, or by a period-piece funicular railway. The magnificent gilded chedi, which dates from the 16th century, offers superb views across Chiang Mai Valley to the River Ping.
Chiang Mai is also a city of culture par excellence. Ethnic costumes and traditional dances abound, as might be expected. Beyond this, however, the old Lan Na capital has emerged as the driving force behind a northern cultural renaissance. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this is the rediscovery of Kam Muang, or northern Thai language and writing. Signs in the Northern Thai script, which is strongly reminiscent of Shan, are increasingly common, and nearly everybody sports traditional northern dress once a week, on Fridays.
Old northern traditions are also making a come-back. Each November the lovely festival of Loy Krathong is celebrated with the floating of elaborate floral rafts in the city moats and River Ping. In recent years this festival has been enriched for Chiang Mai by the revival of Khom Loy, or lantern parades.
Chiang Mai is probably Thailand's favourite destination during the Songkran festivities each April marking the Thai New Year. For fully five days the city is drenched in water poured from buckets, hurled from urns in the back of pick-up trucks, and sprayed from hoses, water pistols and fire hydrants. In this joyful celebration of the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rains, everyone is fair game. If you don't want to get wet, stay off the street in daylight hours. Alternatively, dress in your oldest clothes, leave cameras and watches which aren't fully waterproof at home, and step out to enjoy the fun.
Chiang Mai has something to offer everyone. If you haven't visited Thailand's charming northern capital, you should certainly do so. If you have, you won't need any encouragement to make the return trip!
Chiang Mai Attractions
Golf: Chiang Mai has a total of five golf clubs, ranging from 9 to 18 holes, including the oldest in the region – Chiang Mai Gymkhana Club, founded at the end of the 19th century. Green and caddy fees vary from course to course, and are lower on weekdays than at week ends. Golf clubs and electric cars are available for rent.
Chiang Mai golf courses include: Chiang Mai Green Valley Country Club, Chiang Mai – Lamphun Golf Club, Chiang Mai Gymkhana Club, Lan Na Golf Club, and Lan Na Golf Course.
Shopping: Chiang Mai is something of a shopper's paradise. In addition to numerous modern shopping malls and department stores, the justly-renowned Night Bazaar on Changklan Road offers a wide variety of regional antiques, curios, ethnic clothing and hill tribe handicrafts – all at very reasonable prices.
Out of town shopping trips include Bor Sang and Sankhampaeng Road, where the discerning shopper can find dozens of high quality show-rooms, workshops and export centres offering every sort of local product from ceramics to lacquer ware, umbrellas, parasols, jewellery and antiques. Hang Dong, slightly to the south of Chiang Mai, is the main centre for wood carvings and rattan furniture. Wua Lai Road, located just south of Chiang Mai Gate, is the heart of the old silver-workers district, and is lined with shops selling finely-crafted silverware of all shapes and sizes. Warorot Market, in the centre of the city's busy commercial district, is the main local market. Here one can find every sort of northern food, exotic fruits, and imported clothing and other goods from nearby Burma, Laos and South China.
River Trips: One consequence of the recent Rak Mae Ping ("Love the Ping River") campaign has been a considerable qualitative improvement in the condition of Chiang Mai's main river – which subsequently makes up a great part of Bangkok's Maenam Chao Phraya. Within the city the banks have been restored and beautified, and now it is possible to take regular river trips in covered reua hang yao – "long-tailed boats" upstream towards the predominantly Shan town of Mae Rim. The water is clear and unpolluted, the banks green and dominated by venerable old trees. This is one of the nicest ways of relaxing on a visit to the old Lan Na capital.
Fishing: An increasingly popular sport amongst both locals and visitors, the options available to anglers are improving every year and look set to continue doing so, partly as a result of increasing environmental awareness. Fishing in the Ping is possible, but most people choose to visit one of Chiang Mai's fishing parks. These can be found at Saraphi, just south of the city, and at the Mae Ngad Dam, about 20 km to the north along the road to Fang. Locals regularly fish the city's old moats, which teem with fish and even turtles!
Chiang Mai Zoo: This is certainly the best zoo in Thailand, and perhaps even in Southeast Asia. Located on the flanks of Doi Suthep, in the affluent north-western suburbs of the city, the zoo covers a large area of wooded, hilly land, offering the animals a pleasant, natural environment. Here one can see a wide range of local, regional, and even African animals, from tigers and elephants to rare Nepalese rhinos, hippos and lemurs. A special Giant Panda enclosure allows the visitor a rare glimpse of one of the world's rarest mammals. Nearby is an extensive, well-maintained arboretum which makes excellent walking.
Chiang Mai Night Safari: Following in the footsteps of Singapore's successful Night Safari, Chiang Mai's very own safari has a Predator Prowl, Savannah Safari and Jaguar Trail. It's located 10km to the southwest of the town in the Mae Hia area.
Royal Flora Ratchaphreuak: A spectacular horticultural display opened by the King of Thailand on 1st November 2006 and continuing until 31st January 2007. There have been discussions about keeping the huge site open until the middle of 2007. It's located close to the Chiang Mai Night Safari, to the southwest of the city.