Situated about 400 miles northwest of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a city steeped in history and tradition. Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 as the new capital of the Lanna Kingdom (an Indianized state), and many hallmarks of the settlement remain today. For centuries after the collapse of the Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Mai’s territory was fiercely disputed by Thailand and Burma (until the city ultimately became part of Siam in 1775), resulting in both Thai and Burmese influences throughout the city. Restored portions of the colossal, brick defensive wall still surround the Old City, with large, central gates on each of the four sides of the square. Likewise, the moat that was dug more than 700 years ago to fortify the city center still encloses the square, though today it is adorned with quaint, wooden footbridges and flowing fountains that illuminate the city’s perimeter each evening.
Nestled along the Ping River, Chiang Mai’s modern landscape is speckled with more than 300 Buddhist temples, lending old-world charm to nearly every corner of the city. Some temples are small and modest, while others are much more grand. Many shimmer with traditional gold accents, and some boast elaborate sculptures of dragons and elephants.
My favorite temples, though, were the ones where ancient stone chedis still stand, some dating to the 14th and 15th centuries. Though much less flashy than their gilded brethren, the simple designs and elegant stonework were just stunning. The construction of Wat Chiang Man, Chiang Mai’s first temple, began shortly after the city’s founding in 1296. The temple houses two of Thailand’s most prized treasures, the Marble Buddha and Crystal Buddha, which date back 2,500 and 1,800 years, respectively. Though somewhat difficult to view due to their protective surroundings, the sculptures both appear to be in immaculate condition given their antiquity. Perhaps the most striking structure at the site, however, is the oldest – the Chang Lom chedi. Wrapped with beautiful, hand-carved elephants, the stone portion of the chedi dates back to the 15th century and, though restored four times, has not been reconditioned since 1581.
After visiting numerous temples, we both agreed that we were most taken with Wat Chedi Luang which, as its name suggests, is the site of an enormous chedi in the heart of the Old City. The square chedi dates back to the late 14th century (though construction continued through the early 15th century), when it stood an impressive 90 meters tall, towering over Chiang Mai city. A 1545 earthquake, though, collapsed about 30 meters of the stone structure, and portions of the chedi were restored and stabilized in the 1990s under a UNESCO-sponsored project. With a base of about 50 meters on each side, the imposing tower is adorned with elephants around the midsection, and dragons at the base of each staircase. Although now quite a bit shorter than when it was initially constructed, the unique, brick and stucco structure still stands out prominently from a sea of more typical, golden chedis.
Although much more ornate and very recently renovated, the Silver Temple (Wat Sri Suphan) was a pretty spectacular sight. All of the elaborate artwork is hand-produced by local craftsman using either silver or nickel alloy plates. The temple’s site even boasts a metalworking school, to try to revive the dying art and to encourage a resurgence of the traditional craftsmanship within the city. On the temple’s exterior, intricately-sculpted dragons slithered along the edges of the tiered roof, while the walls are adorned with extravagant hammered silver reliefs, each depicting a detailed story. Interestingly enough, perhaps the most impressive part of the temple was the easiest to overlook. The silverwork covering the back of Wat Sri Suphan was breathtaking, bursting with images of Buddha leading prayers to the masses, as elephants peacefully roamed the countryside around them.
After exploring the vast number of wats that dotted the Old City, we decided to rent a scooter and head up to Doi Suthep National Park, only 15 miles from the city center. Having never driven a moped before, I obviously had to learn. After successfully navigating some side streets, I was thrilled, and offered Stephan a ride. To my surprise, he was willingly
brave insane enough to hop on the back, and away we went. Of course, we did switch back before the long, windy trek to the hills. We navigated a narrow, twisting road that led up the steep, forested hillside, and as we neared the top of the peak, we felt an almost instant relief from the scorching temperatures below. The drive was quite lovely, and we passed a small, isolated temple nestled amongst the trees, and also made a stop at a tiny coffee shop perched on the edge of the hill. The café was completely deserted, with the exception of one friendly woman behind the counter who served us each a cup of the well-known hillside tribe brew. It was the perfect, quiet retreat from the bustling city, with birds chasing each other through the nearby trees, and unspoiled views into the green valley below.
On our way back to town, we stopped at Wat Phrathat, a large temple atop Doi Suthep that overlooks Chiang Mai city. One of Thailand’s most sacred temples, Wat Phrathat was built in 1383 to enshrine a fragment of bone that, according to folklore, came from Buddha. Though similar to others throughout the city, the gold chedi at Wat Phrathat was quite spectacular, flanked on all sides with altars for prayer.
Feeling somewhat exhausted after visiting temple after temple, we decided to spend an afternoon at the lost city of Wiang Kum Kam, about 9 kilometers (6 miles) southeast of Chiang Mai. The settlement along the Ping River was established at the end of the 13th century by King Mangrai, and was a fairly large city with numerous temples, surrounded by a series of reservoirs. Unfortunately, the region was prone to disastrous flooding, which eventually left the entire city underwater and abandoned. After discovering a handful of artifacts at the site in the mid-1980s, the next decade was spent excavating and restoring 27 archeological sites at Wiang Kum Kam, including a number of temples. The brick ruins (dating back to the 13th – 15th centuries) were interesting to explore, and it was fun to imagine the appearance of the city 700 years ago, with so many neighboring wats. A couple of structures have been continually restored (Wat Chedi Liem & Wat Chiang Kham), and the site of Wat Chiang Kam currently houses an active temple beside the neighboring ruins.
We obviously could not leave Chiang Mai without indulging in some of the famous street food, said to be some of the best in northern Thailand. The city was absolutely blanketed with food carts, and at every corner you could find something new and delicious for only a buck or two. Being the finicky vegetarian that I am, I stuck to the endless stream of fresh fruit smoothies and the mango sticky rice, a sweet treat with fresh mangos diced over rice steeped in coconut milk. I did venture out a smidge, though, and tried durian, supposedly the most foul-smelling fruit in the world. While the inside was supposed to taste sweet and delicious, I found it nearly as offensive as the smell, which was bordering on putrid. It didn’t help that it looked like a hunk of raw chicken, and had the most repulsive texture I’ve ever encountered. Alas, I tried. Stephan, on the other hand, was quite eager to try some of the most-loved local fare including khao soi, an egg noodle curry, and sai ua, a grilled, herb sausage (‘Chiang Mai sausage’). He was also a fan of the miang kham, small bites of fresh ginger, coconut, fish sauce, lime, and chilies wrapped in mildly-bitter, wild betel leaves. We discovered that the best place to try all of the various street foods was, seemingly, at the Sunday Market. Each Sunday near the East Gate, several street blocks close to traffic (from the late afternoon through the evening), and instead flourish with food carts, handmade crafts, Thai silk scarves and cushions, spices, fruit, jewelry… just about anything you’d imagine. The street fare was delicious and so cheap that you could just bounce around from cart to cart tasting everything in sight. A bowl of freshly-cooked noodles cost us 10 ฿ (about $0.30 USD), as did the miang kham (a skewer with three leaf-wrapped bites). The sausage ran us 30 ฿ (just under $1 USD), the khao soi 50 ฿ (about $1.40 USD), and fresh juices and smoothies were 20 – 60 ฿ ($0.60 – $1.70 USD).
Overall, we really enjoyed our week in Chiang Mai. The city seemed like a completely different planet from Bangkok, with a much more relaxed and friendly vibe, and a more historic atmosphere. We also felt very safe, and enjoyed walking around at night after the blistering sun had set, to see the fountain lights and markets spring to life – great culture in northern Thailand.