The Old Walled City:
The mystical East blessed with soul warming sunshine and beaches stretching into the horizon, aquamarine and splashed with the colour of tropical fishes. Dusty roads and long bus journeys juxtaposed against verdant green jungles and teetering mountains. Dawn rises and half blind treks in the darkness, long tail boat rides during floods. Getting off the beaten track to escape the hustle and bustle of development, tuk tuk’s and backpackers gawking at lady boys, to discover hill tribes and folk traditions. The Kingdom of Smiles with its beautiful woman in traditional dress, temples, gold leafed sleeping Buddha’s and naga’s leading up hundreds of stairs to a sacred monument. This is the lure of Thailand.
But why Chiang Mai?
Often described as the ‘Rose of the North’, Chiang Mai was renown during the 14th and 15th centuries as the center of cultural and religious happenings. In contemporary times, this identification still rings true as Chiang Mai is enjoying rapid development as Thailand’s second and fifth largest city.
Chiang Mai offers the traveler the chance to experience Thailand and Lanna’s glorious history whilst visiting one of Thailand’s most beautiful cities. Nestled in the Himalayan foothills and only officially recognized as part of Siam in 1933, Chiang Mai is a city with an emerging boutique scene with specialty restaurants and hotels springing up alongside the traveler cafes, designer shops and market stalls enabling one to enjoy the relaxed ambience set within the ancient city wall and moat.
A Shopper’s Paradise
For those who enjoy shopping then Chiang Mai has something for everyone.
The handicraft villages of San Kam Paeng and Bo Sang, which sell a wide range of high quality products including; Silk, Wood Carvings, Gems and silver, Ceramics and Umbrellas – all of which can be purchased at very reasonable prices.
Warrorot Market(China Town) Chiang Mai’s oldest market is bursting with colour and local culture you could easily spend half a day here wandering around the eclectic streets, purchasing anything from fried insects to boutique women’s clothing and fine fabric outlets.
As well as the handicraft and bohemian shopper, there is also modern shopping malls that cater for the shopper who seeks out the top global brands.
Weekend Walking Streets Chiang Mai is blessed with two weekly walking street markets in which roads are closed off to traffic and local street traders set up their pitch and sell their unique, often hand-made, wares to people passing by. The Saturday walking street takes place on Wulai Rd, just South of the old city and focuses mainly on silver products, however, there are also various other textiles and locally made products on offer.
The Sunday walking street is by far the biggest and most impressive of the two weekend markets, it takes place in the centre of the old city on Racahdamneurn Rd. The market is awash with sellers of all kinds of products, from local handicrafts, paintings, jewellery, clothing and accessories, there is something here for every shopper. The market is also full with foods stalls and of course people offering massage – the perfect antidote for tired and weary feet! The best places to eat is in the temples that are situated along the route of the maket, here you will find many local delicacies at amazingly low prices. Each dish averages around 1$US. As you would expect these markets are very popular, so it is recommended to get there early, before the crowds become too big. Start time for the walking street markets is around 5pm and goes on until 11pm.
As the ancient capital of the Lanna Kingdom (thousand rice fields) established in 1296 by King Phraya Mundai, Chiang Mai’s tumultuous past is etched into its walls and threaded into the architecture of its 300 temples, influenced by Sri Lanka, Burma and Lanna cultures. Yet simultaneously Chiang Mai has maintained its Lanna identity, which can be reflected in Khon Chiang Mai’s (people of Chiang Mai) innovative take on various festivals such as Loy Krathong, the Flower Festival and Songkran – to name just three!
Chiang Mai is a city with a rich tapestry blending culture, history and Thailand’s famous easy going nature and whereas places like Koh Phangan are famous for their full moon parties, Chiang Mai offers something completely different with its treasure trove of tradition. Chiang Mai is also perfectly located for unusual and unforgettable romantic trips, forays into the jungle or as a stepping stone into the depths of South East Asia.
Why else should one go to Chiang Mai? The food! From street stalls to so-called ‘refined cuisine’ it is all delicious and deserves at least five tastings. Like elsewhere in Thailand, Khon Chiang Mai believe in harmony and balance in their food and so each dish is specially prepared to balance the sweet, sour, salty and creamy. One should try the Sai-ua (pickled pork sausage with chilies) or a more Burmese dish such as Gaeng Hang Lay (pork, tamarind and turmeric) rolling up lumps of sticky rice to dip into the sauce. For the sweet-toothed, the travelers staple of banana pancakes are not to be missed – served up with roti, banana’s, chocolate sauce and if you’re feeling really luxurious, cream. Delicious.
The main attraction of Chiang Mai is in the way that the city welcomes one into the fairytale world of indigenous cultures and forgotten ruins hidden in the depths of the jungles or balanced on the side of mountains. One of the most spectacular of these is the late 14thcentury Lanna Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, a site deemed auspicious by ‘the white elephant’ and his monk Sumanathera who had dreamed of a relic. After finding a sacred bone, Sumanathera placed it on the elephant’s back and set him free in the jungle. The elephant circled the area three times, trumpeted and then died. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is 18km from the centre, 1073metres high and 300+ steps up and is one of the area’s many wonders.
From Chiang Mai one can delve in to the history not just of Thailand, but of the East and also of the world with Chiang Mai being part of the Golden Triangle, its history of opium and heroin and its support of bandits, guerillas and official armies throughout various wars and battles. Chiang Mai is a place that anyone wanting to visit the real heart of Thailand should not miss.
As my colleague would say “You. Go Chiang Mai. Now’.