In the far north of Thailand sits the city they call the Rose of the North. Foreign tourists have been travelling there for years, its history however, runs far deeper than that. Chiang Mai sits at the confluence of cultures. The past and present, has been dictated by ethnicity, culture, language, trade, war, religion and empire.
Chiang Mai was at one time capital of the Lanna Kingdom, known as the Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields. In the local language Chiang Mai means New City, Chiang being “city” and Mai meaning “new”. So-named because it was the new capital of Lanna, succeeding its northern cousin Chiang Rai, which even today sits in its shadow.
A key feature of Chiang Mai is the old town with its narrow lanes and historic buildings surrounded by a moat and the remnants of the town’s defensive wall. The city is promoted as one of the few places in Thailand where it’s possible to experience both historical and modern Thai culture coexisting side by side with centuries-old chedis (stupas) and temples next to modern convenience stores and boutique hotels. I like some of the so-called boutique hotels, the convenience stores however, I can do without. Fortunately, these multinational eyesores have largely been kept at bay from the old town.
Today Chiang Mai is laid back. In winter, when I last visited, the nights are cool and the days sunny and mild. Thais can be seen wandering about in jackets. Tourists breakout their polar fleeces. When I asked if my room was fan or air-con, a force of habit, my host asked “what for?”
Chiang Mai is about 700kms north of Bangkok and is the largest and arguably the most culturally significant city in northern Thailand. At 300m above sea level with a backdrop of hills, the city enjoys a winter climate not found in most of the rest of the country. Consequently, the town takes some time to “thaw” out in the morning, with little happening before about 8am.
“This year we’ve had two months of cold,” said the lady at the small family restaurant where I had my coffee waiting for Chiang Mai to open. “Last year it was one week.” She mentioned the strange white stuff in the trees. She asked me what this was and I said in English it’s called “frost”. “Ah, frost” she said, mulling the word over.
Chiang Mai’s 15th century rivalry with the southern Ayutthaya Kingdom has contemporary political parallels in modern day Thailand. If Chiang Mai is a rose its colour must be red since it is the birthplace and stronghold of Thaksin Sinawatra, whose wealth and political clout made him prime minister and threatened Thailand’s traditional ruling elites. He formed the Thai Rak Thai party using a novel, populist platform of national restoration and pro-poor policies, like rural development grants and nearly-free public healthcare. Deposed by a military coup in 2006, he now lives in self-imposed exile, his return to Thailand on hold due to an existing arrest warrant. His supporters rallied in their tens of thousands to his cause as the “red shirts”. His sister Yingluck, also became prime minister, similarly got offside with the elites, and in what has become a family trait, was also deposed in a coup. She remains in the country, immediate fate unclear.
In recent years, Chiang Mai has become an increasingly modern city attracting over 5 million visitors each year, though under half are foreign tourists. Once a smallish regional centre, now there are shopping centres and ring roads. The old town however, remains somewhat like an oasis. The Lanna Architecture Centre run by Chiang Mai University traces the history of architecture in the region; it’s free and a fascinating journey through traditional building styles.
Chiang Mai's historic importance is derived from its close proximity to waterways and major trading routes. In more modern times, it was the railways that changed the face of old Siam. From the 1920s, they brought increased access to the north. The new rail line offered Chiang Mai people a quicker, safer, more reliable, and for passengers, much more comfortable, way of getting to Bangkok. Previously, the trip to Bangkok took six weeks by elephant and by boat. When the rail line to Bangkok first opened in the early 1920s, the journey from Chiang Mai still took several days largely as it was considered too dangerous to travel at night so passengers stayed overnight in hotels along the line.
King Mengrai founded Chiang Mai in 1296. For defensive purposes, the city was surrounded by a moat and a wall, since nearby Burma was a constant threat as well as the armies of the Mongol Empire which only decades earlier had conquered most of Chinese Yunnan. With the decline of the Lanna Kingdom, the city lost importance and was occupied in 1556 by Burma’s Toungoo Dynasty. The latter incorporated the Shan States and founded what became for a brief period; the largest Southeast Asia empire stretching as far as Tibet.
Chiang Mai formally merged with Siam in the late 1700s but was abandoned between 1776 and 1791 due to more Burmese interjections. After that Chiang Mai slowly grew in cultural, trading and economic importance to its current status as the unofficial capital of northern Thailand, second in importance only to Bangkok. The city has a small town feel with a population of 160,000 with one million residing in the greater Chiang Mai area. With over 300 Buddhist temples and some 20 Christian churches Chiang Mai is something of a seat of religion.
With its long established trading routes, Chiang Mai was also exposed to Islam mainly Chinese Muslims, but also Bengali, Pathan and Malay and the city has 16 mosques. There are also Sikh and Hindu communities with their own temples. To further their distinctiveness, Chiang Mai’s inhabitants speak their own regional dialect, Lanna or Northern Thai, though this is now usually written using the standard Thai alphabet. There are strong cross border links with Myanmar and Laos; China permeates all.
The city has a busy airport and trains make the 12-15 hour journey from Bangkok daily. Chiang Mai is literally the end of the line for rail. Buses head to 20 destinations across Thailand and there are several services a day to Bangkok, travelling slightly faster than the trains, but probably less safer, given the precarious nature of road safety in Thailand. You can also fly to international destinations from Chiang Mai but usually these are via Bangkok’s Don Muang for Air Asia and other budget carriers, and Suvarnabhumi Airport for other airlines.
The Nuanpranee guesthouse near the Chiang Mai gate cost me the princely sum of 300 baht (about US$10) per night. My neighbour was long stay. A newspaper clipping featuring him was displayed downstairs. Every year he came to Chiang Mai to escape the winter back home. A retired journalist, the winters in Washington DC were what drove him to Thailand every year. If I had a choice between long nights and snow drifts or winter sun in Chiang Mai, I know where I’d be heading.
Interested, I enquired about rooms by the month. They were available for 5,000 baht, about US$166 with water and electricity extra. Wi-fi and cable were included and furniture seemingly interchangeable with new items stored down the hallway.
While Chiang Mai is full of boutique places to stay and eat, it also promotes itself as something of an outdoor playground for wildlife, adventure tours, and adrenaline activities. All come with free pick-up and some advertise full insurance, though it would pay to check the fine print. Bungee jumping has arrived in the jungle though promoters are at pains to say it’s under Kiwi management. There’s all manner of tours and day activities: mountain biking, karting, off-road buggies, trail bikes and Xorbing, that being rolling about inside a large plastic ball, kayaking and rock climbing to name but a few. It being Christmas there was even Santa on a Harley.
Wildlife enthusiasts can see gibbons; go to the Tiger Kingdom, view monkeys and watch crocodile shows. Hill treks, the traditional adventure attraction in the north are still there. The path through the hill tribes smoking opium with the headman, riding elephants, and traversing rapids on bamboo rafts is now so trodden it must be a highway. Tours to the Golden Triangle leave town daily and given the schedule can test endurance, often lasting 15 hours or so. Better to go from further north, at Chiang Rai.
Hiring motorbikes for sightseeing is convenient but incurs the potential risk of accident for some, and involuntary contributions to the Thai police pension fund for others. The latter largely based on some mythical infringement. Smile and go along, or ask for a receipt and take your chances with the boys in brown.
The centrepiece of the old town is the Wat Chedi Luang, ringed with statues of elephants and once the largest building in all of Lanna. Nearby is Rachadamnon Road, which bisects the old town from east to west and host to the Sunday walking street; Saturday walking street on is on Wualai Road.
The Chiang Mai gate market is a hive of morning activity. Winter coats bearing labels with made in Czechoslovakia are sold from racks across the street. Songtheaws ply the narrow streets in resplendent red, some of them highly polished. The staff of Ginny’s Guesthouse on Ratchapakinai Road told me one morning at breakfast they wouldn’t be opening the next day as they were all going shopping in Mae Sai, Thailand’s northern-most town. They invited me to go with them. The markets they said had great bargains, and they often went there. From there it’s possible to cross the border to the Tachilek market in Myanmar.
Chiang Mai has wine bars and writers’ clubs, arts and cultural centres, and temples, lots of temples. The city is popular with expats who appear a rather more genteel bunch than those found in other parts of Thailand.
Tourists have been making the journey north from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on the overnight train and more precariously, VIP buses, for years. These days Bangkok Air and Air Asia make the trip in an hour. They bring the usual flotsam of tourists. My morning coffee at the Thapae Gate Lodge was disrupted by a stout Teutonic with no neck smoking a cheroot looking like he’d had a hard night. He reclined in his chair feet pointing out into the street. An American, I suspect a resident, passing by offered some friendly advice, that the souls of the feet are the dirtiest part of the body and pointing them at Thais is the height of rudeness. The advice was ignored behind a plume of blue-grey smoke.
After their exertions tourists congregate in the usual array of bars and restaurants for all tastes. There are reggae bars, Kombi vans with cocktails, pizza parlours, and the ubiquitous Irish pub (with its own bakery) and also English and Germanic versions.
Some of the more salubrious hotels in the old town are hidden away behind walls, or set back off the road. I liked walking the labyrinth of lanes and coming across traditional Thai architecture, and balconies covered in bright vegetation.
Chiang Mai is a long way from the hustle and congestion of Bangkok, and the tourist hubs of Thailand’s many beach resorts. It has a laid back charm and tranquillity all its own. Culturally, it is distinct, though not discernibly so to most tourists, politically too. In the midst of Thailand’s unfolding political crisis, it may become even more so. For a taste of the north, and of the cultures that transcend modern political boundaries, Chiang Mai is a great place to go.