Location & intro
Away from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok and Hat Yaai, up north of Thailand is the city of Chiang Mai. Nestled snugly at the foothill, surrounded by ring of mountains, Chiang Mai offers a more picturesque and panoramic view of Thailand’s suburban living. The pace of life in Chiang Mai is refreshingly slower than Bangkok, giving it a sleepy ambience that adds to its charm.
Chiang Mai province was the capital of the Lanna Kingdom (1296 – 1768). During the decline of the kingdom, Chiang Mai was occupied by the Burmese in 1556. However, Chiang Mai became part of Siam in 1775 after Thai King Taksin succeeded in driving out the Burmese. Hence, the cultural development in Chiang Mai are mostly attributed to the Lanna era. There are over 300 wat (temples) in Chiang Mai, mostly with architectural features influenced by the Lanna Kingdom.
Why come to Chiang Mai?
Chiang Mai arguably has more historical and cultural experience to offer than Bangkok, making the city a perfect fit for travellers who wish to experience a suburb that celebrates its unique tradition and cultural heritage. For nature enthusiasts, 70% of Chiang Mai is covered by mountains and vegetation. So, do explore the national parks nearby such as Doi Inthanon National Park.
What to do?
Climb up Wat Doi Suthep
On the must-do list for every traveller to Chiang Mai is the visit to the Wat Doi Suthep, a famous temple that stands on Doi Suthep hill. The temple is 15 kilometres away from the city centre. It dates back to 1383 and is one of the most sacred sites to the Thais. It takes about half an hour to the mountain top by bus. For thrill seekers, feel free to break a sweat by taking a more scenic route on foot or by cycling.
Take the time to catch your breath when you reach the mountain top. There are another 309 steps to climb before you reach the pagodas. Alternatively, spare some energy by taking the elevator or the tram uphill. Entry to the temple using the tram costs 30 Thai baht for foreigners (or 50 baht if you would like a two-way tram ticket included). Do expect crowd during peak hours.
The view of the glistening dome amidst the clear blue sky appears to be the welcoming gesture of Wat Doi Suthep. The gleaming beauty of the temple was resplendent that it draws you away from all the murmurs of devotees around you. The temple is surrounded by large bells that are rung by pilgrims to bring good luck. This is also the best place to catch a glimpse of Chiang Mai from above.
Every visitor, Buddhist or otherwise, gets the chance to perform their own prayers and to make offerings. Monks can be seen offering help to the pilgrims and devotees to perform their religious duties. There are also visitors who seeks the service of several different monks to offer their prayers, advice and consultation.
Wat Phra Singh Woramahaviharn
One of Chiang Mai’s most revered temples is Wat Phra Singh Woramahaviharn. The temple was named after the Buddha image it housed in 1367, the Phra Singh (Lion Buddha). With its statuesque Buddha and its classic and artistic Lanna style buildings, it explains why this temple garners interest from local and international tourists.
Despite Phra Singh’s exalted stature, not many seem to know more about this Buddha image or its origin. It is considered to be one of the most beautiful Lanna religious art attributed to its human-like texture and lotus-shaped top knot. The Phra Singh is honoured during the annual Songkran Festival when its image is carried through the streets of Chiang Mai and locals sprinkle water over it.
Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chedi Luang is another famous temple on the list of must-visit temples in Thailand. The most prominent feature of the temple is the massive staircase in the middle. Once the tallest structure in ancient Chiang Mai, Wat Chedi Luang was built around a crumbling Lanna-styled chedi (pagoda) in the 14th century.
The massive staircase structure originally lead to one of Buddha’s statues at its highest peak. Pilgrims and devotees take turns climbing up the stairs with buckets full of water to shower the statue whilst offering prayers and wishes.
Damaged during an earthquake in 1545, the chedi’s height is reduced to nearly half of its original size, yet remain impressive. Restoration work was carried out but it was never quite complete, leaving it in its present state.
Despite Thailand being predominantly Buddhist, the openness and tolerance of its religious community towards the foreign visitors are evident. Those of other religions were greeted with open arms into their sacred places with big smiles and warm gestures, shutting out any feeling of awkwardness.
As a sign of respect, visitors should dress decently before entering any temple. This is part of the courtesy in which most visitors will gladly observe. In return, the visitors will get up-close experience of how the monks and the devotees perform certain religious rites and pay their respect to the deities. For the monks, it is in this way that the teachings of Buddha can be understood and appreciated.
The temples are more than as places of worship – they also host community-based activities. On Sundays, the temples are set up to hold bazaars, amulet markets and different types of community classes. This is the place where religion and society meld.
Some says that seven out ten Thais who reside in Bangkok prefer Chiang Mai as temporary escapade from the city. The reason could be due to coffee. Artisan local coffee joints are growing rapidly in Chiang Mai and does not come as a surprise since Chiang Mai is home to Thailand’s own coffee plantation.
Coffee culture also seems to be synonymous with youth. This has drawn in young, hipster and new age travellers to the city. These new breed of travellers gradually make the city more vibrant.
Getting around the city is easy. Besides renting a bike, the most popular would be to take the red cab, which costs 20 Baht for a city tour.
Shop, shop, shop
Take your time to explore the Chiang Night Market, or Night Bazaar. This is the place to buy souvenirs, amulet, Thai silk and jewelleries at reasonable prices. Do not hesitate to bargain. The Night Bazaar, on the east side of the old-walled city, is approximately a kilometre long on Thanon Chang Khlan .The Night Bazaar is open every day of the year regardless of the weather from dusk until close to midnight.
In a nutshell
Chiang Mai, the province, with all its historical splendour, religious tolerance and agro-based community, promises as the perfect hideaway for travellers seeking a more laidback and meditative ambiance and amidst gentle culture and heritage