The largest city in northern Thailand sits on a sloping plain between the Ping River and the Thongchai mountains in the northwest of the country. Chiang Mai is a popular hangout for travelers and expats, and is considered to be the cultural capital of northern Thailand. Having spent the previous week in smaller towns, I settled in to Chiang Mai for a while to explore its interesting and unique culture.
Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 as the capital of the Lan Na Kingdom, a culture that was distinct from the neighboring Ayutthaya culture. At the time it was founded, Chiang Mai was carefully laid out in the shape of a square surrounded by a wall and a moat on all four sides. The gates through the walls were arranged symbolically, with the north gate representing the “head” of the city, the east and west gates representing “arms”, and the two south gates representing “legs”. Upon his coronation, the king would enter through the north gate, as it was seen as the most important; on the other hand, when someone died, they were carried out through one of the south gates.
The Lan Na Kingdom thrived for several centuries, but was eventually brought under the control of the Burmese in the west. Finally, with the help of Ayutthaya, Lan Na was liberated from Burma and merged into the new Thai nation. Nowadays, the region is fully incorporated with the rest of Thailand, though it has held on to some aspects of its own culture. For example, the local specialty curry soup khao soi is as ubiquitous as pad thai, and traditional handicrafts and textile patterns can be seen often around Chiang Mai.
High up on the mountain Doi Suthep to the west of Chaing Mai, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep commands a broad view over the moat-ringed city and the surrounding valley below. A high gilded stupa in the center of the complex houses a relic of the Buddha; many people come here and process in a clockwise direction around the stupa before leaving their offerings. A ring of temples surrounding the stupa contains numerous Buddha images and monks dispensing blessings. Being such a large wat housing an important relic and having a well-known mythical foundation story, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is considered to be one of the most important in northern Thailand. And from a tourist perspective, its prominent location makes it a necessary side trip out of the city life below.
In addition to historic temples, Chiang Mai is also home to many modern temples, each with its own community of orange-robed monks. A few hours north of Chiang Mai, in the neighboring city of Chiang Rai, an even more modern temple makes for an interesting roadside stop. The so-called “White Temple”, or Wat Rong Khun, was built in the 1990s by an artist named Chalermchai Kositpipat. Whereas most modern Buddhist temples in Thailand are gilded and painted in bold colors, this temple is completely white on the outside and dotted with bits of silver mirrors to make it shimmer in the sunlight. An array of bizarre and intimidating sculptures, also painted white, surround the main structure, and are meant to symbolize hell, suffering, and the evils of worldly things. Inside, the white paint is replaced with fiery murals bearing the same symbolism, while at the center of it all a large golden Buddha statue sits in meditation.
Aside from learning the history and visiting the huge number of temples, I found Chiang Mai to be a fun place to relax and enjoy the Thai urban life. Chiang Mai is a student city, so the population is fairly young; also, the city attracts many Western expats who stay there for several months to several years. As a result, there is no shortage of trendy cafés, bars, and restaurants serving a wide variety of both local and international food. I took the opportunity to be a “student” in the city for a day by taking a Thai cooking class, which was a fun way to learn about Thai ingredients and cooking techniques. On the weekends, entire sections of the city center transform into pedestrian-only areas with thousands of market stalls and pop-up food courts lining the streets in the evening.
Compared to many other places I have been in Southeast Asia, Chiang Mai is a fairly convenient and comfortable location to spend some time. I can certainly see why so many foreigners (or farang, as the Thai call us) choose to live here for a time! When I had spent enough time in Chiang Mai to plan out the next leg of my trip, I took a bus farther north. Leaving the modernity of Chiang Mai behind, I headed across the border into Laos, the landlocked country between Thailand and Việt Nam, and one of the least developed countries in Southeast Asia.