Chiang Mai – Thailand’s Northern Capital

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 Phae Gate in Chiang Mai, Thailand
The Phae Gate, on the eastern side of Chiang Mai, is one of the largest segments of the wall that remains today.
A Fortification in Chiang Mai, Thailand
This fortification, at the northeast corner of the old town, has seen some better days!
Moat around Chiang Mai, Thailand
The moat surrounding Chiang Mai no longer serves a defensive purpose (it’s criss-crossed by bridges!), but is nicely maintained as a park encircling the old town.

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.

Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre, Thailand
The Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre, a museum that highlights the cultural heritage of the city, occupies a prominent building at the center of the old town. In front of the museum, the Theee Kings Monument commemorates the city’s founding.
Lan Na Lanterns in Chiang Mai, Thailand
These lanterns, in a traditional Lan Na style, are very common in Chiang Mai today.
Chedi in Chiang Mai, Thailand
The old and the new merge seamlessly in Chiang Mai to make an exciting city – you never know what you’ll find around the corner!
Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Wat Chedi Luang used to be the most important temple in Chiang Mai, as it once housed the sacred Emerald Buddha statue. The Emerald Buddha was eventually stolen from the city, and an earthquake partially destroyed the chedi, but the temple is still well-respected by the people of Chiang Mai.
Temples in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Modern temples line the streets of Chiang Mai, both within and outside the old town.

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.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand
The golden stupa of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a popular site to visit – among both Buddhist devotees and tourists alike!

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.

The Silver Temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Wat Sri Suphan, which sits in a neighborhood that traditionally specialized in silver handicrafts, is completely covered in silver, both inside and out.
The White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand
The so-called “White Temple” in Chiang Rai, though it resembles other temples in form, is totally unique in its décor.
Sculptures at the White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand
Maybe I’m looking at it wrong, but neither of these sculptures at the entrance to the White Temple puts me in a meditative mood!
Windows of the White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand
From other angles, though, the White Temple is quite beautiful!

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.

A Café in Chiang Mai, Thailand
This “umbrella café” is just one of many eclectic establishments around the city.

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.

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