Most visitors arriving in wide-bodied jets at Chiang Mai’s gleaming international airport do not realise that less than 90 years ago, the only way to reach Chiang Mai was by a very different jumbo.
Just those few decades ago, the difficult and dangerous journey from Bangkok could only be done by a combination of elephant and river transport, with tropical fevers and wild animals causing many to perish en route – in 1867 it took Dr. McGilvary, an American missionary, three months to complete the journey. The railway line did not reach the city until 1921, and the last stretch of paved road was not completed until 1972. It is extraordinary to think that in the previous year, the Apollo 15 crew had already driven vehicles on the moon.
This curious fact carries us to a compelling conclusion – founded in 1296, Chiang Mai remained cut off from the world at large for over 600 years, an isolation provided by Mother Nature’s dense jungles, and rivers, and nurturing a unique, fascinating civilisation, called the Kingdom of Lanna.
Lanna - the original, beautiful, and magical essence of Chiang Mai, an enduring aura which, if you sit calmly for a while inside one of its beautiful ancient temples, you can still feel today.
With no sea or sand, and no world-famous site such as Angkor Wat or the Taj Mahal why does the city attract so many visitors? Why, in 2005, did readers of the prestigious US magazine “Travel and Leisure” vote it into fifth place in their list of the “world’s best cities” beating New York, Istanbul, Cape Town and San Francisco?
And why does it draw so many people back again? Is it to delve deeper, to go beyond the superficial sightseeing attractions? Or to join the growing nucleus of artists, painters and writers who base themselves here? Or like many Thais and foreigners alike - to make it their permanent home?
There is of course no single answer. Maybe it has something to do with the huge variety of things to do, see, experience or study; the many sports you can play; the shopping you can revel in; the endless variety of food you can enjoy; the multitude of colourful markets waiting to be explored; the many charming local festivals; the handicrafts you can marvel at; the hill tribes you can wonder at; the trekking, the white water rafting, the elephants that paint superb pictures; the cute guest houses, or the 6- star hotels where respective rates go from three to three thousand dollars a night.
Or perhaps it is the smiling hospitable people – descendents of the many races and cultures that form the tightly woven tapestry of Chiang Mai’s history? Is it the fascination of the province itself – with its mountains, valleys, forests and National Parks? Is it the prime northern location giving easy access to the famous Golden Triangle, gateway to Myanmar, China, Laos and Cambodia? Or, could it just be something to do with that intangible magic, those quiet whispers from the past you can discern in the tranquillity of the ancient temples?
Na = a rice field, Sibsong = twelve,
Pan = a thousand, Lan = one million
The original inhabitants in northern Thailand were the Lua and Khmer-Mon races who were gradually displaced by immigrants from Burma, Laos and China. The Chinese connection is interesting because of the autonomous prefecture in the province of Yunnan called Sibsong Pan Na (Xishuangbanna) In its capital Jinghong, Buddhist "Dai" people are in the majority, observe Thai customs, and attend Thai-style temples cared for by orange-robed monks. Many older Thais therefore consider this fascinating “Mini Thailand” to be the home of their ancestors
The migration of these various peoples into the fertile rice-growing areas of Northern Thailand engendered the Kingdom of Lan Na (now written Lanna) whose first reigning monarch, King Mengrai, founded Chiang Mai on the 12th April 1296. It was built with a protective wall and moat, which still encloses the old city today.
Chiang Mai became the cultural centre of the Lanna Kingdom, and the heart of Buddhism in northern Thailand. (it has over 300 temples today) and although isolated from Europeans for centuries, it was a regular target for powerful neighbours – the Burmese, and to a lesser extent, Thais from Ayuthya. Constantly attacked and finally occupied by the Burmese, the Lanna Kingdom was destined not to survive, and when the reigning Thai King expelled the Burmese in 1774, Chiang Mai became part of Thailand (then called Siam). The remaining Lanna states were integrated in 1904, and Chiang Mai became an official province of Thailand in 1933. Although now a part of history, the heritage of the Lanna Kingdom is perpetuated in many traditions, culture, language, and folklore, waiting for visitors from all over the world to discover and enjoy.
The ancient Lanna culture lies just below the surface of the city, sometimes eclipsed, but never suppressed. Although the economic boom and attendant environmental problems are as evident here as elsewhere in Asia, the high buildings, highways, and hypermarkets bow deferentially to antiquity, and in many cases, their clumsy presence only serves to intensify the aesthetic beauty of the city’s many historical monuments – ancient chedis or graceful golden spires gloriously upstaging trendy modern architecture.
Development has also brought huge benefits, and this alluring city of around 200,000 inhabitants now has an unmatched wealth of facilities and attractions. High quality fabrics, decorative items and furnishings attract homeowners and hoteliers from all over Asia. Historians head for the city’s five museums, artists go to the growing number of galleries, and tired travellers retire to one of the many excellent health resorts and spas. Plant lovers spend pleasant hours at the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden, and active folks speed out to the new stadium with its many sporting options, including an Olympic sized pool.
Animal lovers visit the Night Safari, and the panda–populated Chiang Mai Zoo; golfers have numerous world-class golf courses to choose from, including the historic Gymkhana Club; the bold go for bungee jumps, the adventurous for rock climbing or Enduro motor biking, and the macho for lessons in Muay Thai. Milder folks take courses in Traditional Thai massage, or in Buddhist meditation. Students study in one of the city’s 5 universities or excellent international schools; conference and incentive organisers love the ease of confirming all their special needs, and people from all walks of life learn the gentle art of Thai cuisine at professionally conducted cooking classes. Increasingly, many visitors come to combine a holiday with medical treatment or check ups at the city’s state-of-the-art hospitals and dental clinics, with no waiting, and at a fraction of the price they would pay at home. Any spare time is spent shopping, and more shopping ……….and all of this is just a 15-minute drive away from beautiful forests, waterfalls, and verdant mountains.
We liked that comparison, for although the short sightseeing menu suggested by most travel agents is very enjoyable, it only gives a tiny taste of what there really is to relish. Space does not permit listing the myriad attractions here, but we can tell you that the delights of Chiang Mai go far beyond the main temples, handicraft villages, cultural shows, elephants, and the Night Bazaar. A week here is therefore a great idea, and we recommend you buy a good guide book, and a couple of city maps – especially ones indicating the little markets, weaving shops, galleries, and other hidden-away spots, which the package tourists never see.
Rise before dawn one morning, and with a self drive car or a driver-guide visit the mountain temple of Doi Suthep long before the coaches arrive, watch the sunrise, and descend to experience the city before it is really awake. A pre-dawn bicycle ride inside the old walled city is another memorable treat. Visit the little towns of Lamphun and Lampang on day trips, or hop on a 30-minute domestic flight to the picturesque little town of Mae Hong Son close to the Burmese border. A week or more in the city opens up many other horizons – exploring the many wonders of the province itself, or taking a side trip to Chiang Rai and the famous Golden Triangle where Laos, Burma and Thailand meet on the mighty Mekong River.
If there is already a lot that the outside world does not realise about Chiang Mai, another little-known aspect is its excellent and growing connections by air. Handy domestic services mean you can combine Chiang Mai with the superb beaches of Phuket and Koh Samui and be splashing in the sea in just a few hours. More importantly, the city is now served by numerous international airlines, some of these being low-cost carriers and opening up the possibility of a multi-city Asian tour itinerary at very affordable prices.