Although rapid economic progress in recent years has brought problems such as pollution and traffic jams, CHIANG MAI still manages to preserve some of the atmosphere of an ancient village alongside its modern urban sophistication. It’s the kingdom’s second city, with a youthful population of about 400,000 (over 60,000 of them are students), and the contrast with the maelstrom of Bangkok is pronounced: the people here are famously easy-going and even speak more slowly than their cousins in the capital, a lilting dialect known as kham muang. Chiang Mai’s moated old quarter, where new buildings are limited to a height of four storeys, has retained many of its traditional wooden houses and quiet, leafy gardens, as well as the most famous and interesting temples in the city – Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Chiang Man – clustered conveniently close to each other. These elegant wats may be Chiang Mai’s primary tourist sights, but they’re no pre-packaged museum pieces – they’re living community centres, where you’re quite likely to be approached by monks keen to chat and practise their English. Inviting handicraft shops, a couple of fascinating museums, good-value accommodation, rich cuisine and riverside bars further enhance the city’s allure, making Chiang Mai a place that detains many travellers longer than they expected. These days, increasing numbers of travellers are also taking advantage of the city’s relaxed feel to indulge in a burst of self-improvement, enrolling for courses in cookery, massage and the like (see Courses in Chiang Mai).
Many colourful festivals attract throngs of visitors here too: Chiang Mai is one of the most popular places in Thailand to see in the Thai New Year – Songkhran – in mid-April, and to celebrate Loy Krathong at the full moon in November, when thousands of candles are floated down the Ping River in lotus-leaf boats. And a pilgrimage to Doi Suthep, the mountain to the west of town, should not be missed, to see the sacred, glittering temple and the towering views over the valley of the Ping River, when weather permits. Beyond the city limits (see Around Chiang Mai), a number of other day-trips can be made, such as to the ancient temples of Lamphun – and, of course, Chiang Mai is the main centre for hill-tribe trekking, as well as all sorts of other outdoor activities. Orientation is simple in central Chiang Mai, which divides roughly into two main parts: the old town, surrounded by the well-maintained moat and occasional remains of the city wall, where you’ll find most of the temples, and the new town centre, between the moat and the Ping River to the east, the main market and shopping area. The biggest concentration of guesthouses and restaurants hangs between the two, centred on the landmark of Tha Pae Gate (Pratu Tha Pae) in the middle of the east moat. On the outskirts, the town is bounded to the north, east and south by the Superhighway and two further huge but incomplete ring roads, with Thanon Chon Prathan (Canal Road) providing a western bypass.
Founded as the capital of Lanna in 1296, on a site indicated by the miraculous presence of deer and white mice, Chiang Mai – “New City” – has remained the north’s most important settlement ever since. Lanna’s golden age under the Mengrai dynasty, when most of the city’s notable temples were founded, lasted until the Burmese captured the city in 1558. Two hundred years passed before the Thais pushed the Burmese back beyond Chiang Mai to roughly where they are now, and the Burmese influence is still strong – not just in art and architecture, but also in the rich curries and soups served here. After the recapture of the city, the chao (princes) of Chiang Mai remained nominal rulers of the north until 1939, but, with communications rapidly improving from the beginning of the last century, Chiang Mai was brought firmly into Thailand’s mainstream as the region’s administrative and service centre.