Chiang Mai (in Thai เชียงใหม่), also sometimes written as “Chiengmai”, is the second-largest city in Thailand, and the largest and most culturally significant city in northern Thailand. It lies some 800 km north of Bangkok, among some of the highest mountains in the country. The city stands on the Ping river, a major tributary of the Chao Phraya river. Chiang Mai also serves as the capital of Chiang Mai Province.
In recent years Chiang Mai has become an increasingly modern city, although it lacks the cosmopolitan gloss of Bangkok. It has many attractions for the thousands of foreign visitors who come to the city each year. Chiang Mai’s historic strength derived from its important. Strategic location near a southern branch of the ancient Silk Road, and long before the modern influx of foreign visitors the city served as an important centre for handcrafted goods, umbrellas, jewellery (particularly silver) and woodcarving.
Chiang Mai has an estimated population of about 250,000, with 693,000 in the urban area. Much higher figures sometimes appear, but these may arise from confusion with Chiang Mai Province. The city is nevertheless growing rapidly, and its actual population probably exceeds the official estimate.
King Mengrai founded the city of Chiang Mai (meaning “new city”) in 1296, and it succeeded Chiang Rai as capital of the Lannathai kingdom. Mengrai constructed a moat and a wall around the city to protect it against raids from Burma. With the decline of the Lannathai kingdom, the city lost importance and often was occupied by either the Burmese or by the Thais from Ayutthaya. As a result of the Burmese wars that culminated in the fall of Ayutthaya in April 1767, Chiang Mai itself was so depopulated that the remaining inhabitants abandoned the city for fifteen years (1776 – 1791). Lampang functioned as the capital of what remained of Lannathai during that time.
Chiang Mai formally became part of Siam in 1774, when the Thai King Taksin captured the city from the Burmese. Chiang Mai rose in both cultural, trading and economic terms to gradually adopt its current status as the unofficial capital of the north of Thailand, second only in national importance to Bangkok.
- Wat Chiang Man: the oldest Buddhist temple in the city, dating from the 13th century, Chiang Mai has over 300 Buddhist temples (called “wats” in Thai). These include:
- Doi Suthep: the most famous temple in the area, standing on a hill to the north-west of the city. This temple dates from 1383. Its builders allegedly chose its site by placing a relic of the Lord Buddha on an elephant’s back and letting the elephant roam until it came across a place where it trumpeted and circled before lying down. The onlookers took this as marking an auspicious place in which to build the temple. The temple’s location also affords superb views over the city on a clear day.
- Wat Chiang Man: the oldest temple in Chiang Mai. King Mengrai lived here while overseeing the construction of the city. This temple houses two very important and venerated Buddha images – Phra Sila (a marble Buddha) and Phra Satang Man (a crystal Buddha).
- Wat Phra Singh: located within the city walls, dates from 1345 and offers an example of classic northern Thai style architecture. It houses the Phra Singh Buddha, a highly venerated image, transferred here many years ago from Chiang Rai.
- Wat Chedi Luang: founded in 1401 and dominated by the large Lanna style chedi which dates from the same time, but took many years to finish building. An earthquake damaged the chedi in the 16th century, so now only two thirds of it remain.
- Wat Ched Yot: located on the outskirts of the city, this temple, built in 1455, hosted the Eighth World Buddhist Council in 1977.
- Wiang Kum Kam: the site of an old city situated on the southern outskirts of Chiang Mai. King Mengrai used this city for ten years before the founding of Chiang Mai. The site has a large number of ruined temples.
- Wat U-Mong: a forest and cave wat in the foothills in the west of the city, near Chiang Mai University. Wat U-Mong is known for its grotesque concrete fasting Buddha image and hundreds of pithy Buddhist proverbs in English and Thai posted on trees throughout its grounds.
- Wat Suan Dok: a 14th century temple located just west of the old city-wall. The temple was built by the King of Lanna for a revered priest visiting from Sukhothai as a place for the monk to spend the rains retreat. The name of the temple roughly translates to “field of flowers.” There are several unique aspects to this temple. One is the temple’s large ubosot, or ordination hall. The ubosot is unusual not only for its size, but also the fact that it is open on the sides rather than being totally enclosed. Secondly, the large number of chedis housing the cremated remains of the rulers of Chiang Mai. This temple is also the site of one of the most important monastic universities in Thailand, Mahachulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya Buddhist University.
Chiang Mai hosts many Thai festivals, including:
- Loi Kratong: Held on a full-moon night in November. Every year hundreds of people assemble floating banana-leaf containers (krathong) decorated with flowers and candles onto the waterways of the city to worship the Goddess of Water. Lanna-style hot-air lanterns are also launched into the air. These are believed to help rid the locals of troubles and are also taken to decorate houses and streets.
Songkran: Held in mid-April to celebrate the traditional Thai new year. Chiang Mai has become one of the most popular locations to visit for this festival. A variety of religious and fun-related activities (notably the good-natured city-wide water-fight) take place each year, along with parades and a Miss Songkran beauty competition.
- Flower Festival: A three-day festival held during the first weekend in February each year, this event occurs during the period when Chiang Mai’s temperate and tropical flowers are in full bloom. The festivities include floral floats, parades, traditional dancing shows and a beauty contest.
Chiang Mai has four universities — Rajamangala University of Technology, Chiang Mai University, Payap University and Maejo University — as well as numerous technical and teacher colleges.
Chiang Mai is a regional centre for a number of activities, including:
- Hill-tribe tourism and trekking: A large number of different tour companies offer organised treks among the local hills and forests on foot and on elephant back. Most also involve visits to the various local hill tribes. These include representatives from the Akha, Hmong, Karen, and Lisu tribes.
- Other outdoor activities: The varied local terrain also offers opportunities for mountain biking, elephant riding, bamboo rafting and kayaking. The area also has several golf courses. The nearby national park that includes Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand, features many hiking trails.
- Shopping: Chiang Mai has a large and famous nightly bazaar for arts, handicrafts and counterfeit products of all descriptions, and a number of large, well-appointed modern shopping centres.
- Thai massage: The back streets and main thoroughfares of Chiang Mai have a variety of massage parlours which offer anything from quick, simple, face and foot massages, to month-long courses in the art of Thai massage.
- Local museums: These include the Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre, the Hill Tribe Museum and the Chiang Mai National Museum.
- Thai Cookery: A number of Thai cookery schools have their home in Chiang Mai (see also Thai food).
Bus, train and air connections serve Chiang Mai well. A number of bus stations link the city to Central and Southern Thailand, The Central Chang Pheuak terminal provides local services to other locations within Chiang Mai province. Services from the Chiang Mai Arcade terminal, north-east of the city, run several times a day to Bangkok (a 10 to 12 hour journey). This terminal also provides services to over 20 other destinations around Thailand.
The state railway operates at least two trains a day to Chiang Mai from Bangkok. Most journeys run overnight and take approximately 12 to 15 hours. Most trains offer a first-class (private cabins), and a second-class (seats fold out to make sleeping berths) service.
Chiang Mai International Airport receives up to seven flights a day from Bangkok, and also serves as a local hub for services to other Northern cities such as Chiang Rai, Phrae and Mae Hong Son. International services also connect Chiang Mai with other regional centres, including Xian (China), Kunming (China), Luang Phrabang (Laos), Taipei (Taiwan), Singapore, Hong Kong, Yangôn (Myanmar) and Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia).