If something was built in 1296, we can hardly call it “new”, but that's what “Chiang Mai” means- “New City”! Mangrai, the legendary King of the Lanna kingdom changed his capital many a times; but he eventually settled down, once he established Chaing Mai. That's how beautiful Chiang Mai was then, and it has not lost any of its beauty in all these years.
Chiang Mai has great architectural and cultural significance. I love the unique temple architecture of Thailand in general. Chiang Mai's old Buddhist temples are witness to the glorious architectural heritage of the middle ages. The city's cultural icons, rituals and traditions, and the natural serenity are pleasing on the eye, and the heart. So, it's the culture that answers why we love Chiang Mai so much.
Though the city has developed modern infrastructure in recent times, the old city still remains frozen in time. The old city is situated in a compact, square shaped area. So, one can cycle around in the old city. However, we found the heat too much for cycling (in October); so, we took a local tuk-tuk rickshaw.
The old city has all the most important temples. There are a few lovely temples outside the old city, but they are not far off. The important market places are outside the old city. There are quite a few options for day-trips to enjoy some time with the nature- forests and waterfalls.
If you are a slow traveler, and have a lot of time at hand, it's the best place to stay put for long. However, if time is a premium, you need 3 days to explore the whole place; some quick tips for planning:
On day-1, visit temples of the old city; markets at night. Plan for a a day trip on day-2 to Wat That Phra Doi Suthep and Hmong Doi Pui Village; Tha Phae Gate in the evening. Use Day-3 for a visit to the Doi Inthanon National Park and an Elephant sanctuary.
Undoubtedly, the rich architecture of Buddhist temples are one of the major reasons why we love Chiang Mai so much. There are more than 300 temples in Chiang Mai. So, it's quite difficult to choose a few of them to visit. However, we had done a thorough research based on historical value of the temples before visiting the city, and we found all of them extraordinary.
1. Wat Chiang Man:
Built in 1296, by the first king Mangrai, it's the oldest temple in Chiang Mai. The massive elephant statues around the temple are impressive.
2. Wat Phra Singh:
If you are fond of religious history, this is the place for you. It's the second most auspicious temple in Chiang Mai; and houses a great library.
3. Wat Chedi Luang:
The temple with a big Chedi; built in 1391. A powerful earthquake partially damaged the chedi, but the local authorities have reconstructed it to some extent.
There are a few beautiful temples outside the old city as well; some of them are historically important too. But, we couldn't not visited them all. Sharing with you here the two temples we visited outside the old city:
Wat Phra Sri Suphan: This temple is a stunning beauty with aluminium and silver overlays.
Wat Chai Mongkhon: I loved this temple because of its location by the Ping river. Great scenic view in front of the temple.
As the old city is a compact area, one can easily move around to see the temples there. However, the temples outside the old city are a little spread out; needs a little more effort. Absolutely worth the effort.
The second reason why we love Chiang Mai is a day trip to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep over a hill. There is a little interesting history/ mythology about the place.
When the king Nu Naone heard about a Buddhist monk Sumanthera having possession of a piece of shoulder-bone of the Buddha, he invited him to his palace. The bone was said to have magical powers like vanishing, illuminating and even multiplying at times! While checking out the bone, it broke into two pieces. One piece was enshrined at Wat Suan Dok, and another one was mounted on a white elephant, and was let loose.
The elephant wandered all over the place, and went up a hill where it died after trumpeting three times. Taking it to be a sign from the heavens, the king established a temple there in 1360- Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It was a small temple then, but a number of extravagant chedis were constructed later on.
This temple is considered so auspicious that every Thai must visit at least once in their lifetime. We had the opportunity of visiting the temple in this trip. There is an elevator to reach the temple atop the hill, and there is a 306-steps stair case which we used to come down. It's a beautiful golden temple, richly ornate. I loved the hundreds of types of Buddha statues in the shrine campus. Besides, the view of the Chiang Mai town from the temple is also another highlight.
Doi Pui village of the Hmong people is situated at about 9 kms from the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. The Hmong tribe is among the 6 major hill tribes of Thailand. They have a beautiful village with great history. It's a small place, but one will find a number of interesting things to see and amusing activities to engage in. First, we had a cup of traditional coffee in a very old cafe and then walked around the village lined with shops selling tribal crafts and herbs/ dry fruit and traditional medicines.
At one end of the village, there is a beautiful garden. We saw an age old irrigation system still in operation, maybe preserved as a heritage. I was amused to see various types of fruits that I had never seen before. A lovely memory is that of meeting a traditional weaving family there, and buying a few pieces of handloom scarves as gifts for friends. We also bought some traditional toys.
Outside of the village, we trekked up to the highest point of the village to take a glimpse of the evergreen forest surrounding Doi Pui village. The sweet memory of that surreal experience in Doi Pui village is another reason why we love Chiang Mai so much.
The first king, Mangrai had built Chiang Mai as a walled city mainly as a defense against the Mongols in the north and the Burmese in the west (eventually fell to them almost 300 years later). After the fall of the city, the wall crumbled and the locals took away the bricks for building purposes. The wall has been reconstructed in recent times. He had also built a moat outside the walls. The wall together with the moat, looks beautiful, especially at the Tha Phae Gate.
This gate was one of the original 5 gates to the walled city. We heard that a local craft market is held at the gate; but, we couldn't find one there. There is a nice plaza near the gate, which comes to life especially in the evening. However, it keeps busy all day with visitors taking pictures and videos with hundreds of pigeons.
Thailand has amazing market places all over the country, but none as versatile as the Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai. We are not big shoppers, especially when we are on a trip. However, we went on a shopping spree that evening at the night market. The market is full of small shops with hand crafted products like accessories, lifestyle products and home decors. I remember walking around a gorgeous art/painting market.
Besides, there are a variety of options for food; we had our favorite coconut ice-cream multiple times. The market remains open till midnight, and is a perfect place to spend 4-5 hours enjoying the vibes of the place. Chiang Mai's night bazaar is the last (but not the least) reason why we love Chiang Mai so much.
One can spend tons and tons of time in Chiang Mai and not get bored. We did visit some more places, and tried out interesting things too. Time permitting, one can explore places around Chiang Mai as well.
Doi Inthanon National Park: to spend more time with the nature.
Elephant sanctuaries: if one is fond of elephants; but please check out their background (regarding ethical treatment of animals) before visiting.
Thai Silk Village, San Kamphaeng: to learn how silk is made, and maybe purchase some handloom products as well. It was a personal learning experience too (as I work in the handloom sector).
Art and craft center: if you love local art/ craft work. There are quite a few of them; very impressive. I loved this place too.
Art in Paradise: a 3-D art museum.
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