Cultured North: Chiang Mai’s Culture and Nature

Once the ancient capital of Thailand’s Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Mai’s history dates back over 700 years. Today it’s a bustling city of over 200,000, but its historic Old City centre remains dominated by dozens of ancient stupas and temples, all overlooked by the golden spire of the famous Wat Doi Suthep, towering over the town from the nearby mountains.

THAILAND’S CULTURAL CAPITAL

Chiang Mai is undeniably the cultural capital of Northern Thailand, given its incredible density of historic sites and famous temples. Over the centuries its fortunes ebbed and flowed, as Lanna fended off neighbouring rivals, before eventually being subsumed into the Kingdom of Siam. Yet throughout, Chiang Mai’s retained its own unique culture, architecture, and even language – an estimated 80% of locals (by birth), still speak Kam Muang (the Lanna language) and practice local, Lanna-style Buddhism. 

Some of the best places to experience Chiang Mai’s distinctive, living culture is its myriad markets. 

One of the best places to experience Chiang Mai’s living culture is its myriad markets. Some of the best include the twice-daily market at Chiang Mai Gate, as well as Kham Tiang flower market, and neighbouring “JJ” market, specialising in Lanna handicrafts. On Saturday and Sunday, the Night Walking Street Market lines the main road of the Old City, offering an assortment of clothes, food and souvenirs. 

CULTURAL HOTSPOTS

Thanks to Chiang Mai’s strong traditions, numerous locations are nominated for UNESCO status, within the Old City itself covering an area of less than 10sq.km. 

The Old City

The Old City’s boundaries are marked by its ancient moat and wall, largely still intact thanks to strict conservation policies, making the wall itself one Chiang Mai’s most significant sites. 

Ostensibly for defence, it also served a spiritual purpose with its 5 pratu (gates) and 4 jaeng (corners) aligned to the cardinal directions, and its central “navel” intended by its founder, King Mangrai to channel karmic energy into the city. Today the walls are landmarks, with the northern gate, Pratu Chang Puak, considered the most important. 

The Old City has hundreds of historic buildings including dozens of temples. 

Wat Phra Singh

Founded in 1355, its full name is Wat Phra Puttha Sihing, but shortened to Wat Phra Singh – a nod to its prominent singh (lion) statues. Originally named for its famous Phra Puttha Sihing (Buddha) statue, it’s one of Thailand’s most important temples. It’s also notable for its artwork, including the exquisite murals in its annexe: Viharn Lai Kham. 

Wat Phan Tao

An impressive all-wooden temple set amidst quiet gardens, it’s often overlooked by large groups. Beside the ancient teak temple, there’s a bamboo grove, pond, and Buddha statue under a Bodhi tree, where monks often chant or meditate in the evenings. 

Wat Chedi Luang

The massive complex was constructed in the 15th century in honour of the famed Phra Kaew (aka “Emerald Buddha”), which is now housed in Bangkok’s Grand Palace. Once rising over 80m high, it was the tallest building in Chiang Mai for 500 years; despite losing its peak after an earthquake in 1545, it’s still 60m high and visible across the city. Its huge grounds are dotted with massive Buddha statues, as well as the Lanna campus of Mahamakut Buddhist University (founded by King Rama IV), with daily sessions where novice monks practice English, chatting with
visitors.

Wat Chiang Man

The city’s oldest temple, Wat Chiang Man was built in 1296, shortly after Chiang Mai’s founding. In addition to a tranquil lotus pond, its central tower, Chedi Chang Lom (meaning “Elephant Chedi”)
is named for its 15 life-sized elephant statues.

OUTSIDE OF CHIANG MAI

Thanks to its location at the base of the Khun Tan Mountains, and good road connectivity, Chiang Mai is an ideal jumping-off point for adventure activities in the surrounding mountains, including trekking and wildlife watching. 

Elephant Parks

Most of Thailand’s elephant camps are situated around Chiang Mai, and some of the best ones include Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary and Elephant Nature Park

Elephant Nature Park is the most respected elephant camp in Chiang Mai, where you can watch elephants roam freely and help scrub them during their daily baths. Further afield, Boon Lott’s visitors stay overnight in one of 3 traditional teak guesthouses and the elephants are free to roam around the property, with visitors shadowing them from a distance. 

Doi Suthep-Pui National Park

The park, which consists of evergreen and deciduous forests, has both hiking and cycling trails that access several waterfalls. Its biggest attraction, however, is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple located atop Doi Suthep mountain. At 15km from Chiang Mai, the site overlooks the city. Dating from the 14th century, the temple is said to have been founded by King Nu Naone, after a monk brought him a relic (reportedly Buddha’s shoulder bone), which a white elephant then carried to what became the wat. Today it’s one of the most important religious sites in Thailand, accessible via 309 steps (or cable car) which are flanked by huge Naga (dragon) statues. Another landmark is Bhubing Palace, the royal winter residence. Constructed in 1961, it’s open to the public (except when the royal family is in residence), with the gardens being ideal for birdwatching.

Doi Inthanon National Park

Doi Inthanon (2,565m) is Thailand’s tallest peak. Also known as Doi Luang
(“Big Peak”), it’s one of Thailand’s most iconic spots; many hikers pose beneath its famous “Highest Spot in Thailand” sign. Other icons in the park include the twin pagodas in honour of the King and Queen, surrounded by spectacular gardens. While the summit does not have good views (due to constant mist and dense forest), views from the pagodas go through the next valley into Mae Hong Son province. Situated in its namesake park, Doi Inthanon is heavily forested and mist-shrouded year-round. Just below the summit, the Cloud Forest Boardwalk, while short, lets you experience the moss-covered forest up close.

The park is also Thailand’s premier bird-watching destination, with numerous colourful species like redstarts, forktails, and sunbirds flitting about. A variety of hiking trails also lead to numerous waterfalls and indigenous villages of the Karen and Hmong people. Easily done as a day-trip from Chiang Mai (1.5 hours, 100km), temperatures in the park range from 20°C, to 0°C in winter (December-January).

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