Chiang Mai

posted: 2004-09-01

Lan Na

Northern Thailand was at one time an independant kingdom, known as Lan Na (the name probably means one million rice farms), and centered on Chiang Mai. The city was founded in 1297 by king Mangrai of Chiang Saen. Though Thailand's second city, it is very much smaller than Bangkok. The old city area is bounded by a 1.5km by 1.5km moat; originally there was also a city wall, but this was demolished in the 18th century. More recently, sections around the main gates have been rebuilt in red brick, similar to the original style.

Moat and Section of Wall, Chiang MaiMoat and Section of Wall

What makes the city such an attractive destination, both for Thais and for foreigners, is the splendor and historic interest of the temples, the affordability of the hotels and guest houses, the variety and vitality of the night-life, and the wealth of cultural and adventure sites in the surrounding area.

Wherever you go in Chiang Mai you will find tour operators offering mountain and jungle trekking, rafting and canoeing, trips to hill tribe villages, elephant treks, etc. etc. : all at affordable prices.

You will also find many Thai and foreign restaurants for all budgets, new and second hand bookshops, bars and other entertainment venues, handicraft shops, street markets, night bazaars and so on.

Weather for Chiang Mai area.

Weather is hotter and drier in summer than Bangkok, cooler in Winter. In the mountains, the evenings can get quite cold so warmer clothing is necessary, especially if visiting in December or January.

Map Chiang Mai Area

Outside the city walls:

A. Airport

B. Railway Station

C. National Bus Station

D. Local Bus Station

E. Wat Jed Yod

F. Wat Suan Dok

G. Doi Suthep

Inner City (Zoom In):

H. Tha Pae Gate

I. Chang Phuek Gate

J. Wat Lok Moli

K. Wat Chiang Yuan

L. Wat Chiang Man

M. Wat Phra Singh

N. Wat Jedi Luang

M. Wat Mangrai

N. Wat Mahawan

O. Wat Bupharam

Getting to Chiang Mai

There are three overnight Special Express trains and one in the daytime; the journey lasts about 12 to 13 hours. The station is about 2.5km east of Tha Pae Gate: to get into town, take a red Song Taew from the station, at 20 Baht per person, or a Tuk Tuk at 50 Baht upwards.

Air Services:
Many flights from Bangkok and other cities inside and outside Thailand. For links to Airline websites see Airlines. The airport is only 2 kilometers to the south east of the city center.

Many operators run buses from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Journey time is 8 hours upwards, tickets from any travel agent. There are also bus services between Chiang Mai and most of Northern & North East Thailand, together with international services to Laos and beyond.

Getting around the City

Sam Lor, Chiang Mai Sam Lor Chiang Mai Very few taxis and buses at the moment, though several more are promised. Standard public transport are the Tuk Tuk:- prices negotiable from about 50 Baht upwards, and the red Baht Bus or Song Taew:- 10 Baht per trip within the old city boundaries, 20 Baht per trip if the trip goes into the newer parts of the city.

For trips to Doi Suthep, check with the driver. In the inner city area you can still find the old Sam Lor, fare from 20 Baht up.

Chiang Mai Sam LorChiang Mai Sam Lor

Vehicle Hire:
Suzuki Caribbean from around 800 Baht per day, Honda Civic or Toyota Soluna from about 1200 Baht per day, including insurance; motorcycles start at 150 Baht per day for a 100cc model; bicycles can be hired for 30 - 50 Baht per day. The best way to see the old city is, of course, on foot, as from North to South and East to West, the distance is only about 1m (1600m)

Walking Streets
At weekends, certain inner city streets near Tha Pae Gate are closed to traffic ("walking streets"), and become street markets selling hill tribe products and other handicrafts, food & drink, clothing, music tapes and lots of other items. Street musicians add to the atmosphere, almost a tropical Covent Garden.

Ping River
Mae Ping from Tha Nam Restaurant, Chiang MaiMae Ping from Tha Nam Restaurant

One of the major tributaries to the Chao Phraya river, the Ping river flows through the eastern outskirts of the city. Though there are many shopping plazas, bars, hotels and guest houses nearby, much of the river is quiet and peaceful, with the odd restaurant on the bank. I particularly like the Tha Nam on Chiron Prathet Road.

River trips can be booked at several piers around Narawat Bridge.

Chiang Mai Historic Sites

As Chiang Mai is much older than Bangkok, the range of temple architecture is correspondingly wider, and covers a much longer historical period, from the earlier low profile Lan Na style to the taller and more ornate 19th and 20th century styles.

Ubosot, Wat Chiang Man, Chiang MaiUbosot, Wat Chiang Man

Lion Gate, Chiang MaiLion Gate

Though many of the major temples are within, or close to the city walls, there several important temples somewhat further out of town, notably Wat Jed Yod (see below), Wat Suan Dork, and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep(se below). For the locations of these temples see the interactive map above.

Of the city center temples the most famous are probably Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chiang Man and Wat Bupharam, though I also like the lesser known Wat Lok Moli and Wat Mengrai.

Wat Mengrai

Wat Mengrai is a very early Lan Na style Wat located on Rajamanka Road, soi 6. The lion gates, detail on the right, are superb, as is the stucco decoration on the gable end of the Wiharn.

Unfortunately the temple seems much neglected (2006).

Detail, Wiharn Gable End, Chiang MaiDetail, Wiharn Gable End

Wat Lok Moli

Wiharn and Chedi, Wat Lok Moli
Not much is known of Wat Lok Moli, situated on Manee Nopparat Road, just west of Chang Phuak Gate, though it was clearly of importance to the family and descendants of King Mangrai, as they had their ashes buried there. First chronicle mention of the temple was in the late 14th century.

Wat Lok Moli, Wiharn & Chedi, Chiang MaiWat Lok Moli, Wiharn & Chedi

The beautiful teak built Wiharn, built in 1545, is partly open sided. The massive Chedi behind the Wiharn, was commenced in 1527. It is a typical Lan Na Chedi with indented corners built on a laterite base..

Wat Jed Yod

Wat Jed Yod Wiharn Situated to the north west of the city on route 11, Super Highway, Wat Potharam Maha Wiharn, popularly know as Wat Jed Yod, is considered one of Thailand's most important historic sites.

Much of the temple complex is in ruins, but what remains of the Lan Na style Chedis, and the extraordinary seven spired Wiharn, which gives the temple its name (Jed Yod = seven spires), are most impressive and evocative.

Wiharn with seven spires, Chiang MaiWiharn with seven spires

Chedi of King Tilok, Chiang MaiChedi of King Tilok
The temple was built by King Tilok during the late 15th century. The great Wiharn Jed Yod was modelled on the Mahabodhi Vihara, Bodh Gaya India, and the Bodhi Tree nearby is said to have come from the tree, also in Bodh Gaya, under which The Buddha achieved illumination. The well preserved Chedi, shown to the right, contains the ashes of King Tilok himself.

The walls of the Wiharn were decorated with beautiful stucco reliefs, depicting celestial beings; some of the reliefs are still in pretty good conditon, others much damaged during long wars with Burma, by the end of which, in the late 18th century, Lan Na was exhausted and depopulated, Wat Jed Yod and Chiang Mai itself were abandoned for some 20 years.

Wat Potharam Maha Wiharn is important in the history of Buddhism in that the highly significant 8th World Buddhist Council was held there in 1477.

Wat Chedi Luang

Wat Chedi Luang is a large temple complex situated on Phra Pok Klao Road. Its most noteworthy feature is the enormous central chedi, measuring 60 metres at the base, one time home of the Emerald Buddha (now in Wat Phra Kaeo, Bangkok).

The Great Chedi, Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang MaiThe Great Chedi, Wat Chedi Luang

According to the The Chiang Mai Chronicle, construction of the great Chedi began under King Saen Meung Ma in 1391 C.E. Because of the scale of the work and the death of the king in 1401, the structure was not completed until the reign of King Tilokaraja in 1454. Originally reaching a height of almost 90 meters, the building was decapitated by an earthquake in 1545. Again, according to The Chiang Mai Chronicle, the Chedi of Wat Phra Singh, and 9 other chedis were destroyed in the same earthquake.

In recent years there has been ongoing restoration work to the elephant balustrade at the second level of the pedestal, but the main tower is still a shadow of its former glory. On Google Earth, however, it remains the most eye-catching feature of central Chiang Mai, and can also be viewed in the Satellite view of the Interactive Map, above.

Reclining Buddha, Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang MaiReclining Buddha, Wat Chedi Luang

In the western part of the temple grounds facing the ruins of the great Chedi is a Mondop sheltering a large reclining Buddha, and above the statue, somewhat ironically, a sentence thought to be the last words of the Buddha:

Brethren it is natural for all conditioned things to decay and cease. Be diligent in working for your own deliverance

Grand Wiharn

The Grand Wiharn, situated in front of the main gate, is currently (2006) under renovation. It houses an enormous standing Buddha figure, Phra Chao Attarot, which is believed to date back to the time of King Saen Meung Ma.

On the southern side of the compound, near the main gate, is the Chiang Mai city pillar, moved to its present location by King Kawila in 1800. The statues which surround this shrine are believed to house guardian spirits of the city.

Near the monks' quarters, to the north of the compound, is a small garden where visitors are invited to engage in English conversation with the monks.

Wat Bupharam

Naga Stairs, Wat Bupharam, Chiang MaiNaga Stairs, Wat Bupharam
Wat Bupharam is located on Tha Pae Road, not far from Tha Pae Gate. According to The Chiang Mai Chronicle, the temple building was started in the 1490's, in the reign of King Kaeo Phutadipatiraja who also made additions to Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh and Wat Suan Dork.

The small Wiharn was added in the late 18th century by Chao Thammalangka, second king to King Kawila, who later added the large Wiharn.

The larger Wiharn is a two story structure, making it much taller than most Lan Na Wiharns; a small library takes up most of the ground floor, with the upper floor being the preaching hall.

The Wiharn contains many beautiful examples of Lan Na craftsmanship, including murals, Buddha images, Naga stairs, wood carvings and brass work. The large mural below, showing elephants riding to war, is taken from the preaching hall.

Elephants Riding to War, copper freezeElephants Riding to War

Seated BuddhaThe Chedi features a bronze Buddha at the center of each of the four sides. Just visible above the larger statue in the photograph to the right is a tiny bronze Buddha. Last time I visited the temple (August 2005), the smaller image had disappeared.

Perhaps someone had left it there to accumulate merit for a while and then retrieved it.


Around 26km south of Chiang Mai on the Northern railway line is the ancient city of Lamphun. This was the center of the ancient Mon kingdom of Haripunjaya, founded around the middle of the 7th century AD. Well worth a visit are Wat Chamathevi on Chamathevi Road, and the temple complex of Wat Phrathat Haripunchai between Inthayongyot Road and the river, originally founded in the 11th century, but also containing features from the intervening centuries.

Doi Suthep

Stairs to Doi SuthepStairs to Doi Suthep
About 16 km west of the city and visible from most of Chiang Mai, is Doi Suthep (Doi = mountain). The temple, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, located near the top of the mountain, is the main feature. The present buildings date from the 16th century, but have been restored several times since. The temple is one of the most important and most visited srines in northern Thailand, as it is believed to contain a relic (Phra That) of the Buddha.

It is reached by a long winding mountain road followed by a flight of around 290 (or that's how many I counted) stone steps flanked on each side by nagas (the multi headed snake of Buddhist mythology). The temple itself is split into many sections and shrines with a bewildering variety of Buddha images. The upper terrace provides a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside and Chiang Mai to the east.

Some distance past the temple is Phuping Palace, royal residence for Chiang Mai. Only the gardens are open to the public.

Frequent Song Taews (destination "Doi Suthep" clearly visible on the destination boards) run from the old city center to the mountain. Price is around 30 Baht each way.
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