Cities and Towns near Chiang Mai that are wonderful to visit

Mae Hong Son by Ken Marshall

Many people come to visit the historical northern city of Chiang Mai, but never extend their visit to travel into the hills and mountains surrounding it. Even fewer visit the charming neighbouring cities of Nan, Lampang and Lamphun which have an even older history than Chiang Mai. In this blog we will give you a taste of cities and towns near Chiang Mai, that you can visit as a day trip, stopover, or long stay.

Lamphun – 40 min

Lamphune. Thailand
Lamphun. Thailand

Lamphun is a beautiful small city 26km from Chiang Mai. It was founded nearly 500 years before Chiang Mai so  there are plenty of historical sights to see. Lamphun is one of Thailand’s oldest continuously occupied towns and was founded in 660 by Queen Chama Devi, the queen of an ancient kingdom predating the creation of Siam or even Sukhothai. The most important sight of Lamphun is the temple Wat Phra That Haripunjaya, which sits in a lovely location near the river, and was founded in the ninth century. Many people come here just for the day, but if you are in no hurry, this is a perfect spot to stop over and relax in for a few days as there is plenty to do and see.

Thaton – 2 hours

Thatom. Thailand
Thaton. Thailand

Thaton is a town near Chiang Mai and close to the Burmese border. The main draw for tourists to Thaton is that there is a river pier here where boats take you on a 4 hour trip to Chiang Rai. This river boat trip is famous and offers stunning scenery along the route. Thaton is a quiet town without much tourism or nightlife, but is beautiful, friendly and surrounded by some amazing countryside. Thaton also has a large old temple on top of a mountain just outside the town. After an hours walk to the summit you are rewarded with a gorgeous panoramic view over the surrounding beauty.

Lampang – 2 hours

Lampang, Thailand
Lampang, Thailand

Lampang is a charming small city near Chiang Mai that is famous for its horse drawn carriages and home of the king’s stable of white elephants. Of all the cities and towns near Chiang Mai, Lampang has the most distinctive character.  The rooster is a very old symbol of Lampang, derived from a local legend about a white rooster that was sent by the Brahmin God Indra to wake the locals so they could give alms to the Lord Buddha, who was travelling through the town.

Since Lampang is more than 1,000 years old (older than Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai) it is rich in archaeological and historical sites from the kingdoms of Hariphunchai, Lanna, and Burma. There are also some nice riverside restaurants and a friendly local population. Just outside of the city, on the road to Chiang Mai,  is the ‘Thailand Elephant Conservation Centre’ which is a famous government run centre. Again, with places like this, please research thoroughly their reputation for animal care. Any centre that makes elephants perform tricks or take people onto their backs for rides are not elephant friendly according to WWF and many other animal welfare organisations.

Chiang Rai – 3 hours

Chiang Rai is a relaxed city within the area famously known as the Golden Triangle. The Golden Triangle is where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos converge. This area became synonymous with poppy growing and trafficking of opium back in the last centuries, and has become romanticised in many people’s eyes.

Chiang Rai is quite busy and full of tourists year round. It has many traditional Thai temples and also temples with a distinctly Burmese influence due to a long Burmese occupation of the area. There is also the famous White Temple one of the most distinctive temples in the world.

The region is home to many hill tribes including the Akha, Lisu, Mien and Hmong and Chiang Rai is famous for selling handicraft items such as fabric, wood-carvings and silverware produced by the hill tribe people. Doi Mae Salong Mountain is home to another traditional people who come from China and here you will find that Chinese is a commonly spoken language. Be careful in the area of Chiang Rai about participating in ‘hill tribe shows’ which are fake and exploitative.

Mae Sariang – 4 hours

Mae-Sariang by Ken Marshall

Mae Sariang is a rural non-touristic small town near Chiang Mai situated in a pretty green valley and surrounded by hill tribe villages and nature. Sitting on a largely undeveloped riverside and surrounded by forested hills and rice paddies, the town still has many old teak buildings, some Burmese and Shan style Buddhist temples and is authentic in almost every aspect. There are far fewer tourists in Mae Sariang than Pai, Chiang Rai, or Chiang Mai so you will also get a much more authentic experience of hill tribe life in this area. For instance there are no “hill tribe shows”. Despite being less touristic, there are some nice hotels and guest houses here, so it really is a win win experience.

Nan – 5 hours

The City Walls, Nan, Thailand
The City Walls, Nan, Thailand

Nan is the former capital of an ancient small kingdom and is filled with history and surrounded by mountains, perfect for trekking. Nestled in Thailand’s northeastern corner, on the border with Laos, Nan is a remote small city to be explored at your leisire. Because of its proximity to Luang Prabang, (the historical capital of the Laotian Lan Xang Kingdom), the earliest settlers in the area were Lan Xang’s Laotians. After that in the 13th Century, the King of Nan aligned himself with the Lanna Kingdom.

Nan’s ethnic groups are another highlight and differ from those in other northern provinces. The main hill tribes are Mien, Hmong, Thai Lü, Mabri, Htin and Khamu. Nan province also has six national parks, including the Doi Phukha National Park, which contains mountains nearly 2,000 metres high. These parks are filled with awesome natural beauty and are much less touristic than the areas closer to Chiang Mai, Pai and Chiang Mai.

Mae Hong Son – 5 hours (featured image)

Mae Hong Son is a remote and very pretty little town set in a mountainous valley with a strong Shan influence who make up the majority of the population. The Shan used to be rulers of a vast kingdom, have their own language and own ethnic tribes within their own culture. There are thought to be around 5 million Shan people in the world, and many of them live in this area of Thailand and still live by their traditional culture which originated in Southern China and they traveled south around 1,500 years ago.

Mae Hong Son has a border town feel and is a real experience. It is not totally cut off from the rest of the world though and has been hosting tourists for many years who come to take boat trips and go trekking in the gorgeous mountains, which are actually the foothills of the Himalayas. If you come here in the cool season, you will need to wear a sweater in the evenings.

Pai – 5 hours

Pai by Claire Backouse

Pai is a beautiful little town near Chiang Mai. Set in a stunning valley surrounded by nature, Pai has become a tourist town, offering a relaxed atmosphere with a broad traveller and backpacker scene. There’s plenty of budget accommodation and places to study yoga, eat vegetarian food and view the nature. Whilst Pai has become very touristic and even boasts a small airport now, it is still full of charm, friendly locals, peace and quiet and is surrounded by nature.  Since it is nestled into the foothills of the Himalayas, expect cool nights and wonderful views.

Mae Hong Son Loop – 5-8 day trip

And finally, the Mae Hong Son Loop! – North west Thailand is home to one of the most spectacular sealed road loops in the world: the Mae Hong Son. It’s especially well-known amongst motorcycle tourers as it features over 4000 bends, taking you up and over mountains, through forests and across bridges for its entire 660km length. Apparently you climb the equivalent of Mt Everest one-and-a-half times. The trip starts in Chiang Mai then makes a loop through Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son, Pai and finishes back in Chiang Mai.

Map (left) is SE Asia in the 17th Century and (right) – current major towns and cities of Northern Thailand

Map of the Lanna Kingdom and present day Northern Thailand

That’s it for this blog. We hope it has given you some ideas for your travels and is some good advice for visiting cities and towns near Chiang Mai. Good Luck!

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Image courtesy of – Lamphun by Deepak Bahtia, Thaton by Kris Dhiradityakul, Lampang by RuckSackKrueme, Mae Sariang and Mae Hong Son by Ken Marshall, Nan by James Antrobus and Pai by Claire Bachouse


The History of The Lanna Kingdom

Wat Phrathat Sri Chomtong, Chiang Ma

This guide is a great accompaniment to visiting Northern Thailand, including Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and the surrounding cities and provinces. If you are interested in the grand history of the South East Asian region known as the ‘Lanna Kingdom’ and want to know more about the origins of the famous ‘Lanna Style’ then please read on. As usual, there is a useful map at the bottom of this guide which shows how the Lanna Kingdom looked at the height of it’s territorial reach, in relation to the country boundaries of today. Enjoy!

 What Comes Under The Umbrella Term, ‘Lanna Style’

‘Lanna’ is a melting pot of culture and crafts from many eras and ethnic groups. Architecture, masonry, bronzeware, silverware, woodcraft, textiles, weaving, sculpture, dance, cooking and an ethnic language make up a heritage that is revered and replicated in the 21st Century.

So here is a potted history told in order to whet your appetite for visiting the region and hopefully get you out of the tourist trap that is the ‘Chiang Mai/Hill Tribe Group Tour’ treadmill. This guide may encourage you to embark on a beautiful adventure back through Asian history starting in medieval times and ending with British Colonial influence and Bangkok rule.

8th-13th Century – The Roots Of Lanna

City states such as Lamphun and Lampang which are now provinces bordering Chiang Mai Province (see map) were already well established in the 9th Century. These cities were founded more than 400 years before the founding of Chiang Mai and a visit to Lampang (only 60km from Chiang Mai) to see relics more than 1,000 years old is highly recommended. If you have time, visit the other cities mentioned at the end of this guide too.

The inhabitants of Lamphun and Lampang were known as Lawa and Mon who had a rich culture. The kingdoms of Nan and Phrae to the east were also flourishing with a different array of cultural influences including the then Hindu, Khmer Empire.

In the 9th Century the first Thai (Tai) peoples also started settling in the area. They came from the north, migrating from Southern China and Northern Vietnam in large numbers. They were Chinese in ethnicity and were called the ‘Yuan.’ They are the original people referred to as ‘Thai/Tai’ and their very first kingdom started in Chiang Saen in the east of the region we are discussing.

The Yuan (Tai) people migrated south mainly due to the threat of the Mongols, the mighty warriors who ruled most of Asia at that time, and were heading south. The Yuan kingdom began in the 10th Century and a Yuan dynasty continued from then, gradually extending its territory little by little in all directions, even into what is now Lao.

The First King Of Lanna, King Mangrai

In 1260 the Mongols under the leadership of Kublai Khan sacked the historic Burmese Kingdom of Bagan (which is very close to Lamphun) and it is during this time that the future first King of Lanna started consolidating his position. His first move was to bring outlying areas that used to be part of the Bagan Kingdom under his control. The person who led this consolidation was the King of Yuan, Mangrai who had ascended to the Yuan throne in 1261. The process of conquering and consolidation began, initiated by the ambitious, highly political great war leader, King Mangrai.

We can therefore trace the creation of the Lanna Kingdom back to the Mongols and the threat they posed to the area. King Mangrai moved his base north to Chiang Rai, expanded his influence over the Southern cities of Lampang and Lamphun and brought areas in the north under his control reaching into China and Burma. In 1292 he conquered the famous Southern Mon Kingdom of Hariphunchai and so the Lanna Kingdom took shape. King Mangrai called his new enlarged kingdom ‘Lan-Na-Thai.’ (which for the purposes of this guide I will call Lanna) It translates as ‘Thai Kingdom Of A Million Rice Fields.’

 In 1287 the 3 Thai/Tai Kings of Lanna, Sukhothai, and Phayao made an alliance which led to the control of Northern Thailand by Thai kings for the next 300 years. This pact was very important for regional stability, and a golden era for Thai civilization began. However, only three years later, in 1290 Kublai Khan’s fierce Mongolian armies invaded Lanna. King Mangrai resisted with genius guerilla warfare tactics and sharp diplomatic skills.

Six year later, in 1296, Mangrai ordered a new capital city to be built which he named Chiang Mai. He saw this as the best location for the centre of his new empire, with its fertile land, which had plenty of rivers and a good climate. The city quickly flourished to become Lanna’s new centre although, Mangrai continued to live in his preferred city, Chiang Rai.

King Mangrai managed to avoid more invasions from the north through political negotiations and payment of large tributes. At the time of his death in 1317 his Lanna Kingdom covered a very large area although in the next century it would get even larger. As a great king, he brought prosperity and stability to the whole area. Many beautiful towns and temples were built during his reign, and the arts flourished. This is all very impressive for a conquering king who was at war so much of the time.

A key point to note about King Mangrai, the first King of Lanna, was that he wanted Buddhism to be an essential part of the state, and so ‘Theravada Buddhism’ became a lynch pin of the empire. After King Mangrai’s death, many kings of the Mangrai Dynasty would rule the Kingdom of Lanna, shifting administrative HQ between Chiang Rai, Chiang Saen, and Chiang Mai. Buddhism flourished and became a way of life for the people and many customs developed in this time, are still alive today.

King Tilorokarat – King of The Lanna Kingdom (1441-1485)

In 1441 King Tilorokarat (Tilok) the 9th King of Lanna was crowned and this marked the beginning of a great period of wealth, trade and religious expression. It was also a period of development for the distinctly ‘Lanna Style’ of arts, including dance, weaving, metalware and cuisine. King Tilorokarat was intensely religious in both Theravada Buddhism and the Brahman ways and he commissioned many now famous Lanna bronze Buddha images. There was large scale construction of temples and shrines many of which can still be visited today, either as working temples or as ruins.

The Kingdom of Nan and Phrae was integrated between 1443 and 1449 (not without resistance) and other land was also brought under Lanna control, reaching up into what is now China. Some of the Shan States (now Burma) were also integrated and at this point in history Lanna was the largest it ever was.

Lanna began trading extensively with neighboring kingdoms which created a more affluent lifestyle for the local inhabitants and led to more patronage of the arts by the rich. Although Lanna had many altercations with its neighbours at this time it also had a deep spiritual connection with some of them including Sukhothai and Bagan. Many of temples for instance have a similar style to Burmese or Sukhothai style temples.

In 1455 the World Buddhist Council was held in Chiang Mai which just shows how powerful the kingdom had become on a global scale.

16th Century – Lanna Kingdom’s Decline and Burmese Occupation

Lanna’s gradual decline can be marked by the death of King Kao in 1526. Large building projects had put a great strain on the royal treasury and the tax paying population. The massive ramparts built around cities for instance had cost the kingdom dearly. Government institutions began breaking down and 6 rulers took the throne in only 25 years. A long period unrest, treachery and corruption began in the kingdom.

At this point Lanna was being repeatedly attacked by Laos and Burma and finally in 1558 the Lanna Kingdom was taken by the Burmese. The Burmese conquerors broke Lanna up into several city states: Nan (1595), Phayao, Phrae, Chiang Rai (1600), Lampang (1614) and Chiang Khong (1624).

 A Burmese prince sat on the throne in Chiang Mai but other than in the tightly controlled Shan States, there was no direct colonisation by Burmese people, only annual tributes/taxes that had to be paid. The areas of Nan, Phayao and Phrae in the east were virtually independent because the Burmese rule was too weak to control the land they conquered. In this way Lanna culture survived and did not become integrated into Burmese culture despite 200 years of Burmese control..

Constant warfare however led to a huge depopulation of Lanna and the former kingdom became both economically and culturally ruined as the Burmese plundered Lanna’s riches to fuel their wars. Many towns and villages were abandoned and the much of the region became derelict. More than 100 years later in a monumental victory, in 1767 the Burmese occupied the Siamese kingdom in the south called ‘Ayutthaya,’ which bordered the Lanna Kingdom. After this massive victory for the Burmese, the old Lanna nobility decided to combine their resources with other Thai Kingdoms in order to defeat the very powerful but overstretched Burmese.

King Taksin of Thonburi to the rescue (1734-1782)

Taksin was a Thai/Chinese man who led the liberation of Siam (Ayutthaya and surrounding Thai Kingdoms) from Burmese occupation. By the 1770’s, the Siamese commoner turned king, unified the scattered Siamese people and created a large army which pushed the Burmese out of Siam forever. In 1775, Taksin’s armies and the armies of the Lanna noble, Prince Kawilla of Lampang, ousted the Burmese from key Lanna territory.  Kawilla was crowned king of a new, but smaller Lanna Kingdom and from then on taxes were paid by the Lanna kings to Siam.

King Kawila – King of The Lanna Kingdom

King Kawila, with support from Bangkok, rejuvenated Chiang Mai. He resettled a lot of the population from rural areas into Chiang Mai City and restored important buildings and temples built during the Mangrai dynasty.  Although Lanna was now a tributary kingdom of Bangkok, Kawila was trusted to govern his kingdom without obstruction. King Kawila worked hard to resurrect Lanna cultures and traditions, such as the coronation ceremony, important Buddhist ceremonies, Lanna celebrations, music, dances and crafts. He dressed in the full Lanna costume as the kings of the Mangrai Dynasty had once done and his dynasty ruled Lanna for more than a hundred years under the gentle support of Bangkok.

Lanna Resurges Again Under Siam’s Gaze

Although King Kawila initiated an enormous Lanna revival, the whole kingdom was in a state of disrepair and it was not until 1804 that the last of the Burmese were kicked out of the furthest corners of the kingdom which is 30 years after Chiang Mai was liberated. From 1810 the Lanna Kingdom finally went through a resurgence, once again enjoying peace and prosperity, especially the nobility. There were still small border disputes but Lanna had support from their Southern Siamese protectors at these times. While Burma was bogged down with internal conflict and war with the British, the Lanna Kingdom, gradually assimilated more and more Siamese customs, including their language.

The Lanna Kingdom in the 19th and Early 20th Century

In 1884 provincial status was imposed on the Lanna Kingdom by Siam and the Lanna kings were made into mere city mayors. All this was most probably pushed through quickly due to the threat of the British who by 1885 had full control of Burma. British influence came to the Shan states first and in then in Lanna itself. British companies arrived in Lanna to exploit the teak forests and brought Burmese and Karen (Chinese/Tibetan tribal people living in Burma) workers into Lanna all of which had a big impact on the culture of the region.

Meanwhile, alongside this growing colonial influence (which can especially be seen in the architecture of Chiang Mai),  Siam was also increasing its control. Siamese nobility was installed over the ‘northern provinces,’ (what had been called the Lanna Kingdom until 1884) and in 1886 Princess Dararasmi of Lanna was married to the King of Siam as a symbol of union. In 1893, Lanna was formally annexed into the Kingdom of Siam. When democracy came to Siam in 1932, the monarchy in Lanna ended for good replaced by a government appointed by the central Thai government.

The Legacy of Princess Dararasmi

The final piece of this story goes back to the famous Princess Dararasmi who married the King of Siam in 1886. Several years after the King of Thailand died, Princess Dararasmi took up residence again in Chiang Mai. She played a key role in reviving traditional performing arts in the area formally known as Lanna and taught folk and classical dance, music and handicraft skills to school children in the region.

While the region was gradually assimilated into the country of Thailand, she actively encouraged a renaissance of Lanna culture, which helped to keep it alive in the heart and minds of the locals throughout the rapid modernisation of the area in the 20th Century. Before the arrival of the train to Chiang Mai in 1912, travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai had taken 3 weeks and suddenly the region was opened up to the modern world and it transformed rapidly.

Lanna Culture Remains Alive Today

We can see that throughout the years, despite multiple invasions, great expansion and contractions, virtual abandonment by the people and annexation by foreign kingdoms, the Lanna culture which began it’s slow bloom from the 9th century and officially began in 1292 is still very much alive today, With key influences from Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism, Mon Culture, Animlalism and Hindu religions, Burmese culture, Chinese culture and also influence from its Thai neighbour, Sukhothai, and later Ayutthaya, the Lanna culture blossomed into a wonderful artistic and cultural style that is loved and revered all over the world today.

As a part of the Kingdom of Thailand the Lanna cities of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Lampang, Lamphun, Chiang Saen, Payao, and Nan are all administered by Thai governors and officials, just like the rest of Thailand. However, the legacy of 1,000 years of history is stunningly beautiful in its complexity, making Lanna, and Chiang Mai in particular, one of the most visited historical cities in the whole of Asia.

The area is totally modernised today and after the first train and roads were built between 1912 and 1922 progress happened fast. However, there are still some amazing gems to be seen in all the cities of old Lanna and Chiang Mai’s old city is hurtling towards UNESCO World Heritage status. We hope this brief history of Lanna has thoroughly whetted your appetite for your visit to Northern Thailand.

Map of the Lanna Kingdom and present day Northern Thailand
The map on the left shows the Lanna Kingdom in blue in 1317 at the end of the reign of the first King of Lanna, King Mangrai. The map on the right shows the major cities of the current Northern Thailand. All areas except the yellow area used to be part of the Lanna Kingdom.

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