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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Chiang Mai Essentials – Top 13 Chiang Mai temples to visit and love

Wat Chaing Man, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second major city and the capital of the north. It is located in the Himalayan foothills and used to be the capital of the Independent Kingdom of Lanna (1296–1768). it is a wonderful city to visit, perhaps making the top 20 cities of the world in our opinion. There are over 300 temples in the Chiang Mai area dating back to 1296 when the city was founded. Here is a list of our top picks for Chiang Mai temples in and near to the Old City.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Wat Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai
Wat Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai

This mountaintop temple is a must see if you visit Chiang Mai. You can travel to, and explore this temple in about two-four hours since it is only 13km outside the city. The climb up to the temple is a little tough because the staircase is steep, but you don’t need to be super fit to make it up. Doi Suthep was founded in the 14th century and today is the most important temple for Theravada Buddhists in the north of Thailand. It is a journey every Thai Buddhist is recommended to make at least once in their life so it is not just a temple but a pilgrimage too.

The temple is beautiful with many stunning statues, sections and courtyards. There are many representations of the Buddha, ornate dragon statues, and also lots of relics. The views are also spectacular.

This temple was built around 1383. King Keuna of Chiang Mai selected a white elephant to carry a holy relic of the Lord Buddha to what would be its resting place. The elephant wandered up Mount Suthep until it came to a place where it finally laid down. A Temple was built on the spot to house the holy relic, and both remain there to this day.

Wat Chedi Luang

Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai
Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai

Wat Chedi Luang is particularly beautiful and also imposing. Built in 1401, the structure was damaged during an earthquake in 1545, but it remains mainly intact. You can still see the massive elephant carvings and they are a wonderful photo opportunity. The temple is particularly lovely at night, when it is lit up. Nearby, there is an ancient tree planted next to the city pillar, meant to protect the city and its grounds. This tree is huge and because of its sacred purpose, will not be cut down.

Wat Prasingh

This temple is located right in centre of the Old City and is is the largest temple within the old city walls. It was constructed in 1345 when a Lanna king built it in his father’s honour. The temple’s most sacred relic is the very old and famous, (now headless) Buddha called Phra Singh Buddha. According to legend the Buddha came to Thailand from Ceylon to Ayutthaya and then to Chiang Rai, Luang Prabang and back once more to Ayutthaya. In 1767 it arrived in Chiang Mai where it has been ever since.

An historic scripture repository is also located at this temple. Repositories were designed to protect the delicate paper sheets used by monks and scribes to keep records/document folklore. The walls of the temple are covered with murals illustrating Lanna customs, dress, and scenes from daily life.

Wat Chiang Man

Situated in the northeast corner of the Old City, this was the first temple to be built in Chiang Mai. It was built by King Mengrai in 1296 as part of the original city construction and it it is alleged that he lived here while the city of Chiang Mai was being built.

Of all the Chiang Mai temples, this temple is an exceptional example of Lanna style architecture. The golden Chedi surrounded by carved elephants, which can be found at the rear of the complex, is a favorite among visitors. The ornate red roofs and gold carvings on the newer temple buildings are also stunning and perfect for a photographer to take wonderful pictures. Housed within the temple are two rare Buddha statues, the Crystal Buddha and the Marble Buddha.

Wat Umong

Wat Umong, Chiang Mai
Wat Umong, Chiang Mai

Wat Umong is a beautiful but simply designed temple, located in a forest environment. It is located 2km west of the Old City on Suthep Road, nestled into the foothills of Mount Suthep. Built in the 14th century for a revered monk, it was then abandoned for nearly six centuries. This forest temple and cave complex is very beautiful and distinct in style to other temples in Chiang Mai.

The corridors under the temple are a unique aspect of Wat Umong and no one really knows why they were made. They still have visible paintings from the 14th century.  This temple is close to Wat Suan Dok and is a great chance to get out of the city into the countryside and see a temple in a lovely woodland setting.

A large and very simple Chedi sits on the flat hilltop above the corridors of Wat Umong and is very splendid to look at among the trees.  A key highlight can be discovered when you look at the many trees throughout the complex and see that they are decorated with hundreds of Buddhist proverbs in both English and Thai. It’s a truly unique experience to come here.

Wat Doi Kham

Although small, Wat Doi Kham is well worth a visit. Of all the Chiang Mai temples, this has the biggest legend associated with Buddha and his supposed travels in the region. Legend has it that this site was established long ago by Buddha himself when he met and converted the indigenous Lua people to Buddhist practices. There is a 17 metre tall white Buddha statue, a beautiful gold Chedi and there are also lovely views of the valley below, making it a great photo opportunity for those who love to take pics of beautifully located Buddhist temples.

Wat Suan Dok

This temple, constructed in 1371 is built on what were once a 14th-century Lanna King’s gardens. Interestingly, some of the temple’s Chedis contain ashes of the old Lanna Royal Family. You can also view a Buddhist relic brought from Sukothai in 1371, which split into two a long time ago. The other half is buried at Doi Suthep. A 500-year-old bronze Buddha image, one of the largest in northern Thailand, is also at Wat Suan Dok and is well worth visiting. Located 1km west of the old walled city on Suthep road. The temple is currently the site of a Buddhist University and also has a large open-air sala.

Wat Bupparam

Wat Bupparam, Chiang Mai
Wat Bupparam, Chiang Mai

Wat Bupparam is located 500 metres outside of the Phrae Gate of the Old City. It was built in the 15th century, and houses beautiful statues and ornaments including three famous Buddha images, a painted wooden Buddha, a gold leaf Buddha, and green gemstone Buddha. The gardens surrounding the main building are filled with flowers and statues, some kinda quirky – you should check it out for yourself!

The architecture of the temple is different from typical Thai temples, and there is a specific reason for this. The main temple structure was originally built in 1497, but in 1561, when this area was occupied by the Burmese, Burmese monks had the temple’s structure changed to suit their style rather than abandoning the temple altogether. Normally Thai temples are a rectangular shape, while this one is crossed shape with a tower in the middle. The 400 year old Chedi also has a Burmese influence and is guarded by the typical Burmese golden lions.

Wat Jed Yod

Wat Jed Yod is situated near to the Chiang Mai National Museum on the northern loop of the ring road. Built in 1455 by King Tilokaraja, its name means “Seven Spires”.  It was modeled on the Mahabodi Temple in India, where the Buddha supposedly achieved enlightenment. The Chedi contains the ashes of King Tilokaraja who famously organised for the World Buddhist Council to come to Chiang Mai. Wat Jed Yod was built to host the Eighth World Buddhist council which was a massive honour for the Kingdom of Lanna at that time, so of all the Chiang Mai temples, if has great relevance to the history of the Buddhist religion.

Wat Pan Tao

The main temple of Wat Pan Tao is constructed entirely of teak panels supported by 28 massive teak pillars. It is one of the few remaining all wooden structures of its sort in Chiang Mai. It has a three tiered roof with golden colored roof finials, shaped as Naga snakes on its roof ends. It was built in the late fourteenth century and its survival is a miracle. It is one of the last remaining wooden temples of that era and since it is next door to Wat Chedi Luang, it is easy to visit. The elegant wood carvings that decorate Wat Pan Tao are also beautiful.

The Wat Pan Tao temple complex also contains a large white Chedi, a small bell tower and the monks private living quarters. A number of Burmese style lions on the outer wall guard the temple complex and a heavily decorated gate provides access to the temple grounds which is also very beautiful.

Wat Srisuphan

Not far to the south of the Old City is the traditional silver-making district. Located around Wualai Road, this area is dotted with silver shops, but is probably best known to tourists as the location of the Saturday Walking Street Market. However, there is also an amazing new temple here too.

Wat Srisuphan was built in 1502, although little remains of the original temple. The temple is now the focus of renovations that started in 2009 and are designed to make it a centerpiece for the ‘silver village’ it serves. The entire surface of the hall, inside and out is covered in silver, as is the roof, and all sorts of ornate silver statues, signposts and ornaments are being added. This is a modern masterpiece and worth a visit for sure. It is marvelous to see a Thai temple decorated in silver rather than gold. The monks at this temple are particularly tourist friendly, always ready for a chat.

Wat Pha Lat

Wat Pla Let, Chiang Mai
Wat Pla Lat, Chiang Mai

Architecturally, this not a spectacular temple, but setting wise is amazing. There is a waterfall running through the temple grounds and a stunning view out over Chiang Mai.  It’s on Doi Suthep mountain and it was used by pilgrims heading to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep as a resting spot when there was no road and no cars. Wat Pha Lat is a complex of small temples and beautiful stone statues that focus around the waterfall. The temple area is incredibly peaceful, blended into the nature in a wonderful way.  There are no shops, no crowds, just the peace of a temple, stunning views and a waterfall.

The walk up the hill to Wat Pha Lat takes 35-50 minutes from Suthep Road, and you should probably wear trainers to do it it. Orange robes wrapped around the trees to mark the path up the hill to the temple. Wat Pha Lat, means ‘Monastery at the Sloping Rock’.

Wat Phan On

This temple is located inside the Old City on Ratchadamnoen Road and was built in 1501. The large golden Chedi is a recent addition however, built in 2007.  The Chedi is gold and has red nooks adorned with gold statues, which creates a beautiful red/gold contrast, a theme which continues inside the temple. The interior of the temple building is highly decorated and there are very ornate gold carvings on the  red doors and windows. These details make this temple stunning to photograph.

 

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Images courtesy of flickr.com – Featured image by 60D

Chiang Mai Essentials – orientation and key sites inside and outside the city walls

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second major city and the capital of the north. Thailand is a very long country from North to South and Chiang Mai is actually nestled into the foothills of the Himalayas. This gives it a very different vibe to the southern areas of Phuket and Koh Samui which are a 2 hour flight away. While the city is a sprawling metropolis, the old city has remained intact as have old colonial areas, riverside mansions and chinese quarters. The area is also home to more than 300 temples, making it a stunning place to visit. Here we give you the essentials of visiting Chiang Mai, which should mean you get to pack in as much in as possible. As usual there is a handy map at the bottom.

Why should I visit the city of Chiang Mai?

Chiang Mai can best be described as a sanctuary. The pace is laid-back, the cooler (ish) weather is refreshing and the landscape is stunning. Chiang Mai used to be the capital of the Independent Kingdom of Lanna (1296–1768) so is steeped in history. It is 700 km north of Bangkok and sits along the beautiful Ping River. Chiang Mai could only be reached by a 3 week river journey and jungle trek until the roads and rail came in the 1920s. This isolation helped keep Chiang Mai’s distinctive culture intact. Chiang Mai is one of the best places in Thailand  to experience both historical and modern Thai culture existing side by side. It is also a great launchpad for exploring the mountain areas that border Burma and Laos.

Getting to Chiang Mai

By Plane

Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX) receives up to 28 flights a day from Bangkok (flight time 1 hour 10 minutes) and is also a hub for flights to other northern cities such as Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son. The airport is 3 km/15 minutes from the city centre.  Non metered taxis charge 180 baht for up to 5 passengers to anywhere in the city. Metered taxis start from 40 baht plus a 50 baht service fee and you pay at the Meter Taxi counter.

Bus from Bangkok

A variety of buses leave frequently from Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal (Mo Chit), with choices of price, comfort and length of trip. The trip is long so we recommend you opt for a luxury night bus but take a jumper because the aircon is super cold. At the Arcade Bus Station in Chiang Mai, where you’ll arrive, public songthaews or taxis are available. Buses take around 12-13 hours from Bangkok.

By train

Services from Bangkok’s Hualampong Railway Station leave on a regular schedule and take 13-15 hours to reach Chiang Mai. We recommend the night train in the classes where you get a bunk bed. Try to book the one which arrives into Chiang Mai later in the morning so you can see the landscape as the sun rises. It’s simply stunning.

The famous walled city

History is abundant within the moat encircled ‘Old City’, which retains some of the wall and all four gates. The old city of Chiang Mai is a great location to see the north’s diverse cultural identity that includes Art, cuisine, architecture, festivals, handicrafts and classical dance.

Inside Chiang Mai’s city walls are more than 30 temples dating back to the founding of the kingdom in 1296, with a combination of Burmese, Sri Lankan and Lanna Thai styles, decorated with beautiful wood carvings, Chedis, Naga staircases, Buddha statues and gold covered Pagodas.

Phae Gate (East Gate)

The east entrance to the old city of Chiang Mai is a great area to shop, eat and spend a few hours soaking in the atmosphere. The Three Kings Monument and several temples such as Chedi Luang, Phra Singh, Chiang Man, are in this area. It also has museums, boutique shops, restaurants and cafes. The Sunday Night Walking Street is here as well as the Saturday market and it is close to the Ping river, making it very picturesque.

The hipster/yoga scene

Chiang Mai has a thriving arts culture. There are many galleries, jazz venues and vespa clubs, not to mention some amazing coffee shops, antique shops and food trucks. Chiang Mai is also a hub for many yoga sanctuaries, yoga studios, detox retreats and massage training schools. It also has some world class vegetarian restuarants. The international nature of the city also means that you can find cuisines from all over the world including Japanese and Indian.

Temples

Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai
Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai

There are over 300 wats/temples in the Chiang Mai area dating back to 1296, some inside the old city and some outside. The most famous is Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, which overlooks the city from a mountainside 13 km away.

Here is a list of our top picks for temples in and near to Chiang Mai.

Wat Chedi Luang

Wat Chedi Luang is particularly beautiful. Built in 1401, the structure was damaged during an earthquake in 1545, but it remains mainly intact. You can still see the massive elephant carvings and they are a wonderful photo opportunity. The temple is particularly lovely at night, when it is lit up. Nearby, there is an ancient tree planted next to the city pillar, meant to protect the city and its grounds. This tree is huge and because of its sacred purpose, will not be cut down.

Wat Prasingh

This temple is in centre of the Old City and is is the largest temple in the city. It was constructed in 1345 when a Lanna king built it in his father’s honour. The temple’s most sacred relic is the very old and famous, (now headless) Buddha called Phra Singh Buddha. According to legend the Buddha came to Thailand from Ceylon to Ayutthaya and then to Chiang Rai, Luang Prabang and back once more to Ayutthaya. In 1767 it arrived in Chiang Mai where it has been ever since.

Wat Umong

This forest temple and cave complex is very beautiful and distinct in style to other temples in Chiang Mai.  The corridors under the temple still have visible paintings from the 13th century, and the Chedi is plain but appropriate for its wonderful woodland setting. Wat Umong is one of the oldest temples in the area and is a great way to see the countryside around Chiang Mai. This temple is close to Wat Suan Dok.

 Wat Doi Kham

Although small, Wat Doi Kham is well worth a visit. There is a 17 metre white Buddha statue and a beautiful gold Chedi at this temple and there are lovely views of the valley below. Legend has it that this site was established long ago by Buddha himself when he met and converted the indigenous Lua people to Buddhist practices.

Wat Suan Dok

This temple is built on what were once a 14th-century Lanna King’s gardens. Interestingly, some of the temple’s Chedis contain ashes of the old Lanna Royal Family. You can also view a Buddhist relic brought from Sukothai in 1371, which split into two a long time ago. The other half is buried at Doi Suthep. A 500-year-old bronze Buddha image, one of the largest in northern Thailand, is also at Wat Suan Dok and is well worth visiting.

Markets

Night Bazzaar, Chiang Mai
Night Bazaar, Chiang Mai

Warorot Market

Warorot Market, also known as China Town is a sprawling indoor/outdoor market just 2 minutes north of the Night Bazaar and next to the Ping River. It is where the locals shop and has cheap clothing and other handicrafts that aren’t typically seen in Thailand’s other street markets. It is open every day from morning to around 8pm. Warorot Market also has really good street food at reasonable prices.  Peruse the many fabrics, spices, tea, and dried fruit at your leisure and know you will get better value here than at the very touristic ‘Night Bazaar’.

Anusarn Market

Anusarn Market is on Chang Khlan Road near the end of the Night Bazaar and is open every evening until midnight. It is a busy outdoor food night market with lots of little Thai, Indian, and Western restaurants and food stalls. It is a great place to relax and eat after visiting the night bazaar. There are some nice little massage shops here too and a good old fashioned Irish Pub.

Friday Morning Hill Tribe Market

This is a fresh produce market held every Friday morning near to the Mosque on Chang Khlan Road, not far from the night bazaar. This little market is where the ethnic minorities who live around Chiang Mai bring their own distinctive food products to sell. It is really interesting to look around and try out the exotic fruits.

Night Bazaar

The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is the city’s most popular market for tourists so expect to do some hard bargaining for some not so genuine souvenirs. There are plenty of stalls selling clothes, handbags, candles, soaps, home décor, postcards, textiles etc. and the atmosphere is bustling, festive and laid back. Since the night bazaar is in a popular area there are plenty of food and drink vendors and even some international chains, including Burger King, McDonalds and Starbucks. The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is located on Chang Khlan Road, just outside the city gate on the east side. Hours are from sunset to about midnight, with some shops and stalls closing earlier.

Sunday Walking Street

On Sunday evenings, the street just inside the Tapae Gate is closed to traffic and stalls selling local handicrafts as and food are all open for business. Many foreign visitors don’t know it exists but it is a great shopping attraction.

Outside the city

View from Doi Suthep Temple, Chiang Mai

Wat Prathat Doi Suthep

This mountaintop temple is a must see if you visit Chiang Mai. You can do this whole trip in about two hours since it is only 13km outside the city. The climb up to the temple is a little tough because the staircase is steep, but you don’t need to be super fit to make it up. Doi Suthep was founded in the 14th century and today is the most important temple for Theravada Buddhists in the north of Thailand. It is a journey every Thai Buddhist is recommended to make at least once in their life so it is not just a temple but a pilgrimage too.  The temple is beautiful with lots of sections, courtyards and views. There are many representations of the Buddha, ornate dragon statues, and also lots of relics. The views are also spectacular. On a little side note, be aware that children dressed up in local costume outside the temple should probably be at school and it is best not to encourage parents to earn an income from them.

Doi Inthanon

This is the highest peak in Thailand, and the national park that surrounds it is stunning. You can do some trekking and hike the mountain, or take a stroll on a shorter route. It is a two-hour drive from the city and if you hire a driver and a car (around 2,000-3,000 baht per day) you can have a full day on the mountain and see most of the sites. There is also a camping option here and nearby to the national park a Golf Resort. The walk to the top is easy or you can drive most of the way. Despite being busy with tourists, the summit offers some great views, especially between October and December, before the haze/smog hits. On the way to the summit you can visit the Stupa containing the remains of the last King of Lanna, King Inthawidhayanon.

Sirithan Waterfall  and Wachirathan Waterfall are both worth visiting too. Wachirathan is developed with a carpark and restaurant, whereas Sirthan is just at nature intended. You should also consider stopping at the two Royal Chedi’s on the way back from the summit. The two huge Chedi built in honour of the current King and Queen of Thailand have been built on opposing peaks and are very impressive Each is a temple type construction with lovely wall carvings and paintings. If the stairs to the top of Chedi looks daunting, you can get escalators to the top. On the main road opposite the Ranger Station is a Thai sign showing the start of a short, self-guided nature trail which leads to a boggy area where you can find the rare red blossomed Rhododendron. This area is is a good location for bird-watching.

Bua Thong Sticky Waterfalls

This series of 7 waterfalls and the surrounding area is perfect to spend a day visiting. The wooded area surrounding the falls is serene and peaceful and you can walk up the waterfalls like steps (hence the word sticky in the name, because they are not slippery as you would expect)  For between 300-800 baht, you can hire a songthaew or tuk-tuk driver to take you out and back.

Huay Tung Tao Lake

This reservoir is beautiful and relaxing and only 10km from the city of Chiang Mai. It sits at the base of Doi Suthep and is popular with locals and ex-pats rather than tourists.  You can rent a bamboo hut on the lake to eat a delicious meal from the local vendors and hire a large tube tyre, or pedal boat to relax in on the water. It’s perfect for swimming and the water is very cooling on a hot day. It is simple to hire a driver and organise to be dropped off at the lake and then picked up again later.

Mae Ngat Dam and the Floating Houseboats

The floating houses at Mae Ngat Dam are a wonderful getaway for a small group of friends. Only a 35 minute drive from the city of Chiang Mai, the cute little houseboats on the water can only be reached by a 15 minute boat ride.

These floating houses are a series of basic one-room cabins connected side-by-side and float on the lake’s surface.  There are several companies, each operating a group of identical bamboo cabins that open up to a wide wooden deck spanning across their front which has little restaurants. On the deck is plenty of space for relaxing, and it’s the perfect location to jump off to go swimming and tubing. Kayaks here are about 150 baht an hour and you can also hire fishing rods and fish off a kayak.

Phu Ping (or Bhuping) Palace

This Royal Winter Palace, built on a small mountain outside Chiang Mai has wonderful landscaped gardens and is open to the public when the Royal Family is not in residence. The palace itself which was built in 1961 and is not particularly exciting, but the extensive gardens are picturesque including tropical flowers, old trees and giant bamboo. The rose garden is very popular with Thais because it is only in the north at higher altitude that roses can bloom. The Palace is located on Doi Buak Ha mountain, about 20 kms North West of the city of Chiang Mai. It is along the same road as Doi Suthep Temple but about 4 kms closer to Chiang Mai city.

Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden

This is Thailand’s best botanical garden and is dedicated to the conservation of Thai flora. It holds collections of rare and endangered species and is situated in the lush mountains of Doi Suthep, about 20km outside of the city of Chiang Mai. Three major streams in the area converge into one on the land, providing year round water, and the regional climate is ideally suited to the project of protecting rare species.  The gardens and the many glasshouses are stunning and a must anyone who wants to relax around a plethora of tropical colours and scents.

Flight of the Gibbon

Flight of the Gibbons is a company which runs is a zipline through the 1500 year old rainforest high above the forest floor. Located 40 minutes outside of Chiang Mai in a national park it features 5 km of ziplines which connect lookout platforms, lowering stations, and sky bridges. it is a wonderful adventure and comes well recommended on TripAdviser. At 800 metres, the longest zipline in Asia can be found here and there is also a chance to see gibbons in the wild. As part of this tour you can hike up the 7 tiers Mae Kompong Waterfall. The whole thing will take 7 hours from pickup to drop off and food and drinks are included.

Easy ways to get around Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai Songtheaw

If you are visiting the old city and nearby you can easily walk between locations. Otherwise there are several bicycle hiring companies here. If you are a good driver it is simple to hire a car or motorbike which is a good option if you intend to leave the city and head for the hills. If you don’t want to drive yourself, you could hire a private car or mini van for the day, which lots of tourists do to avoid the busy group tours.

By songthaew (pronounced song-tee-ow)

These covered pick-up trucks have two long bench seats and are a really good option in Chiang Mai. They mainly have fixed routes, picking up passengers at any spot along the way. Red songthaews, however can be hired outright and will take you anywhere you like. Fixed route songthaews generally start at Warorot Market. White ones go to the eastern suburb of Sankampaeng, yellow ones go to Mae Rim in the north, blue songthaews go to Lamphun in the south, and green songthaews travel to Mae Jo in the northeast. They all charge a 20 baht flat rate..

By tuk-tuk

Tuk-tuks are a quick way to get around. Fares are usually 40-50 baht for a short trip and 50-100 baht for longer distances.

What are the seasons like?

Chiang Mai is cooler than elsewhere in Thailand but still pretty hot and humid throughout the year in the daytime. It does cool down very nicely in the evenings though, making it perfect for night time shopping at the open air markets. You made need a sweater if you go up into the mountains and especially if you are staying overnight up in the hills between October and Feb which is their ‘winter’ and temperatures can drop blow 10 degrees at night.

  • cool/dry season is  from mid Oct-mid Feb
  • hot season from is mid Feb-mid Jun
  • wet season from is  mid Jun-mid Oct

Is there a downside to visiting Chiang Mai?

Like all cities in Thailand there is a overly touristic side to Chiang Mai and also a seedy side. Also between February and April, a nasty smog hits the city. In recent years it has got so bad that I recommend that you do not visit during these months especially if you are travelling with kids. Also, you might have noticed that I have excluded all attractions involving hill tribes and animals. There is a lot of exploitation in the north of Thailand for both animals and the Hill Tribe people and if you intend to view/work with them then please research the credentials of the organisation you are paying. Do not go jungle trekking with elephants as it is very bad for their backs or have them perform tricks. I have also excluded Chiang Mai Zoo and the Tiger Kingdom from my recommendations because there are animal welfare issues at both places.

I hope this has given you lots of information about Chiang Mai and some tips on what to see. Enjoy your stay at this wonderful heritage city.

 Map Of Central Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai Old City Map

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chiang mai essentials- orientation and key sites inside and outside the city walls PI

Images courtesy of Flickr.com Featured image by Igor, Wat Chedi Luang by Alpha, View from Doi Suthep by Christine Olson, Night Market Photo by Connie Ma