It’s not that Chiang Mai tries to hide its history. Not one bit. In fact, the place presented by the slick Thai tourism industry is a sparkling city of ancient traditions and timeless culture.
But Chiang Mai has veiled its past under more layers of modernity than it would perhaps care to admit. Plush hotels and luxury spas serve an international clientele; markets hum with trade; motorbikes, tuk-tuks and songthaews (cheap passenger vehicles) buzz purposefully along built-up streets. The stench of gasoline sits heavy in the air, where it mingles with the earthy smoke of the streetside grills. Yet under Chiang Mai’s layers of noisy modernity there lies an ancient capital: the tantalising, enticing heart of a long-lost kingdom.
“I will build a truly large city,” announced King Mangrai at the end of the 13th century. His realm, in what is now the north region of Thailand, was rich and energetic, known as the Lan Na, or the ‘the Country of a Million Rice Fields’. The new kingdom stepped into a power vacuum in the humid uplands of central south-east Asia, and Chiang Mai was to be its gleaming new capital. Founded in 1296, the city boasted a number of auspicious charac teristics: one was the sacred mountain of Doi Suthep, looming over the city to the west. Another was the Ping river, which raced south, eventually joining the Nan to become the mighty Chao Phraya.
It’s a land of mountains, forests and sparkling temples. At the top of Doi Suthep sits the sacred temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, said to have been established in 1383 by King Keu Naone to enshrine a shard of bone said to have come from the shoulder of the Buddha himself. The steep 306-step staircase to the temple, lined with mythical serpent-like creatures (nãga), was created to help climbers attain Buddhist merit.
The centuries that followed the creation of Chiang Mai brought prosperity. Attracting traders from across the region, it grew to be called the ‘city of 12 languages’, doing a busy traffic in goods from the rich surrounding countryside and hill villages. Lan Na products were sent south along the Ping river to be sold in the great city of Ayutthaya and beyond.
Wealth, though, invited jealousy: not just from the muscular Siamese kingdom to the south of Chiang Mai, but also the succession of Burmese states to the north and west, and it was a Burmese king, the warrior Bayinnaung, who marched his elephants into Chiang Mai in 1558.
Spared western colonialism, the state of Lan Na was nonetheless ruled from Burma for two centuries, the darkest days coming when it was sacked and depopulated in 1763. But then, the tides of empire shifted: the Burmese were driven out, and Chiang Mai offered its hand to the Thais.
“Under layers of noisy modernity lies the tantalising heart of a long-lost kingdom”
You catch glimpses of the old Chiang Mai even as you navigate the hustle of the new. You’ll see a parade of saffron-robed monks against the long shadows of the evening sun. You’ll note a fragment of the sienna-brick city walls, rebuilt since the 19th century and lining the medieval moat and preserving the ancient square citadel.
You might pass through one of the old gates, perhaps Tha Pae, where the tourists dodge pigeons and vendors to grab the perfect selfie. You’ll taste Chiang Mai’s glorious food: luscious Thai favourites, of course, but also traditional spicy northern specialities, and wonderful Burmese curries, representing an ancient culture of migration across the mountain passes.
Then there are the trees. The city was carved out of the forest, and that forest has never really given it up. Even today, Chiang Mai’s streets are an arboreal symphony of waxy green leaves, golden flowers and drooping banyans.
Most of all, as you turn a corner in the carefully planned streets of the old town, a golden chedi (stupa) will catch your eye in the sun, inviting you to step into the sacred world of Chiang Mai’s ancient Buddhist culture. The grandest temples draw the crowds, not least the hilltop wonders of Doi Suthep. But the greatest joy is to saunter through the backstreets and stumble across a curved teak ubosot (ordination hall), a perfectly crafted ho trai (monastic library) or an antique tumbledown chedi.
Here, in the shade and sheltered from the streets, where the gentle wind-chimes drift dreamlike through the air, is the real Chiang Mai. It is free, for once, of its modern veil: a city both Lan Na and Thai, at the same time present and past.
Advice for Travellers
Best time to go
Chiang Mai’s tropical savanna climate means it has warm to hot weather all year. Temperatures are lower between November and February (around 25˚C during the day). The Loi Krathong festival, which sees Thai people make wishes as they launch small portions of food on rivers and ponds, usually falls in November. Chiang Mai flower festival takes place in early February, with glorious displays of yellow and white chrysanthemums and damask roses.
Chiang Mai international airport is 3km south-west of the old city. Direct flights from Bangkok to Chiang Mai take around 60-70 mins – travelling by train is cheaper but significantly longer (between 12 and 15 hours).
What to pack
The countryside around Chiang Mai is mountainous, so bring hiking boots and plenty of mosquito repellent.
What to bring back
Don’t buy Buddhist statues to take home and gather dust: these are religious artefacts and many Thai people consider such irreverence disrespectful. Instead, take one of the many local cooking courses, some out at local farms, and bring back a skill for making tom yum soup or sai ua (a type of sausage).
Dr Jonathan Healey is associate professor in social history at the University of Oxford.
Next month: Chandrika Kaul explores the city of Warsaw in Poland.
This article was first published in the January 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine