Although a visit to any new city certainly entails a tour of the sights, our primary objective is walking cities to get a feel for the town’s vibe. Chiang Mai’s Old City region is small and can easily be covered by walking in a day or day and a half. Two days if you stretch it. The city’s “official” tourist sites are pretty limited; there are the city walls, three primary Wats (plus an almost infinite number of smaller ones), an art museum, the night bazaar and a number of smaller Wats.
While Chiang Mai has a relaxed, causal small city feel, it’s also very cosmopolitan. It is a young and progressive city that appears to be not only tolerant of, but to welcome diversity. It is loaded with Westerners, including a number of ex-pats who tell us that they love living there. And why not? It is very inexpensive and friendly. (Note to my brother David…and they have inexpensive Heineken’s)
The Old City is based on a loose grid, surrounded by a lovely reconstructed moat with remnants of the city walled gates. Interspersed among the major roads are a maze of small alleys (Sois) that are fun to walk and often yield unexpected surprises. Casual walks provide opportunities to browse colorful craft shops and contemporary clothing stores. No matter where you go, you are likely to find restaurants and stalls at which you can grab a bite and bars at which you can take a break from the demanding job of sightseeing.
But even when you’re not looking for Wats, they will find you. Wats, after all, are everywhere. Many are sufficiently attractive or intriguing that you just have to look in. One such place was Wat Jetlin, with its colorful lights, labyrinth and bronze gongs which, whenever rung, prompts howls from a local dog.
- City gates, walls and moat. While small segments of 700-year-old wall still exist, a number of the gates have been reconstructed on a green belt park that encircles the old city just inside a nicely reconstructed moat with regularly spaced fountains/aerators.
- Wat Phra Singh, the largest temple (wat) in the city and generally regarded as the most architecturally beautiful. Established in 1345, it has a tall white base, three-tier roof with carved gold-painted gables, interesting wall carvings and well-preserved frescoes. It also houses two Buddhas that weren’t available for viewing: an 1800-year-old Crystal Buddha and a 2500-year-old Marble Buddha. A meditation garden behind the temple provides a relaxing bonus.
- Wat Chedi Luang site consists of the remnants of an original brick chedi (the massive base of a 300-foot building that was destroyed in a 1545 earthquake). The current temple structure has a soaring tiered roof, an entrance flanked by giant mosaic cobras and inside, three large bronze Buddhas and a jade one to replace the emerald Buddha (now in Bangkok) that it once held.
- Wat Chiang Man, the city’s oldest Wat, built in 1297 at the time of the city’s founding. It is distinctive for its red roofs and lacquer, its multicolored mirrored glass tiles and especially for its elephant pagoda–a gold-leafed chedi held atop a base of elephants. The wihan building contains two particularly sacred Buddhas, a 2,000-year-old marble bas relief and an 1,800-year-old crystal Buddha image.
- Wat Phan Tao, a gracious teak building that in the mid-1800’s, housed Chiang Mai’s King and royal family, is supported by gilded pillars, has a tall, steep roof, inlaid carvings.
- Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Center, in a grand building in the center of the old city, profiles the history of the city and region from ancient times to current days. Individual sections of the museum focus on different times in the region’s history, from the first civilizations that left traces (especially cave paintings), how people and trade coalesced around the region’s two rivers and how it led to the 1296 AD creation of the city by King Mangrai. It examines the development of the city’s economy and culture,the impact of its adoption of Buddhism in the 15th and 16th centuries, its two century (1558-1774) occupation by Burma, its subsequent rule by and autonomy under Bangkok, the role of Great Britain in exploiting the region’s timber (especially teak) resources and, ultimately, its incorporation into the Kingdom of Siam. It also provides a. portrayal of the lives of the hill tribes and how they speak different languages (without written languages) and how they typically live separate from Thai citizens, in their own villages, with their own languages,living largely from proceeds of sales of handicrafts.
Not all of the central city’s sights are dedicated to history and culture.
- Night Bazaar, which we generally recall from our previous trip as a fun, people-filled destination that was interesting to browse. On our first stop, on a Tuesday night, we found the crowds tiny and the products to be pretty pedestrian. We returned on Friday night to the Night Bazar and also went to the adjacent Anusen Market. The crowds were definitely better, but the products still the same–except that we did discover (albeit after dinner) Anusen’s very interesting fresh seafood restaurant stalls.
- Somphet Market, a collection of stalls selling all types of fresh fruits and vegetables and a wide range of prepared Northern Thai street food.