A quick history of Chiang Mai

The earliest established city of Chiang Mai was set up just across the Ping River from The Chiang Mai Riverside Hotel. However, King Mengrai’s first attempt to found a new capital for his Lanna Kingdom was flooded and abandoned, then gradually covered by agriculture. Only recently were the ruins excavated, seven centuries later, and our guests can easily explore this fascinating relic in our neighbourhood, on bikes.

King Mengrai was a powerful leader who gathered the migrating Tai from Yunnan into the first real kingdom of the region, and Chiang Mai – meaning ‘new city’ became its centre. The Old Town that we love and admire today was laid out as a square mile according the cardinal points and auspiciously begun in 1296 with the digging of the moat and construction of city walls that partly still stand. Surviving and thriving through a glorious and sometimes tumultuous reign of fortunes, Chiang Mai has become one of Thailand’s true cultural and historic treasures.

The Ping valley was large enough for widespread rice cultivation and the mountains provided an excellent defense against invaders. Tradesmen and craftsmen were attracted, impressive temples built and the city flourished for centuries through to its zenith under King Tilokarat in the 16th century. It was at that time that the towering 96 metre pagoda of Wat Chedi Luang (Royal Pagoda temple) was erected, only to be fell to half that height in a 1545 earthquake. Other temples, such as Wat Chiang Man and Wat Phra Singh date from the 14th century and contain valuable ancient Buddhas. Laos and Burmese or Shan influences can be seen in this ancient architecture. Even the famed Emerald Buddha, Thailand’s national heirloom, once resided in the city. An evening tuk tuk tour is a great way to experience these, when they are illuminated in all their glory.

As the kingdoms to the south – Sukhothai, and later Ayuthaya – rose to prominence, Lanna’s influence was trumped, though the kingdom did manage to retain autonomy right up to the early twentieth century when it was absorbed into the modern democratic monarchy of Siam. However, during the Middle Ages the city fell on hard times. It was under Burmese control for two hundred years, at one point being almost entirely emptied of people.

When the Siamese regrouped after Ayuthaya had been sacked by their bitter rivals from Burma, a modern state was re-established in Bangkok and a Northerner, General Kawila, was sent to liberate Chiang Mai, so that it came back to Thai control at the end of the 1700s. The city walls and moat were restored in 1801 and foreigners soon made their first appearances. In fact, explorer Ralph Fitch recorded in his voyages of the 1580s that he visited a ‘fair and prosperous town call Jamahey’, and by the mid-1600s British trading pioneers had arrived. But it was not until the 1800s when teak traders from Burma regularly visited Chiang Mai, helping to establish the Gymkhana Club. However, for centuries before this Chinese traders had gradually established a Sino community in the city, and the ethnic heritage has been passed down to this day, with the area around Warorot Market forming a Chinatown.

All the same, getting to Chiang Mai was a very arduous trip by river skiff or elephant. When the railway line arrived in 1920, along with the telegraph, the city’s isolation came to an end and by 1932 it had become a province of Siam (later Thailand). It is today, the second or third largest of Thailand’s cities by population and commerce. Significantly, it has developed one of the region’s largest handicraft industries, with ancient and contemporary skills and styles on display at Baan Tawai and Borsang craftsmen villages. The items made here are exported around the world.

The last of the Northern royals are still alive, and the last Chiang Mai King’s daughter became a favourite consort of King Chulalongkorn in 1900 – today the Dara Rasamee legacy of longan farming and Northern traditions are common in Chiang Mai. Importantly, the city and its people preserve their Lanna heritage, speaking their own dialect, dressing in local costume on Fridays and upholding unique ceremonies, of which Yee Peng, and the launching of lanterns for Loi Kratong, are the best loved.

During the twentieth century it was agriculture that sustained the city, namely rice, fruit (mainly lychees and longan) as well as teak. Logging was phased out in the 1980s, and the political situation settled down, enabling tourism to thrive. By the turn of the century the new gold rush of tourist dollars transformed the city. Starting first with cheap digs for trekking backpackers, Chiang Mai has since evolved into a boutique guesthouse and coffee shop capital of Southeast Asia, retaining its charm defiantly under the pressure of traffic, malls and billboards. Yet, a short drive out of the city is the timeless nature of the mountainous north, with all sorts of soft adventure activities now offered.

Both Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast magazines have rated Chiang Mai as a top worldwide destination (from reader polls) in recent years. The city is now home to a large population of expats who contribute to the local economy, and is a prospering town that can’t quite make up its mind whether to remain a living museum, or serve the comforts of the twenty-first century Thai people. Not least, it has a special place in the hearts of Thailand’s esteemed King and Queen who have a winter palace on top of Doi Suthep.

The best place to start your historic exploration of Chiang Mai is at the Three Kings Monument Plaza in the centre of the Old Town. Here you will find the Chiang Mai Cultural Museum charting the history of the city, as well as the new Folk Museum which records Chiang Mai life of past centuries and decades. A wander through the old lanes on bikes and the discovery of many of the ancient temples will give you a sense that you can still experience the Chiang Mai of old, especially some of the street life that seems to have been unchanged in centuries.

Festivals

Popular Festivals of Chiang Mai

Thailand has a rich legacy of culture and celebratory charm that adds to its attraction as a tourist destination. There is usually some sort of religious or cultural festival, parade or ceremony taking place every month so your visit might be well timed to witness one of these unique events.

Here are some of the most popular (in calendar order)

Borsang Umbrella Festival

Offering a splash of colour in this district east of the city as the locals celebrate their tradition of producing the pretty parasols that are a hallmark of Chiang Mai. (mid-January each year).

The Chiang Mai Flower Festival

Buak Haad Park and the southwest corner of the moat host a spectacular display of orchids and other flowers and tropical plants that are grown locally, complete with parade (First weekend of February each year).

Chinese New Year

This shifting date attracts large crowds of Chinese tourists to the city, and there is a local heritage of Chinese migrants that have woven their celebration and traditions into local lore; expect plenty of lanterns and fire crackers (Around the end of January each year).

Makkha Buccha Day

Celebrating the date of the first sermon delivered by the Lord Buddha, this ceremony in Chiang Mai involves an elaborate and enchanting parade around Chedi Luang in the city centre, by night (mid-February each year).

Songran New Year Water Festival

This is the fun festival, the world’s biggest water fight perhaps, as the Thai New Year tradition of gently splashing water has evolved into a massive three-day party that dominates the old town. You’ll either love it or hate it, but the exuberance is addictive. You can also witness some of the more traditional ceremonies of local dance, music and dress as locals pay their respects to their family and heritage – such as the demonstration of culture at Three Kings Plaza the day before the splashing (13 – 15 April each year).

Chiang Mai Arts and Culture Festival

Organised at the Chiang Mai Cultural Centre, attached to the nearby university, this exhibition of local culture and heritage as well as contemporary arts and crafts unique to Lanna and the city is a nice addition to Songkran (mid-April most years).

Visakha Buccha Day

An important religious milestone of the year celebrating the Lord Buddha’s birthday. In Chiang Mai there is a tradition for Buddhists (and anyone feeling fit) to walk the route up to the temple on Doi Suthep, a three-hour ordeal (including traffic jams when getting a ride down), undertaken in the cool of the evening (mid-May each year).

Thailand’s Grand Sale

An initiative to boost the low season, this nation-wide shopping spree includes discounts and specials offered by most stores during July and August. Don’t forget, tourists get to reclaim the 7% VAT when they leave the airport (July and August each year).

Queen’s Birthday and Mother’s Day

The nation pays its respects to mothers on this public holiday and it often entails well organised massed events to honour Thailand’s beloved Queen Sirikit, most recently with the enormously popular Bike for Mom ride (August 12th each year).

Loi Kratong / Yee Peng Festival

Known as the festival of light, this is perhaps the most enchanting and photogenic of the Thai national events. On the full moon night in early November Buddhists (and tourists) dispense of their sins of the past year with a prayer of  humility and the floating of kratong (decorative alms) down rivers and waterways. In recent years the Northern Yee Peng tradition of launching Kom Fai (lanterns), into the night sky, has become a national motif of spiritual beauty (early November, each year).

King’s Birthday and Father’s Day

Early December is this auspicious day, and Thais like to take off on vacation for an extended week (the 10th being a public holiday too), so expect to share Chiang Mai with a lot of Bangkokians. The love for the King has reached epic proportions in his retirement years, as posters go up everywhere and events mark his long glorious reign (December 5th each year).

Nimmanhemin Arts and Crafts Exhibition

A wonderful weekend of arts, crafts and creativity that takes up Soi (lane) One off Nimminhemin Avenue. Much of the area becomes a festive walkable precinct at the height of the tourist season, with some curious bric-a-brac to buy (first weekend of December each year).

 Others

There are plenty of smaller, equally fascinating, festivals that take place throughout the year such as TEDx Chiang Mai (January), the Samoeng Strawberry festival (February), Balloon festival (March), Poy Sang Shan festival (April), Cricket Sixes international tournament (April), Bang Fai rocket competitions (May), Khao Phan Sa meditation retreats (July), Food festivals (December), Gymkhana Night Balloon festival (December) and Big Bike Week (December).

Khantoke Events

The Northern Khantoke is an unforgettable evening of Lanna food, dance, music, costume and culture that is organised in traditional teak sala settings nightly for the benefit of tourists. Although it’s actually a recent idea, it does give visitors a year-round occasion to experience all the best of local culture presented in one memorable evening. We can arrange for you to attend one. The traditional Khantoke dinner set is also available from our menu.

Walking Streets

These are weekly traditions and the city has two prominent Walking Street events. On Saturdays Wua Lai street (the old silversmith quarter) south of the Old Town is turned into a promenade with various local wares and crafts on display. More popular (and crowded) is the atmospheric Sunday Walking Street taking up Ratchadamnern Avenue and adjacent streets in the Old City, with plenty of authentic crafts on display. Should you miss these two, you can find similar items, along with souvenirs and bargains, at the Night Bazaar on Chang Klan road.

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