Even though Chiang Mai’s fast economic growth in recent years, which is mostly due to tourism, has caused some problems, the city still manages to keep the charming feel of an old village. With a population of 150,000, this is the country’s second largest city, but it couldn’t be more different from Bangkok. The people here are known for being laid-back, and they even speak slower than their relatives in the capital. The old quarter, which is surrounded by a two-kilometer-square moat, still has many of its traditional wooden houses and quiet, leafy gardens. Elegant temples are the main tourist attractions in Chiang Mai, but these aren’t pre-packaged museum pieces; they’re living community centers where monks are often eager to talk and practice their English. Craft shops, restaurants, and bars by the river all add to Chiang Mai’s appeal, making it a place where many travelers stay longer than they planned.
Chiang Mai, which means “New City,” was founded as the capital of Lanna in 1296. It was built on a site where deer and white mice appeared by magic, and it has been the most important city in the north ever since. During the Mengrai dynasty, when most of the city’s important temples were built, Lanna was at its best. This golden age lasted until the Burmese took over Chiang Mai in 1556. Two hundred years passed before the Thais pushed the Burmese back past Chiang Mai to about where they are now. The Burmese influence is still strong, not only in art and architecture but also in the rich curries and soups served here, which are better “Burmese” food than you can find in modern-day Burma. After retaking the city, the princes of Chiang Mai ruled the north on paper until 1939. However, as communications improved quickly at the start of this century, Chiang Mai was brought into Thailand’s main stream as the administrative and service center for the region.
In the past few years, people have become more worried about the traffic jams and pollution in Chiang Mai. As a possible solution, the city is being seriously thought about being split in two. Most businesses would move to a new location, and the current town and its ancient temples would be kept as a tourist area. As it is, the city is still surrounded by a huge ring road called the Superhighway and is roughly split into two parts: the old town, which is surrounded by a well-kept moat and a few pieces of the city wall, is where most of Chiang Mai’s traditional wats are, and the new town center, which is between the moat and the Ping River to the east, is where hotels, shops, and travel agencies are. Between the two, around the Tha Pae Gate in the middle of the east moat, is where most of the guesthouses and restaurants are located.
Aside from eating, drinking, and relaxing, the main things for tourists to do in Chiang Mai are to visit the temples and shop for handicrafts, which many people find more interesting here than in the rest of Thailand. But you shouldn’t miss making a pilgrimage to Doi Suthep, the mountain to the west of town, to see the holy temple and the views of half of northern Thailand. Outside of the city, you can take day trips to places like the old temples in Lampang or the orchid farms and elephant shows in the Mae Sa valley. Of course, Chiang Mai is the best place to go trekking with hill tribes.