The north of Thailand cannot be more different from the south. Hopefully you had read about our culinary adventures back in 2015 when we pounded the streets of Chiang Mai for good and affordable meals. The feature of this essay however is to let you into the sounds and sights of an ancient capital city. Perhaps not ancient, old is a better word.
Founded in 1296, the city served as the seat of the Lan Na kingdom that was the boss of the region in the 1400s. Like most capital cities in the rest of the world, the monarchs and elite classes of the day patronized the arts, culture and most importantly – religion. So what did they build?
Temples, lots of temples!
Like Bangkok of today, there are many “wats” in Chiang Mai too. So what’s a “wat”? You know what? We’ll let you read more about it here at Wikipedia. Just how many are there? How about more than 300? Do you have time to visit them all? In this essay, we will only show you a small number of the many photos we too. For there’s just far too many already posted on the web.
Wat Chedi Luang within the old city. Various books state this temple began in 1401. Its upper structure appears damage and again this is stated as caused by an earthquake in the 16th century. Yep, there can be tectonic movements here…
Today, the stairs to the pagoda is paved away, removing access. When it was first completed, it was the tallest structure of the day, holding that title for almost 500 years!
Venerated monks are honoured with their own side temples. Be sure to read about how the ashes of pious monks (yes they are cremated).
Today the temple is a complex comprising of a few sections with both a large standing Buddha (9m) and a reclining one (similar length) that is gilded in gold leaves. It is a privilege to donate gold leaf to cover the Buddha statue and it is still a tradition that continues to this day.
A newer section now houses the main temple complex for devotees to offer prayers. Note the columns that are decorated in the Lanna style motifs characteristic of northern Thailand.
If you fancy and even older temple then Wat Umong it is. Located just outside the city center near the university. Said to be built in 1297, the temple is located in a wooded area the size of 15 acres? The Chedi sits over tunnels and caves beneath which is suppose to have paintings with bush scenes from the 13th century.
Today, very little is left as they have mostly faded away. Did you see the Naga? It is a symbol similar to the dragon.
Located 15km outside the city, it is set on a mountain. The Chedi and the surrounding structures are golden – greatly amplifying the bright sunlight of midday! It was said to be first built in 1383 (or was it 1386?) and repeatedly enlarged by successive rulers of Lanna. From the temple base, it is 309 steps up to the pagoda if you choose to walk. Today the car brought us right to the temple…phew, knees sure to hurt.
There is an interesting story why this spot was selected. It was said that a white elephant had climbed up the hill, trumpeted tree time and died on the spot that is now the temple structure. Now that’s a story!
To be here during the midday can be challenging especially in the hot dry season – while the photos appear beautiful, it was blinding bright and very hot! Remember to bring shades (sunglasses as well) + lots of water. You can see the entire city from the viewing platform but it might be hazy! Perhaps on a clear day it would have been easy to spot our apartment!
An old town center well preserved
The thing about Chiang Mai is the absence of very many tall commercial buildings.
And the main feature of what’s considered the old town is the moat of the old city. This moat forms a square around the old town area. We recommend walking along the moat to enjoy the cool air if you do this at midday. One thing is that only the bastions at the corners of the square city remains intact. These bastions hail from 1296 when the city was first built!
Unfortunately, there isn’t many more historical buildings from that far back in the city except for the temples.
But in case you have not read it, the eastern gate of the old city – Thapae is where a large Sunday market takes place. In fact it is so crowded that you need to get there early!
Food heaven, cooking school
How about going back to school? Cooking school that is.
Our instructor brought us to a local market where she described the various vegetables and herbs used in Thai cooking some of which are not easily available, but mostly we can substitute them with other ingredients so we are taught.
In the market we found some saffron flowers – not sure if they are the same as that from the Mediterranean. After the lesson in ingredient shopping, it was time to head to the classroom. There were 8 of us and each had a stove to try out the dishes that we selected to make.
We had chosen to cook 3 dishes that were different from the rest: Thai Fish Cake, Pad Woon Sen (glass noodles) and Coconut custard. The actual cooking is not difficult, rather it was all the preparation that needs to be made! By the time we had completed all 6 courses, it was not possible to take dinner! Read more here to see how we graduated!
Craft work that make you swoon
You certainly cannot be in Chiang Mai without visiting the handicraft makers. Did you know that Chiang Mai has a lot of Silversmiths? The region has developed its own unique designs – commonly termed the “Lanna” style. Every Saturday evening, there is a Silver night market opened at the Wualai area from the late afternoon. In the city, an entire street – Wualai is devoted to the sale of silver craft.
Cotton fabric making is also apparently quite an industry in this region. The traditional looms are still used in some of the rural villages by the womenfolk to craft pieces of fabric for sale. The handicraft centre showcases some of these that can be purchased to support rural folks.
And because it rains quite a fair bit in the wet season, umbrella making in the past was probably a good career path. There are two types of materials used – Paper or Cotton. Obviously the paper one is for display only and will not last in the rain… ok it could be water proofed we know. We see artisans making paper with the bark from the “Sa” tree and painting them over by hand. Interesting indeed.
You know the one thing that we found intriguing about Chiang Mai is the number of English book stores. We bought so many books that the weight restrictions on our luggage was probably reached because of this. And this was not even buying all that we (Mel ‘only’ bought seven) wanted! Quite a few at the Thapae gate along Chang Moi Kao road. We went to:
- Lost Book store (Ratchamakka road)
- Backstreet bookstore (Thapae and related to the Lost book store)
- Gecko books (Thapae)
Journeys were made in February 2014 and September 2015
There is so much to do while in Chiang Mai. One week’s not sufficient. Isn’t it obvious from the fact that we came here within such a short time between journeys?
Most of books we purchased ranged from 300-400 baht. Our take : Backstreet books have a really wide selection and is the best place to start your book hunt…they are all in and around a vicinity of the Thapae gate. Enjoy!