advertisementIt would be difficult to find a city that reflects more of the country’s diverse cultural heritage and modern aspirations than Chiang Mai. The largest city in Northern Thailand, its heart is its Old City, which has regal roots—this was the capital of the Lanna kingdom from 1296 to 1768 (after which it was the capital of the Chiang Mai Kingdom until 1899). Today, the Old City is surrounded by the vestiges of ancient walls, bastions, and a moat originally constructed for defense. But it lies in the shadow of an increasingly expanding metropolis, encircled by gargantuan concrete highways, giant billboards and superstores. Modern tour buses crowd Burmese-style wats (temples) ablaze with monks in saffron robes chanting ancient mantras. Vendors dressed in hill-tribe costume sell souvenirs in tourist areas. Narrow streets lined with ornately carved teak houses lie in the shadow of contemporary skyscrapers. It’s a hodgepodge, but a splendid one.
Before we go any further, its important to give a bit of context. From 1296, under King Mengrai, Chiang Mai (meaning the "New City") was the cultural and religious center of the northern Tai. The city was overtaken and occupied by the Burmese in 1558 until Chao (Lord) Kavila retook the city in 1775, driving the Burmese forces back to near the present border. Burmese influence on religion, architecture, language, cuisine, and culture, however, remained strong (as they do today). Local feudal lords (sometimes referred to as princes) carrying the title chao, remained in nominal control of the city in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but under continued pressure from King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), the Lanna kingdom was brought under the control of the central government in Bangkok. In 1932, the city was formally and fully integrated into the kingdom of Thailand, becoming the administrative center of the north.
Today’s Chaing Mai is a bastion of local art. Streets are teeming with galleries, motivated designers are filling boutiques with their wares, and a vibrant coffee scene fuels all that creativity. It is important to note that art galleries in town are generally quite small, often showcasing just a few works at a time. The best way to explore the current offerings is to pick up a free copy of the excellent Chiang Mai Art Map (www.cac-art.info/map; free). It’s an annually updated listing of all the best major galleries, artist’s studios, and more. The detailed map makes an afternoon of self-guided gallery hopping—an easy, enriching experience.
From March to October, the North’s climate follows the pattern of the rest of the country—hot and dry followed by hot and wet. March and April are known locally as the “smoky season,” named for the haze that fills the sky when local farmers burn their crops. This can be a rough time of year to visit Chiang Mai, with low visibility and poor air quality. Yet from November to February, it’s almost like another country, with cool breezes blowing down from China, bright sunny days, and rarely a cloud in the sky. During these cooler months, Chiang Mai is an excellent base for exploring the north.