Chiang Mai, an old city that dates back to the 1200s
Chiang Mai (เชียงใหม่) is the hub of Northern Thailand. With a population of over 170,000 in the city proper (but more than 1 million in the metropolitan area), it is Thailand’s fifth-largest city. Located on a plain at an elevation of 316 m, surrounded by mountains and lush countryside, it is much greener and quieter than the capital, and has a cosmopolitan air and a significant expat population, factors which have led many from Bangkok to settle permanently in this “Rose of the North”.
Experiencing the merging of the past into the present in Chiang Mai where locals are proud of the city’s 700-year history. Its rich traditional heritage and unique culture is a perfect foundation for the development of the city. Chiang Mai is one of the few places in Thailand where it is possible to find in the heart of the city centuries-old chedis and temples next to modern convenience stores and boutique hotels. The original city layout still exists as a neat square surrounded by a moat with vestiges of the fortified wall and its four main gates offering prime access to the old town.
For years, tourists have mistaken Chiang Mai as the northern junction and the base from which they can explore other provinces. The phrase “a day in Chiang Mai is enough to see things around” was common. Today, tourists are surprised by the fact that there is always something new to discover Chiang Mai. Intriguing diversity among ethnic tribes coupled with breathtaking scenery makes Chiang Mai one of Asia’s most attractive tourist destinations. Two weeks in Chiang Mai may not be long enough for serious travelers.
The old city of Chiang Mai with its fascinating indigenous cultural identity such as diverse dialects, cuisine, architecture, traditional values, festivals, handicrafts and classical dances is a prime location in its own right. In addition, the presence of hill tribes and their wealth of unique cultures enhance Chiang Mai’s distinctive diversity.
Chiang Mai is also blessed with pristine natural resources of mountains (dois), waterfalls, and other nature-based tourist attractions. At the same time, Chiang Mai residents are warm, gracious and congenial providing authentic hospitality making visits memorable and meaningful. Moreover, visitors from all walks of life can collect handicrafts of silk, silver and wood produced locally as timeless souvenirs. Chiang Mai is a place where both backpackers and luxury tourists can enjoy themselves to the fullest.
Chiang Mai literally means new city and has retained the name despite having celebrated its 700th anniversary in 1996. King Meng Rai founded the city as the capital of the Lanna (A Million Rice Fields) Kingdom on Thursday, 12th April 1296 during the same period of time as the establishment of the Sukhothai Kingdom. King Meng Rai the Great conferred with his friends, King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai and King Ngam Muang of Phayao before choosing the site where the capital of the Lanna Kingdom was to be founded.
From then, Chiang Mai not only became the capital and cultural core of the Lanna Kingdom, it was also the centre of Buddhism in northern Thailand. King Meng Rai himself was very religious and founded many of the city’s temples, which are still important today.
At the height of its power, the Lanna Kingdom extended its territory far into Burma and Laos, and southwards to Kamphaeng Phet a province above Sukhothai.
The Burmese conquered the Lanna Kingdom in 1556 ending the dynasty founded by King Meng Rai that lasted over 250 years. As Burma had occupied Chiang Mai for nearly 200 years, Burmese architectural influences are visible in many temples. At the end of the 18th century, King Taksin the Great regrouped the Thais in the south and finally drove the Burmese out with the help of King Kawila of Lampang thereby regaining Thai independence from Burma. Chiang Mai was then governed by a succession of princes who ruled the north as a Siamese protectorate under the Chakri dynasty. In the late 19th century, King Rama V appointed a high commissioner in Chiang Mai and it was only in 1939 that Chiang Mai finally came under the direct control of the central government in Bangkok the same time the country was renamed Thailand.
In the past, Chiang Mai was only accessible by river and elephants. More convenient access was achieved only when the railway line was completed in the late 1920’s. Moreover, the first motor vehicle driven directly from Bangkok arrived in Chiang Mai in 1932. Such isolation was more favorable to Chiang Mai as it helped to nurture and preserve the unique Lanna culture.
When we look at Chiang Mai today, it is the economic, cultural and communications hub of northern Thailand complete with excellent infrastructure, good roads, by passes and road tunnels, and reliable communications infrastructure.
Chiang Mai is blessed with pristine natural resources of mountains
Chiang Mai, with an altitude of approximately 310 meters above sea level, is situated approximately 700 kilometers from Bangkok on the Mae Ping River basin. Surrounded by high mountain ranges, the city covers an area of approximately 20,107 square kilometers and is the country’s second largest province. Chiang Mai borders Myanmar on the north, Lamphun and Tak Provinces on the south, Chiang Rai, Lampang and Lamphun Provinces on the east and Mae Hong Son Province on the west. The terrain is mainly comprised of jungles and mountains, which are home to the hill tribes. In addition, wildlife and exotic flora may be found in the national parks.
Most of Chiang Mai’s mountains are oriented from north to south. Together they create a multitude of streams and tributaries including Mae Chaem, Mae Ngat and Mae Klang. One of Chiang Mai’s distinctive features is Doi Inthanon, Thailands highest peak, which is 2,575 meters above sea level. In addition, the province boasts flat, fertile valleys, which spread along the banks of the largest and most important river in Chiang Mai Mae Nam Ping (Ping River) which originates from the Chiang Dao mountain range.
Getting Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai International Airport www2.airportthai.co.th/airportnew/chiangmai/index.asp?lang=en (CNX) handles both domestic and regional international flights. The route from Bangkok is one of the busiest in the country (Thai Airways flies daily almost every hour, with additional flights in the peak tourist season). Other airlines operating direct services from/to Chiang Mai include:
- Air Asia www.airasia.com – a well-known Asian low-cost airline, flies from/to Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi airport), Phuket, and also Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). Usually it’s a cheapest choice if you book at least a week before, with price tag (as of July 2009) just above 1000 baht from Bangkok and 2000-2500 baht from KL/Phuket; promotional fares may be even cheaper. Their prices can be significantly higher, however, if you book just a few days before, or want a specific day/flight.
- Air Mandalay www.airmandalay.com – from/to Myanmar
- Bangkok Airways www.bangkokair.com – to Ko Samui (flights from Ko Samui are indirect), from/to Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi) and Sukhothai; flights from/to Jinghong (China) and from/to Siem Reap (Cambodia) have been cancelled due to the downturn in tourism.
- China Airlines www.china-airlines.com/en/index.htm – from/to Taipei, Taiwan
- Korean Airlines www.koreanair.com – Four flights weekly from Seoul/Incheon
- Lao Airlines www.laoairlines.com – from/to Luang Prabang (Laos), from there the flight continues onward to Vientiane
- Nok Air www.nokair.com – Thai (semi-)low-cost carrier, flies from/to Bangkok (Don Mueang airport, from 1700 baht and up) and Mae Hong Son. Starting from 17 January 2010, they also fly from/to Udon Thani, ticket price is 2400 baht. The latter, while still 4 times more expensive than bus, is more than twice cheaper than Lao Airlines’ flight to Vientiane, which is easily accessible from Udon Thani.
- One-Two-Go www.fly12go.com (low-cost division of Orient Thai Airlines www.orient-thai.com ) files from/to Bangkok (Don Mueang). They fly 23-26 years old McDonnell Douglas MD-83 jets, but if you do not afraid – it’s often a cheapest (1450-1750 baht) option if you book during the last days before flight.
- SGA www.sga.co.th – Recently renamed ‘Nok Mini’. – from/to Chiang Rai (twice daily), Mae Hong Son (once daily), Nan (Daily) and Pai (once daily). Their tickets are booked via Nok Air website.
- Silk Air www.silkair.com – from/to Singapore
- Thai Airways www.thaiair.com – from/to Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi airport only, from 2500 baht and up, but sometimes there are promo fares as low as 1500) and Mae Hong Son; in addition, flights from and/or to Phuket & possibly Nan may also be available seasonally. Direct flights from/to Kunming (China) have been cancelled.
The airport is some 3 km south-west of the city centre, only 10-15 minutes away by car. Legal airport taxis charge a flat 120 baht for up to 5 passengers anywhere in the city; if you take a metered taxi, the fee will start from 40 baht + a 50 baht service fee from the Meter Taxi counter. The taxis operate from the exit at the north end of the terminal – after baggage claim and/or customs, walk into the reception hall and turn left. Alternatively, take bus #4 to the city center for 15 baht, or charter a tuk-tuk or songthaew for 50-60 baht. Most hotels and upper price range guesthouses offer cheap or free pick-up/drop-off services.
Buses to Chiang Mai leave from Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal (Moh Chit), there are dozens of them every day. The cheapest, non-aircon, stop-everywhere government buses take around 12 hours; non-stop VIP 24/32-seaters and 1st class buses manage the trip in 9 hours on a good day. Price for the 1st class bus (quite comfortable and fast) is around 500 baht; VIP 32-seater is around 600 (well worth the difference in a long trip like this due to larger seats and/or legroom); as always in Thailand, this includes some snacks as well as 30-baht food coupon which you can use during 20-25 minutes stop in the middle of the way. Khao San road so-called “VIP” buses may be cheaper, but actually you may end up in a 2nd class bus or worse, and security in those buses is also questionable. Chiang Mai also has good bus connections to practically everywhere in the North, and major destinations/hubs in the North-East (Isaan); there’s even a direct service to Pattaya and Rayong in the East.
Various rapid, express and sleeper services leave from Bangkok’s Hualamphong Train Station, taking 12-15 hours depending on the service selected. Sprinter trains are entirely second class air-con, have no sleeper berths, and are the only ones which cannot transport bicycles. Daytime trains are entirely second and third class, with no sleeper berths; the first “overnight” train of the day departs Chiang Mai at 2:50PM and arrives in Bangkok at 5:30AM, with later services arriving at 6:40AM, 7:00AM and 9:10AM. www.railway.co.th/English/Time_HTML.asp
The overnight trains – especially second class sleeper berths – are very popular, safe, comfortable and fun, and good value too – sleeper fares start at 491 baht for an upper berth in a 2nd class fan carriage. 2nd class lower berths are slightly more expensive but also slightly wider than upper berths; air-con is of course about 30% more expensive than non-aircon. Those who wish to avoid sharing the relatively basic second class “bathroom” facilities can book a private first class two-berth cabin (the attendant cleans the first class bathrooms frequently).
In the train (2nd sleeper class at least), you will be offered food (several types of set Thai dinner in the evening, and of Western or Thai breakfast in the morning) and drinks by the train staff – food quality is OK (more like from a street stall than from a restaurant), although the prices are a bit high for what you get, especially for drinks – 40 baht for a glass of Orange juice, around 100 for a beer! Bringing your own food/drinks is not a problem. Breakfast for 100 baht and especially dinner for around 150 are worth trying, however, if you do not want to rely on fast food during your trip.
Tickets can be purchased up to 60 days in advance on any station in Thailand, not only from the point of your departure. Advance booking is advisable year-round, but especially between November and March and around Songkran in April – see SRT timetables and prices www.railway.co.th/English/Time_HTML.asp. On the larger stations (including Chiang Mai) you can pay for the ticket using your VISA/MasterCard – this is fairly safe, as SRT is a state-owned company.
From February 2009, SRT has opened an e-ticketing www.thairailwayticket.com website, an excellent option for those wishing to book from outside Thailand (or in the places in Thailand where there are no railway stations, such as islands). However, it is still a bit tricky to register – you have to avoid any special characters while filling a registration form, you must book at least three days in advance, and you can only purchase 1st and 2nd class aircon sleeper tickets (which are 150-200 baht more expensive than fan-only car tickets). The price, when purchased online, is exactly what you’d pay in the ticket office.
SRT advises to buy tickets only in their ticket offices (or via e-booking). In Bangkok, touts may approach you near Hua Lamphong station, trying to deflect you into one of the nearby travel agencies, stating this is a ticket office – just ignore them, the ticket offices proper are inside the main station building. Travel agencies, however, may be worth checking, if you can’t pay with a credit card and wish to avoid extra visit to the station – just make sure they charge you the actual price (available on the e-ticketing site for all classes) plus reasonable commission, not the silly “tourist” price. The latter is especially probable in the Khao San Road agencies; in Chiang Mai, however, they are often honest, with extra 60 baht or so well worth what you get for this (the songthaew return trip to the station will set you back 40 baht, plus at least 40 minutes).
SRT charges 90 baht to transport a bicycle between Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai train station is about 3 km east of the city centre, across the Ping River and near the main Post Office, at the intersection of Charoen Muang Road and Rat Uthit Road (27 Charoenmuang Road). If you arrive late it would be better to take a songthaew to town (many of these meet every train that arrives). If you do want to walk, exit the station, cross the open square in front and turn left on the first major road you come to (Charoen Muang Road); this road goes to the city center.