Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest town, with a population of about 960,000, a provincial capital and the most important city in the whole of northern Thailand. It is attractively laid out and contains some of the most beautiful and interesting temples in Thailand, in a characteristic local style which is both distinctive and pleasing. It lies amid beautiful scenery, and its situation at the foot of Doi Suthep (1676 m) gives it not only a magnificent setting but a climate which is much more agreeable than at Bangkok. The dry season, with its cool nights and beautiful days, is particularly healthy. In winter a pullover or woollen clothing is needed in the morning, and blankets at night. In summer it is just as hot as at Bangkok, but the atmosphere is much less humid all year round than in the Menam basin. It rains every day during the monsoon season (May to September and sometimes October), but it never lasts all day.
More than 70% of the population of Chiang Mai are engaged in agriculture. The town is surrounded by small farming villages, rice-fields, orchards and vegetable gardens, and here perhaps better than anywhere else visitors can get an impression of the life of the Thai countryside. The soil of the Ping valley is highly fertile and yields abundant harvests, much of which can be exported to Bangkok and other parts of the country. The most productive crops are tobacco, onions, soya, garlic and peppers, but all kinds of fruit are also grown, in particular the much favoured lam yai, also known by its Chinese name of longan or “dragon’s eye” (Nephelium longana), which is like a large plum. The sale of fruit brings the province a substantial annual income. The peasants also rear cattle, pigs and ducks, mainly for local needs.
Chiang Mai has a considerable Christian element, as a result of the work of the Presbyterian Mission which has been active here for more than a century. The Mission has endowed the town with excellent schools (Dara Academy, founded in 1878, and Prince Royal’s College, founded in 1887, respectively the first girls’ school and the first boys’ school north of Bangkok), excellent hospitals (McCormick Hospital, established in 1889, the first hospital outside Bangkok) and the McKean Leprosy Colony, established in 1908. The Marburg Mission has also played an active part in this work.
The majority of the population are Lao, an ethnic group related to the Thais who still maintain their animist beliefs. They have a rich store of marvellous legends peculiar to themselves, and their folk dances have a distinctive character which sets them apart from the classical Thai dances.
There are extensive teak forests producing valuable timber, which is taken down into the valleys by elephants. The elephants are very useful domestic animals, and are well treated by their owners; in summer they are taken to the high forest regions, since they do not like heat.
The earliest inhabitants of northern Thailand seem to have been the Lawa, who are now found only in very small groups in the hills west of Chiang Mai between the Ping and the Salween, in Burma. They were either driven out or assimilated by a closely related ethnic group, the Mons, who ruled over what is now Thailand from the 6th to the 11th century. The most powerful, though not the most extensive, Kingdom in northern Thailand was Haripunjaya (Lamphun), and there are many legends about its Queen, Chama Thevi (c. 650 – 700). It was during her reign that the Thai tribes from the north began to invade the country. The first Thai ruler about whom we have any real historical knowledge is Prince Prome, son of the King of Chiang Saen, who conquered the old Khmer town of Chaiprakan, near Muang Fang, in 857. In the 11th century King Anawratha of Pagan in Burma extended his Kingdom into Cambodia, but after his death the eastern part of his empire split up again into a mosaic of petty principalities. After the fall of the Kingdom of Nan Chao the Thais moved south in increasing numbers, establishing principalities everywhere. Among these was the Kingdom of Lan Na Thai (the Kingdom of “a million Thai rice fields”), in the area round Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Chiang Saen, Lampang and Lamphun.
Little is known about the early years of this Kingdom: the first King about whom we have any real information is Meng Rai, who founded Chiang Rai in 1261. In 1281 he conquered Haripunjaya and carried off to his capital the Buddha image of Wat Chama Thevi. But this capital, situated on the Kum Kam where the village of Sarapi now stands, was badly sited: it lay too low and was subject to flooding every year. Accordingly Meng Rai, accompanied by his allies King Rama Khamheng of Sukhothai and Prince Ngam Muang of Phayao, set out in search of a new capital. In the course of their quest they came to a village at the foot of the hill of Doi Suthep whose inhabitants showed them a spot where a pair of white deer and a white mouse with five young ones had taken up their abode. This seemed to the King a good omen, and in 1296 he founded the town of Chiang Mai there. It is recorded that 90,000 men were employed in the construction of the ramparts (which measure 2000 m by 1600), moat, temples and palaces of the town. The King brought back artists and craftsmen from his campaigns in Burma and settled them round his new capital. He died in 1317 after a reign of 59 years.
About the middle of the 14th century the Thai Kingdom of Lan Na extended its territory as far as Kamphaeng Phet. This period also saw the rise of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, whose rulers thereafter constantly strove to annex the flourishing Kingdom of Lan Na. There followed two and a half centuries of wars, in which the Kings of Burma frequently intervened. In 1545 Mieng Rai’s last male descendant died and the eldest son of the King of Luang Prabang (whose mother Jetta was a princess of Chiang Mai) became King of Lan Na. After staying in Chiang Mai for two years he returned to Luang Prabang, taking with him the “Emerald Buddha”, the “Crystal Buddha”, the Phra Singh and other noted images. In 1556 Chiang Mai was captured by King Bureng Nong of Burma, and thereafter Lan Na remained under Burmese rule, except for brief periods, until 1775.
After his victory over the Burmese King Taksin appeared at Chiang Mai in January 1775 and after a fiercely fought battle put the Burmese garrison to flight. Chao Sawila, Prince of Lampang, who had fought on the Thai side, became ruler of Chiang Mai; but the recent battles had so exhausted the town that the starving inhabitants abandoned it.and moved to Lampang. Thereafter Chiang Mai remained for twenty years a ghost town, until in 1796 Chao Sawila rebuilt the ramparts, dug a new moat, restored the temples and brought fresh life hack to the town. Only fragments of the walls built at this time still survive. The names of the five gates are preserved in street names: to the east, towards the river Ping, Ta Pae; to the west Suan Dawk (“Garden of Flowers”); to the north Chang Puak (White Elephant”); to the south Chiang Mai; to the southv.est San Poong. Some descendants of Chao Sawila still live in Chiang Mai.
The art and architecture of northern Thailand, in their mature stage, show marked Burmese influence, though in their early development they showed close affinities with the Mon (Dvaravati) style.
Chiang Mai has 79 temples, and there are something like a thousand in the province as a whole. Some of them have features characteristic of early Mon art and are of great interest as the only surviving examples of this period of Mon art. The temples of Chiang Mai differ from those of Bangkok both in the general conception of the monasteries and in the style of the sculpture and wall painting. The interior decoration, and even the decoration of the altars, is peculiar to the region, with garlands of brightly coloured paper or silver and gold paper which are reminiscent of Burmese practice.
By road, Chiang Mai is 800 km from Bangkok. The journey by bus allows you to see the scenery but is tiring. A bus leaves Bangkok (Pahol Yothin Road bus station) daily at 5.30 am., arriving in Chiang Mai about 7 p.m.
The best way to get to Chiang Mai is by air. There are several flights daily from Bangkok. The direct flight takes less than 2 hours.
There are also good rail connections. The North Express leaves Bangkok every afternoon and arrives in Chiang Mai the following morning. The train has sleepers and a dining car. There are washing facilities on the train, but a towel and soap are provided only in first class.