Inside Guide to Chiang Mai Old City

Travellers to Chiang Mai, the economic capital of mountainous Northern Thailand, will experience a sprawling metropolis containing a dynamic mix of both traditional and modern architecture and lifestyles. In the heart of this modern city is a more tranquil space of the old city, surrounded by the remains of ancient walls and interwoven with narrow lanes. Impressive temples are dotted throughout, reflecting the calm nature of the northern Thai people and providing insight into local culture.


Inside Chiang Mai Old City - akyra Manor Chiang Mai Hotel


Chiang Mai Old City

Construction on what is now Chiang Mai Old City began in 1296. The site was chosen as an alternative to the capital city at the time, Wiang Kum Kam, which was located in an area prone to regular flooding and therefore not suitable as the capital of the Lanna kingdom. This move proved to be a good one as Wiang Kum Kam was eventually buried under mud when the course of the Ping River shifted.

Chiang Mai’s city walls enclosed an area of a square mile and, together with the moat, they provided sufficient protection for this new capital to satisfy King Mengrai, the ruler at the time. The land around the city was suitable for rice plantations and the Ping River made the region accessible for trade. The major part of the construction took just a few months to complete and besides the city walls, included the royal residence, observation towers, storehouses and stables.

The city thrived, tradesmen and craftsmen flooded into the region and further construction followed, including some of the beautiful well-known temples, like Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chiang Man. This period of growth peaked in the 16th century, but sadly, a couple of tumultuous centuries followed and the city fell into the hands of the Burmese. The population dropped dramatically under Burmese control, which almost led to the demise of the city.

Chiang Mai was eventually brought back under Thai control in the late 18th century and a period of recovery and regeneration began. The city regained its sparkle and once again attracted traders and foreigners to the region. The construction of the railway connected the city to other areas previously only reachable by boat or elephant, and it wasn’t long before Chiang Mai became a province of Siam, as Thailand was known at the time.

Agriculture and handcrafts are the two most prominent industries in Chiang Mai, the largest city in Thailand after Bangkok. Tourists flock to Chiang Mai to experience the natural beauty of northern Thailand, the traditional architecture and the friendliness of the local people.

One of the main features of Chiang Mai is the wall around the old city and its gates, each one designed and built with a specific purpose in mind. The most important gate, Chang Puak Gate, is in the north wall and was reserved for royalty during state visits and events. Moving clockwise, the east gate led to the Ping River and was aptly named Thapae Gate for the harbour (Tha), and floating houses (Pae) on the river. Tucked into the south wall is the Chiang Mai Gate that led to Wiam Kum Kam on the Ping River. The ruins of this city are still visible and several archaeological pieces uncovered during the excavation of the city are also on display. The Suan Dok gate on the west side of Chiang Mai’s walls led to the royal flower garden that was outside the old city walls.



Although the walls are no longer fully formed and the gates have undergone renovations over the years, they provide a glimpse into the interesting history and rich culture of this region and are a highlight of any visit to Chiang Mai’s old walled city.



Buddhism is by far the most prevalent religion in Thailand and this is particularly true in Chiang Mai where there are approximately 300 temples. Many are located in the old city, a throwback to the days when this was the hub of the region, and the oldest of these is Wat Chiang Man. Built around 1296 in the northeast of the old city, its stand-out feature is the old Lanna-style chedi (pagoda). The base of the chedi is surrounded by beautifully carved elephants, an animal that in the Buddhist religion is believed to be the guardian of Buddha, earth and its temples.

Another notable temple in the walled city is Wat Phra Singh. Located in the west, near the Suan Dok Gate, Wat Phra Singh draws pilgrims from far and wide, who come to worship the Lion Buddha (Phra Singh). This revered Buddha image is on display in the temple’s beautifully decorated chapel, and is paraded through the streets during the Songkran Festival every April. It’s believed that sprinkling holy water on Phra Singh during this procession will bring good luck.

While there are plenty of temples to visit in Chiang Mai, one that shouldn’t be left off any sightseeing list is Wat Chedi Luang in the heart of the old city. The centrepiece of this temple is its towering chedi, which was built in the mid-15th century and the top of which now lies in ruin. History is vague on the reason for this, however it is believed to have been destroyed either by an earthquake in the 16th century, or by cannonfire when the Burmese captured Chiang Mai in 1775. Nevertheless, it’s a commanding structure and adds to the widespread attraction of this religious compound.



The ancient walled city may be the heart of culture in Chiang Mai, but one of the best ways to explore true Thai culture is by visiting the markets that abound throughout the old city. Some, like the Warorot Market, run daily while others are weekly events. In particular, the Wua Lai Walking Street market on Saturdays and the Tha Pae Walking Street market on Sundays are popular meeting places for locals and region visitors. Browse the various stalls selling fresh produce, baked goods and locally handcrafted items, or sample some of the authentic street food available on almost every corner. The friendliness of the Thai people shines through and you can’t help but enjoy both the culinary experience and the warm, welcoming atmosphere.



Whether your visit to the Chiang Mai old city spans several days or a few weeks, it will quickly become clear that this is a special place. The rich history, meaningful religions and deeply-rooted cultural values will leave you with lasting memories to build on each time you return.



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