After the capture of the city of Lamphun in 1292, the then ruler, King Mangrai the Great, ordered the construction of a new city to take over as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom. Hence, in 1296, was the birth of Chiang Mai, and a new era in the Kingdom of Lanna – or “Kingdom of a million rice fields” as translated. The Lanna Kingdom consisted of territories of Northen Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and in some eras parts of Southern China. The exact region defined by the dominance of the Kings.
Chiang Mai became an important city due to its strong standing in religion, culture and economics. The city was constructed inline with cosmological beliefs of the Buddhist religion. The cities inner walls – home to the royal family and also a political and cultural centre with many temples – were built in a square shape, running along the cardinal points of North, South, East and West. The remains of these walls can still be seen today, and are surrounded by a canal – once a moat protecting the inner city.
Chiang Mai is home to over 100 temples, built at different times and having different ranks varying on religious and cultural symbolism. I visited two of the more revered temples, “Wat Chedi Luang” and “Wat Phra Singh”. At the centre of the inner city is the temple “Wat Chedi Luang,” with its Chedi – a pyramid construction with spire – built to symbolise Mount Sumeru, the centre of the universe in Buddhism. The city walls symbolised the boundaries of the universe.
In the 15th century, this Chedi became the home to the Emerald Buddha after it was moved from the city of Lampang. It remained there for almost 100 years before it was moved to Luang Prabang (Laos). After being moved numerous times since then, it now resides in the grounds of the Grand Palace, Bangkok.
The Lanna Kingdom stretched over a vast area of Northern Thailand, however, the mountains gave home to numerous hill tribes who separated themselves from is culture. Several languages were, and still are spoken by these tribes.
Escaping the walls of the city, I went trekking through the the jungle for 2 days to stay in a village with a traditional Karen tribe. Without electricity in the village, we were entertained around a campfire learning words of Karen, stories of folklore and being shown magic tricks. As traditional as the village was, and even though the residents had never ventured beyond Chiang Mai, the children still knew how to operate the latest iPhone.
My stand out memory of this village was going hunting for frogs in the marshland in the black of night with only head torches for light. One of the locals spotted a snake in the grass which was apparently venomous and consequently had to kill it. We were left wondering how many more snakes there were as we wandered around barefoot…? The locals usually hunt carrying lemons somewhere on their body which prevents snakes from wanting to bite them. Apparently. I won’t be the one to try this out.
Our jungle trek ended with bamboo rafting down the river before returning to the city. On the outskirts of the city there are many such activities tucked away in the beautiful mountain scenery to keep visitors entertained, trips to waterfalls and zip lining through the mountain trees were ones that I experienced.
Aside from this, elephant trekking is big business in this area, as it is all over South East Asia. I had already fed elephants in Koh Phangan but spent another day here learning to talk to the animals as well as bathing them. Ever since the logging industry was outlawed, many Mahouts struggled to pay to keep their elephants, hence starting the elephant camps, where tourists could come to pay to ride elephants and see them perform tricks. Camps like these still exist, but there are some which care for elephants much better. I did ride the elephants, there is big debate as to whether this is harmful to them, however we did not use the large, heavy metal saddles which dug into their back. They were also allowed to Rome into the jungle daily, and certainly seemed happy to play with us in the water.
I was interested to see the transformation of the cultural city to a vibrant hub for nightlife, with bars and restaurants outlining the streets both inside and outside the city walls, all the way down to the daily night bazaar. I missed the weekly Sunday walking street in the old town due to my stay in the jungle, but will be returning for it next week on my way through to the Laos border.
An amazing place, full of friendly, genuine people. See you soon Chiang Mai!