Million Rice Fields

Once upon a time, northern Thailand was as separate and foreign to Bangkok as Cambodia or Laos is today. The northern kingdom of Lanna (meaning ‘one million rice fields’) had its own dialect, writing system, religious and social customs and tribal ethnicity. A concerted effort to create a unified 'Thai' identity began after WWII, and Lanna traditions declined in the face of massive influence from the south. Nevertheless, if you scratch the surface, you can still find traces of Lanna identity and even glimmers of Lanna national pride.

Carved crossed gables known as kalae (a legacy of animist tribal cults) still adorn buildings across Chiang Mai, and the northern Thai dialect continues to be spoken by millions of kun meu·ang (people of the north). Religious festivals in Chiang Mai erupt in a riot of noise and colour, as piphat bands strike up traditional tunes and devotees perform Lanna dances in outrageously colourful costumes. Songkran, a festival introduced to Thailand from the north, is celebrated with particular aplomb in Chiang Mai.

More tantalising glimpses of old Lanna can be seen at Anusawari Singh, just beyond Hwy 11 in the north of the city, where Chao Kavila built two stucco lions on an artificial island to scare off would-be Burmese invaders. The lions are the focus of boisterous celebrations as part of the Suep Jata Muang festival in June, when older residents of Chiang Mai dance and make offerings to Chiang Mai's guardian spirits. Chao Kavila is also credited with building the stucco guardian elephants in the Elephant Monument by the bus station on Th Chotana (Th Chang Pheuak).

The animist origins of the Lanna kingdom are even more tangible at the Pu Sae Ya Sae festival, held 10 days after Suep Jata Muang at Mae Hia in the forest below Wat Phra That Doi Kham. According to legend, Doi Kham mountain was once the domain of two evil giants known as Pu Sae and Ya Sae, but Buddha appeared to the giants and convinced them to pursue a life of dharma, saving the people of Mae Hia. To invoke blessings from the giants, a water buffalo is sacrificed and skinned by a village shaman, who becomes possessed by the spirit of Pu Sae.

Soi Ban Haw

In ancient times, Chiang Mai straddled one of Asia's famous crossroads: the southern spur of the Silk Road. Chinese-Muslim traders from Yunnan Province (China) drove their horse-drawn caravans south through the mountains to the Indian Ocean to trade with the merchant ships of seafaring powers. To the Thais of Chiang Mai, these caravans were a strange sight and the traders were nicknamed jeen hor (galloping Chinese), a reference to their strange beasts of burden.

The focus for this horse-trading was the market district known as Ban Haw, near the present Night Bazaar, where you'll still find a thriving Yunnanese Muslim community. Traders worship at the 100-year-old Matsayit Ban Haw, founded by later arrivals from China. Along Halal St are a number of simple restaurants selling Thai-Muslim-style food, including excellent kôw soy (curried chicken and noodles), kôw mòk gài (chicken biryani) and néu·a òp hŏrm ('fragrant' dried beef).

The Plight of Chiang Mai's Migrant Workers

Over the past three decades, an estimated 200,000 people have fled from Myanmar to Chiang Mai Province, escaping political violence, economic hardship and oppression in bordering Shan state. While some of these migrants have found sanctuary and opportunity in Thailand, others have found exploitation, working in almost slave-like conditions with little security or protection from abuse. Many of the 'long-necked' Padaung tribespeople put on display in tourist camps around Chiang Mai are actually indentured workers, working off fees charged by people-smugglers to bring them across the border.

Facing growing international and domestic pressure, the Thai government is taking steps to reduce the influx, tightening border controls, raiding people-smuggling camps, and introducing a nationality verification process, which qualifies migrants for legal status and a minimum wage. However, allegations that the police turn a blind eye to and even participate in exploitation are widespread.

In response to this situation, a number of nongovernmental organisations are working with the Burmese migrant community in Chiang Mai, providing health care, education and legal support for displaced people. If you are interested in contributing or volunteering, contact Chiang Mai's Burma Study Center, an umbrella for projects working with the Burmese refugee community.