East of the Old City & Riverside
Beyond Pratu Tha Phae is Chiang Mai's traditional commercial quarter, with sprawling bazaars and old-fashioned shophouses running down to the riverbank.
Before the construction of the roads and railways, Mae Ping was the main route of transit for goods coming into Chiang Mai. The markets along the riverbank are where the Lanna kingdom came to trade with the rest of Thailand, and via the Silk Route, with the rest of Asia. The river was used to transport everything from fruit and vegetables to the giant trunks of teak trees, but trade on the river slowly died after the arrival of the railways in 1922.
Mae Ping still traces a lazy passage through the middle of Chiang Mai, but few vessels ply its waters today, with the exception of tour boats, which provide an excellent vantage point from which to view the city. The longest-established operator is Scorpion Tailed River Cruise, which runs river tours in covered long-tailed boats from a pier by Wat Srikhong (just north of the Nakhon Ping bridge). Tours pass through peaceful countryside en route to a country farm, where passengers get a snack of mango and sticky rice. Mae Ping River Cruise offers similar trips starting from Wat Chaimongkhon, south of the centre on Th Charoen Prathet, as well as longer cruises to Wiang Kum Kam.
If you don't mind paddling yourself, Chiang Mai Mountain Biking & Kayaking offers guided kayak tours along Mae Ping, visiting forested stretches north of the city.
Teak-Era Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai was never colonised by European powers, but the city has many of the hallmarks of European influence, dating back to the time when teak concessionaires from Britain and the US built fortunes on the timber being hauled from the surrounding forests.
One of the most striking colonial relics is the weatherboard First Church, just south of Nawarat Bridge on the east bank, founded by the Laos Mission from North Carolina in 1868. Just south of here, the Iron Bridge was built as a homage to the demolished Nawarat Bridge, whose steel beams were fabricated by engineers from Cleveland in England. Local folklore states that the famous memorial bridge in Pai is not a WWII relic but a 1970s fake, built using reclaimed beams from Chiang Mai's Nawarat Bridge.
If you head in the other direction along the west bank, you'll pass the colonial-style former Main Post Office, which now houses a small philatelic museum. Similar Thai-Colonial administrative buildings spread out around the junction of Th Ratwithi and Th Phra Pokklao in the old city, where the former Provincial Hall, now the Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre, and Provincial Courthouse, now the Lanna Folklife Museum, show the clear influence of the British 'gentlemen foresters' who controlled 60% of Chiang Mai's teak industry in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Many of the teak concessionaires' mansions have fallen into disrepair, but the colonial style of architecture was adopted by the Lanna royal family. One of the most impressive surviving teak-era mansions is the Lanna Architecture Center, formerly owned by prince Jao Maha In, built between 1889 and 1893; it displays some interesting models showing the changing face of Lanna architecture through the centuries. The former British Consulate, now the Service 1921 restaurant at the Anantara Resort, the central building at 137 Pillars, and the Dara Pirom Palace in Mae Rim are also fine examples of this hybrid style.
North of the Old City
From Pratu Chang Pheuak (White Elephant Gate), it's a short walk north to the Elephant Monument, whose twin elephant statues in stucco pavilions are said to have been erected by King Chao Kavila in 1800.
The life story of Princess Dara Rasmee (1873–1933) is rich with political intrigue, surprise twists and even a happily ever after. The daughter of the last Lanna king, Phra Chao Inthawichayanon, Dara Rasmee was born in Chiang Mai, but her father dispatched her to the royal palace in Bangkok at the age of 13 to cement ties between the two dynasties. Adopted into the royal household, the princess was taken as a consort by King Chulalongkorn at the age of 14. The engagement united the two royal houses, providing a warning shot to the British Empire, which was increasing its power in the teak-rich north of the country.
Dara Rasmee was famously beautiful, and she became one of the king's favourite consorts (he had more than 100). Unlike other female residents in the royal compound, the princess continued to follow Lanna traditions, wearing her hair in a bun, dressing in northern costume, and speaking the northern dialect. The princess and King Chulalongkorn had a daughter together in 1889 but the child died before her third birthday and Dara Rasmee entered a state of mourning.
Shortly before his own death in 1910, the king gave Dara Rasmee the honorific title of Phra Raj Jaya, which elevated her to the status of an official royal wife, the only royal consort to receive such an honour. The widowed princess returned to Chiang Mai in 1914 and lived out her days at Darapirom Palace, cultivating roses, promoting Lanna culture and establishing the cultivation of longans to provide income for Northern Thai farmers. Dara Rasmee died of consumption at the age of 60, but she is still greatly loved by Thais, who regard her as a bridge linking the culture and peoples of central and northern Thailand.
Freshers' Week, Thai-style
At the start of every academic year in July, the entire first-year class from Chiang Mai University embarks on a pilgrimage on foot to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, to introduce new students to the spirit of the city, believed to reside in the mountain. More ambitious students make the ascent via a muddy footpath, which starts close to the TV tower near the back entrance to Chiang Mai Zoo and continues through the grounds of Wat Phalad. To get to the start of the path, go to the end of the university perimeter wall on Th Suthep and then follow the signposted road on the right towards Palaad Tawanron to reach the back entrance to the zoo; bear left at this fork and you'll reach the TV tower and a brown sign showing the start of the trail.
Within the old city, temples dominate the skyline, orange-robed monks weave in and out of the tourist crowds and the atmosphere is more like a country town than a heaving modern city. However, the residential feel of the old city is changing as government offices move out, residents sell up and developers move in.
Wat To See Around Town
If you still have a taste for more Thai religious architecture, there are dozens more historic wát scattered around the old city and the surrounding streets. Here are some good places to start your explorations.
Wat Inthakhin Saduemuang Marooned in the middle of Th Inthawarorot, this was the original location of the làk meuang (city pillar), and the gilded teak wí·hăhn (sanctuary) is one of the most perfectly proportioned buildings in the city.
Wat Phan On Set with gilded Buddhas in alcoves decorated with lai·krahm (gold-pattern stencilling), the gold chedi (stupa) at this prosperous wát is visited by scores of devotees after dark. The courtyard becomes a food court during the Sunday Walking Street market.
Wat Jet Lin This friendly wát was used for the coronation of Lanna kings in the 16th century; today you can see a collection of giant gongs, a big old mon·dòp-style chedi and a large gilded Buddha with particularly graceful proportions.
Wat Lokmoli An elegant wooden complex dotted with terracotta sculptures. The wí·hăhn is topped by a dramatic sweeping three-tiered roof and the tall, barrel-shaped chedi still has some of its original stucco.
Wat Chomphu Just north of Th Tha Phae, this calm monastery has a gorgeous gilded stupa with gold elephants, restored as a tribute to the king in 1999.
Wat Ou Sai Kham This friendly neighbourhood wát has an impressive collection of jade Buddhas and jade and nephrite boulders in its main wí·hăhn.
Wat Mahawan A handsome, whitewashed wát that shows the obvious influence of the Burmese teak traders who used to worship here. The chedi and Burmese-style gateways are decorated with a stucco menagerie of angels and mythical beasts.
Wat & Religious Sites
The highlight of any visit to the old city is exploring the temples that burst out on almost every street corner, attracting hordes of pilgrims, tourists and local worshippers. For a calmer experience, visit late in the afternoon, when the tourist crowds are replaced by monks attending evening prayers. Visitors are welcome but follow the standard rules of Buddhist etiquette: stay quiet during prayers, keep your feet pointed away from Buddha images and monks, and dress modestly (covering shoulders and knees).
The old city has three excellent historical museums – the Lanna Folklife Museum, the Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre and the Chiang Mai Historical Centre – located in a series of Thai-colonial-style buildings that used to house the city administration. You can buy a single ticket covering all three, valid for a week, for 180/80B (adult/child).
South of the Old City
The main highway running southwest from the old city, Th Wualai is famous for its silver shops and the entire street reverberates to the sound of smiths hammering intricate religious designs and ornamental patterns into bowls, jewellery boxes and decorative plaques made from silver, or, more often, aluminium. This is also the location for the energetic Saturday Walking Street market.
West of the Old City
Modern Chiang Mai has sprawled west from the old city towards Doi Suthep and the Chiang Mai University, but there are a few historic sites dotted around the streets. The main attraction here is the Neimmanhaemin area with its trendy restaurants and shops.
Chiang Mai for Children
Chiang Mai is very popular with families, both for its easygoing vibe and for the massive range of activities on offer. As a sensible first step, pick a hotel with a pool and plan out your days to avoid overload; chartering a rót daang (literally 'red truck') or túk-túk (motorised three-wheel taxi; pronounced dúk dúk) will give you the independence to come and go as you please. Suan Buak Hat has the most convenient playground in the old city. At meal times you can find familiar Western food in the old city and shopping centres.
Set aside one day for an elephant interaction – Patara Elephant Farm gets the balance of conservation and interaction just right – and another day for a paddle, swim and picnic at the Mae Sa waterfalls. Kids six and up will adore ziplining with the very well run Flight of the Gibbon. Wát trips are popular with kids and the compounds are green, calm and mostly traffic free; Phra That Doi Suthep, Suan Dok, U Mong Thera Jan, Chedi Luang and Phra Singh have the most going on to keep small sightseers entertained. The three old-city museums have plenty of modern, kid-friendly displays, and zoo-style wildlife encounters are possible at the Chiang Mai Zoo and Chiang Mai Night Safari.
For days when the temperature rises to unbearable levels, all the big shopping centres have icy air-con, multi-screen cinemas and kids' activities; Central Festival has the Sub-Zero ice-rink, complete with 'walkers' for first-time skaters. Grand Canyon Water Park is another great escape especially for older kids and teens who like adrenalin-charged water fun.