Chiang Mai's rich history goes back hundreds of years. Because of its prime location and fertile land, the valley that extends from the base of Suthep Mountain to the Ping River was settled in early times by several different ethnic groups, including the hilltribe group known as the Lua tribe. King Mengrai unified the different towns and villages into what came to be known as the Lanna Thai Kingdom.
In 1296, he fortified the fertile valley area with a rectangular shaped brick wall measuring 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) wide, and 2.0 kilometers (1.25 miles) long. Parts of the wall are still intact today, and the area within it is often called the "old city". King Mengrai went on to expand his kingdom to both sides of the Ping River and beyond, naming it "Nop Buri Sri Nakorn Ping Chiang Mai". This city became the center of the Lanna Thai Kingdom that later expanded and covered much of Northern Thailand. After that there was sporadic warfare for several generations, and Chiang Mai fell several times to both the Burmese and to a powerful kingdom to the south that was centered around the Choa Phaya Basin.
In the end, Chiang Mai was taken by Krung Thon Buri, the capital of Thailand during that time, and under the fifth Rama, became a part of Thailand. Since the time of the Lanna Thai Kingdom, Chiang Mai has been a city for a total of 701 years.
With a population of 1,547,085 Chiang Mai is one of Thailand's largest provinces. Of the above number, 170,348 are currently living in Chiang Mai's city area with the rest distributed throughout Chiang Mai's 21 districts, 2 sub-districts. 80% of the people in Chiang Mai are locals by birth, and speak a dialect that is a slight variation of the central Thai language. The remaining 20% is made up of Thai nationals and foreigners who have moved to Chiang Mai to work, study, or retire.
There are many hilltribe people living in the mountainous districts surrounding Chiang Mai such as Omkoi, Mae Jam, Chiang Dao, and Mae Ai. Statistics reported by the Tribal Research Institute of Chiang Mai stated that in the year 1992 there were 1,049 hilltribe villages in the Chiang Mai province, constituting a total of 174,195 people. Of this amount, 106,116 were from the Karen tribe, 27,392 from the Lahu (Musur) tribe, 17,198 from the Hmong (Meo) tribe, 10,873 form the Lisu tribe, 8,862 from the Lua tribe, 2,609 from the Akha tribe, 1,145 from the Mien (yao) tribe, and 485 from the Palong tribe. The hilltribe people are agricultural; planting fields, raising animals, and hunting for a living. Since each tribe has its own culture and language, they blanket the hills of Chiang Mai with an interesting patchwork quilt of diverse variety.
The majority (80%) of the Chiang Mai people earn a living through agriculture and agricultural related professions. The second largest vocation is tourism and its directly and indirectly related jobs. General commerce and industry--mainly in the form of handicrafts, and of processing agricultural products--are the two other major professions in which the Chiang Mai people are involved.
The traditional tourist activities in Chiang Mai are visiting the temples and shopping for handicrafts, pursuits which many find more appealing here than in the rest of Thailand. These days, increasing numbers of travellers are taking advantage of the city's relaxed feel to indulge in a burst of self-improvement, enrolling for courses in cookery and massage.
Although you can comfortably walk between the most central temples, bicycles are the best way of looking around the old town and with a bit of legwork, getting to the attractions outside the moat. Trusty sit-up-and-beg models and basic mountain bikes are available at many outlets on the road along the eastern moat for 50-100 Baht a day. If you don't fancy pedaling through the heat and pollution, consider a motorbike-there are plenty for rent around 200 Baht a day, though these really come into their own for exploring places around Chiang Mai and in the rest of the north.
Bus services in Chiang Mai come and ago, and currently there is only one , not very useful, circular route, covered by purple air-con buses, cost is 10-20 Baht, running from Thanon Wualai past the airport to the west moat, the north moat, Thanon Pra Pokklao, across the Warorot market, down Thanon Chang Klan and back along the south moat. By far the best means of public transport are the red songthaews (other color serve outlying villages), which act as shared taxis within the city, picking up a number of people headed in roughly the same direction and taking each to their specific destination.
Chiang Mai is also stuffed with tuk-tuk, for which heavy bargaining is expected-allow around 80 Baht for getting from the train station to Tha Pae Gate. They're quick and useful on arrival and departure, and are quite reasonable if you're in a group. The town still has samlors, which are cheap when used by local to haul produce home from market but no so cheap when chartered by groups of upmarket tourists on sightseeing tours from their hotel.
Chiang Mai is well stocked with all kinds of accommodation; usually there are plenty of beds to go around but many places fill up from December to February and at the festival time, particularly during Songkran on April and Loy Krathong on November. At these times, you need to book to stay at one of the expensive hotels and for guest houses it's a good idea to phone ahead-even if you can't book a place, you can save yourself a journey if the place is full.
Many touts at the bus and train stations offer a free ride if you stay at a particular guest house, but you'll probably find that the price of a room is bumped up to pay for your ride. For much of the year there's little need for air-con in Chiang Mai, though the more expensive air-conditioned rooms are usually more spacious and come with hot-water bathroom, which is a plus in cooler weather. Some places can arrange to switch the air-con option off and charge you the fan-room rate.
Though many guest houses offer use of their safes as a free service, some charge up to 30-50 Baht per day. Be sure that you can trust the proprietor before you leave valuables in one of the safes or excess baggage in one of the left-luggage rooms while you go off trekking (choose one of the more well-established guest houses, as they're more conscious of the need to maintain their reputation), make a detailed inventory to be signed by both parties, because the hair-raising stories of theft and credit-card abuse are often true.