The City of Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai feels less claustrophobic than most cities in Thailand, being scattered over a wide plain and broken up by waterways. The moat encircling the temple-strewn old town, the gentle Ping River brings a breath of fresh air to the eastern side of the pungent food markets above Nawarat Bridge and the modern, hectic shopping area around Thanon Chang Klan.
To make the most of the river, take a boat trip (1hr 40 min; for 150 Baht) in a converted rice barge from the jetty beside the riverside restaurant, on the east bank just north of Nawarat Bridge. Slow but sturdy, the boat offer the clear view of the surroundings as they take visitors through lush countryside north of town; boat leave every couple of hours, currently at 10am, noon, 2pm, 4pm and 5.30pm. Alternatively, contact Mae Ping River Cruises (Tel. 053-274822), based at Wat Chaimongkol on Thanon Charoen Prathet, who offer pick-up from your hotel and charge 300 Baht per person for a two-hour cruise, usually in longtail boat; they take you 8 km upstream from the centre to a riverside farmhouse for a look around the fruit, herb and flower gardens, plus refreshments and fruit-tasting, before returning to the city.
Wat Phra Singh
If you see only one temple in Chiang Mai it should be Wat Phra Singh, perhaps the single most impressive array of buildings in the city, at the far western end of Thanon Ratchadamnoen in the old town. Just inside the gate to the right, the wooden scripture repository is the best example of its kind in the north, inlaid with glass mosaic and set high on a base decorated with stucco angles. The largest building in the compound, a colorful modern viharn fronted by naga balustrades, hides from view a rustic wooden bot, a chedi (pagoda) constructed in 1345 to house the ashes of King Kam Fu and the highlight of the whole complex, the beautiful Viharn Lia Kam. This wooden gem from the early nineteenth century is a textbook example of Lanna architecture, with a squat, multi-tiered roof and exquisitely carved and gilded pediment, of you feel you're being watched as you approach, it's the sinuous double arch between the porch's central columns, which represents the Buddha's eyebrows.
Inside sits one of Thailand's three Phra Singh (in Thai call Sihing) Buddha images, a portly, radient and much-revered bronze in a fifteenth-century Lanna style. Its setting is enhanced by the colorful murals of action-packed tableaux, which give a window on life in the north a hundred years ago: courting scenes and piggyback fights, merchants, fisherman and children playing. The murals illustrate two different stories: on the right-hand wall is an old folk tale, the Sang Thong, about a childless king and queen who are miraculously given a beautiful son, the ''Golden Prince'', in a conch shell. The murals on the left, which have been badly damaged by water, show the story of the mythical swan Suwannahong, who forms the magnificent prow of the principal royal barge in Bangkok. Incidentally, what look like Bermuda shorts on the men are in fact Buddhist tattoos: in the nineteenth century, all boys in the north were tattooed from navel to kneecap, and agonizing ordeal undertaken to show their courage and enhance their appeal to women. On one side of the temple is a high school for young yellow-sashed novices and schoolboys in blue shorts, who all noisily throng the temple compound during the day. Dally long enough and you'll be sure to have to help them with their English homework.
Wat Chedi Luang
From Wat Phra Singh a ten minutes walk east along Thanon Ratchadamnoen brings you to Wat Chedi Luang on Thanon Phra Pokklao, where an enormous chedi, toppled from 90m to its present 60m earthquake in 1545, presents an intriguing spectacle-especially in the early evening when the resident bats flit around. You'll need a titanic leap of the imagination, however, to picture the beautifully faded pink-brick chedi, in all its crumbling grandeur, as it was in the fifteenth century, when it was covered in bronze plates and gold leaf and the housed the Emerald Buddha for eighty years.
Recent attempts to rebuild the entire chedi to its former glory, now abandoned, have nevertheless led to modern replacements of the elephants at the base, the nagas the line the lenghty staircases and the Buddha images in its four niches, including an over sized replica of the Emerald Buddha in its old spot on the eastern side. In an unprepossessing modern building by the main entrance stands the city's foundation pillar, the Inthakin post, here at the geographical centre of Chiang Mai, sheltered by a stately gum tree which, the story has it, will stand for as long as the city's fortunes prosper. On the north side of the chedi, Monk Chat is advertised (Monday-Saturday noon-6.30pm), giving you a chance to meet and talk to the monks in English. If you've still got time, pop in on Wat Pan Tao next door to see the wonderfully gnarled all-teak viharn, constructed of unpolished panels, supported on enormous pillars and protected by carved wooden bars on the windows, a classic of graceful Lanna architecture.
Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre
From Wat Chedi Luang, the old town's main commercial street, Thanon Phra Pokklao, heads north past a monument to King Mengrai, the founder of Chiang Mai, set in its own small piazza on the corner of Thanon Ratchadamnoen and supposedly on the site where he was killed by lightning. On Sunday from noon, Thanon Ratchadamnoen become a walking street, a pedestrianized market with all kinds of shopping, eating and live music.
A few minutes on up Thanon Phra Pokklao, Mengrai features again in the bronze Three Kings Monument, showing him discussing the auspicious layout of his ''new city'', Chiang Mai, with his allies, Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai and Ngam Muang of Phayao. Behind the monument, the elegant 1920s former provincial office has recently been turned into the Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre (Tuesday-Sunday, 8.30am-5.00pm; free) by the municipality-essentially a museum with aim of conveying the history, customs and culture of the city and the region. To this end, scale models and plenty of high-quality English-language audiovisuals are thoughtfully deployed, with some nice touches such as vivid reminiscences by Chiang Mai's older inhabitants about what the city was like in the early twentieth century. This was the site of Wat Sadeu Muang, home of the city pillar before it was moved to Wat Chedi Luang and the symbolic significance of this neatly explained on a see-through display board in front of window, through which you can see one of the temple's restored thirteenth-century Haripunjaya-style chedis outside. Upstairs, the interest tails off, though there is engaging audiovisual and exhibit on the hill tribes. The back half of the building shelters cultural activities such as weaving demonstrations, temporary exhibitions, a souvenir shop and small café and the city has ambitious plans for separate art and historical museums nearby.
Chiang Mai National Museum
In telling the history of Lanna art and culture, the National Museum, on the northwestern outskirts of Chiang Mai (Wednesday-Sunday, 9.00am-4.00pm; 30 Baht www.thailandmuseum.com), has far fewer bells and whistles than its new rival, the Chiang Mai Arts and Cultural Centre, but in terms of the quality of artefact's on display, wins hands down. To get to the museum with your own transport, leave the old town through Chang Phuak Gate on the northern moat, then go 2km up Thanon Chotana, a crowded shopping street, before turning left along the road's central divider and head back towards your target along the eastbound lane. Alternatively, charter a tuk-tuk or songthaew from the centre of town (30-40 Baht). The building is easy to identify by its soaring kalae motifs-elaborately carved extensions to the barge boards that create a ''V'' shape over the apex of each roof and are a hallmark of Lanna architecture.
Inside, the airy rooms are cool enough for long browse and the collection is engrossing and liberally la belled in Thai and English. As you enter, you are greeted on the left by the head of a smiling bronze Buddha that is as tall as a man but you need to go right to follow the displays, which are grouped into six sections. The first of these displays art facts and skeletons unearthed by local archaeological digs, as well as photographs of cave paintings found in the area. This leads into the second section, which chronicles the golden age of the Lanna kingdom, from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, including some lovely ceramics from San Kamphaeng, as well as subjugation by the Burmese from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The third part recounts relations between Chiang Mai and the Siamese court at Bangkok from the late eighteenth century, while the fourth section focuses on the expansion of trade in the late nineteenth century, particularly due to the activities of logging companies. The fifth section shows how the process of modernization continued throughout the twentieth century with advances in educational opportunities, health facilities and the development of handicraft industries such as silverware.
The biggest section is given over to Thai religious art, with a particular focus on Lanna art. Hundreds of Buddha images are on display, ranging from a humble, warmly smiling sandstone head of the Haripunjaya (Lamphun), representing the earliest northern style, to gleaming images in the Ratanakosin (Bangkok) style. In the golden age of Lanna images from northern India, has been called the ''lion-type'', after the Shakyamuni (Lion of the Shakyas) archetype at the great Buddhist temple at Bodh Gaya, the site of the Buddha's enlightenment. It's been conjectured that a delegation sent by King Tilok to Bodh Gaya in the 1450s brought back not only a plan of the temple to be used in the building for nearby Wat Jet Yot, but also a copy of the statue, which became the model for hundreds of Lanna images. These broad-shouldered, plump-bellied Buddhas are always seated with the right hand in the touching-the-earth gesture, while the face is well rounded with pursed lips and serious, majestic demeanour. The second type is the ''Thera Sumana'' style named after the monk Mahathera Sumana, who came from Sukhothai in 1369 to establish his Sri Lankan sect in Lanna. The museum is well stocked with this type of image, which shows strong Sukhothai influence, with an oval face and flame-like ushnisha on top of the head.
Wat Jet Yot
Set back from the Superhighway five minutes' walk west of the museum, the peaceful garden temple of Wat Jet Yot is named after the ''seven spires'' of its unusual chedi. The temple was built in 1455 by King Tirok, to represent the seven places around Bodh Gaya in India which the Buddha visited in the seven weeks following his enlightenment. Around the base of the chedi, delicate stuccos portray cross-legged deities serenely floating in the sky, a role model for all yogic fliers; their faces are said to be those of King Tilok's relatives.
The Tribal Museum and Ratchamangkla Park
One kilometer north of the Superhighway off Thanon Chotana, the Tribal Museum (Monday-Friday, 9am-4pm; free) enjoys a superb location behind the artfully landscaped Ratchamangkla Park. Originally established in 1965 as part of the Tribal Research Institute at Chiang Mai University, the museum was moved in 1997 to the present edifice, in the style of the Chinese pagoda. Overlooking a tree-lined lake, the very pretty and peaceful setting makes a visit worthwhile, as does the opportunity to learn something about the various hill tribes before heading of a trek. It's about ten minutes walk from the park gate on Thanon Chotana to the museum entrance but, if you are getting here by songthaew, drivers can take their vehicles round the park directly to the museum. However, when it's time to leave you have to take the ten minutes walk to the gate to find transport back into town.
Set out on three floors, the museum has its main exhibition area on the ground floor, where displays about each of the main hill tribes are accompanied by concise information printed in both Thai and English. A useful wall chart shows the calendar of traditional village life, giving a month-by-month picture of the agricultural activities, ceremonies and festivals of the tribes featured; there are also photos and models of village dwellings, giving a good idea of the different styles of architecture and display of hill-tribe instruments accompanied by taped music. If you are especially interested, ask to see slide show (15 min) and video (55 min), for which the combined cost is 50 Baht per person. Despite the saccharine American narrator, the video is interesting, describing the six main tribes and showing a festival for each; by the end of it you should be able confidently to distinguish between the modes of dress of the various tribes.
As you trawl through the exhibition, glimpses of the lake through the windows are very appealing and it's worth taking a look at the reconstructions of hill-tribe houses erected along the lake's south side. The road around the lake is popular with joggers in the morning and evening, and snack stalls clustered around the southeast corner of the lake attract groups of local people late in the day.
Chiang Mai Zoo was establish in 1974 C.E. by Mr. Harold Mason Young an American missionary, who came to Thailand as a volunteer to teach soldiers on Thailand’s border how to survive in the jungle. He rented a piece of land to take care of many kinds of animals which has been injured by hunters at the time and when the animals had recovered he would return them to the jungle, but there were some animals that were so weak from the wounds and were not able to find food by themselves and some animals that did not leave for the jungle.
So Mr. Young took them back to his place. He raised them and opened the area as an animal educational centre as well as his private zoo. When the number of animals increased he co-operates with Chiang Mai provincial government to approve the extension of the area where animals kept to 24 acres of conserved forest area, opened on 6th April 1940. After Mr. Harold Mason Young passed away in 1974 the Chiang Mai provincial administrative organization transferred this area to the control of the Zoological Park Organization and continued to be the official zoo of Chiang Mai since 16th June 1977. Chiang Mai Zoo has an area of more than200 acres, house more than 8,000 animals in an evergreen environment comprising two waterfalls, reservoirs, an open camping spots and animal breeding areas. It also offers some spectacular views of Chiang Mai and provides lots of recreation and other facilities. Chiang Mai Zoo has been supported under the patronage of his majesty the king.
About 1 km beyond Wat Jet Yot, the superhighway cross Thanon Huai Kaeo a broad avenue of posh residences and hotels which starts out from the northwest corner of the moat and ends at the foot of Doi Suthep. Heading out up Thanon Huai Kaeo, past the sprawling campus of Chiang Mai University brings you to Chiang Mai Zoo. If you are visiting the zoo to see the pandas, the best time for a visit is 09:00 when the enclosure is opened and the pandas fed. The zoo is open 08:00 to 18:00 and admission is 100 Baht (adults) and 50 Baht (children) if you want to see the pandas, although this is on top of the usual fee of 30 Baht (adults) and 5 Baht (children).