It was the rainy season in Northern Thailand and the two days I had at my disposal after a work trip to Chiang Mai were curtailed by frequent heavy rains. The day I drove to the airport, water stained red-brown by the soil was inundating the town. It poured from roofs, cascaded down stairways and ran like a river down roads. The actual river, the Ping, looked close to bursting its banks. As our plane took off for Bangkok floods enveloped the surrounding region. It felt like an evacuation rather than a scheduled flight.
It’s hard to enjoy sightseeing in a town when there’s a reasonable chance that you might be washed away in a torrent of monsoonal water, not to mention the hellish humidity and temperatures that regularly hit 35ºC. I saw enough of Chiang Mai to know that I’d need to return one day to do this fascinating town and surrounding region justice. Even with the rain, it was possible to explore some of the historic temples and markets in which Chiang Mai specialises.
Chiang Mai is an historic place. Even though the city has grown and spread rapidly the ancient walled old town still retains its sense of history. The city started life in 1292 when a palace was built by the Lanna Thai Kings. A few years later it grew into a city that would serve as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom until 1558. The city fell to Myanmar in one of the many conflicts for regional dominance, but in 1774 King Taksin retook the city and it’s been part of Thailand ever since.
That said, its location close to the Myanmar and Laos borders makes it ethnically distinct from southern Thailand. A diverse population includes the many hill tribes from the surrounding region. The most numerous hill tribes include Hmong, Akha, Karen and Lahu, and are one of the reasons 10 million tourists visited this region before the coronavirus pandemic hit. In some cases this cultural heritage hides a hidden tragedy, over the centuries many of these communities fled to Thailand from conflict and persecution in neighbouring countries.
History and cultural diversity make Chiang Mai a fascinating place, and in the centre of the town you can visit numerous temples and historic sites. Dating from the 15th century, Wat Chedi Luang is one of the most famous and atmospheric temples. The main stupa, or prayer hall, is now a ruin but at one time was the largest structure in the city. Ringed by plaster elephants it’s still impressive today and once held the famed Phra Kaew (Emerald Buddha). A replica sits there now, while the original is in a temple in Bangkok.
In a region renowned for beautiful temples, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is of the most remarkable. Sitting on a hilltop at just over 1,000m in altitude a few kilometres out of town, it’s one of Thailand’s most popular pilgrimage sites. The rain was at its most torrential when I visited and it was impossible to fully enjoy the temple. The steep stairs that lead up to the temple complex had literally turned into a gushing waterfall by the time I left.
As well as temples, Chiang Mai is a foodie paradise, with a renowned culinary scene and a lot of great restaurants and food markets. The Talat Pratu night market with its vast range of fruit, vegetables, meat and fish was my favourite place to eat, serving up the best sticky mango rice I’ve ever had. You can eat cheaply and well in the markets, but one night I went to one high-end restaurant on the river where, despite the rising waters threatening to wash us all away, I ate one of the best (and spiciest) meals of my life.