1. Founded by Thai king Phaya Mengrai in 1296, Chiang Mai is today the 2nd largest city in Thailand, with a population of about 1 mil. It is located some 700 km north of Bangkok, among some of the highest mountains in the country. The city stands on the Ping river, a major tributary of the Chao Phraya river, with the river flowing in a north-south direction to the east of the city. Old Chiang Mai is surrounded by a 1.3 km by 1.3 km moat and wall to protect itself against raids by the Burmese. The moat is still there but only sections of the wall remained. Movement in Chiang Mai is often made with reference to whether it is inside or outside the Wall.
2. Chiang Mai's historic importance is derived from its strategic location on an ancient trade route, as an entreport centre in northern Thailand for the flourishing trade of handcrafted goods, timber, silks, opium, jewellery etc. Today, it remains as the north Thailand's principal hub for tourism, transport, education and cross-border commerce.
3. What I did not know was that Chiang Mai was twice under Burmese control, first in the 11th century for 100 years and between 1556 and 1775 for more than 200 years. What I also did not know is that Chiang Mai, in ancient time, served as an important node for Chinese-Muslim caravans from Yunnan province to the Indian Ocean port of Mawlamyaing (Moulmain) in Myanmar, carrying produce and commodities to and from Yunnan, China. Today the Thai refers to Yunnanese as jiin haw, meaning galloping Chinese. Many later settled down in places along the caravan routes. This probably explains the Chinese mosque we saw in Tachileik.
4. We started our first day (13 June, Day 48) in Chiang Mai late, having taken the morning blogging, washing and general tidying. Generally, we reserved the longer stays for such activities. For the 1.5 days we had, we decided to visit 2-3 temples, the tribal museum, the 2 walking streets, and general exploration of the city.
5. We arrived at Wat Phra Singh at about lunch time, reputedly the most visited and most important temple in Chiang Mai. It was hot and very soon we were sweatingly wet. Located within the city walls, Wat Phar Singh dates from 1345 and offers an example of classic northern Thai style architecture or Lanna style followed during this period from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. It houses the Phra Singh Buddha (Lion Budda), a highly venerated figure, transferred here many years ago from Chiang Rai. Another source said that the Buddha image had its origin in Sri Lanka. In the sim (the central sanctuary), there were many chairs arranged in rows, possibly for some function later. There were many pictures on the wall showing the many events that had taken place there. There were a few devotees praying to Phra Singh Buddha. What I found interesting was a monk seated nearby in the Buddha position with devotees praying to him. Between the sim and the stupa is Wihan Lai Kham, a small chapel. I found this particularly beautiful, inside and outside. Inside, pictures lined its 2 walls showing scenes of the temple and life at the temple more than 100 years ago. For a Saturday, the temple was not as crowded as I would have expected. Behind, near the stupa, were many children studying; as it was peaceful and quiet there.
6. As it was late for lunch, we decided to find a place nearby to eat. We settled for a corner shop that was popular with the locals. We ordered chicken rice. After tasting it, 2 of us unanimously agreed that it was better than the chicken rice we had back home. Chicken was deboned, soft and tasty, and the rice, unlike those at home, was not too oily. The shop is located at the junction of Inthawarorot Road and Jhaban Road. We agreed that we would go back there for lunch again before leaving Chiang Mai.
7. After lunch, we decided to explore the city as we strolled towards Ping river (Mae Nam Ping), expecting that life along the riverfront would normally be buzzy, and then walk to Wualai Road, near the Chiang Mai gate, to see the Saturday Walking Street. Along the way, we dropped into Sala Chiang Mai for a massage. Run by a Japanese, the Thai massage I had was really good. We had 1.5 hour of that. It has nicely done website, www.salachiangmai.com, too.
8. When we reached the Ping river, we were somewhat disappointed. There was no riverfront promenade or garden, no public space along the river for the enjoyment of the public. We walked southwards along Praisani Road which runs parallel to the river. We stopped by at the River View Lodge, a hotel we were considering before we settled for Royal Peninsula; a small charming hotel next to Ping river, almost like a home. On an adjoining plot, the owner had a garage of antique cars, including a Rolls Royce. Further down the road, we saw a beautiful restored wooden building, standing on a plot with riverfront but other than a guard there was nothing happening there. A plaque said its a 140 years house originally owned by a timber merchant from Burma. House was closed and it was not clear to us how it was put to good use. Guard could not speak English and we took a few pictures and left. Further down, we were charmed by a beautiful hotel called Chedi. We decided to go in to have a look and have a beer or tea there. I forgot what room rate they quoted us but it was clearly way beyond our budget. We spent some time at the bar/restaurant, which previously housed the British Consulate office, enjoying the rest and admiring the beauty of the hotel.
9. At about 6 pm, we walked towards Chiang Mai gate to see the Saturday Walking Street at Wualai Road. Every Saturday, Wulai Road is closed to traffic from 2 pm to about midnight for a night bazaar which starts about 5 pm. Its the newer of the 2 walking streets in Chiang Mai; the other is the Sunday Walking Street inside the old city. As its the old silver working district of Chiang Mai, there were quite a few stalls selling silver wares, fronting their shops. Food stalls and massage corners intermingled with stalls selling local handicraft intermingled with buskers at regular intervals along the street. Near Chiang Mai Gate, many food stalls lined the street, much like Singapore in the old days. When we arrived, there was already a thin crowd, mostly tourists strolling the street. By about 8 pm, the area was jam-packed, with many locals, eating, strolling and shopping. I didnt buy anything but enjoyed myself. It was great atmosphere, the buzz and the music by the buskers. The locals were enjoying themselves, as much as the tourists. At about 8+, we had a quick dinner at the street stall near Chiang Mai Gate before heading back to the hotel.
10. The next day, we decided to take a drive to Doi Suthep-Pui National Park to see Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, 15 km to the north of Chiang Mai, a sacred site to many Thai people. Sunny visited it many years ago. He remembered the long flight of stairs to the temple. We got there after going up a long winding road up the mountain, and its 306 steps, counting from the 2 nagas guarding the entrance, up to the temple. We got there 10+ and it was already crowded, possibly because its a Sunday. Theres an alternative to go up by cable car, but we climbed the stairs. As required, we took off our shoes to go into the Pagoda compound. At the centre was the gold plated Pagoda, 79 ft high and a square base of 39 ft wide. At about midday, it was glittering, spectacular. Around the Pagoda are many Buddha images, with devotees crowding to pray. We paid 20 bahts for a pack of lotus flower, joss sticks and candles and prayed to one of the Buddha images. After that we just sat there and enjoyed the atmosphere, especially seeing the locals, many females dressing up for the day, young and old, going about their prayers. Many would first walk one round the base of the Pagoda before proceeding to their Buddha image to pray. Sitting there, we also wondered whats the right way to pray. Interestingly, farang also prayed.
11. We left the temple at 12+ and decided to go up the mountain to explore the national park. It was about 1400 m above sea level, cooling but unfortunately drizzling. Some distance up, we stopped to fill up some petrol from our emergency container (which has about 20 litres) as our tank was running real low and no petrol station was in sight. This was the first time we touched our emergency petrol container. We were pleasantly surprised to see the Bhubing Palace at the top of the mountain. As it was lunch time, the palace was closed and only reopened at 1 pm. We had our lunch at one of the food stalls near the entrance while waiting for the palace to open at 1 pm and the hopefully for the rain to stop.
12. Bhubing Palace is the royal winter residence in Chiang Mai where the royal family stays during their seasonal visits to the northern part of the country. It is also the royal guesthouse for prominent state visitors from abroad. Bhubing Palace was built in 1961 first with the royal residence building, with other buildings added in later years. The palace is open to public when the royal family is not using it. Entry into the buildings is not allowed, but the walk around the palace ground was worth the experience. The compound is beautifully landscaped with many flowers, including a fern garden. It was a wet experience, as it was raining when we walked the compound, 2 persons squeezing under one umbrella.
13. On the way back to town, we decided to visit the Tribal Museum, hoping that it was open on Sunday. Down the slope, we stopped to take pictures of Chiang Mai from a few hundred meteres up - spectacular view. As we half expected, the museum was closed on Sunday. But we discovered that the lake where the museum was located, though outside the city, was a vibrant place. Many middle-aged men lined both sides of one road, each carrying a piece of paper, chit-chatting, very rowdy. We suspected that they were betting, possibly horse racing. We practically have to squeeze the Pajero through them and of course we received a fair amount of stares, probably more out of curiosity. Around the lake are water villages, serving drinks and food. We decided to have beer in one of them and relax for a while. A few people next to us were fishing in the lake. Made of straws, bamboos and wood, they looked low cost but practical, very charming too. We could have snoozed off in the hut.
14. After a quick wash up at the hotel, we were off in a tuk-tuk to the Sunday Walking Street. Stretching from Tha Pae Gate and along most of Ratchadamnoen Road within the walls, the street is closed for night bazaar every Sunday. At Tha Pae Gate, we sat at one of the food stalls to eat our favourite mango with glutinous rice. Sunny ordered a pork dish too. There were many similarities between the Sunday and Saturday walking streets. In fact, we saw a number of common stalls and buskers. The Sunday Walking Street looked more organised, possibly because it had more grounds to play with. Food stalls were able to spill into a number of temple compounds and side streets adjacent to the walking street. In terms of scale, the Sunday one looked bigger than the Saturday. We picked up more food to eat along the way and had a foot massage while watching the many many passing by. At one end of the street, a vehicle from the Tourist Police had a vehicle with a LCD screen playing road safety messages. A practical way to catch the many people in one place, though I was not sure how many people were interested.
15. Its hard to imagine that Chiang Mai, with a population of 1 mil, could sustain 2 walking streets, Saturday and Sunday, every week. But, it did, for more than 2 years I was told. They were not just tourist attractions, as they looked just as popular to the locals. The handicraft industry looked pretty strong as evidenced by the many stalls selling local handicraft; something very much lacking in Singapore. The experience of the walking street is something one should not miss when in Chiang Mai. If you only have time to visit one, Sunday Walking Street is preferred.
16. The next day, we were off to Mae Hong Son, 225 km, traversing across the mountain range, to see the minority groups and the border areas between Myanmar and Thailand. We decided that we would go back to have the tasty chicken race before we leaving Chiang Mai. We expect some hard driving ahead.