Beyond the beaches of Phuket and the traffic jams of Bangkok, another side of Thailand is waiting to be discovered in the far north of the country: the Chiang Mai province. This mountainous region has stunning lush green landscapes, sleepy villages and even in Chiang Mai city, the former seat of the Lanna Kingdom, the atmosphere is distinctly relaxed and laid-back.
Here too are temples that rival the beauty of their counterparts in the southern capital. Fabulous Thai restaurants, as well as those selling modern international cuisine, are plentiful, as are excellent hotels. We also visited an enchanting eco-village where homestays are the order of the day. And throughout the region, a myriad of ancient craftworks are still made just as they were hundreds of years ago. This is the magical Thailand that I discovered recently during my first visit to this captivating part of Asia.
The Lanna Kingdom
Chiang Mai was once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom which covered most of Northern Thailand as well as parts of Myanmar (formerly Burma), China and Laos. Known as the kingdom of a million rice fields, it was founded in the 13th Century. Its architecture and cuisine are distinct from that of its neighbour Siam (now central and southern Thailand) and, as I was soon to discover, it has a very rich tradition in arts and crafts.
Chiang Mai was the main trading town between southern China and the sea ports of Burma, making it a fiercely sought after prize. The city held off would-be invaders for many centuries before finally falling to Burma in 1557. For the next 200 years, it passed between the hands of Burma and Siam, before eventually becoming part of Siam in 1892. In the mid 20th century Siam became known as Thailand, the land of the free.
Monuments, Sites and Cultural Landscape of Chiang Mai, Capital of Lanna, feature on their tentative list of World Heritage Sites – a worthy submission.
Wat Phra Singh Temple, Chiang Mai City
It’s my first morning in Thailand. As I walk towards the Wihan Lai Kham in the Wat Phra Singh Buddhist temple complex, a stunning sight makes me catch my breath — two gloriously golden chedi shine brightly in the sunlight. While I’d seen photographs of chedi or stupa like this before, nothing can compare to seeing them with your own eyes. A sense of gratitude washes over me as I think of how lucky I am to be here. We are also lucky that they have recently been restored and that, having arrived early, there aren’t too many people around.
The oldest structure in the wat, which means temple complex, is the larger Phra That Luang Chedi built in 1345 by King Pha Yu to enshrine his father’s ashes. Over the years it has been enlarged several times. It dominates the complex and for me was the most moving building. I was totally beguiled by its golden veneer and the four elephants, one on each side emerging from the base.
The Wihan Lau Kham (featured image and above) was built some years later to house the highly revered Phra Buddha Sihing statue and is said to be one of the finest examples of Lanna architecture. Inside, stunning decorations adorn the walls, window shutters, doors, and columns. Once a year during the Songkran Festival, the Phra Buddha Sihing statue is carried through the streets of Chiang Mai. It is said to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing Buddha statues in Thailand, yet its origins remain elusive. Local legend says it is over 1,500 years old and originates from Sri Lanka.
As I wander around the complex I come across 9 golden statues, each one a likeness of a different monk. They are beautiful and so expressive. I take a moment to enjoy the solitude with each in turn. When I rejoin my guide, he explains that statues like this, life-size and highly accurate, are made to remember good monks that have passed away. He points out, however, that not all monks are good, but that bad monks are forgiven.
My time at the complex is running out and there is yet more to see, including the Ubosot. Built in 1806, it has two entrances – one for monks and one for nuns. Inside are a number of Buddhas, including a beautiful copy of the Emerald Buddha (a stunning jade Buddha now in Bangkok), and a smaller copy of the Phra Buddha Sihing. Four more incredibly life-like statues of revered monks can also be seen here (picture below).
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the wat was completely neglected and not restored until the 1920s. The largest building in the wat is the Wihan Luang (above) built in 1925 on the site of the original Wihan which dated back to the 14th century. Inside is the highly revered Buddha statue, Phra Chao Thong Tip. Made of gold and copper, it was cast in 1477 and is a stunning sight indeed.
The temple library, the Ho Trai, is said to be another fine example of classical Lanna architecture. Sadly, I miss seeing it – I am already late and my guide and fellow travellers are waiting to leave.
Visiting the Wat Phra Singh Temple in Chiang Mai was a very moving experience and this was just the start of my Thailand adventure. The scenery was beautiful, as were the temples and the crafts in the workshops we visited. The hotels we stayed in were first-rate and everyone we met was so welcoming. And did I mention the food? Superb – I’ve so much more to share with you.
But there is one thing above all else that I’ll remember from my visit to Thailand and that is the sound of laughter. My sister once asked my grandmother, who had travelled the world herself, where, out of all the places she’d visited, she had found the nicest people. She replied that Thailand (or Siam as it would have been when my grandmother was there) had the happiest and nicest people she’d ever met. Some eighty years on, I wouldn’t disagree. They are undoubtedly amongst the friendliest people you could hope to meet, always greeting you with a smile. I know of a few countries on a par with this, but never have I been in another country and heard so much laughter.
Need to Know
The Wat Phra Singh Temple is open daily from 6 am. Admission is free and, while not the most venerated temple in Chiang Mai, out of the 300 plus temples found in the area, it is said to be the one that you must see. It is located inside the old city walls in the centre of Chiang Mai at the end of Ratchadamnoen Road. As with all Buddhist temples, shorts are not allowed as your knees must be covered, as must your shoulders. There are well looked after toilet facilities within the complex that are also free of charge. In order to enter any of the buildings, you must remove your shoes.
You’ll find more ideas about things to do in Chiang Mai in this post from Kavey Eats.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
I stayed at the beautiful riverside boutique hotel, Na Nirand Romantic Boutique Hotel and the luxurious Le Méridian Chiang Mai. Both hotels were extremely good and centrally located for discovering the best of the old city. You can read more about both these hotels, as well as rural homestays, in my post about the best places to stay in Chaing Mai.
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Disclosure: I visited Thailand as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, AmazingThailand.org.
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