Founded in 1296 and located some 700 kilometres north of Bangkok, Chiang Mai has long played an important role in not only the economy and history of Thailand, it has also been a hugely significant political hub.
The city itself is large, the second largest in Thailand after the capital, and has a long-standing expatriate community, along with plenty of tourists.
Every year, thousands come from around the world to investigate the stunning and ancient temples, mountains and rivers, wild-life, the food and coffee and fabulous and surprising blend of cultures.
Hill tribes such as the Lisu, Akha, Mong, Lahu and Karen people are all resident in and around Chiang Mai. It is also the gateway to the infamous Golden Triangle.
What is sometimes overlooked in the rush, however, is the original and totally charming centre of Chiang Mai itself, the tiny, moated and gated district known as Old Town.
Old town is, well, old. It is where the first palace was placed, where the first temples were set up, and where ‘modern life’…of the late 13th century style…took hold.
The ruins of the old walls are still clearly visible, and the moat is still in existence, although it wouldn’t keep any marauding hoards out these days. An ill-advised swim in the moat is more likely to bring you into contact with it’s community of gigantic water monitor lizards than it is a well trained Siamese soldier.
In actual distance, the old city runs North-South 1.5 kilometres, and East-West 1.5 kilometres. It is a perfect square.
Internally the roads – known as ‘sois’- are set out in a grid and most of them run one-way. This keeps the traffic inside the town to a manageable level, and makes it easier to walk around as you can keep an eye on where the cars are when the footpaths let you down.
Old town is very much a walking city. Bicycles, readily available for hire, are also a good option.
There are a plethora of coffee and tea houses. Some years ago, as a way of encouraging the opium growers that dominated the area to change tack, the Thai Government, along with King Rama 9 introduced new crops that could bring in money without the trouble that drug production created.
Coffee, tea and, ironically, tobacco, were some of the products that stuck. That is not to say that the Golden Triangle is now home to the world’s Java production and the drugs are gone…but Chiang Mai has become renowned for it’s hill tribe coffee, and Old Town boasts a place to get a damn fine artisan cup-of-joe every 100 yards.
Food in Northern Thailand is a treat and reflects the crossroads of nearby Myanmar, China and Lao. A curry noodle soup known as Khao Soi is an absolute thrill for anyone into rich coconut warmth, or try the Massaman Curry, not spicy but rich and hearty and filled with potato.
To be fair, it’s hard to get a bad meal in Thailand, unless you accidently order the ants-nest blood soup…
If you are worried about adding girth with all the delicious that is the local cuisine, rest easy. A couple of days walking the length and breadth of this hidden gem will keep you on track. Plus, holiday calories don’t count.
Accommodation inside the Old Town walls is widely available and ranges from Hostel to 5 star and everything in between. In the cooler season, around Christmas and New Year, there is also a famous flower festival which draws people from around the region.
As tiny towns go, this one really punches above its weight. Quirky, cultural and creative, this city within a city is well worth your time.