Though nowadays regarded as Thailand’s Northern Capital, and in many ways the epitome of Thai culture, Chiang Mai has its roots in the rival Thai Lanna Kingdom, which developed independently from the ancient capitals of contemporaneous Sukhothai and later Ayuthaya, with whom they were often at war.


Surrounded by mountains and founded in 1296 AD, close to the banks of the Ping River, the city has a distinct legacy, its own language, and had a King of its own until as recently as 1932, before being wholly absorbed into Siam, the precursor of modern Thailand.

The walled and gated quadrangle of the ancient city, despite much modern development still imbues its visitors with a very real sense of this proud and evocative past.

The first built of over three hundred temples, Wat Chiang Man is adorned with images from the life of Mangrai, the city’s founder, and contains Chiang Mai's most precious relics, a 600 year old small crystal Buddha which is still annually paraded through the streets, and a stone bas-relief Buddha image of Indian origin, both of which are said to have protective powers over the city.

Many other fine examples of Lanna architecture within the inner city are to be found at Wat Prasat, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Phan Tao and Wat Chedi Luang, the latter once a temporary home to the enigmatic Emerald Buddha, which has figured profoundly in the histories of Lanna, Laos, and Siam, and now resides in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew.

For visitors seeking deeper insight into both Chiang Mai’s culture and history, The Chiang Mai Arts and Cultural Centre, which also houses the Three Kings Monument, provides interactive displays.


Several historic gates lead out over the moat surrounding the old city into the thoroughly modern world of Chiang Mai, though many of the city’s older gems can still be found among the shopping centres and daily bustle, such as Wat Suan Dok, Wat Srisuphan and Wat Jet Yot.

Other attractions within the city at large include Chiang Mai National Museum and its copious collection of artefacts, Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, Chiang Mai Zoo, the Northern Traditional Healing Hospital, which offers courses in Thai healing, and the Tribal Museum, dedicated to the preservation of the region's micro-cultures, more commonly referred to as the 'hill-tribes'.

Beyond the city boundary to the west, and affording a superb view over Chiang Mai, is the stunning gilded temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and its elaborate staircase, built near the summit of Doi Suthep at 1,676 metres (5,497 feet), the most visited of a number of temples in the surrounding hills and valleys, such as Doi Inthanon.

A scattering of villages in the hills surrounding Chiang Mai are home to various tribal minorities, which are culturally interesting to visit, a fine example being Borsang, well regarded for its handicraft market containing a colourful array of paper umbrellas, silks, woodcarvings, ceramics, silver and lacquerware.

To the north of Chiang Mai, the Mae Sa and Mae Taman valleys are home to elephant camps, providing entertainment and demonstrations with these fabulous beasts. At Mae Taman, the shows can be followed by an elephant ride through the surroundings and a rafting journey down the Ping River at the western edge of Si Lanna National Park.

The adjacent Chiang Dao National Park is an upland world of scenic mountains and a great place to trek.