Rose of the North

Thailand’s cultural heart calls to travelers

By: Jonathan Siskin

On a recent 10-day visit to Thailand my journey end-ed in Chiang Mai, a favorite year-round retreat commonly referred to as the “Rose of the North.” Amid hills and forests in a verdant valley 1,000 feet above sea level, its cool, temperate climate provides welcome relief from the intense heat and humidity of sweltering Bangkok 400 miles to the south. Thailand’s second largest city is also the capital of Chiang Mai province (population 1.5 million of which 95 percent are Buddhist). Best known for its concentration of Buddhist wats (temples) and superb ethnic handicrafts, it also is an emerging world-class resort with several top-of-the-line properties.

Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 by King Mengrai as the capital of the Lanna (One Million Rice Fields) Kingdom, and it enjoyed great wealth and power for more than 250 years, despite coming under repeated attacks from neighboring Burma and Laos. The Burmese eventually conquered the city in 1556. And it remained under Burmese control until 1775 when it was recaptured by Siamese warriors and restored to its former glory. Centuries of isolation from the rest of the country Chiang Mai was not connected to Bangkok until a railway linking the two cities was completed in the 1920s fostered the development of a distinct cultural identity with its own architectural traditions, customs and festivals. The prolonged Burmese influence is especially noticeable in the square-tiered towers on many of the temples, and place names also reflect the former Burmese presence.

Temple Touring

Nowadays Chiang Mai is two cities in one, a contemporary metropolis with modern hotels, restaurants, and shops, and an old city dating back to the 13th century.

Preservation of the ancient wats is a top priority in the old city where a moat and remnants of the original walls that once encircled the city are still visible. Temple hopping is a popular tourist pursuit, and among the most visited of the city’s 300 wats is Chiang Man Temple, the oldest surviving wat and former home of King Mengrai who lived here in the early 14th century. Inside is an altar holding two sacred Buddhas a miniature crystal image known as the White Emerald Buddha and a second carved out of marble.

Another notable wat is Wat Chedi Luang, which contains an immense pagoda built in 1401 that once stood almost 300 feet high. (The pagoda was reduced to half its original size by earthquake damage in 1545.) This wat also once housed the famed two-foot-tall emerald Buddha that is now en-shrined atop a gold altar in Bangkok’s Grand Palace.

Situated at 3,200 feet on Doi Suthep mountain approximately 10 miles northwest of Chiang Mai is Wat Phra Tat, the most prized of all religious sites in northern Thailand, which attracts Buddhist pilgrims from around the world. The easy way up to the top is via the funicular railway, while those seeking an aerobic workout can make the ascent by climbing a 300-step staircase.
The main wat, which was built in 1383, is crowned by a sparkling pagoda covered in gold leaf and a major relic of the Buddha is supposedly buried in the courtyard. From the terrace there is a fantastic panoramic view of the entire Chiang Mai Valley. The wat is also just two miles from Phu Phing Winter Palace home of Thailand’s royal family and the palace gardens are open to the public when the family is not in residence.

Local Handicrafts

Over the years, Chiang Mai has built up a well-deserved reputation as Thailand’s center of quality handicrafts. Markets abound in both the old and modern city offering an assortment of items for which locals and tourists bargain for the best price.

In the last few years there has been a dramatic rise in the number of talented young Thai artists and designers whose works are sold in small galleries and gift shops around the city. Huge crowds flock to the Night Market on Chang Klan Road, which offers many fine objects for sale that are produced by the hill tribes who still live according to their ancient customs.

Among the best buys are textiles emblazoned with embroidery, wood carvings, pottery, conch shells and silver coins. The market is also a great place for people watching as members of the hill tribes are decked out in their native dress while urban-dwelling Thais sport the latest Western fashions.

Several nearby villages are home to cottage industries that create many of the items sold in the markets. For example, just eight miles from downtown Chiang Mai in the Sankampaeng district one can observe traditional crafts being made, such as waxed-paper parasols, mulberry bark paper and lacquerware. There are also woodcarving demonstrations and one can observe the production of the willow-green ceramic know as celadon. Thai Silk and cotton goods are also made here as residents create fabrics of incomparable quality on traditional wooden looms.

For some last-minute shopping, check out the assortment of handicrafts for sale at Northern Park Emporium just across from Chiang Mai International Airport. Besides items available nowhere else in the Thailand there are also rare handicrafts from neighboring countries including China, Laos and Myanmar (Burma).

Clients traveling to Chiang Mai as part of a Southeast Asia itinerary will encounter an intriguing city moving boldly into the 21st century while still remaining firmly grounded in its centuries-old cultural traditions.

Where to Stay

Mandarin Oriental Dhari Devi: Just 10 minutes from the airport and two miles from the city center, this spectacular property that opened in December 2004 contains 133 villas and suites spread over 60 acres of landscaped grounds that encompass rice paddies and resident water buffaloes. Featuring elements of an ancient architectural style, facilities include a 10,170-square-foot spa, amphitheater for cultural events, two large swimming pools, four restaurants, a cooking school and extensive health club.

Jirung Luxury Heath Resort/Spa of Eternity: Spa tourism is rapidly expanding throughout Thailand, and there are several health-and-wellness resorts in Chiang Mai that provide deluxe accommodations. Jirung Luxury Health Resort is one such resort, with a day spa offering a variety of treatments plus yoga and meditation at this attractive property located 30 minutes from downtown.

For clients interested in staying here, the resort’s accommodations are spacious boutique suites that include a dining room, kitchen and private balcony. There is also an outdoor restaurant serving healthful northern Thai dishes featuring locally grown produce.

The Four Seasons Chiang Mai: Since opening in 1995, this elite resort has won numerous awards and was recently named by Travel + Leisure as number four on the list of World’s Best Hotels, number three in Asia and number one in Thailand. The 80 rooms include 64 Pavilion and 16 Residence units. Each Pavilion has more than 750 square feet of space and is adorned with Thai cotton decorations, teak floors and Siamese art; oversized bathrooms feature a deep-soaking tub, double vanity and separate shower. Amenities include a three-story spa, tennis and health club and a cooking school.