The old city is one of Chiang Mai’s biggest attractions. Built over 700 years ago, the city was once an entirely walled square surrounded by a moat. One can imagine what an exotic place it would have been centuries ago – a thriving centre for Buddhism, artisans and merchants thronging with monks swathed in orange, soldiers and elephants. It was a sight that no westerner was to see until Chiang Mai was visited by an Englishmen, Ralph Fitch around 1586.
Today of course Chiang Mai’s Old City is more developed but there are still many tantalizing glimpses of its exotic past. Some of the original city walls still remain particularly the great brick bastions at the four corners replete with their walkways and arrow slits to protect against invading armies.
In the middle of all four sides of the city are the original gates. The main gate, Thapae, is on the eastern side and facing the river Ping and has been rebuilt complete with a stretch of wall to give people an idea of what the walls were once like. The entrance to Thapae Gate is now pedestrianised and is many people’s starting point for an Old City tour. The other gates are Chiang Mai Gate to the south, Suan Dok to the west and Chiang Puerk to the north. The moat today, rather than repelling invaders, is an attraction with its spraying fountains which are often lit at night.
Within the Old City there are many things for the visitor to see. Primary among the attractions are a large number of Wats (temples) as Chaing Mai was and remains, an important centre of Buddhism and many of the Wats have a long and significant history. The most important Wats are Wat Chaing Man, the oldest in the city and supposedly endowed by King Mengrai when he first decided to build his capital at Chiang Mai. Wat Chedi Luang is now largely a ruin destroyed either by an earthquake or an invading army depending on which accounts you read. Chedi Luang has special significance because it once house the most important religious object in Thailand, the Emerald Buddha, which now resides at the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
Wat Phra Singh is also an important temple. Built in the 14th century to house the ashes of King Ku Fam, it is one of the biggest temples in Chiang Mai and one of the most visited.
These are just a small selection of the many Wats in Chiang Mai’s old city, there are many others worth visiting. Just walk in and you will be made to feel welcome. Many of the monks and novices are keen to speak with foreigners but please remember to dress appropriately and be respectful.
Other places of interest to visitors include the Chiang Mai City Art and Cultural Centre, which is located at the centre of the city in the old town hall. Permanent exhibitions cover all aspects of Chiang Mai’s history, people and culture.
Standing in front of the Cultural Centre is the Three King’s Monument. The monument pays homage to King Mengrai, the founder of Chiang Mai; King Ramkamhaeng of Sukothai; and King Ngam Muang of Payao who according to legend worked together to design and establish the city.
For those interested in the unique northern style of building design, the Lanna Architecture Museum is located not far from the Three Kings Monument on Ratchadamoen Road
For many people the greatest joy of the Old City is to be had strolling down the myriad of small lanes and sois and finding little treasures. There are a wealth of small shops selling local crafts and art, as well as plenty of great places to eat and drink if you become weary and require a rest stop.
The Old City really comes alive every Sunday when Ratchadomoen Road, running west from Thapae Gate, becomes a walking street complete with a craft market, local dancers and musicians. Not just tourists attend; it seems as if the whole city is present and the Old City of Chiang Mai throbs with bustle and excitement.