Even today, the ancient historical district of Chiang Mai is widely regarded as the heart of the city. In addition to centuries-old temples, the district also pulls in visitors with its cozy coffee shops, night market and even street art. Simply put, no visit to Northern Thailand is complete without at least a day dedicated to exploring Chiang Mai’s Old City. But just how old is it?
Long before the foundation of Thailand, a kingdom known as Lanna was among the strongest and influential sovereignties in Southeast Asia. Founded by King Mangrai in the 1260’s, Lanna’s original capital was Chiang Rai. Throughout his reign, Mangrai continued expanding his territory, including a takeover of the highly influential Haripunchai Kingdom. He then set out to establish a newer, grander capital befitting of such an up-and-coming kingdom. His first attempt was the city of Wiang Kum Kam, but incessant flooding there forced Mangrai to give it another shot.
Finally, in 1296, he chose a new location at the base of Doi Suthep mountain. This city would become known as Chiang Mai, or “New City.” But now, of course, the walled area, still surrounded by its original moat, is instead known as the Old City. And during your visit, you can still see some of the original temples founded by King Mangrai which have remained in continuous use for over 700 years.
The Old City's Moat, Walls & Gates
In ancient times, most cities in the region were built surrounded by both walls and a moat, and Chiang Mai was no exception. But unlike other cities of the era that were built as narrow ovals, Chiang Mai’s Old City is almost perfectly square.
As mentioned, the district is still completely surrounded by a moat. Getting inside on foot can be a bit tricky, as you typically need to cross the road twice. But regardless of where you’re coming from, keep walking and you’ll eventually find a way in. At certain points around the moat you’ll also find wooden pedestrian bridges which make for a great photo opp.
At various points within the moat, you’ll also find remnants of the original walls that once protected the city’s inhabitants. While some sections of the wall are indeed hundreds of years old, much of it was restored in the 1980’s.
When King Mangrai was building his new city, his intention was for it to be a mirror of the cosmos as well as the human body (‘As above, so below’). Everything was based around the City Pillar at the very center (more down below), which also symbolized the naval. The northern part of the city, meanwhile, was associated with the head, the holiest part of the body according to Buddhism. As such, many of the original important temples, such as Wat Chiang Man, were built here.
The southwest gate, meanwhile, was associated with unluckiness and death, and was used for funeral processions. And the east gate was largely used for trade. All five gates original gates are still standing, though they have no special function other to let an endless stream of traffic in and out of the district.
The east gate, however, is one of the city’s most popular gathering spots. Known as Tha Phae, you’ll find plenty of stores and restaurants around the area, while the gate is also a popular spot for photography.
Wat Phra Singh
Wat Phra Singh is named after the Phra Sihing Buddha statue, widely considered the second-most important image after the Emerald Buddha. The temple, however, was first constructed in 1345 to enshrine the ashes of a former king. The Phra Sihing Buddha image was later brought here in 1407 from Chiang Rai. And aside from a brief interlude in Luang Prabang, the golden image stayed at this temple for around 250 years.
Arriving at the temple complex, one of the first things you’ll notice are the shiny golden chedis glistening in the sun. The central and largest of them was the first ever structure built here, but it was later enlarged in the 1800’s.
All in all, the temple’s most important structure is the Viharn Lai Kham, which hosted the Phra Sihing Buddha image for centuries, and currently houses a replica. Or is it?
While most believe that the original Phra Sihing statue is the one housed at the Bangkok National Museum, others claim that the statue currently in Chiang Mai is indeed the original. It’s worth noting, though, there’s even a third claimant: the Phra Sihing image of Nakhon Si Thammarat in southern Thailand.
Why so much confusion? According to legend, the Phra Sihing statue was created in Sri Lanka in the 2nd century AD. Around a thousand years later, it was sent to Nakhon Si Thammarat and then Sukhothai. Aside from the Lanna Kingdom, it also did stints in Ayutthaya and even Kamphaeng Phet. And according to the story, just about everywhere it went, its owners would create a replica before sending it off. At some point, a local ruler possibly sent off a replica while keeping the original for himself.
Replica or not, the Buddha image currently at Wat Phra Singh has already been there for quite some time. And in 1922, vandals entered the viharn and stole the statue’s head! The head you see today is actually a 20th-century replacement. Exploring the viharn, also be sure to admire the murals on the walls, which date back to the 1820’s.
Other structures include the Viharn Luang, home to a massive golden Buddha statue, and the ubosot, or monk’s ordination hall. You’ll also find an elegant ho trai, which keeps important ancient manuscripts. It was built on a platform to protect the scriptures from insects and flooding.
Wat Phan Tao
Wat Phan Tao is conveniently situated in between Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Lang and is worth a quick stopover. Experts believe the site was originally a Buddha statue foundry, though a temple existed here from as early on as the 14th century. The viharn, meanwhile, was completely made of teak in the mid-19th century.
Walking around the modest temple grounds, you’ll also encounter an attractive golden chedi in addition to an interesting platform completely made of bamboo. Admission to Wat Phan Tao is free.
Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chedi Luang is arguably Chiang Mai’s most impressive temple. It’s named after the giant Sri Lankan style-stupa in the middle of the complex, which took multiple generations to complete. But first, upon entering the temple grounds, you’ll walk by a structure that’s been hugely important to local residents for centuries.
The white shrine houses the City Pillar, an actual pillar that’s believed to be protector of the entire city. Nearly all Thai cities have them, but the story behind Chiang Mai’s pillar is especially interesting. Though King Mangrai originally established a City Pillar at the very center of the walled city, this wasn’t the location. As we’ll go over shortly, the site of the original pillar can still be seen at Wat Inthakin.
The location of this current shrine was chosen by a much later local ruler named Chao Kawila, who was tasked with revitalizing the city in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At the time, Lanna had just broken free from Burma after hundreds of years as a vassal state. The incessant warfare which followed left Chiang Mai completely deserted for decades.
Chao Kawila decided to move the original, neglected City Pillar to a new shrine right by the massive chedi. And he made sure that from then on, locals would bring it numerous offerings. According to a much older legend, the god Indra gifted the pillar to the city in the first place, but only on the condition that it received regular offerings and prayer. The fact that it became neglected over time, locals believe, is one reason for Chiang Mai’s past hardships.
History aside, the interior of the City Pillar shrine is stunning. The walls have been decorated with gorgeous murals showing scenes from the Lanna Kingdom’s past. The top of the pillar itself is adorned with a standing Buddha image, which is quite rare for City Pillars in Thailand. The tradition is actually more closely related to animist and Hindu traditions than Theravada Buddhism.
Note that only men are allowed to enter this particular structure. Occasionally in Thailand, females are barred from entering certain sacred spots due to the belief that a menstruating woman could diminish its sanctity. Rules are rules, but you can, at least, enjoy the images below.
Just next to the shrine, you won’t be able to miss the giant yang tree which is said to contain yet another protective spirit of the city. This tree, along with several others around the complex, were also planted by Chao Kawila.
Before arriving at the large chedi, visitors will pass by the main viharn, a 1926 construction. The massive Buddha image inside of it, however, dates back to the late 14th century.
The central chedi of the temple is so big that it remained the tallest structure in Chiang Mai well into the 20th century. As mentioned above, it took multiple generations to complete. According to legend (yes, there are a ton of legends related to this temple!), the ghost of King Kue Na (r. 1355 – 1385) begged that a large chedi be built so that he could finally ascend to heaven.
His son and successor, King Mueang Ma, started the project, but could not complete the task before his death. Nor did the next king. It was finally King Tilokarat who finished the chedi in the late 15th century, fulfilling his great-grandfather’s wishes once and for all.
As you can learn about here, King Tilokarat also had the Emerald Buddha statue brought to Chiang Mai from Lampang. Upon the chedi’s completion, he enshrined it in the eastern niche, where it remained for about 80 years.
But why is the chedi broken? Supposedly, an earthquake struck in the 16th century, causing it to collapse. Ancient chronicles indicate that the chedi was once as tall as 96 meters, though no evidence or illustrations exist to prove its original dimensions.
Believe it or not, the chedi and its surrounding area were largely an unkempt ruin up until the 1990’s. In celebration of its 600th anniversary, an international team helped with its restoration.
While the elephants along the middle tier were part of the original design, the naga serpents at the base of the staircases were a brand new addition. This caused some controversy at the time, as their design is Khmer and not Sri Lankan.
Aside from the chedi, there are a number of interesting viharns worth checking out in the western portion of the complex. The Acharn Mun Bhuridatto Viharn is a beautiful Lanna-style structure that surprisingly, was only built in 2003. It’s dedicated to a legendary monk who worked as the main abbot of the temple in the 1930’s before returning to his hometown of Sakon Nakhon.
The manuscript library, meanwhile, contains both Buddhist scriptures and information on the temple’s history. Wat Chedi Luang is also known for its ‘monk chats.’ Between 9am and 6pm on most days, visitors have the opportunity to converse with local monks about Buddhism in English.
Wat Chiang Man
No visit to Chiang Mai’s Old City is complete without a stop at Wat Chiang Man, the very oldest temple in all of Chiang Mai. It was established by King Mangrai himself in 1297, shortly after choosing the location for his new capital.
The temple’s most impressive feature is its ‘elephant chedi.’ Multiple elephants surround the base while its upper half is flanked with gold, making this one of the most beautiful chedis in Thailand. While the chedi is what grabs most visitors’ attention, Wat Chiang Man is highly revered by locals for another reason.
The smaller of the two viharns contains two of northern Thailand’s most important relics. The first is the Crystal Buddha, a small 10cm-high image carved of quartz. According to legend, it was once in the hands of Queen Chama Thewi, the founder of the ancient Haripunchai Kingdom (present-day Lamphun). It remained in Lamphun for centuries up until King Mangrai’s takeover of the kingdom. Today, it’s considered (yet another) protector of Chiang Mai.
Just next to it is the Phra Sila stele. Locals believe that it was crafted in Bihar, India thousands of years ago. After that, it traveled to Sri Lanka and then all around mainland Southeast Asia before arriving in Chiang Mai. While its true history can’t be verified, it may possibly be one of the oldest relics in all of Thailand. Unfortunately, both the Crystal Buddha and Phra Sila are normally kept behind bars and only taken out for special occasions.
Three Kings Monument & Wat Inthakin
In the center of the Old City, you’ll find the Three Kings Monument, placed there in 1984. The central figure of the statue is King Mangrai, founder of the city. But who are the other two? During his reign, Mangrai made some powerful allies which helped solidify his power. One of them was King Ram Khamhaeng of the Sukhothai Kingdom, who you can learn more about here.
The other member of the trio is Phaya Ngam Muean of Phyao (which would eventually be absorbed into Lanna by King Tilokarat). These other two kings actually helped Mangrai choose the location for Chiang Mai, even giving him advice on its ideal size and proportions.
Just next to the monument is the site of the original City Pillar, now enshrined at Wat Inthakin. Not many tourists realize this, but the temple is also home to a free museum completely dedicated to the life and reign of King Tilokarat.
Tilokarat ruled over Lanna from 1441-1487, and as mentioned above, was the one to finally complete Wat Chedi Luang. But he also brought Lanna to its greatest height of power, expanding it to its largest ever size while also fending off Ayutthaya’s attacks. After King Mangrai, Tilokarat is arguably Lanna’s most important historical figure.
Just behind the Three Kings Monument is the Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Center. It’s in fact one of a trio of museums in the area. For a combined ticket of 180 baht, you can see the Arts & Cultural Center, the Chiang Mai Historical Center and the Lanna Folklife Museum. While all the museums are informative and well organized, they’re skippable if you’re short on time.
One of the highlights is archaeological evidence of ancient walls within the center of the city, now found in the lower level of the Historical Center. Supposedly, these walls formed something of a ‘city within a city’ for the ruling elite.
Note that outside the Old City, near Wat Ched Yod, you can find the Chiang Mai National Museum, a multistory building that houses many ancient artifacts. Most of the museums relay similar information, so visiting all of them would be overkill.
The Terracotta Arts Garden
Taking a break from temple hopping, you’re probably looking for a place to have some food or a coffee. While the Old City is full of restaurants and coffee shops on just about every block, there’s one cafe in particular that you shouldn’t miss.
Located in the southern part of the district, the Terracotta Arts Garden mixes the ancient with the contemporary in a peaceful outdoor setting. Throughout the cafe’s outdoor seating area, you’ll encounter detailed replicas of temple art from all over Asia.
As the name suggests, you’ll come across replicas of the famous Terracotta Warriors from Xian, China. Also keep your eye open for familiar images from Cambodia, India and around Thailand. The cafe’s entrance was even made to resemble the door of an Angkorian temple!
Ever More in the Old City
There’s still plenty more to do in and around the Old City. One of the district’s main attractions is its Sunday Night Market. The entire market is massive, and almost takes up the entirety of the square’s eastern half. While it’s pretty touristy, it’s still well worth the visit. Even if you’re not looking to shop, there are plenty of stalls selling street food and local sweets.
If you’re staying in the area for a bit longer and are interested in trying out Thailand’s national sport, visit the Chiangmai Muay Thai Gym nearby Wat Phra Singh. I’ve trained at this gym extensively, and they do a great job of accommodating everyone regardless of skill level. It doesn’t matter if you’re an absolute beginner or an experienced fighter. I’ve also trained at other gyms in Chiang Mai considered to be more prestigious, but I personally found this gym better, largely due to the amount of one-on-one attention you get from the trainers.
Overall, the city of Chiang Mai isn’t much of a nightlife spot. Be that as it may, the Old City is one of the liveliest parts of town after dark. For live music, check out the North Gate Jazz Coop. It’s always free, with local musicians playing everything from jazz to fusion and occasionally rock. The Old City also has some late night dance clubs. But quite frankly, they’re pretty terrible unless you’re dying to hear some Top 40 hits. Electronic music fans won’t have much luck.
As you can read about here, the Old City is probably the number one district in Chiang Mai for street art. This is also where you can find the infamous abandoned women’s prison.
And if you happen to be traveling in April, you’ll get to experience the Songkran festival. Over the course of three days, the entire city becomes a battleground for action-packed water fights. Things get especially lively around the Old City moat, with some revelers even entering the grotty water to stock up on ‘ammo.’ Or you can come in November for the spectacular Yi Peng festival.
If you’re just in Chiang Mai for a short time, staying in the Old City is a good idea. If you look at a map of the city, you will spot a square surrounded by water. Staying anywhere within or just outside of the square would be fine, as you can easily get around the Old City on foot. Most of Chiang Mai’s prominent temples and other historical sites are located here.
The other best area to stay is the Nimman district mentioned in the article above. This is a reference to the general area around Nimmanhaemin Road. Basically, if you’re within walking distance of Maya shopping mall, you’re in Nimman. This is where you’ll find a lot of Chiang Mai’s trendy cafes and restaurants, while new shopping complexes are popping up all the time. At the same time, though, there’s no shortage of cheap, local eats. Furthermore, the location is conveniently located in between Doi Suthep and the Old City.
Chiang Mai is the transport hub of the north and can be reached in a number of ways. The easiest would be to simply fly. Thailand has plenty of budget airlines, and it’s easy to find a one-way ticket from Bangkok (usually DMK airport) for just around 1,000 baht (roughly $30).
You can also easily reach Chiang Mai by bus from virtually any city in Thailand. Chiang Mai is also connected to the rail system, meaning you can get there directly by train from Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Phitsanulok and other cities.
Within areas like the Old City or Nimman, Chiang Mai is easy to explore on foot. To get to one district or another or to farther away temple and art galleries, though, you’ll want some kind of motorized transport.
The easiest, most hassle free option is to download the Grab app on your phone. Grab has recently bought out the Southeast Asian branch of Uber, so you don’t have many other options nowadays. A driver should be able to come right to you within minutes, and the rides are often surprisingly cheap, especially by taking advantage of discount codes.
Another easy option is by hopping on the red songthaews. These vehicles, which are converted pickup trucks, are a mix of private and public transport and are ubiquitous throughout the city. They ride around on normal routes, not unlike a bus, but will go slightly out of the way for you if you request it.
You just flag one down like you would a taxi, and tell the driver where you’re going. If he agrees, you hop in the back where you’ll likely encounter other passengers sharing the vehicle with you. Getting off, just pay the driver a flat fee of 30 baht.
Bear in mind, though, that if you approach a red songthaew that’s already parked, they will try to negotiate with you as a tuk tuk driver would. Speaking of tuk tuks, there’s no reason to ride them anymore now that Grab exists, as they nearly always try to quote foreigners outrageous rates.
As for regular private taxis in Chiang Mai, they do exist but are a very rare sight.
At the time of writing, the city has just recently revamped its bus system and has finally made the effort to translate some the bus stands into English. This would probably be the cheapest of all the options, but also the slowest.
Of course, renting your own motorbike is also an option. Be sure to have the proper licenses, as there are many police checkpoints all throughout the city.