Last update: Oct 4, 2022
A travel guide to unexplored Chiang Mai.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai can be divided into three areas to stay, namely the Old town, at the Night bazaar and on the Riverside. These are all quite different in character, and where you want to stay depends on your budget too. The Old town has a range of hostels, guesthouses, budget hotels, but also luxury hotels, the Night bazaar is a modern area with high-rise hotels, the Riverside is where some luxury hotels and resorts are.
The old town is a pleasant oasis, an old historic square town inside a large metropolis of a million people that is Chiang Mai today. There are many interesting old temples (Wats) and cute little streets that date back hundreds of years. But make no mistake, Chiang Mai is mostly a modern town, not at all like a small, remote mountain town like Luang Prabang in Laos.
Chiang Mai's walls and bastions.
The fortifications around the old town of Chiang Mai were rebuilt by Kawila (Chao Kavila), after he liberated the city from the Burmese at the end of the 18th century. To defend against further attacks by the Burmese, he added the bastions at each corner.
There are four corner bastions: Jaeng Sri Phum or Sripoom (NE), Jaeng Katam (SE), Jaeng Ku Ruang (SW) and Jaeng Hua Rin (NW). The Jaeng is Thai for bastion or fort.
There are five gates in the four walls, clockwise starting from the northern gate: Chang Phuak gate, Tha Phae gate, Chiang Mai gate, Suan Prung gate, and Suan Dok gate. These gates are recent constructions made between 1966 and 1969; they do not resemble the original gates at all, as one can see on King Inthawichayanon's map.
During the second world war, the old gates and walls were demolished and used for road construction, and the re-created gates are very wide and sit aside modern roads. In many places road crossings of the moat have been added. More on the construction of modern roads here: Surveying Chiang Mai in 1893.
The few remains of the wall at the four corners of Chiang Mai are not original; in 1996 to 1997 archaeological excavations were made, before the wall remains were extensively renovated. They reused old bricks mixed with new brickwork to restore what remained of the walls. Unfortunately, the remains are just some low walls close to the corners of the old town. During the winter of 2018/2019 a new large scale renovation was started using new brickwork. This makes the restored parts in the walls and bastions clearly visible.
The bastions on the four corners and the moat are the only remaining part of the fortifications that are original. Keep in mind that all bastions have been restored, some of them several times, in centuries past. For example, below is a black and white historical photo of Jaeng Sri Phum bastion in the northeast corner. By 1967 it was obviously in a very deteriorated state.
Historic development of square cities in SE-asia.
There used to be more walled cities in Thailand, these walls have often been demolished and the bricks reused for houses and road building. Many smaller villages in the Siamese Shan kingdom had just a ditch with a bamboo palisade. Some pieces of the old walls of Nan remain and have been restored, but they are only a very small part of the old wall.
Lamphun, a town half an hour south of Chiang Mai on the Mae Kuang river, seems to have some remains of its walls, and the moat is also still there. However, in 1939 and 1943, the local government destroyed the remaining city walls, filled in parts of the moat, and built modern roads around the old town. The "old walls" that you can see now are nearly all modern reconstructions. Perhaps that's why Lamphun doesn't quite have the charm of the old town of Chiang Mai. It does have a very good museum, the "Lamphun National Museum" in the center of town.
Chiang Rai's walls have been almost completely removed and are not traceable. Lampang's walls have also vanished, though the moat is still partly traceable. A small section of the wall next to Pratu Ma City Gate has been restored. One of the prettiest old walled towns is Phrae, where most of the dirt walls, which are quite high, are still intact.
Chiang Saen, a city on the Mekong river, has kept most of the brick and dirt walls intact. It was destroyed and abandoned during most of the 19th century. The modern Chiang Saen was repopulated in 1881, on the order of king Rama V.
Perhaps the best remaining example of a walled city similar to Chiang Mai is the Mandalay fortified city, which is a precise square of 2032 metres walls. This is such a large size that bicycling along these extended walls becomes quite monotonous, especially in the hot midday sun. Mandalay is also a relatively "modern" town, it was founded in 1857.
Historic development of square cities in SE-asia, Angkor Thom compared to Mandalay and Chiang Mai.
To visit an ancient walled city, you could consider Angkor Thom in Cambodia; which is a huge fortified city with walls of 3km long, and about 800 years old. Angkor Thom was built around 1200 by King Jayavarman VII; and the famous towers above the 5 entry gates to Angkor Thom (the face gates) have his face on their four sides.
Lanna Culture: a walk into the past.
Thapae gate is the best place for a walk into the old town of Chiang Mai, westward on Rachadamnoen road, the main east-west street in the old town. Looking left and right, there are only modern buildings around; on the left a posh Honda dealer, next to it a large Toyota car dealer, on the right a Yamaha motorbike dealer, modern hotels, lots of restaurants, and also the occasional Wat.
The Thai conservation philosophy is: "If money can be made by razing a fine old wooden building and replacing it with concrete crap, then go for it."
Right at the first crossing is a very good place, the Wawee coffee shop, where one can sit down with a good cappuccino and watch the goings on. First time arrivals with huge backpacks walk down Ratchadamnoen road in search of a hostel or guesthouse, unaware of the fact that this road has just upmarket hotels. The guesthouses are all on the tiny backroads that are easily missed. The terrace of the coffee shop is also an excellent place to observe the Sunday market, once this has filled up with throngs of tourists in the evening.
The old town has mostly modern buildings, but there is the occasional old teakwood house. After 2 blocks on the left there is the Lanna Architecture Center, which is a traditional house located at the crossing of Rachadamnoen and Prapokklao road.
There are very few restrictions on new buildings in Chiang Mai; the old town within the moat has a building height restriction of 23 metres, or eight floors. Buildings within a 100 metre radius of temples can be no higher than nine metres. Modern development has always been more important in Thailand than preserving heritage buildings. Thai people usually prefer short-term profit over long-term preservation.
Apart from a few traditional wooden houses, what remains of the ancient town of Chiang Mai are the many Wats. Because they were sacred places and rarely sold or destroyed, most of these temples are still there. The many wooden houses have mostly disappeared, but there are some left in the corners of the town. How many temples were there 130 years ago, compared to now? Read it here: King Inthawichayanon's map.
At the end of Rachadamnoen road, about 1 km walking from Thapae gate, is Wat Phra Singh; probably the most important temple of the town.
A few special temples.
In the back of the Wat Phra Singh compound is a modest sized wat, the Viharn Lai Kham, famous for its wall paintings. Viharn Lai Kham is the smaller wat, just behind the large Viharn Luang (Luang means large). The entrance fee for the Wat Phra Singh compound is 40 baht.
Lai Kham is a type of mural art made by a special painting method that is unique to the northern region of Thailand. It is a technique of gold-leaf stenciling, and as you can see below, the walls and the pillars of Viharn Lai Kham are decorated in red-and-gold patterns.
The murals on the right (the north wall) of Viharn Lai Kham show the history of Prince Sang Thong (Songthong), and on the left the history of Suwanna Hongse (Suwannahong). These murals were created during the 1820's, and the artist has painted himself above the window in the middle.
The murals were extensively restored in 2008. The murals on the left, the history of Suwanna Hongse, have mostly disappeared over the centuries.
Wat Jed Yod (Ched Yot) is probably one of the least visited major temples because it is located outside of the old town in an inconvenient place. Jet Yod translates to "seven peaks" and refers to the seven chedis which top the rectangular temple. For Thailand, it is a very unusual temple building, because it is a copy of the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodhgaya in India.
Jed Yod was built in the fifteenth century to host the Eighth World Buddhist Council.
Wat Ket Karam or Wat Sra Ket is a small but nice temple on the eastern riverside road, and it has its own little museum.
Wat Ket Community Traditional Museum is located inside the Wat Ket temple grounds; it is a somewhat dusty collection; varied items that mostly date from the early twentieth century and perhaps the late nineteenth; like textile, photographs, statues, phones, radios, swords and daggers, old currency and household items. It is an eclectic collection of beautiful, weird, interesting and bizarre objects. No entry fee but there is a donation box.
The Wat Ket area has many interesting old houses which have been turned into galleries and cafes. Some of the trendy restaurants are very popular at night, and in the afternoon, there is a good view of the Ping river to enjoy. How to get there: cross Nawarat bridge, turn left and walk a short distance north. One can also cross the footbridge at Warorot market, and end up just in front of Wat Ket Karam.
Contemporary Chiang Rai.
Further away: the "White Temple" or Wat Kong Run.
The "White Temple" or Wat Rong Khun is certainly something to behold, a real "Bling-bling temple", and worth a visit if you stay in Chiang Rai. Wat Rong Khun is a contemporary, privately-owned art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist temple. It is quite small inside so there are usually queues. For an idea of the murals inside (no photos allowed), google the artist: Chalermchai Kositpipat.
From Chiang Mai, the temple is at least 3 hours driving away, and a quick one-day visit takes at least 6 hours by bus and taxi. The White temple is a very nice piece of contemporary art, but really not worth a one-day, 6 hour bus trip. You need at least 1 full day / 2 nights in CR to visit it properly, and try to get there early to avoid the crowds. There are is also the Blue temple in the town, but not much else.
So maybe it is best to stay in Chiang Rai for one or two days. And while you're in Chiang Rai, make sure to visit Chalermchai Kositpipat's other art piece: the hourly clock tower spectacle (7, 8 and 9pm). And make sure to see the "Black House", obviously. All in all there is a lot of contemporary art in Chiang Rai.
A short history of Wat Rong Khun: remotelands.com
There is an entrance ticket for foreigners of 100 Baht, but it is free for Thai nationals. The opening Hours are from 8:00 am to 16:00 pm daily, and until 16:30 pm on weekends, which are more busy.
More contemporary art: the "Black House".
The "Black House" in Chiang Rai, or Baan Dam Museum, is a complete contrast to the White temple. No bling-bling but art of another, earthy kind. Dark wood, brown earth tones, lots of buffalo-skulls. Where the White temple is a bit smallish, Baan Dam is a huge house shaped like a wat, and surrounded by about 40 small buildings and art pieces. Some local Thai people call the White Temple heaven, and the Black House hell.
Some of the structures are art pieces, some exhibition spaces. There is so much to see that you will spend much more time here. Baan Dam Museum is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm, but closed for lunch from 12 pm to 1 pm. Adults entrance fee is 80 baht.
After a few days in Chiang Mai, you may have been up to Doi Suthep, and seen the famous temple. And your will have done a temple tour, small or large; for an afternoon or a few days, depending on your interest. Seen the Folklife Museum. Fed the pigeons at Thapae square. Sampled some of the many different restaurants, the traditional Thai and Indian food, the fusion food, the many small vegetarian places, the modern Japanese restaurants. Now you're looking for something else to do.
Chiang Mai is also an important cultural city and a center of Lanna art; it can be traditional art or modern art. The area around Chiang Mai has many unique museums, apart from the well-known official ones. Some smaller or private museums are very interesting but relatively unknown; here are a few examples.
The MAIIAM Museum of Contemporary Art opened its doors in 2016. The Museum houses the Bunnag-Beurdeley family’s permanent collection. MAIIAM is located close to the village of San Kamphaeng, 12 km east of Chiang Mai. Just before the museum is Bo Sang, the umbrella making village with many handicraft shops, cafes and some small eateries. Entrance fee is 150 baht; seniors 100 Baht.
Map of MAIIAM Museum and San Kamphaeng: cmpark.htm
The Dara Pirom Palace Museum is half an hour drive north in Mae Rim village. The museum is not a palace in the Western sense, but a historic wooden mansion; a teakwood Victorian style house which was home to the famous Lanna princess Dara Rasami (also: Dara Rasamee or Dara Rasmi) (wikipedia.org), who was one of the consorts of Chulalongkorn, King Rama V of Siam.
Dara Rasami was the daughter of King Inthawichayanon, the 7th Ruler of Chiang Mai from 1870 until 1897. Dara Rasami was also a pawn in the annexation plans of Britain in the 1880-ties, which King Rama V of Siam tried to prevent. The admission fee for the museum is 20 baht per person.
The Lanna Architecture Center is a traditional house located at the crossing of Rachadamnoen and Prapokklao road, almost in the middle of the old town, and certainly worth a visit if you don't want to go all the way to the Traditional House Museum. It is a colonial house built in 1895 by a European trader, and used to be owned by the prince Chao Burirat. Don't confuse it with the Lanna Traditional House Museum (below), which is a group of old houses at the Chiang Mai university area. The admission to the 2nd floor is 120 baht, a bit steep since it's just a house, not a museum.
The Lanna Traditional House Museum. This collection of teakwood houses is an open-air museum, and part of the center for the promotion of arts and culture, Chiang Mai University (CMU). It is not far from town, located on Doi Suthep road; between the old city and Doi Suthep. Entry fee is 20 baht.
Chiang Mai University (CMU) museum site: art-culture.cmu.ac.th
The Roitawarabarn Baan Devalai - Porter house. Roitawarabarn Baan Devalai Museum is located at the bottom of Doi Suthep. Drive westward to the end of Suthep Road, (that's not the road to the top of Doi Suthep, which is Northwest), take a left and then a right and its then up a narrow alleyway right at the bottom of the forest. This is a house/private museum with large hand painted murals, facades, glass etchings and thousands of intricate and traditional Thai art pieces. The house is made of teak and hardwood, and there are also some large Ganesh statues. Still a work in progress, but open to the public. GPS Coordinates: 18.793583, 98.947485
The McKean Senior Center is not a museum but an interesting and historic place. In 1905 Dr. James McKean got permission to establish a leprosy colony or leper asylum on a large island in the Ping river. Now the colony has been renamed to Dok Kaew Gardens and turned into a retirement home. The hospital, colonial houses, church and the many small dwellings for the leprosy patients are still there, between the many large trees, and surrounded by teak plantations.
There are plans to modernize the area, and create a McKean park, see the map on the right.
McKean is about 10km south of Chiang Mai, just past the ancient city of Wiang Kum Kam. Just south of McKean's entry gate you can drive past some quaint houses and the quirky Suebnathitham Church which seems to be protestant. The eastern moat is dry now, so the colony doesn't look like an island anymore.
These leper colonies were often created on islands to quarantine people with leprosy, and sometimes they were a kind of prison. McKean was no prison, but a humane center for leprosy patients. One can still see the little cottages where the patients lived at the McKean Leprosy Hospital. Only in 1941 a cure was discovered for leprosy, and by the mid-1980s McKean began to adapt, and turned itself into a retirement center. When McKean retired, in 1931, there were more than 500 inhabitants at the center, of which 350 were leprosy patients. There were 143 buildings, including 116 cottages, 9 dormitories, a church, an impressive administration building, and a recreation center.
The Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden (QSBG) is in the Mae Sa valley, north of Chiang Mai, and on the "Samoeng loop" (see map on: motor trips). It is a famous, international class arboretum and garden; the largest and best botanic garden in Thailand, set against a mountainside in a large forest. Within the park area are gardens, glasshouses, and trails through the rainforest.
The large glasshouse complex on the top of the trail is a conservatory for a wide collection of tropical plants, cacti and orchids. Since 2017 there is also a treetop walkway through the rainforest with a length of more than 400 meters. The Botanical Garden is quite large and situated on a steep mountainside. Walking up the steep road is possible, but it is more convenient to enter by car or motorcycle and take a short walk on the many side-roads and trails.
Once in the garden a 3,6-kilometer loop road runs around the interior. This road is on Google Street view; as well as some of the walking trails, like the trail through the Palm Garden. Even the inside of the main glasshouse can be visited on Street view. There is a tram service/open air bus service that runs within the garden.
Entry fee prices for QSBG are: Adult: 100 baht; child: 50 baht; Adults with a Thai ID card: 40 baht, car (additional) 100 baht. Senior citizens (over 60) and disabled persons: free.
Tweechol Botanic Garden is a large modern garden/arboretum, and thus very different from the QSBG garden. Tweechol is for a large part an artificial topiary garden: sculpted foliage in the form of deer, dolphins, dinosaurs, dragons and gorillas. There is also an arboretum, herb garden, a small petting zoo and a cactus garden. Tweechol Botanic Garden is part of the Horizon Village & Resort, about 30 minutes driving toward Doi Saket. Entry fee is 85 baht per person and 75 for a bicycle.
The Royal Park Rajapruek - A large, modern, park-like garden, 9 hectares of beautiful manicured gardens against a mountain back drop. Entrance fee is 200 baht; for 60 baht you can rent a bicycle. The buildings include The Tropical Dome, Shaded Paradise, Orchid Pavilion, Desert Plant Greenhouse and Bug World. Outdoors you can see the Palm Garden, Sawadee Garden, Flower Garden, Royal Garden, New Theory Garden and Lotus Garden.
Don Yen arboretum - A medium sized, unknown arboretum in Ban Pong Din, a small village on the highway number 118 past Doi Saket. And there are many (smaller) arboretums, botanical gardens and specialized Medicinal Plant gardens in and around Chiang Mai.
Since 2019 there is a large new hotel, the Phor Liang Meun Terracotta Arts Hotel, built in a sumptuous terracotta style. It is an upmarket hotel, and just across the road is a Terracotta Garden where breakfast is served. The hotel is decorated with larger-than-life terracotta copies of Khmer, Hindu and Thai gods. Shiva, Ganesh, Krishna, Khmer lions and many other statues from neighboring countries sitting peacefully side by side.
The new hotel is a bit hard to find, situated on a small side street of Prapokklao road, to be precise on Prapok Klao Road, Soi 2. The owners of this new hotel also have a terracotta factory near Lamphun, 45km south of Chiang Mai. It is located in the Suanmaithai sculpture garden. The Terracotta Arts Hotel and garden are only for guests, but the Suanmaithai sculpture garden is an alternative.
The Terracotta garden (Suan Mai Thai).
You can visit the terracotta factory, which is located in a large sculpture garden, just west of Lamphun. Mr. Sutthipong Maiwan or Father Dang is the artist, who owns the garden and clay sculpture factory. It became a showroom of art and culture in the middle of an enormous garden of 200 Rai (55 acre) filled with fascinating sculptures. These terracotta sculptures are in the shape of Khmer statues, Indian Avelokatishwaras, Apsara's and other spirits all sitting peacefully together.
There is a restaurant at Suanmaithai garden, which is popular with Thai tourists. The garden is not easy to find on google maps, but from Google Earth it looks like a resort with many ponds and moats, a bit like an Angkor temple, with a central temple in the center. On Open Street Map (OSM) it is also easily visible by the large moats and ponds.
How to get to the Terracotta art park:
This large resort-like place is private property, but open to the public and has no entry fee. When you go all the way down there, it makes sense to combine it with a visit to Lamphun.
Note that the Suanmaithai terracotta art park is a work in progress. In 10 or 20 years it may be a theme park, or still a private property.
Dual pricing in Thailand.
Dual pricing systems are intended to make foreign tourists pay more than locals. In Thailand many museums and attractions use dual pricing, and foreigners also have to pay more than locals to enter a national park. The entry fees for locals are shown in Thai script, and thus not obvious to the western tourist.
The museums and botanic gardens often charge 3 or 4 times the normal price to foreigners. That is not as excessive as the national park fees, which can be 5 to 10 times the price for Thai nationals. Only a few museums do not use dual pricing and charge one price for everyone, for example the Dara Pirom Palace Museum, and the MAIIAM Museum.
Kamphaeng Din wall.
Chiang Mai was originally laid out at the end of the thirteenth century as a roughly square fortress. Later an outer earthen and brick wall was added: Kamphaeng Din wall. Kamphaeng Din is Thai for earthen rampart or earthen wall. It circles around the southeast area of Chiang Mai along the Mae Kha canal. It is mostly made of a quite strong earth and clay mix and has surprisingly survived many monsoon rains.
On the western side near Thipanet road there is a stretch of wall which completely intact. This is the best part of the wall; it is located in the Kanchanpisek Park at the southwest corner, Jaeng Ku Ruang, just outside of the old city. This quiet park is just south of the popular Nong Buak Hard park in the SW corner of Chiang Mai old town; one has to cross the moat and a busy road to reach it. The dirt / clay wall is about 5 metres high at this location, but lower in most other parts.
Kamphaeng Din circles around the southeast area of Chiang Mai - the "suburbs". The square brick city wall around the old town was the "fortified city" or main old town where the king and nobility lived along with the Buddhist monks in their monasteries; the clay and earthen wall went around the suburbs where the common people lived.
Although Kamphaeng Din is less impressive than an old brick city wall, it is completely authentic. And best of all: the clay wall is for a large part still there - whereas the remains of Chiang Mai's city walls have been reduced to nothing or perhaps a few feet of frequently restored low brick walls in some places.
Why is the old dirt wall still there whereas the original brick city walls have gone? Perhaps because the bricks could be reused, but nobody was interested in the old dirt walls. Only the trees found a fertile clay soil, started growing abundantly and covered the walls with their lush foliage.
If you want to see the Kamphaeng Din walls then the easiest part to see it is east of the old town, along the Kamphaeng Din road which runs along the old wall. Walk down Loi Kroh road and turn left into Kamphaeng Din road; it is just before the bridge over the stream that borders the old dirt walls. Of the original 4000-meter long Kamphaeng Din wall between 1300 and 1600 metres remain; so roughly 30 to 40 percent is still traceable, the rest has completely gone. Only the canal remains; and together with the many trees growing in the clay soil of Kamphaeng Din it creates a green line around the city.
The Chiang Mai Department of Fine Arts and the Chiang Mai Municipality have for many years made plans for a restoration project of the rather dirty Mae Kha canal around Kamphaeng Din wall. This project has finally been started in 2022.
The hidden fifth bastion.
Besides the four corner bastions Chiang Mai has a hidden fifth one: the Jaeng Thiphanet or Thiphanet Bastion on the southwestern corner of Kamphaeng Din; where it makes a corner. It is difficult to see from the road to the airport (Mahidol road) because it is surrounded by buildings and trees which shield the old walls and bastion.
The Thiphanet Bastion is the blue circle in Kamphaeng Din wall on the map above. It is located in a poor area of Chiang Mai, surrounded by houses which are partly built on top of the old wall, and often next to it.
The outside of the bastion is enclosed by bushes and trees, the top can only be reached through some small alleys from Thiphanet road, not from the Kanchanpisek park side. However there are some guard dogs, which can suddenly pop up from behind fences and try to scare you with very loud "WOOFs". Perhaps have a look at the Kamphaeng Din wall on the eastern side of Chiang Mai first, which is much easier.
Khao Soi Curry Heaven.
In Chiang Mai there are plenty of Indian restaurants where one can enjoy a sumptuous creamy Indian curry. Thai curries are more "soupy" than Indian curries. Thai curries usually consist of some pieces of chicken and vegetables in a soup. If you are a Foodie then you should try the famous Khao Soi curry, the signature dish of Chiang Mai.
Khao Soi is a Northern Thai coconut curry noodle soup with lime leaves, shrimp paste, lemongrass, ginger, and other spices. The curry itself is finished with a dash of coconut milk, which makes the curry rich and creamy. Khao Soi is usually not super spicy. Usually, it is served with a chicken drumstick, but stewed beef is an option.
Khao Soi has its origins in Myanmar, Laos and the Northern parts of Thailand, where each region has its own version of this popular curry. Even when you go to a different town, like Chiang Rai, you will taste a completely different version of Khao Soi.
Off the Beaten Path Recommendations.
A few more suggestions, some not far from Chiang Mai:
The history of Lamphun and Phrae dates back to the Haripunchai kingdom. King Mengrai created the towns of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai and conquered the Haripunchai kingdom, which was ruled from the town of Lamphun.
More up north:
Any comments? Please mail me at : bytelife AT gmail.com
"Not all those who wander are lost." J.R.R. Tolkien
All photos copyright ©2022 R.Schierbeek.