Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand with a population of 1.2 million people, and located in the northern highlands. There are upscale shopping malls, universities and technical schools, an international airport, museums and cultural centers, a giddying array of dining options, modern hospitals and medical centers, nearby national parks and enough recreational activities to keep a traveler busy for years.
We, however, have chosen to park ourselves in a quiet corner of Old City, the original walled and moated square mile established in the 13th century as the capital of the Lan Na Kingdom. The wall is mostly gone now, destroyed and rebuilt through the centuries, the bricks pilfered by the occupying Japanese during World War II, and the remains now stabilized and protected. The moat is still there, a blessing to the character of the Old City and a curse to drivers who can only cross in limited places.
We spent our first days in Chiang Mai exploring the Old City by foot. I downloaded a self-guided walking tour and we used that as a guide.
If you’ve ever traveled in this part of Southeast Asia you know that most of the points of interest are going to be temples, and it’s easy to get “templed out.”
Since touring many of the hundreds of temples and temple ruins of Angkor Wat, we have perhaps a keener interest in temple art and architecture, and rarely suffer from overtempling. I compare it to touring Italy, where a guidebook may lead you to church after chapel after cathedral, but each is unique and beautiful, and it’s the same with temples. Once you recognize the basic elements, styles and building functions, you come to appreciate the unique features and designs.
Some of the older temples date from the 13th or 14th centuries. Many are well preserved, some are left in their natural state. This one, the largest in the old city, Wat Chedi Luang, was damaged by an earthquake in 1545.
These are all Buddhist temples, but there’s often Hindu iconography displayed, something that confused me in Cambodia, too. It seems this region was once part of the originally Hindu Khmer Empire (the people who built Angkor Wat) and much of Hindu culture lingered even after the population became Buddhist. It’s not uncommon to see the much revered Ganesh, remover of obstacles. You might remember we stumbled on the Ganesh Chaturthi festival on the beach in Fiji. You can read about that here.
Some of the temples have remarkably lifelike wax figures of monks staged inside, which more than once gave me a start.
Jack rarely goes inside the temples because he doesn’t like taking his shoes off but I go in nearly every one and sit quietly for a few moments, or walk the perimeter to see the art.
Each temple is not just a single structure, but a collection of buildings, each with its own purpose. If there are resident monks, there are also domestic buildings. It’s not unusual to find graves, or a chicken coop, or kitchen garden.
The best part about visiting the temples — except for the ones on the popular tourist routes — is the stillness within the walls of the grounds, where you can hear birds, or chanting or temple bells. It’s a beautiful break from the outside world.