This article (Chiang Mai, Within the Walls) was included in a 16-page travel feature originally published in WE Smile Magazine. It includes a city-guide that features sightseeing, dining options, spas and hotels that focuses on places within the Old City’s walls. Photographs were taken in collaboration with Pam Thien.
Chiang Mai, or ‘New City’, dazzling former capital of the Lanna Kingdom, was founded on April 12, 1296. It effectively marked the beginning of the Lanna period, a lustrous, nostalgic and uniquely romantic bygone era that would last nearly five hundred years—a historic period whose presence is still widely felt today.
At first glance, Chiang Mai is a provincial city like any other in Thailand. Busy roads guide locals in trucks and sedans across blue-grey urban landscapes dotted by emerald green. But upon entering the old city—a planar square surrounded by iconic brick-red walls inside of a man made moat—the atmosphere begins to shift. There is an unspeakable sense of historical reverie. Not even the plethora of newly opened coffee shops and modern bars sporting English and Chinese characters can hope to mask the tiny winding streets, uneven walls and unobtrusive remnants of old Lanna peering from every visible corner.
In the day, even in September, the city was hot. Shopkeepers put up standing fans and watch cars pass by while tourists used to cooler weather sit in shaded cafés basking under mists of water vapour from ‘cooling machines’. The coffee is good here, and there is no shortage of Northern Thai desserts for those with a sweet tooth.
Ginger & Kafe at The House
Authentic Thai cuisines served inside an antique shop—this formula is repeated several times around Chiang Mai, but Ginger & Kafe has a uniquely colourful spin. Chinese decor blend well with northern Thai food. Highly recommended is the pomelo salad, tom kha kai, and spicy beef salad with sweet grapes. For antique lovers, ‘The House’ nearby sells vintage wooden furniture as well as whimsical handicrafts. (thehousethailand.com)
Restaurant at Rachamankha Hotel
When it comes to upscale dining inside the old city walls, Rachamankha is a name that is often mentioned. The restaurant, attached to the famous Rachamankha Hotel has both indoor and outdoor dining areas. The menu consists of Thai, Burmese, and Shan dishes with an excellent complementary wine list. (rachamankha.com)
Kalapela Tea Room
Located right in the old city’s main street (Rachadamnoen Rd.) Kalapela Tea Room offers a peaceful spot amongst the chaos. Fine teas from all corners of the world are available and can be had hot or in crafted “tea cocktails”. Light bites, wine and other drinks are also available and can be had in the air conditioned bar area or small outdoor garden.
(145/6 Ratchadamnoen Road.)
Daytime is best for spas. While outside may be baking, find relief with an hour of foot massage or aromatic pampering. Chiang Mai is also one of the best places to indugle in the famous ‘Thai massage’ or ‘Nuad Thai’. Thai Massage can be described as going through a yoga session where your masseur stretches, pulls and pounds you into shape. Instead of just working on relaxation, this practice focuses on healing the body, and a little bit of pain is expected. The ancient healing system is based on acupressure and Indian Ayurvedic medicine. Typically, it lasts two hours.
Immensely popular with foreign tourists, Fah Lanna is a great treat for weary travellers. Treatments span everything from hair and nail care to full length pampering packages that can last hours. Reservations before arrival are highly recommended, as it gets very busy. The spa offers free transport from your hotel within city limits. After a session, guests can relax at Fahtara Coffee, the inhouse cafe and gift shop with complimentary tea and small bites. (fahlanna.com)
Oasis Spa Lanna
The Oasis Spa is a long standing brand in Thailand which has gained a local following. The Oasis Spa Lanna is situated right inside the old city walls, and provides a quiet and meditative spot to recharge. While it’s pricier than most other spas in the area, you also get more personalised service and privacy. Complimentary transfer from your hotel within city limits is also offered. (oasisspa.net)
Sunset on a Sunday is best spent wandering the alleys near temples, watching merchants ready makeshift stalls for the walking street. Stretching from Wat Phra Singh to Tha Phae Gate, the elongated market features art, crafts, gifts and food—often by sellers renowned among locals. The market pops up at around 16:00 and goes on past midnight. Stalls line the main street and pour into the adjacent temple grounds, bringing a lively atmosphere to the lit up ancient monuments. Hawkers sell steaming bowls of khao soi (curry noodles), ‘sai oua’ (spicy northern Thai sausages) with ‘nam prik num’ (a rich, garlicky salsa made mainly of grilled green peppers), and vendors layout tables of accessories, clothing, art and limitless handicrafts. Wise visitor can hit two birds with one stone by combining the walking street tour with temple hopping, stopping at key points. If you begin your walk at the famous Wat Phra Singh (Lion Temple) built in 1345, you can head east to Wat Si Koed, Wat Tung Yu, and Wat Chai Phrakiat. Where Rachadamnoen Rd. intersects with Prapokklao Rd. one can find a path still lined with vendors to the ancient Wat Chedi Luang Worawihan. This ruined Chedi is considered one of the most important religious monuments in Chiang Mai, and you should take note of its finely detailed elephant and naga carvings. Good things come in small packages, and close by is the small but beautiful Wat Phan Tao, which is accessed through an ornate door. This teak temple has 28 giant teak pillars and a collection of ancient manuscripts written on palm leaves. The Sunday Walking Street continues on until Tha Phae Gate, one of the city’s best preserved gates from ancient times.
When the dawn rises over the hills east of the city, and the scent of commerce temporarily fade to give way to slow stewing rice porridge, Buddhist prayers and bells gently rouse a population whose DNA is as old as the land itself. There is a song resonating among particles of breathable air. The melody knew sunrises long before Chiang Mai was new, and it will play long after it is old. Over 700 years since its founding, the Capital of Northern Thailand remains shrouded under the peace and prosperity it was meant to represent.
Chiang Mai moves on, slowly, calmly and surely. Like the wise Buddhist saying once posted on a temple’s tree: “Today is better than two tomorrows,” as the city reshapes to changing times, it remains ever closer to its roots.
WE Smile Magazine, Inflight Magazine of Thai Smile Airlines
October 01, 2015