The History of Chiang Mai City

Chiang Mai city or Chiengmai City or Chiangmai City actually means new city. Indeed it was new in 1296 when it replaced the nearby Wiang Kum Kam. Wiang Kum Kam is the original site of the settlement created by King Mengrai. He was a Chinese ruler from the Xishuangbanna region and he made Chiang Mai city the capital of the Lan Na region. Lan Na means a million rice fields. When you visit this part of the world you will understand that it was well named.

In those days it was only important as a stopping point on the trading caravans used by merchants in the area.

Wiang Kum Kam

So why replace Wiang Kum Kam? In those days the Ping River was subject to great annual fluctuations due to the cycles of the monsoons. After a decade of repairing flood damage King Mengrai decided to move a short distance uphill away from the flooding river. You can still visit the ancient temples of Wiang Kum Kam. Enjoy the clip clop of ponies as they carry tourists in quaint carts through the narrow lanes. Wondering where to go in Chiang Mai? Try Wiang Kum Kam

Chiang Mai city - Wiang Kum Kam

Chiangmai City – the old city

When King Mengrai built the new city he surrounded it with fortifications. A moat was built and defensive walls erected.  In fact Chiang refers to cities that are protected by a wall. You can still see these ancient fortifications. Many of them have disappeared but at the corners and gateways of the city you can still wonder at the size of them. Chiang Mai city fortifications must have been very impressive in its early days.

The walls surround the old city of Chiang Mai. Within those walls many temples were built over the ages. This area encompasses around 1.5 It is quite remarkable therefore that there are around 50 temples in this relatively small area. One of the joys of Chiang Mai old city is wandering somewhat aimlessly along the many alleyways that criss-cross the city. You need not worry too much about getting lost because if you walk in a straight direction you will soon come to the walls and moat.

Chiengmai city walls


In the old city you will not walk more than a few meters before encountering a temple. The most renowned are:

Wat Chiang Man – The oldest dating back to the 13th century

Wat Phra Singh – This is a very important temple and you will find the Phra Singh Buddha here. This is a very important Buddha that was bought down from Chiang Rai many years ago.

Wat Chedi Luang – One of the largest Chedi in the city. You will see the damage done to it during an earthquake in 16th century.

Nowadays the old city is full of bars restaurants and boutique hotels and guest houses. And on Sunday the main streets are turned in the walking street market.

Wat Chedi Luang Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai Walking Street Market

On Sunday afternoon and evening the main streets that run through the centre of the old city are closed to traffic and a huge market is set up. The market stalls sell an assortment of art and craft items. Indeed there are actual artists at work on one section. You can even get your portrait done. There is hardly a space that is not used by some store owner or another.

And as you wander along you will be bombarded by delicious smells as well. Temple courtyards become outdoor restaurants and an assortment of various drinks stalls are mixed in with the arts and crafts.

Along the way you will be entertained by a variety of street musicians and performers making this a fabulous place to visit.

Strawberries for sale at the Chiang mai Sunday walking street market

Downtown Chiang Mai

You will find the modern part of the city between the old city and the Ping River. Modern hotels and shops make up most of the city but there are some interesting markets to visit as a well.

Night Bazaar

One highlight is the night bazaar which springs up every evening. The market mostly sells arts and crafts and knickknacks for the tourists.

You will also find many food areas such as the Galare food hall and the seafood restaurants of Anusarn market.

Warorot Market

A bit further up river is the sprawling Warorot market. This is one of those markets where you can buy just about anything. Part of it includes the flower market. This is a riot of color with a rich variety of flowers. If you like orchids you are in for a treat.

Part of the market sells fresh food, mainly fruit. However just a little further along is the main municipal market.

Muang Mai Market

This market is fed by a constant stream of small utility truck that are bringing fresh food from the growers in the mountains nearby. It is a very busy and expansive place and well worth a visit. Are you interested in the local fruit and vegetables?  You will certainly enjoy strolling around this market. This is the main Chiang Mai city wholesale market so the commercial buyers from the hotels and restaurants mix with the locals buying for the family meal.

This market is right by the Ping River.

Warorot market Chiang Mai City
Muang Mai market

The Mae Ping River

Running right through Chiang Mai city is the might Mae Ping River. This river is fed by waters from the surrounding mountains. It carries that water all the way to the Cha Phraya River that runs to Bangkok and then into the gulf of Thailand.

The river is the main reason that the city of Chiang Mai exists. It has never been navigable all the way to Bangkok but has nonetheless been a major transport route throughout history. In 1867 there is an account of such a journey from Bangkok. It took 3 months!

If anything the river is less navigable now. That is largely due to the flood prevention and water management istallations.

However it is still an attraction and long tail riverboats now take tourists on journeys through the city. This is a lovely way to see the city from a different perspective.

If you take a trip to Wat Chai Mongkhon you will get to see the locals releasing animals and fish into the river. This is a very busy temple that the locals visit on many auspicious days such as festivals and birthdays. It is also the starting point for the Mae Ping River cruises.

The Mae Ping River - Chiang Mai city

Nimmanhaemin Area of Chiang Mai City

To the north of the city is the Chiang Mai University. As with most university areas it has a character all of its own. It has developed a bohemian atmosphere. You will find many smart and funky cafes, restaurants, bars and nightclubs in this area. It still maintains its northern Thainess but is also a place of artists and young Thais from the university.

The Chiang Mai Zoo

Between the University and the mountain you will find Chiang Mai zoo. In fact much of the zoo is built into the mountain. It is embedded into the forest and a favourite amongst locals and tourists.

Right behind it is the mountain of Doi Suthep.

Chiang Mai zoo

Doi Suthep

This is in fact the start of a wonderful national park full of trails and hikes and off road bicycling. It is a natural forest playground right on the doorstep of Chiangmai city.

Near the top, on a small plateau, Wat Prathet keeps a watchful eye over the city and the valley it sits in. From its open terraces you can see for many kilometers to the mountains on the other side of the valley. It is a great place to view the city as well. Wat Prathet is the most visited attraction in Northern Thailand.

Chiangmai City - Doi Suthep

Chiang Mai city is a place of many parts and with a rich history. With the mighty Mae Ping running through it, and its many golden temples, it is a fabulous tourist destination. Whether you want shopping, culture, great food and drinks or just sightseeing Chiang Mai city will not disappoint.

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