Chiang Mai's rich history goes back hundreds of years. Because of its prime location and fertile land, the valley that extends from the base of Suthep Mountain to the Ping River was settled in early times by several different ethnic groups, including the hilltribe group known as the Lua Tribe. King Mengrai unified the different towns and villages into what came to be known as the Lanna Thai Kingdom.
In 1296, he fortified the fertile valley area with a rectangular shaped brick wall measuring 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) wide, and 2.0 kilometers (1.25 miles) long. Parts of the wall are still intact today, and the area within it is often called the "old city". King Mengrai went on to expand his kingdom to both sides of the Ping River and beyond, naming it "Nop Buri Sri Nakorn Ping Chiang Mai". This city became the center of the Lanna Thai Kingdom that later expanded and covered much of Northern Thailand.
After that there was sporadic warfare for several generations, and Chiang Mai fell several times to both the Burmese and to a powerful kingdom to the south that was centered around the Choa Phaya Basin. In the end, Chiang Mai was taken by Krung Thon Buri, the capital of Thailand during that time, and under the fifth Rama, became a part of Thailand. Since the time of the Lanna Thai Kingdom, Chiang Mai has been a city for a total of 701 years. With a population of 1,547,085 Chiang Mai is one of Thailand's largest provinces. Of the above number, 170,348 are currently living in Chiang Mai's city area with the rest distributed throughout Chiang Mai's 21 districts, 2 sub-districts. 80% of the people in Chiang Mai are locals by birth, and speak a dialect that is a slight variation of the central Thai language. The remaining 20% is made up of Thai nationals and foreigners who have moved to Chiang Mai to work, study, or retire.
There are many hilltribe people living in the mountainous districts surrounding Chiang Mai such as Omkoi, Mae Jam, Chiang Dao, and Mae Ai. Statistics reported by the Tribal Research Institute of Chiang Mai stated that in the year 1992 there were 1,049 hilltribe villages in the Chiang Mai province, constituting a total of 174,195 people. Of this amount, 106,116 were from the Karen tribe, 27,392 from the Lahu (Musur) tribe, 17,198 from the Hmong (Meo) tribe, 10,873 form the Lisu tribe, 8,862 from the Lua tribe, 2,609 from the Akha tribe, 1,145 from the Mien (yao) tribe, and 485 from the Palong tribe. The hilltribe people are agricultural; planting fields, raising animals, and hunting for a living. Since each tribe has its own culture and language, they blanket the hills of Chiang Mai with an interesting patchwork quilt of diverse variety.
The majority (80%) of the Chiang Mai people earn a living through agriculture and agricultural related professions. The second largest vocation is tourism and its directly and indirectly related jobs. General commerce and industry--mainly in the form of handicrafts, and of processing agricultural products--are the two other major professions in which the Chiang Mai people are involved.
The traditional tourist activities in Chiang Mai are visiting the temples and shopping for handicrafts, pursuits which many find more appealing here than in the rest of Thailand. These days, increasing numbers of travellers are taking advantage of the city's relaxed feel to indulge in a burst of self-improvement, enrolling for courses in cookery and massage.
The City of Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai feels less claustrophobic than most cities in Thailand, being scattered over a wide plain and broken up by waterways. The moat encircling the temple-strewn old town, the gentle Ping River brings a breath of fresh air to the eastern side of the pungent food markets above Nawarat Bridge and the modern, hectic shopping area around Thanon Chang Klan.
Getting to Chiang Mai: By Car
From Bangkok drive on Highway No.1 (Phahonyothin) to Highway No.32 passing the provinces of Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, Ang Thong and Nakhon Sawan, then take Highway No.117 to Phitsanulok and drive on to Highway No.11 to Lampang, Lamphun and Chiang Mai. The route is 695 kilometers. From Bangkok drive to Nakhon Sawan and then take Highway No.1 passing Kamphaeng Phet, Tak, Lampang and Chiang Mai. The route is 696 kilometers.
Accommodation in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is well stocked with all kinds of accommodation; usually there are plenty of beds to go around but many places fill up from December to February and at the festival time, particularly during Songkran on April and Loy Krathong on November. At these times, you need to book to stay at one of the expensive hotels and for guest houses it's a good idea to phone ahead-even if you can't book a place, you can save yourself a journey if the place is full.
A great many of the tourists visiting Chiang Mai make enquiries on hill-tribe trekking. Of particular interest to most are the six major hill-tribes which inhabit the Northern highlands. The largest group is Karen, followed by the Meo, Lahu, Yao, Akha and Lisu. They share animism beliefs and honor numerous forest and guardian spirits. Each tribe has distinctive ceremonial attire, courtship rituals, games, dances, agricultural customs, languages or dialects, aesthetic values and hygienic habits. Popular 'Jangle Treks', lasting from 2-7 days, take visitors through forested mountains and high valleys and include visits to remote hill-tribe settlements for overnight stays. The best guides are hill-tribe youths who customarily speak English, Thai and at least three tribal dialects.
Eating in Chiang Mai
The main difficulty with eating in Chiang Mai is knowing when to stop. All over town here are inexpensive and enticing restaurants serving typically northern food, which as been strongly influenced by Burmese cuisine, especially in curries such as the spicy kaeng hang lay (usually translated on menus as ''Northern Thai curry''), made with pork, ginger, garlic and tamarind. Another favorite local dish is Chiang Mai nem, spicy pork sausage- although the uncooked.
Courses in Chiang Mai
In recent years there's been a steady increase in the number of visitors who come to Chiang Mai looking to return home with a new skill by taking a self-improvement course. The most popular subject is how to cook Thai food, followed the Thai massage and meditation, but perhaps the most challenging of all, though vital for anyone planing to spend any length of time here, is the Thai language.
Shopping in Chiang Mai
Shopping is almost irresistible pastime in Chiang Mai, a hotbed of traditional cottage industries offering generally high standards of workmanship at low prices. Two main tourist shopping areas, conveniently operating at different times of the day, sell the full range of local handicrafts.