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A STROLL THROUGH CHIANG MAI’S OLD CITY

A STROLL THROUGH CHIANG MAI’S OLD CITY

Story by Ron Emmons (March 2020)

SEE MORE CHIANG MAI OLD CITY IMAGES @ PICTURES FROM HISTORY

One of the most enjoyable, not to mention cheapest, ways to explore Chiang Mai's old city is on foot, and this walk takes you along narrow, winding lanes and through tranquil temple compounds as you cross from the northeast to southwest corner. It's best to go in the morning, when the sun sparkles on the east-facing temple facades and the heat is not yet too oppressive. Dress appropriately for temple visits, meaning no exposed knees or shoulders, and wear a hat or carry an umbrella to shield you from the sun or rain. A local map will help with orientation. Along the way you will almost certainly have friendly encounters with the hospitable locals, and there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy a cold drink or coffee in cute cafes.

Begin on the outside of the moat at the northeast corner of the old, walled city. The Sri Phum bastion that stands here is the most evocative of all the city's crumbling fortifications because of the way the lines of brickwork on the north-facing wall have become wonderfully warped. Facing the bastion, walk southwards beside the moat, then cross to the inside of the moat at the first road and continue walking south beside a parade of shops. After a few steps you'll be at the entrance to Somphet Market at Moonmuang Soi 6, where vendors of flowers, fruits and tempting snacks set up stall.

Turn right into Soi 6, a narrow lane lined with guest houses and cafes; this is the heart of Chiang Mai's backpacker district, so you'll probably see as many foreigners as Thais wandering around. At the end of Soi 6, turn right in to Ratchaphakhinai Road. Walk past Wat Lamchang on your right, and after a few steps, you will see Wat Chiang Man on your left. This is the oldest temple in the city and dates back to 1296.

Enter the temple compound and take a look in the small viharn (assembly hall) to the right, which houses two of the city's most highly-valued Buddha images—the Phra Sila, a marble bas relief from Sri Lanka, and the Phra Sae Tang Khamani, a tiny crystal image sheltered by an umbrella. The Phra Sila  image is believed to have the power to bring rain, while the Phra Sae Tang Khamani image, which once survived a fire, is thought to have the power to protect against disaster.

Walk round the back of the viharn to see the oldest and most interesting aspect of this temple—a stupa called the Chedi Chang Lom. This is an especially attractive structure, capped with glittering gold and supported by elephants. To the left (south) of the stupa is an ubosot (ordination hall), and at the back of the compound is a small pond. Leave the temple by the side gate to the south of the compound, turn right, then left into Phra Pokklao Road.

Walk about 100 metres to the traffic light, then cross the street to take a look at the Three Kings' Monument, situated in an open square. The square is often empty during the day unless there is a special ceremony taking place, and shady trees and benches make it a relaxing spot to rest. King Mengrai, who founded the city in 1296, is in the centre of the monument and is flanked by his allies, King Ramkhamhaeng and King Ngam Muang. The alliance that Mengrai forged with these leaders of neighbouring kingdoms allowed his own Kingdom of Lanna to flourish in its early years.

Mengrai's name for the city, Chiang Mai, means New City, which seems ironic these days, as its principal attractions are precisely those features like the protective walls and moat that give it an aura of great age. Behind the Three Kings' Monument, a colonial-style shuttered building houses the Arts & Cultural Centre (open Tues—Sun 8.30am-5pm; admission 90 baht), which is well worth visiting to find out more about the city's long history and complex culture.

Continue walking south down busy Phra Pokklao Road to the corner of Ratchadamnoen Road, where there is a shrine to King Mengrai; a bell-shaped memorial is surrounded by tiled panels depicting scenes from his life. According to legend, he was struck down by lightning somewhere near this spot in 1317, at the age of 79.

Cross the road heading south on Phra Pokklao Road, and almost immediately on your right you will see the dark-wood walls of Wat Pan Tao, with a lovely glass-inlaid carving of a peacock above the doors, which gleams when caught by the morning sun. Walk on a few steps and turn right into the compound of Wat Chedi Luang. In front of you is the enormous viharn, and to your left is Chiang Mai's City Pillar, located in a cruciform building beneath a towering gum tree (local legend has it that as long as this tree stands, the city is safe from harm). Behind the viharn is the temple's main feature, a huge brick chedi built in the 15th century, that once stood 90 metres high until it was damaged by an earthquake in the mid-16th century. It is still an impressive structure and is now about 60 metres high.

Walk round behind the chedi and go out the back gate of Wat Chedi Luang, turn right on to Jhaban Road and then left on to Ratchadamnoen Road. You will pass the police station on the corner on your way to Wat Phra Singh, which stands prominently at the end of Ratchadamnoen Road, reflecting its importance among local temples. On your right as you enter the compound is the exquisite scripture library, one of the finest examples of Northern Thai architecture, consisting of a wooden building on a tall base that is surrounded by stucco angels.

The main viharn is large and imposing, but of more interest is the smaller viharn, set back to the left of the main building. This is the Viharn Lai Kham, which is definitely worth a look inside after appreciating its gleaming bargeboards and beautifully carved gables. The building contains the Phra Sihing, the city's most highly revered Buddha image, and some fascinating murals depicting local lifestyle in bygone days.

Follow the path to the left of the Viharn Lai Kham and leave the temple by the back gate. Turn left and head straight south along Ratchamanka Soi 9. On your right you'll pass what looks like a temple, but is in fact one of Chiang Mai's most exclusive hotels—The Ratchamanka, which incidentally has an excellent restaurant. At the end of this lane, turn left and after a few steps go right into Wat Muen Ngern Kong, one of the city's lesser-known temples. Note the colourful figurines along the side of the viharn, then take a look at the huge reclining Buddha on the south side of the compound. Just to the left of this image is a bo tree, characterized by heart-shaped leaves, with a smaller sitting Buddha image beneath it. Look for a narrow alley behind the bo tree and follow it between back gardens and out to a quiet lane.

Turn right here and follow the lane to the left as it winds its way southward, crossing several other lanes. You may be totally templed out by this stage, but soon on the left you will see a very unusual, stepped brick chedi in the compound of Wat Phuak Hong, which has seven rounded tiers containing Buddha images in niches and dates back to the early 16th century. The small, compact viharn, with its red and gold gables, is also very attractive, though the hall is not always open.

Continue walking south a few steps until you see a gateway leading into a park on your right. This is the back entrance to Buak Haad City Park, which is the only public park anywhere near the centre of Chiang Mai. At weekends it can get crowded, but on a weekday it is usually quiet and relaxing. Take a stroll along the winding paths that lead past flower beds, stately palms and small lakes until you find a convenient bench, or if you prefer, you can rent a mat for a few baht and sprawl on the grass in the shade. Then close your eyes and reflect on your stroll, during which you will have learned much about this historic yet vibrant city.

SEE MORE CHIANG MAI OLD CITY IMAGES @ PICTURES FROM HISTORY

Text by Ron Emmons; Photos by Ron Emmons and David Henley - CPA Media