Sunday, June 1, 2008

Thailand: Chiang Mai's old city

Walking through history Ron takes a stroll with his camera through Chiang Mai's old city

One of the most enjoyable, not to mention cheapest, ways to explore Chiang Mai is on foot, and this tour takes you along some of the most interesting backstreets of the old city. It begins in the northeast corner and zig-zags through quiet lanes, taking in some of the city's most intriguing temples before arriving at Buak Haad Park in the southwest corner.

The brickwork at Sri Phum corner is wonderfully warped. On the way there are plenty of places to stop for refreshments, and you will almost certainly experience friendly interaction with curious locals. The walk takes three or four hours, allowing plenty of time for stops, and is best done in the morning to avoid the afternoon heat.

Begin on the outside of the moat at Sri Phum corner of the old, walled city. The bastion that stands here is the most evocative of all the city's crumbling fortifications, because of the way its lines of brickwork have become wonderfully warped. Facing the bastion, walk to your right and follow the route on the map along the narrow Sri Phum Soi 2 and then Moonmuang Soi 9, before turning left into Ratchaphakhinai Road to get to Wat Chiang Man.

Scene during Inthakin ceremony at Wat Chedi Luang. This is the oldest temple in the city and dates back to 1296. Take a look in the small viharn 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 around the back of the viharn to see the oldest and most interesting aspect of this temple-a stupa called the Chang Lom Chedi. This is an especially attractive structure, capped with glittering gold and supported by elephants.

The ubosot, chedi and viharn at Wat Saen Muang Ma Luang. To the south of the stupa is a raised scripture repository and an ubosot, and at the back of the compound is a small pond. Leave the temple by the back gate and follow the route up to Phra Pokklao Road. Go right past the Thai Airways office, and if you're feeling hungry, stop by at The Amazing Sandwich (open 9am-9pm, closed Sunday), where you can build your own creation from a wide range of fillings and choice of bread.

Continue heading north along Phra Pokklao Road for a few steps, looking opposite for a narrow lane with temple buildings at the end. Cross over and go along this lane into the compound of Wat Saen Muang Ma Luang (aka Wat Hua Khuang), a rarely-visited but very attractive temple complex.

Buak Haad Park.

To the left is the ubosot, lavishly decorated with glass mosaics, and behind this and the viharn stands a beautiful old brick stupa, with plants sprouting from it and a gleaming, golden pinnacle. There is a bright red and white scripture repository beside the stupa, and a shrine to Ganesha (a Hindu god) at the back of the compound.

Turn left out of the back gate of this compound and follow the route along (usually) quiet streets to the Three Kings' Monument. The square is often empty during the day unless there is a special ceremony taking place, and shady trees 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.

Stucco angels surround the base of the scripture library at Wat Phra Singh 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.

The old City Hall, situated behind the monument, will open as an Arts & Culture Museum at some future date. Walk down busy Phra Pokklao Road to the corner of Ratchadamnoen Road, where there is a shrine to King Mengrai. This looks like an elaborate spirit house, with the main image perpetually smothered in bright bands of cloth.

King Mengrai _ Chiang Mai's founder.

The walls around have tiled panels depicting scenes from his life. Directly opposite the shrine is Cafe Chic (open 10am-8pm, closed Sunday), which has refreshing aircon, newspapers and Thai as well as Western food, including excellent coffee and home-made cookies.

Just south of the cafe on Phra Pokklao Road is the compound of Wat Pan Tao, with a lovely glass-inlaid carving of a peacock above the doors, which dazzles and sparkles when caught by the morning sun. Walk into the compound and pass the solid, wooden viharn, an imposing structure that once functioned as a ho kham, or royal hall. Leave the temple by the back gate, then turn left into the compound of Wat Chedi Luang.

On your left is the enormous viharn, and behind that, in the southeast corner of the compound, 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).

To your right 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.

Shrine to Ganesha at Saen Muang Ma Luang.

Wat Chedi Luang is the focus of Inthakhin, a traditional local ceremony intended to bring on the arrival of the rains as well as encourage prosperity for the city and its inhabitants. The ceremony took place this year from May 19-25. During this week, locals come to the temple, especially in the evenings, to pay respect to the City Pillar, make offerings and wash the Buddha images, so it is a particularly interesting time to be around.

This temple is also a favourite place to go for the Buddhist puja festivals, which commemorate important events in the life of the Buddha and take place at the full moon in February, May and July. The main attraction of these festivals is the wien thien, or candle-lit walk around the temple's illuminated stupa.

The sight of thousands of people clutching candles, flowers and incense as they walk mindfully around the towering structure is likely to stick in the memory for years to come. As with most Thai festivals and ceremonies, foreigners are encouraged to join in too.

Go out of the back gate of Wat Chedi Luang and follow the route round past the police station to Wat Phra Singh, which stands prominently at the end of Ratchadamnoen Road, reflecting its importance among local temples. Like Wat Chedi Luang, it is a popular place to go for the puja festivals, and is also the destination for the Songkran parade of Buddha images.

On your right as you enter is the exquisite scripture library, one of the finest examples of Lanna art, 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 much-revered Phra Sihing Buddha image and some fascinating murals depicting Lanna lifestyle in bygone days. Follow the path to the left of the Viharn Lai Kham and leave the temple by the back gate.

If you are ready to eat at this stage and want to sample some of the best northern Thai food available in town, step round the corner to Ta-Krite ("Lemon grass") restaurant (open 11am-11pm), which has a cosy atmosphere and ferns draped over the entrance. Take the small lane (Ratchamanka Soi 8) heading south immediately beside Ta-Krite restaurant and walk on to

Wat Meun Ngern Kong, one of the city's lesser-known temples. Go round to the left of the viharn, pausing to look at the intricate carvings on the front doors, then take a look at the huge reclining Buddha on the other side of the building. Just to the left of this image is a bo tree with many smaller Buddha images 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 walk along this lane, which snakes 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 sadly the only public park anywhere near the centre of Chiang Mai. At the time of major festivals, the place is packed with revellers, but on an ordinary day it can be 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, then sit down to rest your weary legs. From this brief stroll, you will have learned much about the history of Thailand's northern capital.

Travel tips

What to wear: Make sure your shoulders and legs are covered to avoid causing offence when wandering around temple compounds, and choose light and loose cotton garments so that the walking is comfortable. A hat or umbrella is also advisable to shield your head from the sun's fierce rays.

Crossing roads: Generally this is no problem in Chiang

Mai's old city as traffic is light, but if you are new to the country, be advised that cars and motorbikes never give way to pedestrians, so be patient and acknowledge that in Thailand, walkers go last.

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