Chiang Mai Introduction
From 1296, under King Mengrai, Chiang Mai (meaning New City) was the cultural and religious center of the northern Tai. The city was overtaken and occupied by the Burmese in 1558 until Lord "Chao" Kavila retook the city in 1775, driving the Burmese forces back to near the present border. Burmese influence on religion, architecture, language, cuisine, and culture, however, remained strong. Local feudal lords (sometimes referred to as princes) carrying the title chao, remained in nominal control of the city in the late-18th and early 19th centuries, but under continued pressure from King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), the Lanna kingdom was brought under the control of the central government in Bangkok. In 1933, the city was formally and fully integrated into the kingdom of Thailand, becoming the administrative center of the north.
These days, Chiang Mai is booming, with an estimated population of 250,000 (in a province of some 1.6 million) and growing; with those numbers come the attendant "big city" problems of suburban sprawl, noxious pollution, rush-hour traffic, and water shortages, as well as serious flooding (from June to Aug).
It would be difficult to find a city that reflects more of the country's diverse cultural heritage and modern aspirations than Chiang Mai. Its heart is its Old City, an area surrounded by vestiges of walls and moats originally constructed for defense. It lies in the shadow of an increasingly expanding city, encircled by gargantuan concrete highways, lined by giant hoardings and superstores. Massive modern tour buses crowd Burmese-style wats ablaze with saffron robes and chanting ancient mantras. Increasingly, old shophouses are giving way to multistory shopping malls and boutique and big name resorts, while towering condominiums fill the skyline. Vendors dressed in hill-tribe costumes sell souvenirs in the busy market next to fast food outlets. Narrow streets lined with ornately carved teak houses lie in the shadow of contemporary skyscrapers.
Because of its temperate climate, many Thais choose Chiang Mai as a retreat during March, April, and May, when the rest of the country is wilting under the heat. In the cooler months, Chiang Mai is an excellent base for exploring the north.