Chiang Mai is not a very aesthetically pleasing city. It’s cluttered, and many of the buildings are old and built in a simple, unappealing style. Many of the sidewalks are cracked, and some are verging on complete disintegration. The streets are busy, polluted, and teeming with stray dogs, and trying to find your way through their convoluted twists and turns, with the unexpected one-ways and forced U-turns, is a daunting task for anyone. But despite these things, Chiang Mai is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to. It doesn’t get much of its beauty from physical appearance. Its beauty is hidden in the culture, the people, and the ornate temples, chedis, and ancient walls nestled in the nooks of the city streets. Chiang Mai is not a city you step into and say, “Wow, how lovely!” When I first arrived, I was actually quite disappointed with what I saw and questioned the bloggers that had spoken of Chiang Mai as ‘enchanting.’ But within several weeks, I began to see what they saw.
The Old City, the original part of the ancient city of Chiang Mai, is surrounded by a partially collapsed wall built by King Mengrai after he founded the city in 1296 as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom. Each wall has at least one gate, some of which were built by later kings, and these gates serve as anchor points in the city. If a friend wants to meet somewhere in the city where I’ve never been, my first question is, “What gate is it near?” The north gate was considered the head of the ancient Old City and it was where royalty entered the city during ceremonies. The south gate was the back of the city where royalty exited. The east gate (Tha Pae Gate) happens to be my favorite simply because it was the gate I lived near for my first month in the city and is the one I’m most familiar with. It’s also the closest to some of my favorite restaurants and shops.
The city was built based on an astrological plan, so each wall, corner, and gate has an astrological purpose. The walls were oriented to the cardinal directions and, according to my spotty internet research, symbolized the mountains and seas of the outer universe. The original builders believed the fate of the city depended on the astrological organization and that a flawed design could spell doom for the city. Walking around the Old City, you can see this wall and the restored gates, and walking next to these nearly 700 year old bricks, you can’t help but feel a sense of awe and an intense connection to the history of the place. Outside the wall is a moat that surrounds the entirety of the Old City. The water is dirty, but its flow and the fountains that are placed around the moat add an atmosphere of relaxation to the busy, congested streets, and if you’re lucky enough to be riding a motorbike on a breezy day, you will get to feel some of the cooling mist from the fountains land lightly on your skin.
The Buddhist religion ensured that temples and chedis were scattered all around, and later, outside, the Old City. The largest chedi in Chiang Mai, and one of the largest in Thailand, is Wat Chedi Luang, which stands near the center of the Old City. I visited this place during my first week in Thailand, and upon entering the grounds of the chedi and surrounding temples, you feel as though you are entering another world. This is one of the most enchanting parts of Chiang Mai. Simply step into a temple or sit next to the moat and you feel as though you have crossed into an alternate version of the city, a preserved relic of the past times.
The modern city itself is full of surprises. The shops may not look like much as you’re driving past, but you soon find that many of them hold delicious food, handmade souvenirs, or wonderful masseuses. You’ll also find that they hold friendly Thais who will welcome you with a smile and a ‘sawatdee.’ You may pass a nearly deserted street in the morning and return that evening to find that an expansive market has sprouted up in its place. That’s the thing about this city: its appearance is very deceiving, and it epitomizes that wonderfully overused cliché, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’
The city was strategically placed between a line of mountains and the Ping River to protect against possible attacks from Burma, and, standing almost anywhere in the city, you can look to the western horizon and see Doi Suthep, one of the tallest mountains in Thailand, standing guard over Chiang Mai. If it’s an especially clear day and you’re close enough to the mountain, you can even make out Wat Phra That Doi Suthep nestled on the side. At night, the temple is lit and stands out as a sort of beacon on the mountain, surrounded by the darkness of the forest.
Drive just a little bit outside the city and you can reach sprawling rice fields, small yards with grazing water buffaloes, ancient ruins of former Thai civilizations, and small, local markets that force you to speak Thai or use hand gestures to make yourself understood. In both the city and its suburbs, the friendliness of the Thais is always there to assist you. This is not to say that every Thai is friendly or willing to greet you with a smile. Any generalization of that sort will produce some falsehood. But as a culture, the Thais have adopted a sort of open friendliness as a way of life. They are more collective, more concerned with the well-being of those around them. This stands in contrast to the more individualistic culture of the US which concerns itself much more with individual happiness and much less with the happiness of others in society. I will not say one is better than the other because they both developed for different reasons and both serve specific cultural purposes. I will say that I find myself smiling more in Thailand than I did in the US and that I am incredibly impressed with Thais’ overall willingness to help strangers. Their assistance has been invaluable to me here and has helped me navigate cultural differences that would have been much harder to face otherwise. This natural inclination to offer help to those who need it is one of the most beautiful parts of the Thai culture, made even more so by the fact that they do it without any reluctance and with what appears to be no thought of personal gain. The positive aspects of the Thai culture are, in my opinion, a major contributor to the beauty of this city.
So much of Thailand’s beauty is indescribable. As cliché as that may sound, the layers of beauty to be found here in the culture, lifestyle, architecture, history, and people makes it nearly impossible to convey the cause of the attraction I feel to this place. I can only hope that this blog is doing its job in scratching the surface of my experiences here and the complexity of this new home of mine.