Discovering the Lanna culture in Chiang Mai (Thailand)
Before going to Thailand, we certainly heard about Chiang Mai as a beloved placed for travelers in the north of the country. What we did not know is that the city and its region had a particular culture and history compared to the rest of Thailand. Chiang Mai used to be the center of the Lanna kingdom. From food to architecture, let’s discover Chiang Mai through the lens of the Lanna culture.
What is the Lanna culture?
Since the 13th century, the city of Chiang Mai and the surrounding region were part of the so-called Lanna Kingdom which corresponds broadly to the current northern part of Thailand bordering Burma and Laos.
The Lanna Kingdom, which literally means the “Kingdom of a Million rice fields” was successively independent and under the control of neighboring Burmese and Ayutthaya kingdoms. The Lanna king first declared Chiang Rai his capital but then decided to build a new city that would better protected from the Mongol invasions. He named it Chiang Mai, which means the “new city”.
Even after Lanna was integrated to Siam (the former name of Thailand) in 1774, the region managed to maintain its peculiarities thanks to its remote geographical location and weak transportation connections with the rest of the country.
If you arrive by plane from Bangkok, you will admire from the air the beautiful mountains covered with dense vegetation and understand how remote the place is.
Tasting Lanna cuisine and its star dish
The Lanna cuisine is quite different from the rest of Thailand. One of them is that it uses less spices at the benefit of lighter flavors such as soft chili peppers, ginger or galanga (a type of ginger with a fresh scent of pine).
If you taste only one specialty, we strongly recommend Khao Soi. In essence, it is a tumeric (a.k.a. curcuma)-based curry giving a yellowish color to the broth mixed with coconut milk and chicken drumsticks.
All the ingredients simmer together to create a delicious broth where egg noodles are added. Khao Soi is usually served in a bowl with toppings on the side such as lime slices to squeeze, finely cut shallots, pickles and ground chilies fried in oil. To eat Khao Soi, you need both a spoon for the broth and chop-sticks for the noodles.
This dish has been influenced by neighboring Burma and China. You could find slightly different versions in these two countries. Our advice is to taste it as street-food from a cooking stand, for example at the “Chiang Mai Gate Night Market” . This market is located just outside the southern gate of the ancient city walls.
Wanting to know more about Thai food, we spent one evening in the Pantanwan Cooking class in a nice open wooden house in the country side.
There, we learned how to cook classic Thai recipes such as Pad Thai, spring rolls and Massaman curry. The chef picked us up at out hotel and first brought us to a local market for groceries before spending 4 hours teaching us his secrets in a small group.
At the end, we could savor all the dishes that we prepared for ourselves. The experience was perfect in all respects and it is surprisingly not so difficult with good guidance and ingredients!
Interacting with rescued elephants in a sanctuary
Elephants have played a major role in the regional history and fully belongs to the past and present of the northern Thai culture.
The past has been quite dreadful for them. Indeed elephants have been used for decades by the wood industry to transport logs of teak-wood out of the forests. Back in the 1990s, the Thai government declared wood logging illegal and the owners (mahout) did not find an economical use of the animals anymore.
Sometimes, poor elephants were sold to trekking companies or placed in the congested streets of Bangkok to beg for money.
We wanted to discover these beautiful animals but only if we were confident that they were truly cared for and respected.
For instance, some companies offer riding experiences, which are not correct. Browsing reviews on Trip Advisor, we were rapidly attracted by the Elephant Rescue Park. This association founded in 2015 is a protected park for abused and mistreated elephants. Their mission is to truly help and take care of these animals and provide them with a safe environment. They adopted 5 elephants from different places where they were mistreated such as a circus.
The nice owner picked us up at our hotel and drove us to his property one hour north of Chiang Mai. The property is in the heart of a beautiful tropical vegetation, which gave us a good break from the urban landscape. From the start, we could sense that the owner was a noble person with good intentions. We were not disappointed.
Arriving in the domain, we changed to red clothing in the family house so that elephants can “recognize” us. The large sombrero hats were welcomed to protect from the December sun.
Then, we got introduced to the 5 elephants, learned their names and their personality while feeding them with local bananas. Elephants were “fighting” like kids to grab the bananas from our hands with their trumps. The little one called Pailin was the one struggling to get her fair share.
Then, we walked with the 5 elephants in the surrounding forest. Pailin, the baby one, was our favorite because she was constantly playing around. After the stroll, we arrived at a big pond where we bathed and cleaned them with the help of the mahouts. It was fascinating to be so close and feel the skin of these clever animals.
After saying goodbye to the animals, we had a nice meal in the terrace of the house overlooking the forest before being driven back to our hotel.
The experience was even more sensational as we were the only visitors for this half-day experience and could talk a lot with the owner. If only all the so-called sanctuaries could be like this, it would be a real relief !
Meeting the guardians of Buddhist temples
Within the ancient city walls of Chiang Mai, you will discover scores of Buddhist temples, one more impressive than the other. I noticed that dragon-like figures often ornate the sides of the stairs to access temples.
Therefore I was wondering about their meaning. Actually, they depict the mythical Naga snake, which originates in the Hinduism religion but also exists in Buddhists countries on both sides of the Mekong river.
Given Buddhism was born in present India, it makes sense to find this legendary animal all over India and South East Asia. The term Naga means cobra in Sanskrit and the legend says that one protected the meditating Buddha during a storm.
Therefore you will understand why these snake-dragon figures guard the entrance of so many Buddhist temples.
Visiting the main Buddhist temples
Regarding the temples to visit, there are more than 350 of them in the city of Chiang Mai, which is a lot. We would recommend including the Wat Phra Sing and Wat Chedi Luang complexes in your visit. Our tip is to visit them in the early morning or late afternoon to catch the nice light and avoid the crowds.
In addition, we enjoyed visiting lesser known temples where we were almost alone. Some of them are entirely built in wood and were simply stunning.
Wat Phra Sing
Starting with the Wat Phra Sing, it is one of the major temple complex within the ancient walls of Chiang Mai. It was first built in 1345 and contains a holy statue of the Buddha. Each year, the statue is taken on the streets during a procession and believers pour water on top of it. In one building, we could also observe Buddhist monks praying. Apparently 700 of them live there.
Wat Chedi Luang
The Wat Chedi Luang was the temple of Lanna kings and is located in the very heart of the ancient town. One Lanna king decided to erect it in order to deposit the ashes of his dead father.
The highlight is the central chedi (the Thai word for stupa) with staircases on the 4 sides guarded by statues of nagas and elephants.
It was the biggest temple of Chiang Mai with a height of 85 meters but an earthquake damaged it in 1545. To make things worse, it was then ransacked by invading Burmese troops.
The Wat Chedi Luang is still regarded as the holiest place of the city and used to contain the most venerated emerald Buddha figure of the country, which has been displaced to Bangkok in the Royal Grand Palace.
Finally, here are some advice when visiting Buddhist temple. The first one is to leave your shoes at the entrance.
Inside, you should never sit with your feet pointing or facing the Buddha because feet are considered “dirty” in Thailand. You should also rather sit on your knees or with your legs on the sides. Silence and respect are other considerations.
If you fancy Buddhas as a souvenir, the Thai government does a lot of advertising to make tourists aware of the fact that Buddha is not a decorative item for homes.
They strongly recommend not to purchase such souvenirs. However you will find hundreds of shops selling them; we saw very nice ones carved in teak wood at the Chiang Mai night Bazaar.
Sleeping in the traditional and stylish Ping Nakara hotel
For us, hotels are more than just places to sleep. They are a true part of the travel experience. Staying at the Ping Nakara hotel on the bank of the Ping river definitely gave us this feeling!
The hotel is located in an area where Burmese and Western merchants settled to develop the teak-wood logging trade. French and British consulates were also built in this stretch of land on the shore of the quiet Ping river, just a few minutes away from the ancient city walls.
In the early 20th century, Colonial-style architecture was combined with traditional wooden structure to give birth to a unique Lanna architecture.
Unfortunately, most of these buildings have progressively been torn down over time. The Ping Nakara intent was to bring back the style of this time and they did it successfully.
After being picked-up at the city airport by a vintage Mercedes driven by a staff in colonial uniform, we arrived smoothly at the hotel. We were immediately impressed by the elegance of this white building surrounded by the green color of palm trees.
You truly feel transported in the past with the level of comfort of today.
Our spacious room made us feel like time-travelers. It was made of dark-brown teak wood furniture and ginger-bread fretwork over the large windows and doors.
The balcony overlooking a pool surrounded by vegetation provided the perfect relaxing-time after the hustle and bustle of the Lanna capital.
The breakfast served in the outdoor restaurant next to the pool was very good with a large choice of European and local dishes such as pancakes and fried eggs. We could also enjoyed private massages in the luxurious hotel spa, definitely more attractive and intimate than the crowded spa-places that you see on the streets of the old town.
Personally, I loved all the furniture and decorative details that testified from the culture. For instance a large painting of the ancient map of the city, wooden panels depicting the history of elephants in the teak logging industry or traditional iron cups to sip fresh water.
The cups are a nice souvenir to bring back for summer days, they definitely keeps your water cooler than our Western glasses!
After five days, we left the Lanna region feeling almost a bit sad and headed to the south of Thailand to enjoy the fabulous landscape of Krabi province.
We hope this article will help you plan your time in Chiang Mai. Let us know in the comments!
Recap of our addresses
Hotel: Ping Nakara Hotel & Spa
Cooking class: Pantawan Cooking Class / pick-up at your hotel
Elephant experience: Elephant Rescue Park / pick-up at your hotel
How to go there?
If you are in Thailand, take a domestic flight with a reliable domestic airline. We flew with the national carrier Thai Airways from Bangkok (1H15 flight time).
From abroad, Qatar Airways flies directly to Chiang Mai via Doha (Qatar). The Qatari airline also flies direct to Bangkok, Phuket and Krabi from Doha. This provides you with options to organize a multi-destination trip without going back to your city of arrival.