An Eclectic Mix of Art and Traditions
Seven hundred-year-old Chiang Mai is at the heart of northern heritage. It is both a modern and ancient city, overlaid with an eclectic cultural stamp called Lanna. Though the word Lanna (ล้านนา, 1 million rice fields) had existed in the distant past, it is in just the last thirty years that with a resurgence in cultural pride, that academics and government have revitalized use of this term. Lanna culture is a colorful combination of various elements brought together from both historic and multi-ethnic contexts. With Chiang Mai being a place of trade along the historic Silk Road, it has been a crossroads for centuries of various cultures that make up the blend that is found here today. Many different peoples still retain their unique languages, traditional dress, and customs in this varied community.
Lanna heritage takes shape all over the city in the forms of language, clothing, art, architecture, music, food, and more. Right away, those who have an ear for language will notice that many around them are speaking the regional dialect Kam Muang, or Northern Thai, which is quite different from standard Central Thai. In addition, the people here still wear the local clothing, pa muang, which may be dyed cobalt blue or an array of other colors.
Another characteristic of Lanna that people notice immediately is the volume of artistry the culture is infused with. Chiang Mai has long been an arts center with areas like the Baan Tawai wood carvers’ enclave, and the Bor Sang umbrella-making village.
Architecture is another area of northern culture that grabs the eyes of visitors. For example, large structures such as the landmark Pratu Thapae Gate is typical for ancient walled cities in the area, with similar giant wooden gates in historic brick walls found in nearby cities such as Lamphun and Chiang Rai.
More classic Lanna architecture can be seen around town at temples in the form of their entrances and their chedis (stupas). For example, local icon Wat Prathat Doi Suthep has a long set of stairs leading up to it lined with protective statues depicting Naga, a mythical serpent of Hindu origin. These are common in many Chiang Mai temples.
Meanwhile, the chedis of the temples generally have two common forms with many variations. The first type of Lanna chedis are usually stepped or squared, such as the golden one at Wat Prathat Doi Suthep mentioned before, and also at Wat Chedi Liam (insert link to Wiang Kum Kham, activities/tours) which takes the form of a large pyramid along the Ping River. The second type of chedi is dome shaped or rounded, and often topped with a pointed adornment such as the one at Wat Pra Singh in the Old City.
Another regional architectural element is that residences for people of stature have their roof endings adorned with finials called “Kalare” (also “Kalae” or “Galae”). These v-like wings can be quite simple, or carved ornately to reflect the homeowner’s status. It is this architectural style that gives its name to the Kalare Shopping and Dining Center in the heart of the famous Night Bazaar.
Many culinary treats await visitors to Chiang Mai as well. Unique Lanna foods like Gaeng Hangle, a rich, Burmese-influenced ginger and pork curry, and Naam Prikh Ong, a kind of chili paste made with tomatoes and ground pork represent some of the typical dishes seen on local menus. The area is also famous for a type of spicy pork sausage, Sai Ua, made with curry powder and lemon grass inside. Probably the most famous local food is the rich curry noodle soup Khao Soi. Eating khao soi is one of the must-do’s for those wishing to enjoy tasty Lanna treats.
One of the best ways to enjoy the local heritage, including music, costume, language, and food all at once, is to enjoy the cultural shows at various venues in town that host khantoke dinners (insert link to more extensive khantoke dinners section). This cleverly packaged version of Lanna culture combines all of the most pleasant elements of northern Thai and hilltribe heritage into one memorable dinner show event. Some venues like Khum Kantoke are quite big and host hundreds of visitors nightly. There, guests are treated to shows with spectacular costumes and lighting while dining on delicious Lanna foods.
Other khantoke venues are set in more traditional surroundings, such as those held at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center. There, guests dine on the floor in traditional Thai wooden houses, while enjoying the music and dance show. Despite their touristy nature, these dinner shows are quite fun, and a convenient way to enjoy many different aspects of the best of Lanna culture.
Baan Tawai Woodcarving Village
Address: Left off Highway 118, Hang Dong Road
Bor Sang Umbrella Village
Address: San Kamphaeng, Intersection of Highways 1006 and 1014
Wat Chedi Liam
Address: Sri Boonruang Road, South of Mahidol Road on the East side of the Ping River, Wiang Kum Kham
Address: Chiang Mai Business Park, 130 Moo 4
Tel: 053-304-121-3, 089-758-7558
The Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center
Address: 185/3 Wualai Rd.
Tel: 053-275-097, 053-274-540