When I first came to this small city, it was the ancient crumbling city walls and the moat surrounding it all that which made Chiang Mai so incredibly interesting for me. In order to get into the “Old City”, I have to cross a bridge over the moat which is full of water. The moat today has fountains built into it that are lit at night, with tropical trees shading the area as a beautiful historical park. It is one of the most magical places on Earth. When walking around the moat, you can easily put yourself into another century. This is no Disneyland; this is the real thing, much of it unchanged from an era far predating my home country. Chiang Mai is an amazing place. Chiang Mai, which translates into “new walled city”, was founded on April 12, 1296. That was about 300 years before William Shakespeare was writing for the theater and about 500 years before America was born. Our little town is a very old place. King Mangrai, the first monarch of the Lanna Kingdom, founded Chiang Mai at the location of small trading settlement of local people, and immediately developed a plan for a fortified city protected by walls and a large moat.
Whenever a new visitor checks out a map of Chiang Mai, they are immediately struck by the near perfect large square in the center of the city. That has not changed since the beginning of Chiang Mai. It is not a perfect square, but it is pretty close, with each side being about 2km long. That makes it an easy and fascinating morning walk to encircle the entire old city, and this should be one of the first things a new visitor to Chiang Mai should do.
For a few centuries, the entire city of Chiang Mai was within the fortress walls. Chiang Mai was a thriving center for trade, Buddhism and art. Just as it is today, there were many temples in the old city and monks swathed in orange wandering the streets giving blessings to those that gave food offerings. Respectful visitors today are welcome to wander in an out of the different temples, soaking up much of the history of Thai Buddhism and the Lanna Kingdom. You are likely to meet a monk, eager to test out his English and give you some of the background of the temple. King Mangrai’s plans back in 1296 called for only 5 gates to the city (and these gates are still used today), and entrance to the walled city was guarded by Lanna soldiers and war elephants. The first Westerner to see this exotic city was an Englishman, Ralph Fitch, the Elizabethan explorer, around 1586, when Chiang Mai was already 300 years old. The biggest fear for the Lanna Kingdom was always Burma. Burma had a very aggressive relationship with all of her neighboring Kingdoms to the East. In 1614, Burma managed to gain control of Chiang Mai and for almost 200 years it was turned it into a Burmese military garrison for attacking the Kingdom of Siam to the South. The fortunes of Chiang Mai declined dramatically as Thai people completely abandoned the City. In 1767, the magnificant capital city of Siam, Ayutthaya, was sacked and burned to the ground by the Burmese. Eventually, after Chiang Mai had been occupied for almost 200 years, the Thai peoples from all over Northern Thailand united, threw out the Burmese, and managed to re-establish Chiang Mai as a city of the Lanna Kingdom, but it was only a shadow of it’s former glory. Chiang Mai was an empty city devastated by the occupation. In 1892, the King of Siam (Rama V), united the Lanna Kingdom with Siam and the city of Chiang Mai regained strength as a trading center in Northern Thailand.
After the Burmese were thrown out of Chiang Mai in 1774, the Lanna king began constructing another outer moat and wall protecting the surrounding villages that became extensions of the city. This outer moat and wall still exists but it is pretty much forgotten by modern explorers of Chiang Mai. It is there behind dilapidated houses, polluted streams and even running through the Night Bazaar. Parts of these fortifications are sometimes difficult to recognize because they have not been restored and maintained like the inner moat and wall. A part of this wall and moat can be seen just a little south of the southwest corner of the old city wall in a small park. You can also find part of the wall on a small street near the Night Bazaar. The inner city of Chiang Mai today is not greatly different from the way it has been for many centuries. It makes for fascinating walks through the winding small streets, discovering a hidden coffee house and interesting little shops. For sure you will discover smiling Thais, uniformed school kids and wonderful street food. You might question why any city would make their streets so narrow, and it is easy to picture that same road maybe 6 or 7 hundred years ago with an elephant or a rickshaw or hundreds of local Thais pushing carts of vegetables to the market. The markets in the old city, on the edges of the old city and just beyond are pretty much in the same location they were in centuries ago, selling similar exotic fruits from the mountain villages just as they do now. The Chiang Mai fortress walls and moat are part of why this city has become one of the most interesting places to visit in the world, and it makes living here fascinating for anyone that has an interest in the history of the region.