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 Chao (Lord) 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 1932, 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 (June-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 (temples) ablaze with saffron robes and chanting ancient mantras. Increasingly, old shophouses are giving way to multistory shopping malls and boutiques 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.
From March to October, the north's climate follows the pattern of the rest of the country -- hot and dry followed by hot and wet. Yet, from November to March, it's almost like another country, with cool breezes blowing down from China, bright sunny days, and rarely a cloud in the sky. During these cooler months, Chiang Mai is an excellent base for exploring the north.
What do you say to these tonsured men in orange robes one sees piously padding barefoot around Thailand? The answer is: "Hello. How are you?" Monks, especially seniors, deserve a special level of respect, of course, but are quite human, and the best way to find out is to stop by Mahachulalongkorn University (adjoining Wat Suan Dok, west of town on Suthep Rd.). Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, from 5 to 7pm, they welcome foreign visitors for "monk chat," a classroom venue of small, informal discussion groups where visitors and monks come to connect, share culture, and learn about Buddhism from novices, eager to explain and, of course, practice their English. It is a mostly informal discussion about one's own country or sports (young novices are nuts about English Premier League football [soccer]), but the more senior monks can give you some insights into Buddhist practice and monastic life. They also meet for meditation groups and retreats. Call tel. 05380-8481, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.monkchat.net for info.