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All you need to know about Chiang Mai
An important cultural centre and the unofficial capital of northern Thailand, this ancient city is full of lush, mountainous landscapes and rich historical sites. A small yet cosmopolitan city, Chiang Mai offers a sharp contrast to busy Bangkok and to the beach resorts down south. The surrounding countryside offers captivating views, secluded hill tribe villages, and unforgettable encounters with elephants.
Chiang Mai means new city in the northern Thai dialect, but the name betrays a 700-year-plus history. As the former capital of the historic Lanna kingdom, the city is intimately tied with the northern Thai people or Thai Yuan (ไทยวน). Chiang Mai was built to defend Lanna from Burmese and Mongol excursions but ultimately fell to Burma in 1556. With the recapture of the city by the venerated king Taksin, the city, and its kingdom were incorporated to Siam in 1775, constituting the basis for a unified Thailand.
Buddhism, specifically the Theravada tradition, constitutes the main creed of Thailand. Chiang Mai is no exception, its temples combining Burmese, Sri Lankan, and Lanna Thai styles. In total, over 300 temples large and small can be found around Chiang Mai, yet no visit to this city is complete without a trip to the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, or Temple of the White Elephant, in nearby Doi Suthep (Mount Suthep), the most sacred in the area.
The relative isolation and distinct history of Chiang Mai contributed to the emergence of a distinct regional culture. The northern Thais refer to themselves as khon mueang (ฅนเมือง) and to their language as kham mueang (คำเมือง), and frown upon the designation Thai Yuan, preferring the term Lanna Thai in English. Lanna heritage is embedded in every facet of the local culture, even as the process of Thaification in the past century has discouraged some practices, such as the use of the Lanna script.