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Travel | Thailand

The Light of Chiang Mai

By Cheron Gelber
July 17, 2009
At 4 p.m. the famous “Sunday market” starts coming to life on the “walking street” in the heart of Chiang Mai. Vehicles are banned for the evening and the street fills... 
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

In my travels to the ancient trade city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand I have been taken by the enduring visual beauty of traditional handcrafted jewelry, beads, gemstones, silk, and other textiles, and the way they mirror the gold and red colors of the Buddhist “wats” or temples, and the clear light of the mountains.

Known as the “rose of the North”, Chiang Mai is the center of the ancient Lanna Kingdom of Thailand, which flourished from 1250 to 1860. Situated on the bank of the Ping River in a lush valley, Chiang Mai’s drier, cooler climate and clear skies are always a welcome respite from the heat of Bangkok.

There are 300 wats in Chiang Mai, some dating back to its origins in the 13th century, and each with its individual architecture, craftsmanship, and color pattern. From Wat Chiang Man, the oldest, with Phra Sila (marble Buddha) and Phra Satang Man (crystal Buddha), to Wat Rong Khun, the contemporary and eccentric “White Temple”, dedicated to Buddha’s purity –the elaborate woodwork, stonework, and colors of the temples inspire every aspect of Thai heritage and the desire to transcend ordinary existence.

Mural Painting Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Mural Painting Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

High in the hills above Chiang Mai, the celebrated Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a jewel of design and color on the slopes of Doi Suthep mountain at an elevation of approximately 3200 feet. At the top of its steep 290-step staircase the climate is cool and refreshing, the views of the mountains of Chiangmai city and province are expansive, and the setting is idyllic.

With its location on the Ping River, Chiang Mai was on an ancient trade route between Laos and Burma, and its artisans have been renowned for producing goods with exacting style and quality for hundreds of years, and the enthusiasm remains today.

At 4 p.m. the famous “Sunday market” starts coming to life on the “walking street” in the heart of Chiang Mai. Vehicles are banned for the evening and the street fills with stalls full of jewelry, silk scarves, beads, stationery items, pottery, candles, and clothes, all at very good prices. There are also numerous places to stop for a foot massage and many, many food stalls.

These night markets are close to the hill tribes of the region, with their elegant handwoven and intensely colored costumes. The handwork of the hill tribes reflects generations of families whose skills, determination, and dependability make them participants in one the largest cottage industries in the world.

Although the hill tribes attract a huge amount of interest from tourists, they make up only about 2% of the population of Thailand. Most hill tribe people came from Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and China over the last century. The Thai government officially recognizes six major groups of hill tribes although there are more like 20 groups in all. The Karen tribe is the largest, numbering approximately 265,000. The second largest is the Hmong (also called Meo) and numbers approximately 80,000. Other tribes include the Akha, Lahu, Lisu, and Mien (or Yao).

Here is a beautiful world captured in gold the color of sunlight released into orchids, roses and leaves; silver transformed into the glyptic art of moonlight; intricate beads interlacing the exquisiteness of rare flowers; silk fusing a sense of sacred space with complex weaves and colors; cotton full of the color of trees and plants; and handmade “Sa” paper exuding the dream of an eternal light.

In the light of Chiang Mai, at this ancient crossroad of trade, the handwork of the hill tribes, the exchange of goods, the mountains, and the sacred wats, create a complex and beautiful mosaic of material and spiritual culture –a rich and enduring visual image.

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