The Cultural Heritage of Chiang Mai and North Thailand

Frans Betgem

Frans Betgem

Frans Betgem is a Dutch veteran in the travel industry in South East Asia. He is the founder of Green Trails and Chiang Mai a la Carte, amongst others. He also is the founder and admin of the Facebook group Chiang Mai Memories.

Table of Contents

The Tangible Cultural Heritage of Chiang Mai and North Thailand

What is Tangible Cultural Heritage?

Cultural Heritage is either tangible or intangible. The term tangible heritage refers in general to all the material traces such as archaeological sites, historical monuments, historical buildings and houses, artifacts, and objects that are significant to a community, a nation, or/and humanity. They can be considered significant to the archaeology, architecture, science, or technology of a specific culture. Tangible Cultural Heritage has a physical presence. They are therefore considered worthy of preservation for the future. 

Tourism contributes to the preservation of Tangible Cultural Heritage

Tourism and hospitality, be it well-managed and organized, can and should contribute to the preservation of Tangible Cultural Heritage. Below we have identified places that are worth visiting as well as preserving.

bicycle in front of ruined temple
Wat Ton Kork, Wiang Tha Kan

The Heritage of Chiang Mai

Buddhist Temples of Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai has more than 300 Buddhist temples and monasteries. Many of them are of great historical significance and some of them are important tourist attractions such as Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Chiang Man. These temples are located in the preservation area of the proposed UNESCO World Heritage.

Ruins of Wiang Kum Kam

The Tangible Heritage of Chiang Mai consists of ruins, buildings, temples, city walls, heritage houses, churches, and pagodas. I hope I didn’t forget anything. It should start of course with Wiang Kum Kam, the long-neglected first settlement with brick structures. King Mangrai founded Wiang Kum Kam in 1282AD. Temples in Lamphun predate those of Wiang Kum Kam. Only in the 1980s, Thai archaeologists started excavating Wiang Kum Kam. We highly recommend visiting the ruins of Wiang Kum Kam. Don’t forget to start with the very informative visitor center. Just click on the picture to go to the Wiang Kum Kam page.

Chiang Mai Heritage Houses

The Charoenprathet road runs parallel to the Ping River from Chang Klan to Thapae Roads. There are several significant historical places and heritage houses on this street. There are churches, mosques, schools, former consulates, and houses that are part of Chiang Mai’s tangible heritage. Just click on the picture to go to the Charoenprathet Heritage Houses.

After the opening of the railroad from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in 1922, Thapae Road became the center of economic activity in Chiang Mai. Most of the iconic houses on this street date from around that period. To learn more about the Thapae Road Heritage Houses, please click on the below picture.

Chiang Mai Historical Houses and Buildings

Chiang Mai Historical Houses and Buildings is a collection of significant houses and buildings in and around the old city. If you want to learn more about this, please click on the picture below.

Colonial style building Chiang Mai Historical Houses
Former British Consulate Chiang Mai in 1995. Picture by Albert Cosi

The Heritage of Lamphun

Buddhist and Monasteries of Lamphun

The small town of Lamphun has some very significant and historical temples such as Wat Hariphunchai, Wat Phra Yuen, and Wat Chamathewi aka Wat Kukut. In 2013 Lamphun was still included in the UNESCO World Heritage initiative with Chiang Mai under the banner: “Lamphun and Chiang Mai, twin cities”.

Lamphun Heritage Houses

Heritage houses and buildings of interest include the Khum Jow Yod Ruen, the Khum Sanpanthawong, and the Lamphun Railway Station.

Lamphun archaeological sites

Wiang Tha Kan is an ancient settlement and archaeological site, about 18 km southwest of Lamphun. It is a very interesting place if you go a bit further than the main ruin Wat Klang Wiang.

Ku Chang and Ku Ma, where the ashes of the elephant and horse of Queen Chamathewi are interred, are also sights of interest for the archaeological interested visitors.

Brick tower
Ku Chang in Lamphun

The Heritage of Lampang

Buddhist Temples and Monasteries of Lampang

Lampang has the largest collection of Shan and Burmese-influenced temple architecture in the country, besides Thai temple architecture. Examples of Burmese and Shan temple architecture are Wat Sri Chum, Wat Mon Pu Yak, and Wat Sri Rong Muang. Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang is one of the most famous Thai temples in North Thailand.

Lampang Heritage Houses

Lampang has a significant amount of heritage houses of which many dates back to the period in which the city was the center of the teak industry, roughly from1890 until 1941. These houses and buildings are Western, Burmese or Chinese influenced. Apart from those, there are many wooden, local-style houses. Examples are the Moung Ngwe Zin Building, the Baan Phraya Suren, the Louis T.Leonowens House,  but also the Lampang Railway Station.

Lampang archaeological sites

There are a number of archaeological sites in and around Lampang that attract few visitors such as Wat Phrathat Muen Kruen, the remains of the old city wall, and the Amok Tower.

Ruins of Buddhist temple
Ruins of Wat Phrathat Muen Khruen

Chiang Rai and Chiang Saen

Buddhist temples and monasteries

The city of Chiang Rai has a number of significant temples such as Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Phra Singh. It has recently added a couple of “new” Buddhist sites such as the Wat Huay Pla Kang and the Blue Temple. Wat Rong Khun is not a temple but an object of art. Wat Sang Kaew Photiyan is another recently constructed temple complex. Chiang Saen has several Buddhist temples of historical significance such as Wat Phra That Pha Ngao and Wat Chom Kitti.

Archaeological sites

The ancient walled city of Chiang Saen is the most significant archaeological site in Chiang Rai province. It is worth spending a night in Chiang Saen itself, which is a lovely place on the Mekong River. Apart from that the seldom-visited ruins of Wiang Lo are of interest. The city of Chiang Rai doesn’t have much archaeological interest, apart from Wat Fang Min.

Row of chedis
Small ruined chedis at Wat Fang Min

The Intangible Heritage of Chiang Mai and North Thailand

The Intangible Cultural Heritage of Chiang Mai and North Thailand

UNESCO defines Intangible Cultural Heritage manifested in the following domains:

1 – Oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage.

2 – Performing arts

3 – Social practices, rituals and festive events

4 – Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe

5 – Traditional craftsmanship

Markets and food we consider Living Heritage. Communities and religions we also consider Living Heritage. Examples are the Muslim community in Chiang Mai but also tribal and ethnic minority communities such as the hilltribes and groups such as Tai Lue, Tai Yuan, Lawa and others.

Dancing at old house
Candle Dance performance Lampang

The intangible Cultural Heritage of Chiang Mai

Tangible heritage is buildings, monuments, temples, houses, bridges, and so on. They are objects constructed by human beings. The intangible “living” Heritage of Chiang Mai is the culture of Chiang Mai. Examples of living heritage are festivals, markets, food, textiles, rituals, handicrafts, art, performing arts but also a means of transportation such as the samlor. Ethnic and religious diversity we also consider Living Heritage. Languages we consider Living Heritage too. We include ethnic groups such as the Lawa, Tai Lue, Tai Yai, Tai Ya, and all the tribal groups such as Akha, Hmong, and others as Living Heritage. Chiang Mai a la Carte is committed to the preservation of the tangible as well as intangible heritage of Chiang Mai and North Thailand.

Traditional dancing performance
Lanna dancing during Songkran

The Samlors of Chiang Mai

Samlor means “three wheels” in Thai, referring to the three wheels of this vehicle. The samlor is a bicycle taxi. It was introduced in Chiang Mai in the 1930s. Until the 1970s the samlor was an essential means of public transportation in the city. Motorized, polluting vehicles have pushed the samlor to the brink of extinction. The samlor is a Living Heritage of this city and should be protected. A samlor ride features in our Historical Walk, Samlor ride and Wat Doi Suthep tour, and Chiang Mai Food and Doi Suthep Temple Tour.

We offer a variety of great samlor tours under the brand Chiang Mai on Three Wheels.

The Markets and Walking Streets of Chiang Mai

Markets are treasure troves of Living Heritage. They are fascinating places you can visit. When superstores like Lotus and Big C opened, many people thought that this would spell the downfall of open public markets. Fortunately, this has not happened. Public fresh markets are as popular as they have ever been. The best markets are the Ton Lam Yai and Warorot Markets. The much smaller San Pakoy Market is also one of our favorites.

The introduction of weekly Walking Streets has been very successful. Nowadays most towns and cities in North Thailand have a “Walking Street”. The walking streets have become centers of Living Heritage. Many unique and locally made products are for sale. These are typically products you will not find in Department Stores or even at local markets. Another great example of a market we consider the Living Heritage of Chiang Mai is the San Patong Buffalo Market.

Food of Chiang Mai and North Thailand

The food of Chiang Mai and North Thailand is living heritage. There is a dazzling variety of dishes, snacks, sweets and other delicacies in Chiang Mai and North Thailand. Culinary influences are Chinese, Vietnamese, Burmese, Shan (Tai Yai), Indian, Arabic amongst others. Don’t leave Chiang Mai without having tasted the delicious Khao Soi, probably the signature dish of North Thailand. In our Chiang Mai Food and Doi Suthep Temple Tour, we offer you a glimpse of the many unique snacks and delicacies that are on offer on Chiang Mai Markets.

The ethnic groups of North Thailand

We consider the ethnic groups of North Thailand a part of our Living Heritage. Most people know about the hill tribes such as Akha, Lahu, Lisu, Karen, Yao, Palong, and Hmong. Green Trails has excellent information about these groups on its website.

Few people know about the LawaTai Yai, Tai Ya, Tai Khun, and the Tai Lue. Certain of their skill and handicrafts we consider Intangible Cultural Heritage, but as groups, we categorize them as Living Heritage. See also our People of North Thailand section.

Handicrafts of Chiang Mai and North Thailand

Chiang Mai is the handicraft capital of Thailand. You can find lacquerware, silverware, woodcarving, sa paper, textiles, celadon, and pottery, just to name a few of the handicrafts Chiang Mai has to offer. These are the most well-known handicrafts, but there are many more lesser-known. The seldom visited Chiang Mai Doll Making Centre and Doll Museum is a good example. Besides exhibiting a dazzling collection of dolls from all over the world, this place also handcrafts exquisite dolls in traditional dress.

For decades Bo Sang and road no.1006, from Chiang Mai to Sankamphaeng, were the centers of the so-called “Home Industries” and the umbrella and parasol industry. Many of the home industries were in fact shops with a small factory and were often deemed too commercial by visitors. Bo Sang is still worth visiting but most of the shops along to road to Sankamphaeng have closed. You still can make a great handicraft tour in Chiang Mai. We have picked and chosen a number of very interesting small factories.

Events and Festivals of North Thailand

The Songkran and Loy Krathong Festival are the two most popular annual events in Chiang Mai and North Thailand. Besides these, there are numerous other events and festivals that are worth mentioning. We limit ourselves to the most important events. Here you can find an overview of the festivals we have selected as Intangible Heritage of Chiang Mai.

Performing Arts of Chiang Mai and North Thailand

Traditional Music and Dance we consider Intangible Cultural Heritage of Chiang Mai and North Thailand. The Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre was the first venue that showcased traditional Thai and tribal music and dance. Old Chiang Mai, as it calls itself nowadays, was also the birthplace of the famous Chiang Mai Khantoke dinner.

During festivals, there are music and dance performances. Temple Fairs or Festivals usually feature traditional music and dance performances. Fingernail dance is prevalent.