Chiang Mai, Capital of Lanna

Photo by Shandos Cleaver.

Monuments, Sites and Cultural Landscape of Chiang Mai, Capital of Lanna is part of the Tentative list of Thailand in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.

Chiang Mai is a city in landlocked northern Thailand, established in AD 1296 by King Mangrai as the new capital of the Lanna Kingdom, "Kingdom of a million rice fields". A rectangular-shaped fortified city, it was designed to symbolize a human figure. The site consists of Chiang Mai's inner and outer walls, gates, moats and many of its temples, plus the surrounding cultural landscape.

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The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.

Community Reviews

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Els Slots

The Netherlands - 18-Feb-23 -

Chiang Mai, Capital of Lanna (T) by Els Slots

The subtitle ‘Capital of Lanna’ discloses the common thread of this future nomination: Lan Na, the long independent Northern Thai state which developed the fortified city of Chiang Mai as its capital from the 13th til the 18th century. Chiang Mai in the past decades has rediscovered itself and found the need to distinguish itself from Bangkok and ‘mainstream’ Thailand. A lot of effort has been put into the restoration of its monuments, which had lain in the rubble for a long time.

I read up a bit beforehand on Lanna art and architecture, but for a non-expert the differences with the classic Thai Buddhist structures are subtle. Teak is often used in construction, and typical buildings have steep overlapping roofs. Overall they show stronger Burmese influences.

In February 2023 I went to all 4 locations that are now considered to be in scope according to the latest information presented at the Forum, which differs from the official TWHS description.

On my first day in Chiang Mai, I visited some 10 temples that all lie within the walled old city or close to it. I still walked 12.6 km! The remains of the city wall itself aren’t much to look at, the wide moat however is still fully present and filled with water.

My Top 4 of these temples consist of:

  1. Wat Chedi Luang: huge brick chedi (originally 82m high), with a lot of interesting smaller shrines and temples surrounding it. The chedi was partly restored in the 1990s and sparked controversy as it was done more in a Thai than a Lanna style. The pretty teakwood Wat Phan Toa next door is also worth visiting.
  2. Wat Lok Moli: has fine sculptures and a teak wooden pavilion with stained glass. At the bare brick chedi in the back, there is an intriguing gilded bird on a wire with which you can shuttle holy water to the Buddha statue at the top.
  3. Wat Suan Dok: at the entrance, there is a large group of smaller, white chedis similar to what can be seen in Myanmar. They contain the ashes of members of the royal family of Chiang Mai. The main temple is enormous and has an open structure.
  4. Wat Pra Singh: this is the big golden one in the heart of the old city, I believe all other photos submitted so far to the site page are of this location.

On the morning of the second day, I hit the 2 locations further away. Doi Suthep is a sacred mountain 15km outside of the city. I took a GrabTaxi up there and he waited for the return trip. I arrived relatively early at 9.30 a.m., but it was very busy as it’s a clear favourite with tour groups. I found it too kitschy.

On the way back to town I let the taxi drop me at Wat Ched Yot – undeniably the most atmospheric of all temples included. The complex is modelled after the Mahabodhi Temple in India: there are clear Indian influences in the decoration and there is an old Bodhi tree on the premises.

So far, all 22 voters have given Chiang Mai a ‘thumbs up’ for inscription, the highest support overall for a TWHS. While I did not find it great, several of the individual temples are surely worth visiting and all are in good repair. They are also still in active use which adds positively to the visitor experience. As Chiang Mai is a modern, large city the setting of it all isn’t as beautiful as in its closest comparator Luang Prabang, and we’ve got the Ancient Cities of Upper Myanmar somewhere in the queue which I also would rank higher than Chiang Mai.

Read more from Els Slots here.

Jakob Frenzel

Germany - 29-May-20 -

Chiang Mai, Capital of Lanna (T) by Jakob Frenzel

July 2016 - after a few day sidetrip to Cambodia we headed north by bus to Chiang Mai. Its probably the capital of cats. In every corner, at every temple they were appearing and made for some nice pictures. In the one times one km of the old city there about 40 temples if i remeber correctly. We borrowed  bikes and took a whole day to visit as many as possible. some are marvelous, some are antique, some just have a nice atmosphere. Besides the temples there is also quite a lot of street art and it is a very green and quite city. Next day we drove up to Doi suthep, to see the winter palace and the most south-eastern  foothills of the Himalaya. for Thailand it was our highlight, and there would be much more to discover north of the city. But we still wanted to visit some more WHS sights and headed further south again.

Chiang Mai is also a good place to visit one of the elephant camps. Although it appears as a cheap tourist attraction, spending the day with baby elephants in the nearby jungle, is quite an adventure.


Philippines - 08-Sep-19 -

Chiang Mai, Capital of Lanna (T) by GabLabCebu

Chiang Mai is such a rich city. I don't mean this economically, but culturally. The Lanna nation, although they speak the same language as the rest of Thailand, seems almost a world away. Despite the core similarities in food, it's the differences that stick out. Likewise, despite the core similarities in temple architecture, it's the differences that stick out. I visited Chiang Mai for 3 days back in July 2018, this time not just with my family, but with a group of my parents' college friends too. While the private car and driver in Chiang Mai were a nice change, this turned out to be quite a burden to my in-depth, fast-paced, no-nonsense way of travel, so unfortunately, all I got of the site was a visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and a night at the market within the Old City Walls and Historic Centre of Chiang Mai, which did, at least give me a good idea of the site and its highlight, Doi Suthep Temple (sorry, the name is just so long, so I'm sticking with this from now on).

Doi Suthep is a mountain overlooking the city and was our first stop upon arriving in Chiang Mai. Doi Suthep Temple seems to be on the peak, which took us about 30 minutes drive from the base of the mountain due to a traffic jam, and it would really be quite a long walk if one doesn't have a vehicle to ride. At the entrance, you may pay extra for a ride up the elevator, or you can climb up the 300 or so steps, lined with naga snakes as railings, to the temple itself. Either way, you reach the outside of the complex, which by itself is full of smaller shrines and interesting details for you to notice, whether it's the long line of bells, the many elephant statues, all the golden architecture, or the hideous dragon statue labeled "Mom". Dont forget the great view of Chiang Mai, if it's not too cloudy as it was when I visited, off to the back right of the complex.

To enter the inner complex, everyone must remove their footwear and cover all the knees and shoulders as respect to the holy site. And respect it sure deserves! After climbing a few stairs, I looked in awe at the view. A huge golden chedi rises in the center of the square open area, with a strange golden umbrella standing much lower beside it, but both tower over my head. While the rain was unfortunate, my socks strangely remained relatively dry. This was a holy place. It's a sanctuary, and I wandered aimlessly around, trying to take in all the other details of art and architecture as the rest of the group took selfie after selfie. The building complexes were a lot like the temples I'd seen in Bangkok, but they were all warmly colored and ornamented with gold. The intricate patterns of the facades were decidedly Lanna, I noticed despite having never been acquainted with the culture beforehand. Buddhas of various sizes and materials, including glass, littered the place, inside and outside the halls. 

Finally finished with their photoshoot, my group went out, and I promptly followed. However, while waiting to leave, a tall white American (I assume based on language), ran out of the inner complex, screaming. He started to seemingly have seizures while attacking the officials trying to subdue him, eventually ripping his pants (unfortunately with no underwear underneath) and seeming to go unconsious after being doused with water and immobilized. To this day, I still don't know what happened to him to cause that and what happened to him afterwards. 

Anyway, on our last night, we had our dinner in the Sunday Walking Street, basically the night market, which truly did have everything imaginable for sale. First things first, I absolutely recommend trying the various Lanna dishes on offer at the market. But 2 important things to note: that the walking street starts at Tha Pae Gate, where I saw what seemed to be a pretty well-preserved part of the brick walls surrounding the old city; and that the group of food stalls and tables are located on the grounds of a temple, whose stupa reminded me a lot of that of Doi Suthep Temple. The temple interiors are, of course, closed during this time.

I really hope I can, one day, return to this great city to explore more of the temples and old town. But for now, I'm happy with what I've experienced, and that experience has lead me to conclude that this unique and rich center of the Lanna culture and its stunning monuments deserve to be a World Heritage Site.

Shannon O'Donnell

USA - 06-Aug-18 -

Chiang Mai, Capital of Lanna (T) by Shannon O'Donnell

After just one visit to Chiang Mai, I knew that it was easily one of my favorite places in the entire country. I spent a year in living in there and it truly is the “Rose of the North,” as they like to say. Chiang Mai holds the heartbeat of Lanna Thai culture, which is actually quite different from the culture and food of southern Thailand.

One of the key reasons to visit is for the well-preserved culinary history present that represent all of the influences neighboring regions and countries have had on Thailand over the centuries. In the streets of Chiang Mai, it was easy to sample both traditional Northern Thai food, Issan dishes, and cuisine from neighboring Burma (Northern Thailand has a large population of Burmese refugees, and this presence is evident in the food selection and the Burmese markets taking place all of the Chiang Mai region. 

The food is what attracts, but it's the fascinating range of cultural groups and ethnic minorities that keep it interesting for those keen to really explore the nuances of the Lanna Thai Kingdom. Head to a market on the outskirts of town and you are likely to find a bustling place where food, flavors, and cultures combine. One of my favorite parts of living there was undertaking a coffee journey that operated as a Thai social enterprise in the city, and strove to help tourists culturally engage and understand the unique culture. 

Then there are the sheer number of temples, which really can't be overstated. Chiang Mai is dense with temples and they represent a range of time periods and themes. Monk chats at the temples in town are a great way to delve into that side of the culture, or just renting a bike and cycling to each one is a highlight too. 

I loved my time in the Chiang Mai and highly recommend that all travelers head to this region as it's the best window into the Thai culture. 

Read more from Shannon O'Donnell here.

Ralf Regele

Germany - 23-Mar-17 -

Chiang Mai, Capital of Lanna (T) by Ralf Regele

Chiang Mai is a major tourist hub in northern thailand, especially for the backpacking crowd. Luckily, it is also very beautiful, with lots and lots of temples and ruins scattered around the town. I spent the whole day just walking from temple to temple in the core of the old city, but skipped the more out-of-town elements. The temple architecture seems to be more varied and playful than the more majestic ones in Bangkok, which was fine for me. Most temples are active places of worship and not just tourist ruins, so the place feels quite lively. With its sheer beauty and high concentration of interesting buildings, Chiang Mai seems to be a worthy candidate for a WHS, although I am not sure if each and every component of the voluminous proposal is necessary.

Visited in January 2014

Importance 4/5 Beauty 5/5 Uniqueness 4/5 Environment 3/5 Experience 5/5

Full Name
Monuments, Sites and Cultural Landscape of Chiang Mai, Capital of Lanna
Urban landscape - Asian
2015 Added to Tentative List

The site has 4 locations

Chiang Mai, Capital of Lanna: The cultural landcape of the old city of Chiang Mai. (T)
Chiang Mai, Capital of Lanna: Wiang Suan Dok District (T)
Chiang Mai, Capital of Lanna: Wat Chet Yot, Phra Aram Luang (T)
Chiang Mai, Capital of Lanna: Doi Suthep-Pui National Park (T)
WHS 1997-2024