Chang Mai Street Photography and Buddhist Temples
Thailand´s Steadfast Appreciation for Beauty
Sitting upon the north section of Thailand is a mountainous region beloved for its misty mornings, lush green forest, and unique cultural and natural attractions: cascading peaks and valleys that unit northern Thailand with the peoples and the cultures of neighboring Myanmar, Laos and southwestern China.
The fertile river valleys amongst these mountains were populated by traders and migrants from the Yúnnán province of China, which left a cultural legacy that still survives today and shows in traditional food, architecture and customs.
This ancient Yúnnán province eventually became the independent state known as Lanna Thai, or “Million Thai Rice Fields”, and established its capital in Chang Mai, a charming northern city rich in beautiful Buddhist temples.
Folk Culture in Chang Mai
Chang Mai´s old city is a neat square bounded by a moat and the remnants of a medieval-style wall built 700 years ago to defend its people against Burmese invaders. Inside this old district, Chang Mai is a quiet world of family-run guest houses, leafy gardens, friendly smiles, Buddhist temples and popular folk culture.
A great way to get an overall idea of Chang Mai and Thailand´s general culture is to visit Chang Mai´s Night Bazaar (7pm to midnight), a direct descendant of the original Yunnanese trading caravans that stopped here along the ancient trade route between China and Myanmar.
Today, commerce in Chang Mai´s Night Bazaar sprawls over several blocks and includes itinerant vendor carts and covered buildings. The market offers a huge variety of northern Thai handicrafts, souvenirs, street food and lots of people watching and culture absorbing. It is also the stage for music festivals and other local activities that are especially enjoyable.
Ancient Traditions Prevail in Thailand´s New Generations
Modern Westernized Thailand
The People of Chang Mai
In general, Thailand has a split personality:
On the one hand, we have the highly westernized urban Thais in major cities like Bangkok and Chang Mai, and, on the other, the rural farming communities more in tune with the ancient rhythms of life.
Regardless of this divide, several persisting costumes offer a rough snapshot of daily life, which is tightly unified by the moral and spiritual values comprehended in their religious beliefs.
Alongside the national flag flies the yellow flag of Buddhism, specifically “Theravada Buddhism” (see yellow flag in the picture on the right, where a Music and Dance Talent Show for young Thais is taking place at the Night Bazaar). This yellow wavy symbol can be seen everywhere and reminds us how closely related is Buddhism to every aspect of Thais daily life. Country, family and mundane affairs are all married to religion.
Thai´s cultural ideals are based on Buddhist principles, called blessings, and include humility, gratitude and filial piety. These golden rules are translated into many social conventions such as “saving face”, a unifying element in many Asian cultures in which confrontation is avoided and people do their best to avoid embarrassing themselves or other people in public.
An important component of saving face is knowing one´s place in society: all relationships in Thai society are governed by conventions of social rank defined by age, wealth, status, and personal and political power.
To understand more about Theravada Buddhism and the way it influences and is present in every aspect of Thai´s culture, the article Buddhism in Thailand and How it Molds Thais' Personality goes further into this topic and has some great graphic examples in beautifully charming pictures.
Chang Mai´s Old City Temples
Chang Mai´s primary attractions are the old city´s historic and holy temples that show off distinctive northern Thai architecture, which is a blend of Thai, Burmese and Yunnanese influences. A few standout features include:
- intricate carved gables,
- colorful exterior mosaics,
- Singha lions guarding the entrances, and
- octagonal high-based "chedi(s)" (an alternative term for a Buddhist stupa, mainly used in Thailand).
See photographs below for examples of these northern Thailand´s architectural features.
Buddhist Chapels at Wat Chedi Luang, Old City Chang Mai
Chang Mai Buddhist Temple “Wat Chedi Luang”Click thumbnail to view full-size
Some of Chang Mai´s Old City Buddhist Temples
- Wat Chedi Luang contains the restored ruins of a huge chedi dating from 1441 that was partially destroyed. The venerable Emerald Buddha, now housed in Bangkok´s Wat Phra Kaew was housed here in 1475. Today, the temple´s main attraction is the "làk meuang" or city pillar, believed to house the city´s guardian deity.
- Wat Phan Tao a very pretty temple constructed entirely of moulded teak panels fitted together and supported by 28 gargantuan teak pillars. The wíhǎan (Buddhist monastery)also features naga (serpent deities in Hindu and Buddhist mythology) as well as bargeboards inset with colored mirror mosaics.
- Wat Phra Singh is the star amid the old city´s treasured temples and is a perfect example of Lanna architecture. Established in 1345, it houses the city´s revered Buddha image, Phra Singh, which is the focal point for the religious festivities of “Songkran” (Thai New Year / Water Festival) in mid April.
Buddhist Temple "Wat Chiang Man"
Colorful Exterior Mosaics Characteristic of Northern Thailand Architecture
- Wat Chiang Man is the oldest Buddhist wat within Chiang Mai´s city walls and was erected by King Mengrai, Chang Mai´s founder, in 1296. Two famous Buddha images are kept here: “Phra Sila” and “Phra Satang Kamanee”or the Crystal Buddha, which is believed to have the power to bring seasonal rain. Wat Chiang Man has acharacteristic “chedi” and sculpted elephants, distinctive of northern Thai architecture.
- Wat Meh Thang is one of a kind amongst the many Buddhist Temples of Old Chang Mai. It comprises a religious complex rich with colorful chapels, stupas and mythological sculptures that portray all the beauty that the Buddhist spiritual world can inspire. This particular temple has examples of the colorful exterior mosaics, scrupulously sculpted gables and Singha lions guarding the entrance of religious buildings, all three characteristic features found in northern Thailand´s temples.
Singha Lions Guarding the Entrance to one of the Buddhist Chapels of Wat Meh Thang in Old Chang Mai
Buddhist Art in Chang Mai
A tour through Chang Mai´s Old City will enable you to have a glimpse of all the many art forms having to do with Buddhist religion developed in the northern region of Thailand. From timeless architecture, sculpture, paintings and decorative arts, to fleeting artistic offerings made with flowers and other transient elements, every one of them has an interesting aesthetic and is worth having a look at.
If you are interested in Buddhist art, you can also compare northern Thailand´s architectural and design features with the ones developed in Bangkok by taking a look at the following article, which covers the capital´s main Buddhist Temples: Buddhist Art in Thailand, Bangkok´s Main Buddhist Temples.
Otherwise, the streets of Bangkok also offer an open air museum in which to experience folk culture, submerge and absorb how ancient traditions have mingled with western influences and globalized modernity to create what Thailand is today.
Chang Mai: Festivals, Buddhist Temples, Nature and Traditions
More by this Author
A detailed outline of northern Vietnam’s most charming little town “Sapa”, an old French station surrounded by dramatic slopped mountains where autochthonous tribes still hold a basic agriculture-oriented...
Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Vietnam. Includes ancient grottos, Cat Ba National Park, map, and plenty of photographs.
The book Half the Sky by journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn exposes sex slavery (girls trafficking & forced prostitution) and gives solutions for empowering women to change their lives.