A Tour of History
Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Center
Traveling is always more rewarding when you have an understanding of the history and culture of your destination. With some prior knowledge, all those monuments and landmarks become much more relevant. But if you don't have the time or inclination to read up on the history of Chiangmai and northern Thailand, one of the first places you should visit here is the city Arts & Cultural Center.
The center opened only a few months ago in the historical building on Prapokklao Road in the very center of the old city. The building itself is significant because it was built in 1924 as the central administrative office of northern Thailand before the country united in 1933. Then it was used until very recently as the Provincial Hall of Chiangmai until the municipality renovated it for the cultural center in 1997. Visitors won't be surprised to know that the restoration of this elegant building earned the municipality an award from the Royal Society of Siamese Architects in 1999.
The actual site of the Arts & Cultural Center is on the original "navel of the city". On any map of the old city, you will find it almost smack-dab-in-the-middle of the square. During the height of the Lanna Kingdom's last royal dynasty, the site was used for the royal hall. The Chedi of the City Navel was built here in the 13th century, and still stands on the south side of the building. It was originally built in the Haripunchai (Lamphun) style but has been restored and renovated throughout the city's history. This historic site also housed the ancient Inthakhin city pillar before it was moved to nearby Wat Chedi Luang.
The Three Kings Monument in front of the building commemorates the three 13th century kings who chose the auspicious site for the "new city" of Chiangmai.
Walk to the front entrance behind the Three Kings Monument into this fully modernized multi-media history and cultural education center. Guides dressed in elegant traditional Thai clothing will usher you into an air-conditioned room to watch an English-subtitled orientation video about Chiangmai and the north. Next, you will be pointed to a series of rooms documenting the region's history and culture in chronological order from the pre-Muang period (7,000-12,000 years ago) to the early river civilizations, to the early kings through the wars with the Burmese and the last dynasty, to the city today and its plans for the future. Other rooms are devoted to Buddhism and other regional beliefs, agricultural history, hill tribe peoples and other regional cultures, and a run-down of the royal dynasties. The exhibits consist of a smart visual mix of video, scale models, enlarged photos, wall murals and text in Thai and English.
Visitors might gain new insight into why Chiangmai is the longest, continually inhabited city in present day Thailand. Most guidebooks can't tell you the city site was chosen by three regional kings who based their decision on ancient intellectual wisdom, signs from the Zodiac, and the intuitions of animals. You will also gain insight into the significance of certain Chiangmai traditions, like why the people pray at the Inthakin Pillar each May for the city's continued long life.
Some especially enjoying exhibits include the wonderful scale models of how the city looked along the banks of the Mae Ping River only a hundred years ago. Then, life-sized models of Chinese and Thai merchant shops, a traditional Lanna house and a northern Thai market, and the inside of a Buddhist wiharn. On the second floor, visit the central room where the governor welcomed important guests on special occasions. If you happen to be near a guide, he or she can tell you that Thailand's King Vajiravuth (Rama VI) once slept in this room.
For great scale maps of present day Chiangmai and development plans over the next 20 years, visit the "Chiang Mai in the Future" room. Most of the information is in Thai, but a guide will be happy to explain which parts of the city are represented, so you can imagine how Tha Phae Gate may look 20 years from now. The room is adorned with fences, benches and signposts in the style of tomorrow.
The cultural center is located in the very center of the old city on Prapokklao Road between Rajdumnern Road and Rajwithee Road. If travelling by tuk-tuk or songtheaw, it's easiest to ask for the "Three Kings Monument" (Saam Kasat). The cultural center is in the large, elegant white building just behind the statue.
The museum is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. except on Mondays. Admission is 90 baht. Tel: (053) 217-793.