The first of several heritage walks
After almost two years of Covid-induced hibernation, a small group of intrepid individuals met to look into Chiang Mai’s history as part of the Payap University Lifelong Learning programme. The walk, led by Graham Jefcoate, focussed on the east bank of the Ping River. This was where Chiang Mai’s early farang (foreign) residents – an odd mix of missionaries and mercenaries – lived and worked in the late 19th century.
The walk began opposite the former First Church of Chiang Mai, which is now part of the Chiang Mai Christian School. It was designed and erected in the 1880s by Marion Cheek, a medical missionary turned teak trader who was one of the city’s most colourful foreign residents. Besides this church, he was responsible for building the first sturdy bridge over the river and the city’s first hospital.
Next stop was the current First Church of Chiang Mai, which occupies spacious grounds just north of Nawarat Bridge. The strong presence of Christianity in this once-remote outpost of Asia was due to the efforts of Dr Daniel McGilvary, who established the Laos Presbyterian Mission in 1868. Beneath the modern church, a small museum displays old books, pianos and watercolours depicting early events in the mission’s history.
Charoenrat Road, which runs parallel to the east side of the river, is lined with trendy shops, cute lodgings and popular night spots such as the Riverside and the Good View. While it’s an interesting area to explore, the road is narrow and busy, and lacks pavements (sidewalks), so it is not at all pedestrian friendly.
The exploratory tour stopped for a coffee break in the grounds of Baan Orapin – an attractive, shuttered colonial building that has stood for over a century. Incidentally, with teak furnishings and local textiles decorating its rooms, it’s one of the most atmospheric places to stay for out-of-towners.
From there the walk escaped the busy riverside road to go through Wat Ketkaram, commonly known as Wat Gate. This is the hub of the local community and contains all the typical features of a Thai temple compound – an assembly hall, ordination hall, stupa and bo tree, as well as a small teak museum. The buildings are lavishly decorated, particularly the ordination hall with its bas-reliefs of mythical beasts.
Probably the highlight of the walk was a wander round the grounds of 137 Pillars House, a luxury hotel that incorporates the former office of the Borneo Company as its centrepiece. Along with the Bombay and Burmah Trading Company, the Borneo Company made massive profits during a teak boom in the late 19th century.
The original occupant of 137 Pillars was Louis Leonowens, who worked for a while as Agent for the Borneo Company in Chiang Mai. He was the son of Anna Leonowens, whose book The English Governess at the Siamese Court brought her notoriety and is still banned in Thailand, although the films based on it, The King and I (1956) and Anna and the King (1999) were hugely popular in the West.
Last stop on this walk was a small museum-cum-antique shop called the Dragon and Phoenix, which houses some striking examples of traditional clothes and accessories from all across Asia. These include some lavish Chinese costumes, Java batiks, Japanese kimonos, French and English silver mesh purses and Lomi Akha headdresses laden with silver.
After this short exploration of Chiang Mai’s past, participants were left looking forward to further excursions into the rich cultural history of this ancient city. For more information about upcoming Heritage Walks, visit lllpayap.com.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.