An ancient moat and the remains of a red-brick city wall still surround the Old Town of Chiang Mai, which was built 700 years ago by the Lanna king Mangrai to be the kingdom's capital. In the 14th century, Lanna's golden age, the kingdom spanned the area that is now northern Thailand. The word Lanna (sometimes spelled Lan Na) -- "the country of a million rice fields" -- is still used to describe the region's architecture and cuisine.
Today, Chiang Mai's Old Town seems chockablock with tourist traps: nondescript hotels, trendy cafes, backpacker bars and tattoo parlors. Venture down its many soi (lanes or alleys), however, and another Old Town emerges, one of charming wooden houses and leafy gardens clustered around peaceful, centuries-old wats, or Buddhist temples, that still serve as spiritual and social community centers.
This tour, which begins at a traditional morning market and ends at a revered wat, skirts main streets and sticks to soi that crisscross parts of the Old Town, where life proceeds at the slow pace of long-ago decades. Along the way you'll take in religious and cultural attractions, make a couple of shopping stops and sample some Lanna cuisine.
Sunscreen is a must if you're visiting during the dry season (November through May); otherwise, bring an umbrella. Slip-on shoes will make touring wats easier. Bottled water can be purchased en route, as can delicious and energizing cut tropical fruits and fresh-squeezed orange juice sold from curbside carts. Soi are numbered and appended to the name of the major street that they run off (not all soi, however, have clear signs); and most street signs appear in the Latin alphabet as well as Thai script.
8:30 A.M. SOMPHET MARKET
Somphet Market, at the mouth of Thanon Moon Muang Soi 6 (in Thai, thanon means road), is a lively jumble of stalls selling fresh ingredients and prepared delicacies. It's the perfect introduction to northern Thailand's distinctive cuisine, which dotes on pork, incorporates unusual cultivated and wild herbs and vegetables, and features sticky (glutinous) rice as the main starch. Just outside the market along either side of Soi 6 are cubbyhole shops serving soup noodles and khao tom (rice porridge with pork or chicken). Vendors display luscious grilled pork sausages, packets of sticky rice and vegetables to eat with nam prik (dips), plus Thai sweets like sticky rice with coconut custard wrapped in a banana leaf and miniature banana breads. A short walk up the soi is Real Coffee, a pleasant cafe where you can sit inside or out and wash down your breakfast with a cappuccino.
9:30 A.M. WAT UMONG MAHATHEN
Continue west on Soi 6 until you reach the first cross soi. Then turn left onto this soi, which doesn't have a sign. You'll pass a clutch of teeny cafes, bars and massage and tattoo parlors, though most are closed at this early hour. The soi ends at relatively busy Thanon Ratrithi. Turn right, and then left at the first intersection, which is Ratchapakhinai Road.
A few steps up the block is Wat Umong Mahathen, which was completed in the late 14th century. The Lanna origins of its small viharn (the main prayer and meeting room of a wat) are evident in the tiered, flaring roofline. A series of colorful murals inside, starting above the entrance and continuing clockwise, depict the Buddha's many past lives. More murals decorate the walls of the wat's ubosot, or ordination hall.
10 A.M. WAT DUANG DI
Exit Wat Umong Mahathen through its rear gate and you'll be on a short soi that ends at Wat Duang Di, a late-15th century temple. Stop at the cafe Baan Rimruan, consisting of several tables set in a garden fronting a quaint wooden house on your left. The owners, a friendly elderly couple, serve cold drinks and sometimes also light dishes.
Wat Duang Di (its name translates as "Good Luck Monastery") features a tall, narrow viharn set in an enclosure of mature longan trees, an Asian variety that begins to bear clusters of golden brown, litchi-like fruit in April or May.
Adorned with beautiful gilded-wood carvings outside, the viharn is rather plain within -- more in keeping with central-Thai architectural style than northern. For instance, there are no supporting pillars; the roof is supported by thick wooden crossbeams instead. Note the square, stucco structure with a three-tier roof to the left of the viharn; it's a repository for historic scriptures.
10:30 A.M. CHIANG MAI CITY ARTS AND CULTURAL CENTER
From Wat Duang Di, turn left and go along the curving soi; after a few minutes you'll hit busy Thanon Phra Pokklao. Across the street is the Three Kings Monument, which portrays Mangrai (sometimes spelled Mengrai) with his allies, the kings of Sukothai and Phayao, as they discuss the layout of his new capital.
The grand early 20th-century building behind the monument once housed provincial offices and is now the Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Center (open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Mondays; admission $2.70). Though not all of the Center's exhibits -- which document the area's history from pre-Chiang Mai to modern times -- have signs in English, many include English-language audio guides. Don't miss the short video clips of elderly Chiang Mai residents describing daily life in the city, back in the days before it gained a spot on the international tourist map.
11:30 A.M. WAT PHAN TAO AND WAT CHEDI LUANG
Head south on Thanon Phra Pokklao. When you reach Thanon Ratchadamnoen, cross diagonally to the intersection's southeast corner, where the Lanna Architecture Center (open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., closed weekends; free admission) is partially hidden by a white stucco wall.
The late-19th-century building, restored and maintained by Chiang Mai University's architecture faculty, is a lovely combination of Western colonial and Lanna architecture, with grand arches on its ground floor and an upper level built in the style of a traditional Chiang Mai wood house. Rotating exhibits about Lanna architecture are staged in a small gallery on the upper level.
Exit the Architecture Center and turn left, retracing your steps to Thanon Phra Pokklao, and cross the street to Wat Phan Tao, which is much admired for its teakwood viharn, one of the last all-wood wat buildings in Chiang Mai.
The structure, formerly a royal residence, was moved to the temple grounds in 1875. Above its entrance is a large carving depicting a peacock -- the symbol of Chiang Mai kings -- over a curled-up dog, the zodiac animal for its former royal resident, Chao Mahawong, who ruled from 1846-54. Inside are wooden pillars lacquered a striking crimson; a large, low platform with rows of brass bowls (monks gather here for prayers); and rustic block-printed prayer flags suspended from the ceiling behind a statue of a serenely smiling Buddha.
Next door is Wat Chedi Luang, the Monastery of the Great Stupa. In 1411, when it was completed, the temple was the largest building in Lanna. Legend has it that it was built after King Saen Muang Ma had a vision to build a chedi as high as a dove could fly. (A chedi or stupa, sometimes called a pagoda, is a dome-shaped shrine meant to hold the ashes of an important person.)
This religious monument is still largely intact. Its 60-meter- high stepped chedi (the original rose 90 meters) was built to enshrine the remains of King Saen Muang Ma's father. At the chedi's east side, monks wait on benches to talk with visitors. At "Monk Chat," as it is known, you can find out about monastery life while the monks practice their English. Above the benches, a sign says, "If you only look and walk away we feel disappointed."
Wat Chedi Luang also boasts an auspicious view of sacred Doi Suthep (Mount Suthep), a famous pilgrimage site in Thailand for the temple Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which sits on the slopes of the mountain.
12:30 P.M. HUEN PHEN
Time for lunch. Exit Wat Chedi Luang through its back gate, turn left and continue to Huen Phen (112 Thanon Ratchamanka; lunch for two, $7). Opened more than 30 years ago as a street stall selling somtam (green papaya salad), this casual restaurant specializes in northern Thai dishes. Place your order at the counter before sitting down.
Good bets include the laab khua (chopped pork with fresh herbs and dried spices, served with fresh vegetables); jaw pakkat (pork and flowering mustard in a sour turmeric-scented broth);nam prik ong (tomato and pork relish reminiscent of Italian meat ragu) or nam prik num(pounded roasted green chilies), moo tawt (crispy fried pork), and saa makhya, or roasted eggplant salad. Somtam is a must here, and eat everything with sticky rice -- but skip the khao soi (noodles in coconut curry soup); there are better places in town to sample this classic Chiang Mai dish.
2P.M. WAT MAE TANG
From Huen Phen cross Ratchamanka Road (sometimes spelled Rachamankha), walk to the right a few meters, and duck down Ratchamanka Soi 6, on your left. Turn west (right) at Samlarn Soi 7 and continue walking across the main street. You'll pass Wat Puak Hom, with its crumbling chedi and somewhat neglected, scrubby grounds, and hit a "T" in the road; turn right here.
If you're in the mood for pottery shopping, turn left at Samlarn Soi 6. Mengrai Kilns, at number 79/2, is a sprawling shop overflowing with celadon and other ceramic styles to suit every taste and budget and it can arrange shipping. Otherwise, cross the street and keep straight, then take a left at the "T." Soon you're back on Ratchamanka, where you can have your future told by a fortune-wheel-wielding woman to your right and, just beyond, taste kafe booran (Thai coffee made the old-fashioned way, in a sock drip; booran means "ancient") at a roadside stall. Or stop at Wat Mae Tang, where two energetic myna birds -- a starling indigenous to Southeast Asia -- recite a steady chorus of "sawatdee jao," a common northern Thai greeting.
2:30 P.M. TAI-LUE PRINCESS
Cross Ratchamanka and continue straight ahead. After passing the Northern Thai School for the Blind you'll emerge onto Samlarn Soi 1, where more tempting local crafts await, if you turn right, at Tai-Lue Princess (31/9 Samlarn Soi 1). The shop's textiles -- made by those members of the Tai-Lue ethnic minority group, originally from China's Yunnan province who now live in northern Thailand -- come in eye-popping colors like magenta, orange, lime green and turquoise, a change of pace from the neutral-hued textiles available elsewhere in town. A striped cottonpatoong (woman's long sarong) costs less than $20; a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind, hand-embroidered silk wall hanging that took two to three years to make costs $6,000.
3 P.M. WAT PHRA SINGH
Continue east on Samlarn Soi 1. If, by now, your feet are tired, stop at The Oasis Spa for a foot massage (4 Thanon Samlarn; 66-539-20111; best to reserve two hours in advance). The entrance is through a wooden gate at the corner of Thanon Samlarn.
Otherwise, turn left at the corner of Thanon Samlarn and walk about five minutes to Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai's principal monastery. Built in 1345, it is most famous as the home of the Phra Singh image, a venerated Buddha figure of the north.
Skip the large central viharn -- it's relatively new, having been constructed in the 1920s, and not particularly appealing -- and head for the charming small viharn located nearby (if you're facing the central viharn, the smaller one is to the left).
Called the Viharn Lai Kham (the "gold-patterned" viharn) and built in the mid-14th century, the smaller prayer and meeting room boasts a dramatic, flared triple-tiered roof and a brilliantly gilded and carved facade. Inside walls are adorned with early 19th-century murals illustrating tales from the "Jataka," a body of literature from India about the previous lives of the Buddha.
Just behind the small viharn is a tall chediwith, carvings of elephants along its square base. On one side is a hand-cranked pulley that carries a bottle of water to the top, where the container then turns upside down and douses the chedi. End your tour by leaving a donation in the box, and gain merit by giving the chedi a bath.—Robyn Eckhardt is a writer in Kuala Lumpur.http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125679593594815345.html