Thailand displays some very distinct and refined culture, developed over the centuries from early Lanna flourishing through to the golden ages of Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and beyond. This includes costume, dance, music, social graces – such as the famous wai greeting – along with architecture, religious art, woodcarving, and more. Chiang Mai is one of the best tourist destinations in Thailand to experience these.
Even in the modern era, the Thais, who have a knack for creativity and aesthetics, have stamped their own identity with some commendable contemporary design. As a result, the city has a very attractive art and craft trade, often involving traditional methods that have been passed down through generations. Festivals, like Songkran and Loy Krathong (Yee Peng), are uniquely experienced in the city, while art, dance, religious art, and even the colourful hill tribes, are commonly on display.
The Lanna Kingdom can be regarded as the cradle of Thai culture, seeing as it came into being and flourished long before the greater kingdoms that followed. Under the patronage of King Mengrai in the 14th century, Lanna art blossomed as influences from the existing Mon culture were blended with artisans imported from Shan states (Burma).
Later, the influence of monks returning from Sri Lanka, as well as the neighbouring Burma and Lan Xang kingdoms, added to the style. Even the Khmer art, which was the great influence of the time, has seeped into Northern artistic expression. The region of northern Thailand, however, remained semi-autonomous through to the early 20th century and consequently developed and preserved many unique aspects of culture.
Northern Thailand is also uniquely the home to a variety of interesting hill-tribes, such as the Hmong, Karen, Shan (Tai Yai), Akha, Lisu, Lahu and Mien; many of whom have migrated into the region from the Asian interior. They have brought unusual customs and colourful costumes/dress (which they continue to wear in everyday life). Although unsophisticated and poor, they manage to maintain these minority cultures. The Tribal Museum in Mae Rim displays this fascinating aspect of Thailand.
The Northerners themselves are a distinct sub-group of the Thai – calling themselves Khon Mueng – and speak a Northern dialect known as Kham Mueng. Even in the 21st century, they enthusiastically guard their Lanna identity with dress, music and cultural expression that is proudly displayed, even in a contemporary fashion. People of the north are famously more relaxed, slow and laid-back than those in Bangkok.