History of Chiang Mai

History of Chiang Mai Chiang Mai means new city and has retained the name despite having celebrated its 700th anniversary back in 1996. King Mengrai founded the city, moving the capital from Chiang Rai in 1296. At it height, the Lanna Kingdom extended deep into Burma and Laos, and southwards to Kamphaeng Phet, just north of Sukhothai.

Pre Lanna: Chiang Saen

By popular recall, in the 6th century A.D., a Tai chieftain from Yunan, Prince Singhanuwat สิงหนวัต migrated his armies and followers to a spot just south of Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle—where the Ruak river confluences with the Mae Kong river to form a natural border among Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos. Singhanuwat’s settlement on the western bank of the mighty Mae Kong river (the Chiang Saen district in Chiang Rai province of today) would rapidly become the center of a reckonable new kingdom.

The ancient capital at Chiang Saen was initially known as Singhanuwat Nakorn—named after the ruler—but was later changed to Yonok Nakorn Chai Buri Sri Chiang Saen โยนกนครไชยบุรีศรีเชียงแสน. In such feudalistic times, power, ranking, and political administration was based on rice field division. There were pan-na (thousand paddies), meun-na (10,000 paddies), saen-na (100,000 paddies), and lan-na (1,000,000 paddies). Chiang Saen, meaning the city of 100,000, is considered the predecessor of Anajak Lanna, or the kingdom of a million rice paddies.

From the 6th to the 13th century, the Chiang Saen kingdom would see dozens of monarchs struggle to maintain prosperity and autonomy as powerful neighboring kingdoms such as Lan Chang (Ancient Lao kingdom also written Lan Xang), Khmer (Ancient Cambodian), Phayao (an ancient Northern Thai kingdom), Dvaravati (an ancient Mon kingdom), and Sukhothai (Ancient Thai) came into ever close proximity, contesting for regional influence and control.

The Dawn of Lanna: Phaya Mengrai

Lanna’s sprouting as a kingdom is marked in the 13th century, when Phaya or King Mengrai, a revered descendant of the Chiang Saen dynasty, united local masses and brought a new stability in the region through conquest and diplomacy. Evading Mongol aggressions from the north, Mengrai turned his attention Southwest away from the vulnerable capital at the Mae Kong river, and built a new capital in 1262 at Chiangrai.

Towards the end of the 13th century, the Lanna kingdom began to gain momentum when Phaya Mengrai set to expand his borders and influence even further southwards.

King Mengrai is credited to have acted as a key liaison between the two powerful Thai kingdoms of Sukhothai and Phayao, initiating a pact of friendship with King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai and King Ngam Muang of Payao. {picture of statue} Such a triad pact would prove monumental for regional stability, sprouting a golden era for Thai civilization to flourish over the next few centuries.

Mengrai is remembered for not only his diplomacy, but also his cunning abilities in the art of war and conquest. Mengrai’s most famous conquest was of the powerful northern Dvaravati capital at Hariphunchai (based around the modern day cities of Lamphun and Lampang). Mengrai infiltrated the Mon stronghold by sending a trusted merchant, Meun Fah (10,000 skies) to the ancient Mon capital, who pretended to be banished by King Mengrai in order to gain the Mon ruler, King Yiba’s confidence and trust. With clandestine wit and precision, Mengrai via Meun Fah sparked turmoil within the Mon court, and King Yiba was oblivious to the fact as his popularity among his people degraded. Mengrai’s armies finally besieged the city and brought it under Lanna control around 1292.

By 1296, Mengrai ordered the foundations for a new city be laid at a pristine spot on the fertile banks of the Ping river and base of the towering Suthep mountain (Doi Suthep).

Mengrai named his new city Nopburi Si Nakorn Ping Chiang Mai. With its fertile valleys, rich rivers and streams, and serene surroundings, the city quickly flourished to become Lanna’s prime new center of expansion and rule, though for decades, Mengrai continued to live and administer his budding kingdom from Chiangrai.

The Rise and Fall

After King Mengrai’s demise from a lighting strike in 1317, his lineage and legacy would see Lanna persevere over the next few centuries. Various monarchs of the Mengrai dynasty would come to rule the kingdom, shifting kingdom administration between Chiang Rai, Chiang Saen, and Chiangmai, which was fully established as the primary capital by the mid 14th century.

Ruled by 14 kings and one queen in three centuries, the Lanna kingdom maintained regional influence and power as an autonomous and reckonable kingdom, rising its golden era in the 15th century when its territory expanded to include the formerly glorious Payao, Phrae, and Nan (in present day Northern Thailand).

Buddhism manifested and flourished in the region, marked by a major Buddhist council held near Chiangmai from 1475-1477. The monarchs of Lanna emphasized Buddhism to become an essential part of the state and way of life by initiating key reforms and customs that would outlive the kingdom. Under the reign of King Tilokarat (1441-1485) Lanna experienced its religious and cultural climax, expanding not only its territory to its grandest stretch in all directions, but also solidifying its religious and cultural foundations with the mass construction of several major temples and shrines, of which the ruins can still be visited today.

The Emeral Buddha, a major attraction now in Bangkok, was brought to Lanna from Ceylon during the reign of Tilokarat. When Tilokarat left his throne in Lanna to fulfill his obligations to the Lao throne, he brought the elegant artifact to Laos, where it remained for several centuries before ultimately ending back up in Thailand.

Prosperity was only short lived as internal and regional tensions stirred in the early 16th century. A nasty feud over disputed claims to the throne saw the Mengrai dynasty finally dispel as contesting Thai and Burmese forces imposed unrest and instability in the region. Chiang Mai fell to Burmese forces by the 1560, taking Lanna into a new era of vassal rule under the contesting Burmese and Ayuddhaya (Siamese) power houses.

Over the next few centuries, Burmese princes ruled over the annexed kingdom from both Chiangmai and Chiang Saen, seeing several unsuccessful rebellion attempts by Lanna people who resented their Burmese care-takers. On a few occasions, Ayutthaya forces temporarily invaded and occupied Burmese Lanna, but the Burmese would prevail, seeing the Siamese capital at Ayutthaya obliterated around the mid 18th century.

By the 1770’s, the Siamese commoner turned king, Taksin the great, unified the scattered Siamese and gathered an army to push Burmese forces out of Siam once and for all. By 1775, Taksin’s armies successfully assisted a Lampang prince, Kawilla in taking control of Lanna territory from the Burmese. Kawilla was crowned monarch of a new Siam-aligned Lannathai kingdom.

Nine more kings would rule over Lannathai, which all were to become in close relations with the Chakri dynasty of Siam. While the Burmese were drenched in internal conflict and colonial warfare with the British, the Lanna people and culture gradually assimilated Siamese customs and language, and thus became associated as ‘Northern Siam’. It was formerly annexed to the Kingdom of Siam in 1892 and saw its last reign by King Kaew Naovarat, who died in 1939, after which no successor was named.

Lanna Today

As a part of the Kingdom of Thailand under one Thai monarchy (Chakri dynasty), Lanna is not considered a separate kingdom anymore. The great Lanna cities such as Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Lampang, Lamphun, Chiang Saen, Payao, and Nan are all administered by elected local and central Thai governors and officials, just like the rest of Thailand. However, the legacy that has blossomed from the last millennium is grand and beautiful beyond words, making the Lanna region one of the most unique destinations in not only Thailand, but in Asia and world at whole.

Located amidst such a strategic artery of South Asia, Lannathai has always generated and prospered from craftsmanship and trade—a melting pot for regional treasures and skills. With rice and agriculture weaving a backbone of the glorious kingdom past, masonry, silver, woodcraft, architecture, textiles, weaving and sculpting masters have fled and bred Lannathai into a garden of culture and art waiting for all to embrace.

As the Lanna people of today’s actions and thoughts are guided by the internet and television, capitalism has brought with it modern shopping malls, movie theatres, universities and hospitals to replace an old way of life to a new global standard. That’s not to say, the way of Lanna has been lost, as the region is rich in remnants of cultural and religious values of social and natural harmony.