The History of Lanna (Chiang Mai)

By | October 5, 2013

Ok, so you have now arrived in Chiang Mai following one of those great value cheap flights to Thailand and it’s now time to kick off those well traveled shoes and learn a little bit about the history & culture of northern Thailand!.

Chiang Mai owes her existence to the Ping River. The river provided the route along which the power of the city could be extended beyond the wall of mountains that surrounded the valley; it was a channel for trade from China and Burma to the Gulf of Siam.

The wide fertile valley was able to support a large number of people,the basis of political power in the feudal kingdom of Lan Na (the million rice fields).

The Ping River Valley was long a trading route between Yunnan (China) and the Chao Phraya (Bangkok) basin.

Evidence from archeological remains has shown that early inhabitants used iron tools in the valley at least two thousand years ago.

The first period of particular note dates from the 13th century was at the time of the Sukhothai Period which was the catalyst for much of modern day Thailand.

It was during this period whereby the rich & fertile valley attracted the attention of King Mengrai, a powerful Thai leader, who captured the old city and then founded his “new capital” Chiang Mai in 1296.

He chose a site typical for a Thai city – at the foot of a mountain that provides both water and timber.

Chiang Mai was the capital of the kingdom of Lan Na (the kingdom of a million rice fields), which enjoyed a golden age throughout the 15th century.

During this age the powerful inland kingdom came to control most of what now constitutes northern Thailand, north-western Laos, the eastern Shan states of Burma and southern Yunnan.

History & Culture

The religion of the kingdom – Theravada Buddhism – “The Doctrine of the Elders” and follows the Hindu theory of perpetual reincarnation until the person achieves enlightenment, or nirvana, and frees themselves from the endless cycle of death and rebirth.

This gave rise to a cultural wealth whose influence was to be felt far beyond the kingdom’s boundaries.

However, Lan Na was caught between the Burmese, united under King Bayinnaung of Pegu, and the Siamese Thai of Ayutthaya. Lan Na fought several times against Ayutthaya in the 14th and 15th centuries, draining the strength of the kingdom.

Weakened by internal struggles for the throne and by oppression, the city fell to the Burmese forces of King Bayinnaung in 1558.

History & Culture

For over two centuries (1558-1774) Chiang Mai was under Burmese control. The fortunes of the city declined as the Burmese exploited the city-state for military purposes in their wars with Ayutthaya.

During the 19th century increasing Western interests in the teak forests of the north forced King Chulalongkorn of Siam (Rama V – see photo left) to take over the administration of the area in 1892.

Also during the second half of the century,the first Westerners as well as large numbers of overseas Burmese & Chinese migrants established themselves in the valley.

History & Culture

Economic integration within Siam, (which came to be named Thailand in 1949) became firmer with the opening of the railway in 1921.

Despite the opening of the railway the historical traderoutes to the north – to Jinghong in Xishuangbanna prefecture of Yunnan (China) and Kengtung in Myanmar – have been blocked by political barriers for much of the century.

Thus Chiang Mai remained a quiet city until tourism brought the development boom of the seventies and eighties.

The last twenty years has seen rapid development of the modern city and consumer work culture. The growth of the Bangkok metropolis to saturation point has also in part encouraged this. The present population of Chiang Mai province totals around 1.66 million people, with well over 250,000 making their home in the city urban area.

As a point of interest today approximately 95% of Thais are Theravada Buddhists,the rest are Mahayana Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians.