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Chiang Mai History

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Medium-sized Chiang Mai has long been over shadowed by her much bigger sister to the south, yet in the long view of history, Bangkok has been a relatively recent entry into the annals. Back in the 14th century, when today’s bustling capital was nothing more than a village (if that), the northern kingdom of Lanna (“one million rice fields”) was already the esteemed centre of art, culture and trade in the region. Chiang Mai was its capital.

Having ruled the Lanna kingdom previously from Chiang Saen and teen later Chiang Rai, King Mengrai ultimately decided to administer Lanna from the banks of the lovely Ping River Unfortunately, the river proved ignorant of the great king’s plans and the first site was flooded, an area today known as Wiang Kun Kam. Prudently, the king moved his settlement a few kilometers away to what is presently6 known as Chiang Mai’s Old City: a striking, walled fortification measuring one kilometer on each side, surrounded by a picturesque and protective moat.

“Nophaburi Sri Nakorn Ping Chiang Mai” was founded by Mengrai in 1296, in association with two other regional kings, King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai and King Ngam Muang of Phayao. Indeed, these “three kings” are emblematic of the city and their likenesses can be seen at various spots throughout the town. As Thai citizens are obliged to graciously “wai” the kings as they walk past , a visitor is not likely to overlook them .

During the course of their reigns, the three kings managed to consolidate much of the power in the region, thwarting the Mongol invaders in the 13th century and overthrowing the native Mon, inhabitants of the region for some 500 years prior. Lanna’s fortunes grew rapidly, and by the 16th century its boundaries extended as far south as Sukhothai and clear across to the borders of Burma, China, and modern Thailand’s Nan province.

Of course, medieval times were contentious times, and so it was that short ly after reaching its glorious apex Chiang Mai began to suffer crippling losses. Thailand’s greatest historical adversary Burma, rapidly attached the kingdom and the capital, and it was finally forced to succumb. Lanna would become a Burmese vassal for the next two hundred years. Ayutthaya in the south tried repeatedly to repulse the Burmese but was only intermittently successful, and ultimately fell to the Burmese themselves in 1767. It is not surprising that Thai history books paint this time as a dark one, casting the Burmese invaders in rather an unsympathetic light.

Yet rescue was just around the corner. Taksin, the King of Bangkok, was able to mount a brilliant military campaign and drive the Burmese away once and for all in 1774. His heroic efforts precipitated the union of the board stretch of territories thereafter known collectively as Siam, and a century and a half afterwards as Thailand.

Though centuries of adaptation and decades of nation-building since then have smoothed out many of the differences between Lanna and the rest of Thailand, Chiang Mai and its surrounding still exhibit a unique, gentle character that sets it noticeable apart from the rest of the country. And though modernization has been swift, the legacy of old tines is still everywhere to be seen. The lovely city walls, gates and moat, together with its distinctive architecture and many temples serve as everyday reminders of Chiang Mai’s magnificent and charming seven-hundred year history.

(Ref: Chiang mai 101/ Oct.-Dec.2008)