The Kingdom of Lanna, which covers much of northern Thailand, was a thriving state long before the rise of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. Chiang Mai can trace its history back more than 700 years, making it one of the most historic cities in Thailand. Much of this legacy remains and wandering around the old town will reveal ancient city walls and gates, as well as temples that have stood for half a millennium or more.
In 1296, King Meng Rai founded Nophaburi Sri Nakorn Ping Chiang Mai as the ‘new city’ of his thriving kingdom known as Lanna (million rice fields). Previously, he had ruled from Chiang Saen – then an important trading town on the banks of the Mekhong River – as well as at Fang and Chiang Rai. Later he moved south, eventually overrunning the older state of Haripunchai (presently known as Lamphun, 30kms to the south of Chiang Mai).
However, the first attempt to found a new city in the Ping Valley was thwarted by the flooding of the river and the site was abandoned. Seven centuries later these ruins, to the southeast of the city, were uncovered and today, known as Wiang Khum Kham, form an important tourist history attraction in Chiang Mai.
King Meng Rai was a powerful and successful ruler and Lanna prospered under his rule (1259-1317). He formed a great friendship with King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai and King Ngam Muang of Phayao, and enjoyed considerable support from these allies in the face of threats from outsiders. The Mon, who had inhabited the valleys of the Ping, Wang and other rivers of the region since the 8th century, were absorbed into the Lanna Kingdom, along with their culture and skills. Over time a distinctive people emerged, known as the Khon Mueng, who had their own dialect of Thai language.
Lanna’s new capital soon became an important cultural and religious centre and remained so for several centuries. The city was laid out over roughly a square mile; temples were built – Wat Chiang Man, dates back to the early 14th century, and still remains; while Wat Phra Singh followed in 1345 – and the distinctive moat and bastions were added. The wealth of the kingdom left behind legacies, such as Wat Suan Dawk with its towering chedis and Wat Jet Yod, which was built for the Eight World Buddhist council in 1477.
Chiang Mai, and the greater Lanna Kingdom, reached its zenith under King Tilokarat in the middle of the 16th century, expanding east as far as present-day Nan province, south to Sukhothai and as far north to the present day Myanmar/China border. It was during his reign that Chedi Luang was completed, towering an astonishing 96m. Despite an earthquake in 1545, which brought it down to 42m, it remained the tallest structure in the city until the 1950s.
Between the 16th and 18th centuries Chiang Mai lacked effective leadership, which resulted in a series of invasions and occupations from Burma and Ayutthaya, and control of the city remained elusive to the people of Lanna for over 200 years, despite multiple attempts to recapture it. At one point the city was even evacuated and nearly deserted. Control of Chiang Mai was briefly returned to the northern kingdom between 1727 and 1763, but was to be conquered by the Burmese one last time.
The period of Burmese occupation finally ended in 1774, when King Taksin of Thonburi (Bangkok) realised the necessity of driving the foreigners out of Lanna to prevent them from further attacking Siam. He sent forces under Chao Kawila, a Jâo Muang (nobleman) from Lampang, who finally sent the Burmese packing.
Following the capture of Chiang Mai, Taksin appointed Kawila as the city’s viceroy. Under his leadership the city went from strength to strength, with the reconstruction (c.1800) of the monumental brick walls – that are mostly still standing – and the establishment of a river port at the end of, what is today, Thapae Road. During this period Chiang Mai entered into prosperous trade relations with Burma and China.
The earliest record of foreign visitors to Chiang Mai comes from a Mr. Ralph Fitch, who recorded visiting a place called ‘Jamahey’ in his voyages from Goa to Pegu and beyond (1583-1591), remarking that is was ‘a fair and great town’. In 1614, traders Thomas Samuel and Thomas Driver arrived in Chiang Mai (probably overland from Burma) as representatives of the East India Company.
By the 1850s the British had a firm grip on Burma and the Bowring treaty – negotiated between the Siamese crown and British Consulate in Bangkok – gave British traders in northern Thailand extra-territorial rights for teak logging along the Salween River in the Shan states. Towards the end of the century this was to drive a wedge between Bangkok and Chiang Mai as the British constantly pressured the Royal Siamese Government to force compensation out of the impoverished Chiang Mai prince in return for lawlessness on the frontier. In fact in 1869, two years after the first missionaries arrived, some of their first Christian converts were clubbed to death, instigating a reaction from King Chulalongkorn.
As Siam modernised, Chiang Mai became less isolated from the rest of the Rattanakosin Kingdom that now controlled much of the area of present-day Thailand. Lanna had enjoyed a degree of autonomy, but with the arrival of a postal service (1883), and later telegraph and railway (1921), Chiang Mai found itself increasingly drawn into the politics of the entire country. Finally, after the bloodless revolution of 1932, Siam (it only became officially known as Thailand in 1949) ceased to be an absolute monarchy and Chiang Mai became a province of the country.
Caught up in the events of the era, Chiang Mai was to lose its true independent nature and innocence. Under Japanese occupation (during WWII), many Northern Thais were conscripted to build roads to open up the Asian interior; the legacy of their toil remains today in the form of roads that penetrate seemingly impossible mountainous terrain, allowing visitors to truly appreciate the region.
However, the area hasn’t always been welcoming and safe to foreigners. The succession of military governments during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s alienated many northerners. After the student uprisings of 1973 were brutally put down, many took to the hills of northern Thailand and formed a Communist insurgency that rendered much of the rural areas unsafe. As the political theatre of the region gradually changed, these groups laid down their weapons in amnesty programmes during the ’80s and the area finally opened up to tourism.
The ’90s saw a spectacular boom for Chiang Mai as the tourist industry took off and many of Thailand’s visitors began favouring the north for its laid-back charm, mountainous beauty and value for money. It wasn’t long before speculating Bangkok property developers marched in and snapped up the land.
Most recently Chiang Mai has become caught up in the political divide that has plagued the country since the 2006 coup. Thaksin Shinawatra, who was unseated in the putsch for apparent corrupt and unethical practises, originated from Chiang Mai. He enjoys popular support in the city from his band of ‘red shirts’ who continue to agitate for his return, sometimes using disruptive tactics.
Chiang Mai tourism
In 1992 the city proudly celebrated its 700-year anniversary and hosted the SEA Games in 1995. Even the financial crash of 1997 hasn’t stopped Chiang Mai from becoming a cosmopolitan centre in Thailand, attracting a sizeable expat community and enough tourists to swell its population by up to 25 per cent each season. Despite all this, Chiang Mai retains its individual Lanna character and distinctive easy-going charm, making it unique among all Thai cities.
In 2010 readers of Travel + Leisure magazine voted Chiang Mai their second favourite travel destination worldwide (beaten by Bangkok); it was the second year running the city finished in the top three. On the other hand, a National Geographic survey some years ago rated Chiang Mai as ‘getting ugly’. The reality is that Chiang Mai has an alter-ego; part of it is a quaint living museum for the benefit of tourists to admire, while the other side is a modernising provincial city in which its inhabitants want to drive cars, shop in malls and sit in trendy coffee shops sipping iced mochas. The two seem to co-exist in a curious harmony, but, thankfully, northerners do make an effort to put an atmospheric ‘boutique’ touch to the development, even if town planning often overlooks a few critical details.