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Historical Chiang Mai - 700 Years Of History

Sep 14, 2008
The history of Chiang Mai is extensive. It has been the principal city of firstly Lanna (a million rice fields) and more recently northern Thailand for the last 700 years. The Lanna kingdom itself encompassed a large area including parts of Laos, Burma and China.

The original site of the city lost the battle against nature and was abandoned due to extensive flooding. The remains are still a historic tourist attraction today known as Wiang Khum Kham and can be found to the south east of Chiang Mai.

The second attempt was notably more successful. In 1296, King Mangrai built Chiang Mai as the new capital of his Lanna Kingdom. When choosing the location he asked for the help of his close friends King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai and King Ngam Muang of Phayao. They decided on the present day location - a fertile area of the Ping valley.

By taking a stroll around the old city an historic monument to these kings can be visited at the corner of Phra Pokklao and Inthawarorot roads. The location chosen for Chiang Mai had the obvious benefits of passing river trade but also as it was at the bottom of a mountain, Doi Suthep, wood for the city was readily available.

While the Lanna Kingdom was large it was also surrounded by equally large and even larger, more powerful empires. The most notable of these were the Khmer Empire of Angkor, Burma, China and the Siam Kingdom. Historically people moved south from China into the Lanna Kingdom and generally were welcomed and integrated into society, each ethnicity bringing with it different cultures and traditions. Slowly Lanna began to engulf every tribe that lived in the valleys of its territories.

By the 15th century Lanna was enjoying its most successful period. The official religion of Buddhism was the driving force for the kingdom's culture and traditions. The kingdom's territories had spread far encompassing virtually all of what we now know as northern Thailand, the states of the Burmese Shan, parts of Laos and some of southern China's Yunnan province.

Temples (wat) began to emerge. During the 13th century Wat Chiang Man was built - the first temple to be built in Chiang Mai. For a good example of traditional northern style architecture Wat Phra Singh is a good bet. Built in 1345 it contains the Phra Singh Buddha, one of the most significant pieces of Buddhist relics. About the same time as Wat Phra Singh was built work began on the most famous of all of Chiang Mai's engineering projects, the moat. It was built as a defence against the Burmese attacks.

As it turned out it wasn't the Burmese that were to be the downfall of Chiang Mai but rather the Siamese from Ayutthaya. Sustained wars between Lanna and Siam left Lanna weakened and as a result of this the Burmese successfully invaded the city in 1558 under the leadership of King Bayinnaung.

This occupation of Chiang Mai by the Burmese lasted for two centuries. When King Taksin of Siam decided to better protect his kingdom he realised to do so meant the Burmese needed to be removed from Chiang Mai. The northern people united with the Siamese to remove the oppressive Burmese rulers and free Chiang Mai once again.

A heavy price had to be paid however as following the defeat of the Burmese the city was all but levelled and therefore left uninhabited. In 1796 Chiang Mai officially began to be rebuilt under the governance of Chao Kawila, appointed viceroy of Chiang Mai by King Taksin. The walls that visitors can still see today around the moat are the same walls that were rebuilt at this time.

With the city rebuilt the population changed. It was comprised of Shan, Tai Khoen, Tai Yong and local people. The present day ethnic mix that emerged from these different groups has become known as Khon Mueng. Today they have their own distinctive language - a dialect of modern Thai.

Chiang Mai was already closer to Siam that ever before following the cooperation in the successful removal of the Burmese. With a Siam appointed viceroy in place, administrative duties also were taken over by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). History has shown that a significant reason for doing this was due to the immense natural resource of teak wood. Primarily the British, who now controlled most of Burma, showed interest in this commodity. Following the death of Chao Inthravichayanon, the last ruler of Chiang Mai, Siam annexed Chiang Mai.

Logging by the British began at an immense level. Problems began to develop though. For political reasons Siam was forced to draw up the Treaty of Chiang Mai in 1873 to gain total control of the north. This was necessary as British loggers were being killed en mass in the north due to friction with locals as no regulations existed relating to taxes and concessions. Siam feared if it did not guarantee the safety of these loggers the British may well move across the border and establish control themselves.

WWII brought lasting changes to Chiang Mai under Japanese occupation. Many of the roads in the north of Thailand were built under the Japanese by POW's and forced local labourers. When travelling by car in the north it is impossible not to notice the rough terrain and mountainous scenery that these roads were cut through. While the mountainous terrain is a major draw for most visitors as it offers spectacular scenery a moment of reflection on the hardship and suffering it took to build these roads is worthwhile.
About the Author
Journalist, travel writer and Thailand specialist Andy Burrows knows everything about Chiang Mai, his recommendation; Virtual Chiang Mai travel guide and History of Chiang Mai
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