Lanna, Lan Na or Lannathai, was a prosperous self-ruling kingdom, once the power base of the whole of Northern Thailand as well as parts of present-day Myanmar and Laos. Its name means "Land of a Million Rice Fields.” Lanna extended across northern Thailand to include Wiang Chan (present-day Vientiane in Laos) along the middle part of the Mekong River. In the 14th century Wiang Chan was taken from Lanna by Chao Fa Ngum of Luang Prabang, who made it part of his Laotian Lan Xang (Million Elephants) kingdom. Wiang Chan prospered as an independent kingdom for a short time during the mid-16th century and eventually became the capital of Laos. After a period of dynastic decline, Lanna fell to the Burmese in 1558. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Thai historians have long painted Lanna as a kingdom that was destined to be part of Thailand, but in reality it had little to do with Siam before the late 19th century other than fighting a few battles in the 15th century and conducting a couple of expeditions in the 17th and 18th centuries. Historian Chris Baker said they “had about the same level of contact, as between, say, France and Sweden. Very little in the way of language, culture administrative practices or whatever seems to have been exchanged.”

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Lanna civilization manifests itself in various forms, layers and dimensions. It may be considered as being largely a Buddhist civilization, with over 300 Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai alone, but it also contains many significant elements of nature worships and spirit worships. It encompasses various traditions and cultures of many ethnic peoples who inhabit the region. In all consideration, connectivity with nature and living in harmony with all the natural and supernatural elements lie at the very core of Lanna civilization. [Source: Thailand National Committee for World Heritage, 2015]

At the time of its height, Lanna civilization is represented not only by the religious arts and architecture, but also the sophisticated system of knowledge in natural sciences and medicine, and various fields of technology, especially the metal and gold technology used for architectural adornment called " Thong Jung Go", the textile arts and crafts of the various ethnic peoples, wood and bamboo technology, law, as well as language and literature.

Lanna civilization developed and prospered in many stages in different historical periods. From its defining and rising era of Mangrai, the Lanna culture and technology combined the traditions and beliefs of the indigenous Lua or Lawa, with those of the diverse Tai groups, and also added some of the elements of the Mon civilization of Hariphunchai and the civilization of Sukhothai. The Lanna civilization encompassed the knowledge systems in various fields of tangible and intangible culture, practiced widely by the royalty and noblemen, monks and learned scholars, and well community leaders and community members.

The Lanna civilization weakened, later stagnated, and declined for 200 years during the Burmese occupation and during the wars to drive them away. This period was followed by a dormant and fragmentation period when the population dispersed and migrated to escape the wars. The civilization was revived by King Kawila of Choa Chet Ton House who reestablished Chiang Mai as the center of Lanna, mobilized peoples from various ethnic groups and tribes to live together in the old city area and the environs, and gradually regained its former influences over the neighboring states. Today, Lanna civilization is still a living civilization. It has been remarkably thriving in the modern era. Though the Lanna dynasty as the center of the ruling system has ceased to exist since the advent of democracy and constitutional monarchy in Siam or Thailand in 1932, yet the cultures, traditions and the lifestyles of Lanna still continued to be safeguarded and practiced by the communities and families both at the regional, local and village levels.

Evolution of the Lan Na Kingdom

Chris Baker wrote in the Bangkok Post: “the topography of narrow valleys separated by north-south hill ranges shaped the social geography” of Lan Na. “For safety people coagulated in mueang centres and surrounding clusters of villages. Each mueang was relatively independent, and the population sparse. Lan Na emerged under Phraya Mengrai and his successors, from the late 13th century onwards. But it did not suddenly pop up in 1296 with the founding of Chiang Mai, Mengrai had been greatly elevated by later historiography, because that is what happens to founders. But his main contribution was to establish some warrior domination over the nueang in the Kok, Ping and Wang rivers. Lan Na became something than just a loose and limited confederation over the following century...The term “Lan Na” was first used under Mengrai’s successor, Kuena, in the mid-14th century, and only in general use in the mid 15th century. [Source: Chris Baker, Bangkok Post, March 2006]

“The factor which transformed warrior politics into something more like statehood seems to have been Buddhism. The process began when Mengrai seized the established Mon Buddhist center of Hariphunchai (Lampun) in 1287 for reasons which had nothing to do with religion: ‘We have heard the news that Haribhunjaya is very rich—richer than our own domain. How can we make it our own? The process gathered more momentum after proselytizing monks brought the Lankan version of Buddhism north from Sukhothai over the next century . Along with the teaching came writing, literacy, learning and art. The city’s monks wrote scriptures and chronicles, and the city’s foundries turned out huge beautiful Buddhist images. Chiang Mai became a center of culture which elevated the city above other mueang, its ruler gaining prestige and legitimacy as the protector of this resplendent place.”

But politics lagged behind culture. The political structure remained fairly simple. Succession was by openly contest within the ruling clan. The four key government posts were occupied by members of the ruling family . A truculent council of nobles provided some checks and balances. Taxation was mostly by a levy on people’s labour. Outlying mueang were integrated by the personal fealty of ruler to ruler which broke down at every succession.

Book: History of Lan Na by Sarassawadee Ongsakul (Silkworm Books, 2005]

King Mengrai

The founder of the Lan Na Kingdom, Mengrai, (ruled 1259 – 1317) had just become ruler of Chiang Saen at age 21 when he set about uniting the disparate realms of northern Thailand. By 24 he had founded the city of Chiang Rai and established his capital there. Mengrai (also spelled Mangrai) forged an alliance between Ngam Muang of Phayao and Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai while using subterfuge to assume control of the ancient Mon city of Haripunjaya. As founder of Chiang Mai in 1296, Mengrai oversaw the construction of many important Buddhist shrines and his great alliance among Tai and Mon tribes allowed him to ward off Mongol invaders. [Source: Tourist Authority of Thailand, Library of Congress]

King Mengrai brought a newly found unity to the North and annexed the Mon held territory south of Chiang Mai including their capital Lampun (Hari Punchai). According to to one story after the town fell Mengrai went in search for a new area to build a city. He found a well-watered meadow, stocked with game and other wild animals beside a huge mountain plentiful of waterfalls. Two of his friends— King Ngarm Muang of Payao and King Rama Kampeng of Sukothai—were invited to inspect the site and assist in construction to which they agreed. Each king made a small slit in his wrist and allowed the blood to spill into a silver goblet. When full they drank the contents, vowing everlasting support and co-operation. (There was no war between the three kingdoms during the reign of these kings.)

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Mangrai, whose mother was a Tai Lue princess from Chiang Rung, SipsongPanna (now in Kunming, south China), was the 25th king of the Lawachakaraj(Lao Chok) dynasty. He had, since 1261, succeeded his father as Ruler of Ngeonyang located near Chiangsaen, and had rapidly consolidated his kingdom by unifying, through diplomacy as well as through military leadership, many of the Tai towns and other states in the region.

In 1292, after a long and cautious planning, he defeated, by ploys rather than force, the Mon kingdom of Haripunchai, a prosperous and ancient political center which included Lamphun and Lampang. Though he ruled from Lumphun only for 2 years, this civilized Mon kingdom, steeped in the Buddhist faith and rich in the Buddhist arts and architectural expressions, with a written code of legal system, seemed to have greatly inspired him in many ways. [Source: Thailand National Committee for World Heritage, 2015]

Death of King Mengrai and Other Lanna Kings

Mengrai did not live in Chiang Mai. He preferred Chiang Rai. Chiang Mai did not become capital of Lan Na until 1345. Mengrai reportedly died when he was 80 after being struck by lightning. A shrine was built in the centre of Chiang Mai's old city where it is said he was struck. It is close to the three kings statue.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Mangrai ruled Lanna from Chiang Mai for 20 years until his unexpected death, hit by a thunderbolt at the exact central spot of his city and was believed to become a guarding angel of the city residing at this spot where now stands "the temple of the naval of the city" (Wat Sadue Muang). Some versions of the Chiang Mai Chronicle, however, claimed that he became ill and moved to Wiang Kum Kam and died there. By the time of his death, Chiang Mai had already been widely accepted as the political and spiritual center of the Lanna region.” [Source: Thailand National Committee for World Heritage, 2015]

Mengrai’s descendants, though not always as strong, continued to rule Lanna for more than 200 years. Not all of them ruled from Chiang Mai, as some preferred to live in one of Mangrai's previous capitals. Other Northern Kings died unusual deaths. King Kampoo was eaten by a crocodile in 1345 while taking a bath and King Muong Keo passed away after eating a dish of raw horse meat. A crown prince was trampled to death attempting to rope wild elephants. Lan Na was at its height during the reign of King Tilorokarat (1548-1580).

Founding of Chiang Mai

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Chiang Mai was purposefully created by King Mangrai in AD.1296 to be the political, economic, social and cultural center of his newly expanded and integrated kingdom of the Tai people, called "Lanna Kingdom" (kingdom of a million rice fields). It was designed to be located in the landlocked heartland of Southeast Asia, north of modern-day Thailand.[Source: Thailand National Committee for World Heritage, 2015]

By the 13th century, the earlier empires of Southeast Asia such as Dvaravadi, Champa, and Angkor, had declined or disintegrated. The Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty of China had begun to expand southward where some Buddhist states had become prosperous, as well as the various states and townships of the ethnic and linguistic Tai peoples which had established themselves independently or in clusters.

Mangrai had frequently changed his capital before the founding of Chiang Mai, which literarily means "the new city". His previous administrative center had included Ngeonyang, Chiangrai, Fang, Lamphun, Chiang khong, Chiangtung or Kengtung (now in the Shan state, Myanmar), and finally Wiang Khumkham. Whenever he moved on to a new city, he appointed one of his sons and other trusted noblemen to rule the previous city for him.

By the time he discovered the site appropriate for Chiang Mai, he had already been living for 5 years at Wiang Khum Kham, a walled city he had built on the bank of the Ping River in the Chiang Mai valley, now an excavated and completely restored archaeological site located in Sarapee district, south of modern Chiang Mai.

Choosing the Site for Chiang Mai

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: At age 57 and having been an energetic ruler for almost 40 years, Mangrai often travelled around in the vast valley region, accompanied by his troops and advisors, searching for a perfect location to build his permanent capital. Whenever he found an attractive and peaceful site, he would stop to sleep overnight to make further survey and to look for what he called "auspicious signs" and "good omens", according to traditional concepts and beliefs, and according to his policy. [Source: Thailand National Committee for World Heritage, 2015]

One day in 1291, he came across an ideal location at the foothills of Doi Suthep which sloped down from the west to the great river basin in the east. In the middle of this vast open valley, there was idyllic and picturesque grassland where he sighted some rare species of animals unafraid of his troops, and found some unique auspicious plants, especially a giant fig tree. He especially observed a crystal-clear waterfall, flowing from Doi Suthep into streams, surrounding the area; and on the eastern edge of this vast plain, there was a wide and long river called River Ping which meandered down from north to south.

This area had been inhabited for hundreds of years by many indigenous and ancient tribes, especially the people called " Lua" or " Lawa"who live at the foot of Doi Suthep they regarded as the sacred mountain of their ancestors' spirit as well as the abode of the revered and knowledgeable teacher, Sudeva.

Mangrai sought the advice of his noblemen and astrologists and they all agreed that everything they had seen at the site indicated a perpetual natural abundance and a sign of good omen for the founding of a "Chaiyanakorn" (a victorious city) in accordance with the ancient traditional beliefs. Convinced that this ravishingly bountiful location was exactly where his new city must be constructed, he moved in to occupy the site on Thursday 27 March 1292.

Then Mangraiinvited his 2 sworn brothers: king Ngarmmuang of Payoa and King Ruang (Ramkamhaeng) of the celebrated Sukhothai kingdom (a world heritage site since 1991) to visit the site and consulted them on the suitability of the location and the city plan. The two kings meticulously surveyed the area; they observed 7 signs of good omen especially the signs that indicated the abundance of water such as the waterfalls, the reservoir, the streams and the river, all of which they considered to be a boon to the city (Nakorn Kun). They fully concurred that the new city should be established on that site.

For Mangrai, and to a great extent, for the two invited kings, it was vitally important that this permanent capital of Lanna would effectively function as a powerful defense stronghold in the north, as well as a commanding political base which would exercise a strong influence and control over other Tai states in the area. Agriculture and trade for the prosperity of the population were also of serious consideration.

The three kings had, since 1287, made a pact of strategic alliance against the threat of invasion of foreign enemies, particularly the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty of China who in 1257 had taken control of Yunnan, capturing Chiangrung in Sipsong Panna, the hometown of Mangrai's mother. The historical allaince of the 3 kings was indeed unique and critically significant to the region at that time.(This act is immortalized by the 2.70m -tall bronze "Monument of the Three Kings" now standing in the central plaza of the renovated area of Chiang Mai).

Why the Site for Chiang Mai Was Chosen

According to "Zinme Yazawin", written by Sithu Gamani Thingyam, (University of Yangon, 2003), there were 7 signs of good omens, described as follows: “First, a white mouse- deer family came to the area, and were unafraid of men. Second, the family of red- fur mouse deer, with the white patch on the head and along the spine and white four legs, came down from the forest and chased away the soldiers. Third, Doi Suthep Mountain located to the west, was regarded sacred not only to the native Lawa, but also revered by the Mon as the abode of Haripunchai’s legendary creator, the Sacred Rushi named Sudeva; the mountain thus ensured spiritual stability and physical protection in the west.

“Fourth, the water, cascaded down from the top of mountain and flowing north into a stream, turned east and flowed along the south side of the Chaiya Phume area, then turned west to form a natural defense for the area. Fifth, the topography was also of good omen as the land level was higher in the west and lower in the east. Sixth, the stream, flowing east, adjoined the Mae Ping River on the east of the auspicious area, and flowed along it, curving to the south. The Mae Ping river was also a good omen as it flowed from the "Anotatt lake" (Sra Anodat) on another mountain range in Chiangdoa, and flowed constantly in the east of the city. Seventh, there was a large lake to the northeast of the auspicious area, a lake that was mentioned in the "treatise on Dreams" and in Brahmanic treatise on omens, as a pleasure place and a lake of ambrosia”.

In terms of agriculture and trading connection, the selected site which was open green fields were suitable for agriculture, especially wet rice cultivation. The wide, long Mae Ping River offered an excellent communication for trade and for the control of other states. Indeed, the site was easily connected to the ancient caravan routes where traders from India, Burma and Yunnan traveled with tea horses and cattle caravans through the many mountain trails and tracks.

Construction of Fortified Chiang Mai

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The immediate concern of Chiang Mai was defense and durability of the city both in time of peace and war. The three kings therefore designed the city of Chiang Mai to be the competent and operative defense post of the region and this concern alone dictated that the fortified city could not be too large or too small; for in time of war the city would have enough men and elephants to defend all the posts and ramparts of the city. Taking this into consideration, Mangrai had to reduce the size of the city by half of what he had wanted. [Source: Thailand National Committee for World Heritage, 2015]

The city plan was unique because Mangrai mixed the traditional Tai beliefs and the indigenous Lawa's knowledge and technology together, combining them with the Hindu Buddhist concept of cosmology possibly influenced by the King of Sukhothai. The fortified city was rectangular in shape, almost a square, and was to symbolize a human figure with the head, the back, the stomach, the hands and the feet. The form was to represent a human living in complete harmony with nature, to be connected with it, to profit from the natural setting but not to change or overpower it.

The city plan thus symbolized a peaceful and a prosperous person, lying with the back turned to the west towards the strong and stable mountain, safeguarded by its sacred spirits; while the stomach facing the river on the east, full and round and hanging down from the northeast to the south, like that of a pregnant woman, was doubly protected by the outer walls and moats.

The construction work of the new city did not begin until the 19 April 1269, about 6 years after the site had been chosen. Prior to the commencement of the construction, Mangrai made 3 sets of offerings. The first set was presented to the guarding spirits of the site, whereas the second set was offered to the spirits of the giant white rats, the unique species of animals which he had seen entering into the Banyan tree, and regarded as a good omen. The third set was divided into 5 parts which were given each to the spirits of all the 5 places where the city gates would be constructed.

A group of 50,000 men were recruited to construct the royal residence, the residence of the consorts, and the Throne Hall, as well as the storehouses and stables for elephants and horses which were used in times of warfare. Another group of 40,000 men were engaged to construct the city walls, observation towers, city gates, and city moats as well as the boat- sheds. The market of Chiang Mai was also opened at the same time in the central area of the city, called " Khuang Luang". Land use was planned following the natural topography of the area combined with the Lanna astrological beliefs.

After 4 months, the construction works were completed, and the three founders blessed the new city with a very auspicious name: " Noppa Buri Sri Nakorn Ping Chiang Mai", commonly called " Chiang Mai" until today. Once again, the three kings performed a big offering ceremony. They had 6 sets of offerings prepared, and together they invoked all the heavenly spirits to come down and reside as the guarding angels at the six important stations considered as the most venerable spots: — at the city's navel, and at the 5 city gates. After the ceremonies, according to the Chiang Mai Chronicle, a huge festival was hosted for 3 days and 3 nights with plenty of food and drinks for all the officers and the workers who had constructed the city.

Golden Age of Chiang Mai

Mengrai’s descendants, though not always as strong, continued to rule Lanna for more than 200 years. Not all of them ruled from Chiang Mai, as some preferred to live in one of Mangrai's previous capitals.According to a report submitted to UNESCO: There were some greatly distinguished kings of the Mangrai dynasty, particularly the sixth king, Kuena (1355-1385) and the ninth King, Tilokraj (1441-1487) who developed the kingdom to its height of civilization. They built a great many Buddhist temples, stupas and other important public places with high technology in grand and glorious archaeological styles which were to be known later as the classic Lanna styles. [Source: Thailand National Committee for World Heritage, 2015]

The Chiang Mai Chronicle praised Kuena as a ruler with " justice and deep faith in the teaching of Buddha who built temples and Chediya in great splendor... and who was deeply versed in the knowledge of various disciplines, such as: “Dharmasastra”, “Rajasastra”, History and the ten arts"...The splendidly gilded Stupa of Wat Pra That Doi Suthep was constructed on top of Doi Suthep by King Kuenato enshrine the Buddha's Sacred Relic presented to him from Sukhothai; this stupa and its temple compound has remained the spiritual symbol of Chiang Mai until today.

Its major historical events were documented in various chronicles which mentioned it as a city that dominated the large area from the Shan states (in the present day Myanmar) to Luang Prabang in present-day Laos, and Xishuangbannanow in Southwest China. The Lan Na Kingdom was recognized in the New Yuanchao chronicle, 149th chapter, and Ming chronicle, 315th chapter, as “Babaixifu”, a kingdom of 800 consorts. Its Chinese name reflects traditional alliances where lesser feudal lords sent their daughters as concubines to the larger, more powerful kingdom to demonstrate loyalty and guarantee protection.

A great variety of sources including the chronicle of Chiang Mai, The chronicles of Harpunchai, Nan, Chiengtung, and many other Buddhist sources have recorded the name, the date, and other details in connection with the founding of these monuments and sites. These sources have been read, translated and analyzed into many modern texts on the History of Lannawritten by Thai and foreign historians. Ancient Chinese documents including the new Yuan Dynasty Chronicle (No149) and the Ming Chronicle (No 315) also made references to some of the monuments and sites. In addition, the discovery of the history of Chiang Mai authored by monks and inscribed on palm leaves together with the records of the building of various temples that have been copied and preserved through generations, demonstrates the authenticity of Chiang Mai in its physical, cultural and spiritual aspects. This definitive scientific evidence is given life and color by the lively folk legends surrounding Chiang Mai and Lan Na.

According to the Yuanchao chronicle, “Babaixifu” was a Buddhist state with tens of thousands of villages scattering around its territory. Each village had its own temples and stupas. The Lan Na Kingdom indeed prospered from rice growing and tropical products including spices, medicinal herbs, natural dyes, animal hides and ivory. Elephants were used in battle and transportation, particularly on mountainous terrain. As well as being the capital of Lan Na, Chiang Mai was a strategic trading post on the sub-route of the Silk Road. Caravans of Chinese silk and porcelain along with ivory and sandal wood passed through Chiang Mai en route to the Port of Mawlamyine (in present day Myanmar where the Salween flows into the Andaman Ocean) and through Ayuthaya to the Gulf of Siam.

Lanna Culture

The rich culture and history of Lan Na (and northern Thailand today) owe much to the influence of Burma and, to a certain extent Laos. Still found in northern temples is the script of Lanna, which is probably the original Thai script and thought to be based on Mon. A similar script is still in use today by the Shan people. Today Lan Na is completely different from other provinces of Thailand in cuisine, culture and custom.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: At the time of its height, Lanna civilization is represented not only by the religious arts and architecture, but also the sophisticated system of knowledge in natural sciences and medicine, and various fields of technology, especially the metal and gold technology used for architectural adornment called " Thong Jung Go", the textile arts and crafts of the various ethnic peoples, wood and bamboo technology, law, as well as language and literature. [Source: Thailand National Committee for World Heritage, 2015]

Lanna civilization developed and prospered in many stages in different historical periods. From its defining and rising era of Mangrai, the Lanna culture and technology combined the traditions and beliefs of the indigenous Lua or Lawa, with those of the diverse Tai groups, and also added some of the elements of the Mon civilization of Hariphunchai and the civilization of Sukhothai. The Lanna civilization encompassed the knowledge systems in various fields of tangible and intangible culture, practiced widely by the royalty and noblemen, monks and learned scholars, and well community leaders and community members.

The various aspects of cultures and traditions of Lanna were transmitted over many successive generations among various levels of communities within the geographical region known as the "Lanna Region" and were further developed until they reached their peak during the era known as the "golden age of Lanna". By that time, this civilization in its various elements, aspects and dimensions, had extended their influences over a greater area of Lanna region.

Lanna Writing

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Lanna Kingdom and all the cities and towns in the Lanna area has a very rich and credible written tradition for recording almost every important event that takes place in the kingdom, at the temple, and in the community. The "AksornTham" scripts, so called because they are traditionally used for writing Buddhist religious texts, are also known as the Lanna scripts and are used from at least from 1300 to the present. The scripts are at present used by various Tai groups, especially the Tai Yuan, the Tai Lue, and the Tai Khun. [Source: Thailand National Committee for World Heritage, 2015]

The Tham scripts are found in stone inscriptions at temples, in Lanna, for example, the inscription at Wat Chiangman as well as in the numerous palm leaf manuscripts found at all the temples in the Lanna area. As a spoken language, it is also called "Kham muang" meaning the " language of the City", and is used by approximately 6 million people in the northern region of Thailand and in tens of thousands in the neighboring areas.

Thanks to the Lanna scripts, historians are able to learn about the "golden age” of Lanna (1400 to 1525 AD) and its “renaissance” (1775 up the modern times). Both were periods of prosperity made possible by peace and stability of the city of Chiang Mai, capital of the Lanna Kingdom. In response to pedagogic and ritual needs, large numbers of manuscripts were copied and new texts were written in the distinctive Tham alphabets and vowels, thus enabling the Lanna Buddhist culture to rapidly develop into a great regional civilization, consolidating the internal ethnic community and temple network which endure until today.

Lanna Religion and Society

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Tai Yuan and most other Tai people believed in the heavenly beings and they also worshipped the ancestors' spirits called "Pi Pu Ya", as well as the spirits of the forest which they called "Pi Pa" worshiped also by the Lua or lawa people. The Tai additionally believed that in each village or in any fortified important place, there was a spiritual center, or a heart and soul, called "Jai Ban - Jai Muang"; but in the case of the center of the city, it was called "Sadue Muang" or the city's navel. Though the Tai in general embraced Buddhism as their religion and a way of life, they mostly maintained their traditional beliefs as well.

The Tai people had a high level of administrative organization system, and a rich material and architectural civilization. They were more refined in their cultural expressions and more advanced in the linguistic traditions than the native Lawa and Kha peoples who, in spite of living closer to nature, were not at all uncivilized, as they had their own knowledge and technology systems. The Tai Yuan were generally rice farmers (glutinous rice) and had knowledge of horticulture, language and literature, and arts and crafts.

The Tai in Lanna and other Tai groups in all the neighboring towns enjoyed for a long time, close ethnic relations and a bond of kinship; they also shared a common linguistic and literary heritage, oral as well as in written forms.

Lanna Temples

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Within the walled city, there are 37 temples which served mainly as social spaces for culture, education, entertainment and, most importantly, spiritual pursuit. Because of Chiang Mai's location on the land sub- silk route and the river trade route of Southeast Asia, temples also served as places for overnight stays to travelers on long journeys before the advent of hotels and guesthouses. Today, in the spirit of “Dana", temples welcome pilgrims from near and far, even some tourists. [Source: Thailand National Committee for World Heritage, 2015]

The ancient temples outside of the city walls are also numerous, some are deserted and are regarded as archaeological sites while many have been continuously restored and renovated in the form and design widely recognized as the Lanna style of arts and architecture. Restoration was done by monks and community artisans with the spirit of faith and devotion, using materials and substance that are close to the original, so that the monuments could continue to be used for the original functions for which they were built.

There are many intangible cultural traditions and celebrations which are associated with the monuments and sites of Chiang Mai. Apart from the Buddhist celebrations such as Visaka Puja, Maka Puja which are cerebrated in the uniquely Lanna style, there are other non-Buddhist traditions which are living, and are practiced with the traditional Lanna spirit and feeling.

The reverence paid annually to the Inthakin or Town Pillar, still considered the soul of the city and the cause of the City’s stability and prosperity, is still a popular practice, though non Buddhist. The offerings of flowers at 108 points around the Inthakin are still practiced by the Municipality, the provincial government and the communities. The worshipping of the statute of a Kumpan, an equivalent of a protective mythological figure in a form of gigantic ogre, and the celebration of the royal yang tree, the botanical symbol and landmark of the city noticeable by traders' caravans coming from afar, continue to be celebrated in four corners of the town for extending the city’s prosperity and longevity.

The maintenance of strategic spots, especially the four corners of the city wall and the five gates, believed to be the abode of the city protective spirits of those who built and reigned over Chiang Mai, were assigned to the city’s nobilities in the past. Today, this responsibility is given to educational establishments at all levels and local communities to promote the direct participation of the present day community in the conservation and perpetuation of Chiang Mai's traditions, as their heritage and as a living and functional city.

Lanna Ceremonies and Celebrations

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The ceremonies performed by Mangrai at the commencement and at the completion of the construction were important parts of the city foundation. The ceremonies were conducted in accordance with the traditions of the Tai Yuan people who were the majority of the population of the towns and states consolidated under Mangrai's Lanna Kingdom. [Source: Thailand National Committee for World Heritage, 2015]

When Mangrai held the ceremony to celebrate the completion of Chiang Mai, he significantly proclaimed the greatness of his new capital to other states and all the diverse sectors of his population. In the all the ceremonies, he showed great respect for the Tai and indigenous customs and beliefs, but also publicly demonstrated his devotion to Buddhism. According to an inscription found at WatChiangman, Mangrai donated his temporary residence where he had lived and worked while planning and building the city to be the Temple named "Wat Chiang Man" meaning "the temple of the city's stability". His act of combining the traditions of the Tai, the Lua, and the Buddhist culture in this important public ceremony heralded a new cultural era of Lanna.

When Mangrai held the ceremony to celebrate the completion of Chiang Mai, he significantly proclaimed the greatness of his new capital to other states and all the diverse sectors of his population. In the all the ceremonies, he showed great respect for the Tai and indigenous customs and beliefs. However, he also publicly demonstrated his devotion to Buddhism, for example, according to an inscription found at Wat Chiangman, Mangrai donated his temporary residence where he had lived and worked while planning and building the city to be the first temple within the city wall and named it "Wat Chiang Man" meaning "the temple of the city's stability". His act of combining the traditions of the Tai, the Lua, and the Buddhist culture in this important public ceremony heralded a new cultural era of Lanna.

The old monuments and sites at Chiang Mai are tangibly associated with many ceremonies, celebrations, festivals and other traditions organized by temples and communities on a regular basis. Many of the ceremonies and celebrations are Buddhist traditions which have been practiced for more than 2000 years by the Buddhist communities all over the world and therefore testify to their outstanding universal values. Many of them however are traditional Lanna events rooted in the sense of humility in the face of the unseen power and force of nature, as well as the beliefs in the world after death. These beliefs are unique but also universal, and are held on a monthly basis all year round, for example:

1) Ceremony of the 7th month (April). This is the New Year Festival according to the Lunar Calendar and is celebrated at home, in the family, as well as at the temple and the community. 2) Ceremony of the 8th month (May). This is the time for ordination of monks and paying homage to the Sacred Buddha's Relic as well as giving offering to the guardian spirits of the city to extend the days of prosperity. 3) Ceremony of the 9th month (June) to give offerings to the ancestors (on the mother's side), clean the streams and rivers, and prepare for paddy cultivation.

4) Ceremony of the 10th month (July) to mark the beginning of the Buddhist Lent, observed since Buddha's time. 5) Ceremony of the 11th month (August) to observe the 8 precepts, and to pay gratitude to the buffalos that have worked hard in the rice fields, and to pay respect to the Mae Posop, the Goddess of Rice. 6) Ceremony of the 12th month (September), to give alms to the poor and the elderly and donation to the temples. 7) Ceremony of the first month (October) to mark the end of the Buddhist Lent to present the yellow Kathincloth to the monks. 8) Ceremony of the second month (November), held on the full moon, to float away the misfortune and to listen to the sermon on the ten lives of Buddha.

Decline and Fragmentation of Chiang Mai and Lanna

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Soon the Chiang Mai kings became entangled in a series of wars with Ayutthya and the Shan state, thus losing many of their able noblemen and their strong manpower. Chiang Mai subsequently became much weakened. It was finally taken under the control of Burma in 1558 by the expansive king, Bayinnaung, of the Toungoo dynasty. Chiang Mai remained under the Burmese administration for 200 years during which time it became impoverished and fractured, and its civilization stagnated and lay sadly dormant. [Source: Thailand National Committee for World Heritage, 2015]

Between 1701 and 1733, the Burmese divided the Lanna Kingdom into East Lanna, centered at Chiangsaen, and West Lanna based at Chiang Mai. In 1775, a group of Lanna princes based in Lampang rebelled against the Burmese and supported the Siamese military campaigns to drive away the Burmese from their territories. The Siamese had just lost their capital at Ayutthya to Burma in 1767, and immediately, the movements to reconsolidate the Siamese Kingdom had been vigorously launched by the King of Thonburi and the future Bangkok King.

The military campaigns against the Burmese lasted almost 20 years and Chiang Mai, situated between Siam and Burma, was constantly on the front lines of the battlefields. While the princes and nobles had to fight in the battles, Chiang Mai's population fled to safer towns leaving the city of Chiang Mai practically deserted and almost in the state of disintegration. When the Burmese were finally driven away, Chiang Mai still had to revive its capital and regain the influence it previously had over the towns and states in the north.

Rebirth of Lanna

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: By 1796, Prince Kawila( see photo), with the support from Bangkok, revived Chiang Mai so that it could serve as the center of Lanna. He mobilized the diverse groups of population from all the nearby villages and towns to resettle in Chiang Mai and restored and renovated the important buildings, especially all the important temples and places built in the Mangrai dynasty. He established the "Choa Chet Ton" (Seven Princes' Dynasty) to be the Lanna's new lineage for the righteous succession to the Chiang Mai throne. Though Chiang Mai was then, in status, a tributary kingdom of Bangkok, Kawila was well trusted and was able to govern his own kingdom quite freely.[Source: Thailand National Committee for World Heritage, 2015]

Kawila also revived the ancient Lanna cultures and traditions, especially the Coronation Ceremony, and the traditional linguistic and literary traditions, as well as all the important Buddhist ceremonies performed in the Lanna styles. He promoted many lanna celebrations, Lanna music and dances, as well as craftsmanship.

King Kawila followed the ancient tradition by entering the city of Chiang Mai through the northern gate: the most auspicious "Gate of the Head of the City", (renamed "Chang Phuek Gate" (gate of the white elephant) since Kuena’s time.) He dressed in the full Lanna regalia as all kings of the Mangrai Dynasty had done in the past. His dynasty continually ruled Chiang Mai and Lanna for more than a hundred years with the blessing of Bangkok.

Interchanges with Other Cultures in the Modern Era

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Chiang Mai under the early kings of Choa Chet Ton became alive and prosperous once again through trades and through its diverse creative energies, as testified by the new waves of artistic and architectural restoration and new creation. As it grew and greatly expanded; its prosperity, its natural abundance and its beautiful natural and cultural environments caught the interest of the foreigner powers which appeared on the regional scene at the time. The British and the French had already gained control of Chiang Mai's neighboring kingdoms in the north and the northeast, and began to extend their influences into Chiang Mai. [Source: Thailand National Committee for World Heritage, 2015]

British rule in Burma began in 1824, and having subsequently won the Second Anglo-Burmese War, the British annexed Lower Burma in 1852. Siam also felt the pressure from the British and agreed to conclude in 1855 the Bowring Treaty between Great Britain and Siam. In 1874 and then in 1883, special treaties concerning northern cities of Siam were signed by Siam and the British government in India. A British Consul was appointed then to Chiang Mai, being the first diplomat in the North.

Chiang Mai, as Bangkok had led the way, began its new era of “open-door” and interchanges with foreign cultures, through the acceptance of modern sciences and medicine, western technology, and modern education. The city became home to a range of residential and professional communities which left a tangible mark upon the fabric and the architectural landscape of the city.

Following the overall national reform policy of Siam, the reform of provincial administration came as a necessity. In 1884 the Northern Region Administration was put in place by King Chulalongkorn who sent his brother, KrommoenPhichitpreechakorn to serve as the first special commissioner to the North, centered at Chiang Mai.

During the early reform period, Princess Dararassami of Chiang Mai accepted the gifts of engagement from King Chulalongkorn, and soon after, she was given permission by her father, King Inthanon, to travel to Bangkok and become his royal consort, living in the Grand Palace.

As part of the reform policy and strategy, the communication system within the Siamese Kingdom was also improved. Traveling by boat and on elephants or horses was too slow and exhausting for administration and political purposes. In 1888, Bangkok established the first telegraph line with Chiang Mai. The northern railway was constructed and reached Phitsanulok in 1909, reaching Lampang and Chiang Mai in 1916 and 1919. Cars and buses were also introduced to Chiang Mai around the same time.

The reform of the Northern Administration continued until the advent of democracy in Siam in 1932. The monarchy in Chiang Mai ended then, replaced by a government appointed by the central Thai government.

Christian Missionaries in Lanna

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Dr McGilvary and his wife were the first missionaries to arrive in Chiang Mai on a steamboat from Bangkok obtained an audience with Choa Kawilorot of Chiang Mai and soon were allowed to settle at a site given to them by the Kawilorot family which is today the location of Chiang Mai First Church. They started dispensing medications, introducing quinine and vaccination against smallpox. [Source: Thailand National Committee for World Heritage, 2015]

They were followed by other Presbyterian missionaries many of whom medical doctors. In the 1880’s, McCormick hospital was founded as a dispensary center providing medicines to the elderly with a small number of beds. In 1920, new buildings were built at the present location with funds donated by Mrs. Cyrus McCormick. Here, Prince Mahidol, the Father of the present King Bhumibol and the Father of Thai modern medicine, came to work as a residency physician, until he became ill and passed away untimely in Bangkok.

On March 19, 1887, "Chiang Mai Boys’ School”, the first boys’ school in Northern Thailand was founded and soon outgrew its facilities. Funds were raised internationally to purchase the land and to construct the school buildings. On January 2, 1906, His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Maha Vajiravudh, Son of King Chulalongkorn, came to lay the cornerstone for the first building. The school was then renamed The Prince Royal’s College. In 1878, the first school for girl was established and later renamed "Phra Racha Chaya Girls' School" ( after Phra Racha Chaya, Princess Dara Rasmi, King Chulalongkorn's Chiang Mai- born consort ), now known as "Dara Academy".

Muslims and Chinese in Lanna

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: During the course of the 19th century, Chiang Mai saw many waves of migration of the Bengali from India via Burma, the Hui Muslim refugees from Yunan, China known locally as "Chin-Haw", and resettlement of the Malay Muslim from the South. [Source: Thailand National Committee for World Heritage, 2015]

The Muslim population of Chiang Mai, though not very large, is diverse and identifiable by their mosques, halal restaurants, and the people's styles of clothing. Two of these areas (Chang Pheuak and South Changklan) are predominantly Bengali, or South Asian in character. Cattle traders operating out of Moulmein had originally migrated to Burma from the Chittagong area of Bangladesh, and are first reported to have settled in Chiang Mai as early as 1830.

The two others (Baan Haw and Sanphakoi) are predominantly Yunnanese, known locally as "Chin-Haw", and settled in and around upper Changklan Road in an area still known as "Ban Haw". The Haw caravans coming to Thailand from Yunnan increased in number in the 19th century as recorded by Western travelers and missionaries who were also moving around the region during that time. In the latter half of the twentieth century, many Yunnanese Muslims fled to Chiang Mai and other nearby towns from China via Myanmar to escape the political turmoil, war and civil war and the community of the Baan Ho mosque increased rapidly.

The three groups mixed and intermarried with one another as well as with the local Thai community resulting in their adoption to a good extent of the Lanna Thai language and non religious cultural traditions. The Baan Haw mosque and market space, and the Chang Klan Muslim quarters are the oldest Muslim communities which not only offer glimpses into the Muslim ways of life but also cater Muslim food of a great variety.

The Chinese non-Muslim communities probably first came to settle in Chiang Mai during the Ayutthya period and increasingly in the Thonburi and early Bangkok periods. During King Chulalongkorn's reign, a new flux of Chinese migrants came. Some members of the Chinese emigrants soon played important role in trading and tax collection for the King of Chiang Mai and were granted land rights near the market resulting in the emergence of new architectural and artistic styles in some areas of the city. "Pung Tao Gong Ancestral Temple" is Chiang Mai's oldest Chinese temple. The original main building, built in 1876 in King Chulalongkorn's time, was badly deteriorated and was recently reconstructed with the funds donated by the Chinese community to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Chiang Mai as a city in 1998.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2020

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