Chiang Mai Travel Guide -> History of Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai was founded in the year 1296 by  König Mengrai, wo immediately made the new city the capital of his Lanna Kingdom.

Shortly before he had conquered the old Mon city of Haripunchai some kilometres south of Chiang Mai and changed its name into "Lamphun".

The Mon origniated from Birma and had settled in the Menam Delta in the Central Plains as well as in the North. Haripunchai, now called Lamphun,  was the capital of one of their most important kingdoms in the North. The Mon had brought Buddhism, Sanskrit, and many other Indian influences to Thailand. The so-called Dvaravati style in Thailand`s Art  is named after their capital in the Menam Delta.

The new royal city of Chiang Mai was built on a low hill west of the banks of the river Ping and surrounded with a moat und a city wall made of red bricks.

Tapae Gate

Remains of the old city wall and the moat

The new city soon flourished (numerous beautiful ancient buildings in Chiang Mai still attest to this) until a war with Birma broke out and the city came in the year 1558 under the control of the Birmese.

The Birmese viceregents reigned for 200 years but they ruled with an iron hand and imposed such rigorous and draconic conditions on the population (for instance all young men were recruited for the war of the Birmese with the Lao) that in the eighties of the 18th century a large part of the population had abandoned Chiang Mai. (See Short Overview of the History of Thailand.)  

For twenty years Chiang Mai was uninhabited. In the year 1799, however, the Lanna prince Kawila managed to win a decisive battle against the Birmese and re-conquered Chiang Mai. The city was re-populated and for the next 100 years became the capital of an independent Lanna Kingdom, ignored to a large extent by the kingdoms in the more southern areas of Thailand.

However, when the European colonial powers conquered Laos (France) and Birma (England) the king and government in Bangkok were alarmed and sent a vice king to Chiang Mai in order to assert their sovereign rights over northern Thailand and to prevent the appropriation of Lanna by one of the colonial powers.
In the year 1921 the railroad line form Bangkok to Chiang Mai was completed and Chiang Mai was now connected to the rest of Thailand.  

Chiang Mai ist Thailand`s second largest city after Bangkok (however, Khoen Kaen in the northeast of Thailand may soon outrank it) and has more than 200.000 inhabitants.  

Most people in Northern Thailand, though, still live in villages, either as rice farmers  (the word "Lanna" means "a million rice fields") or producers of other agricultural products such as vegetables or cut flowers (in the 1970`s the royal family intiated the introduction of many new types of vegetables and flowers to the Lanna farmers, above all in order to offer them alternative to the growing of poppies for opium production).  A further source of income are the traditional handicrafts for which the north of Thailand is deservedly famous. (Countless workshops can be found directly in Chiang Mai or in its immediate vicinity and are readily accessible for visitors. )

Chiang Mai ist surrounded by mountains that are the foothills of the Himalayas. They are covered by dense teak forests and in some areas work elephants are still used in the logging and transportation of teak wood. Until the 1960s the city was a quiet, tranquil place without a lot of traffic or industry. That has changed in recent years and most of the lovely old teak houses are gone now and have been replaced by more modern concrete buildings and skyscrapers. Unless you know where to look nowadays Chiang Mai is indistinguishable from other modern major  Asian cities.

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Last Updated 10.02.2007