Chiang Mai Culture Guides


History, Lanna Culture and King Mengrai

Chiang Mai Culture | Chiang Mai culture

Lanna is the given name of a prosperous self ruling kingdom, once the power base of the whole of Northern Thailand as well as parts of present day Burma (Myanmar) and Laos. The title means "Land of a million rice fields".

The rich culture and history 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. Lanna is completely different from other provinces of Thailand in cuisine, culture and custom.

The mighty Lanna kingdom was founded by King Mengrai (1259 - 1317). In 1296, he fortified a fertile valley area at nowadays location of Chiang Mai with a rectangular shaped brick wall measuring 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) wide, and 2.0 kilometers (1.25 miles) long. Parts of the wall are still intact today, and the area within it is often called the "old city".

Chiang Mai was very carefully designed to observe all the correct astrological laws. Within the city walls the King built his palace, several temples and accommodation for his followers. None of the original buildings remain although Wat Chiang Man is said to be where King Mengrai stayed while he was building his city.

King Mengrai went on to expand his kingdom to both sides of the Ping River and beyond, naming it "Nop Buri Sri Nakorn Ping Chiang Mai". This city became the center of the Lanna Thai Kingdom that later expanded and covered much of Northern Thailand.

After that there was sporadic warfare for several generations, and Chiang Mai fell several times to both the Burmese and to a powerful kingdom to the south that was centered around the Chao Phaya Basin.

In the end, Chiang Mai was taken by Krung Thon Buri, the capital of Thailand during that time, and under the fifth Rama, became a part of Thailand. Since the time of the Lanna Thai Kingdom, Chiang Mai has been a city for a total of 701 years.

King Mengrai

King Mengrai was born to the ruler of Ngoen Yang (in the region of Chiang Saen) in 1239. His mother was a daughter of the Tai Leu ruler of Chiang Hung (Jinghong in Xishuangbanna Prefecture, Yunnan). The 25th in a line of Lao kings, he ascended to the throne in 1259.

A charismatic and powerful leader, he quickly established dominance over the small neighboring principalities.

As his power increased he moved his capital to Chiang Rai, which he founded in 1262, and then to Fang in 1268. In 1276, he formed an alliance with King Ngam Muang, the powerful ruler of Phayao.

King Mengrai captured the richer and more powerful city of Haripunchai (Lamphun) in 1281. He was able to do this through a conspiracy with a skillful merchant called Ai Fa, who won the confidence of the city's ruler and became chief minister. Ai Fa then undermined the king's popularity, bringing about the easy downfall of the city.

Mengrai gained further strength from his association with King Ngam Muang of Phayao, who had been tutored as a child with King Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai. This helped Mengrai forge an alliance with the latter in 1287, securing his southern flank from attack and giving him a free hand to counter threats from the Mongol Chinese empire to the north.

At some time in the 1280's Mengrai moved his capital to Wiang Kum Kam, but the site later proved to be unsuitable. In the late 1280's he made two expeditions to Burma.

From the Mon kingdom of Hamsavati (Pegu) he gained an alliance and the hand of the king's daughter. From the Shan kingdom of Ava-Pagan he gained 500 families of skilled craftsmen.

Mengrai founded his grandest capital, Chiang Mai, in 1296 and began to embellish it with temples. His forces successfully campaigned against the Chinese Mongols in Southern Yunnan, but after 1311 he sent tribute to the Mongols and averted further threats from the north. He died in the middle of the city, reputedly from a lightning strike, in the year 1317.

Mengrai had three sons. The second son, Chai Songkhram, was to continue the dynasty that ruled Lanna until the demise of Phra Mekuti in 1564.

Last Updated: 12 Mar 2008