History of Chiang Mai

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Chiang Mai is both a city and a province. Blessed with rich natural beauty, almost 70 percent of it is covered by mountains and forests. The population of more than 1.5 million makes Chiang Mai one of Thailands largest provinces. Estimates vary, but about 200,000 live within Chiang Mais city limits, while many hilltribe people settle in the surrounding mountains. To learn more about Chiang Mais hilltribes, visit the Hill Tribe Museum for an insight into their history, or book yourself an organized trek to one of their villages.

The city has a long and rich history, which may be encapsulated in the National Museum. To trace its beginnings, we have to go back more than 700 years to Yunnan, a province in southern China. Many ethnic Thais lived in this region, the kingdom of Nanchao, since the middle of the 7th century. In 1254, however, Kublai Khan conquered their kingdom. This forced many Thais to move south a few hundred kilometers into what is now northern Thailand. The Thai immigrants founded many new towns in the region. One of the largest was Chiang Rai, about 100 miles north of Chiang Mai. Here, Prince Mengrai of the Nanchao Kingdom created the Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields, also known as the Lanna Kingdom.

First, however, he had to overcome the Haripoonshai civilization that had already been a lively center of culture, art and religion for 600 years. After Mengrai and his people conquered the Haripoonshai Kingdom, they retained many of its beautiful architectural styles and Buddhist art forms. Indeed, the Haripoonshai Kingdom significantly influenced the architecture of northern Thailand. This can best be appreciated in the small town of Lamphun, approximately 30 kilometers south of Chiang Mai. Perhaps the most outstanding example of Haripoonshai architecture there is Wat Phrathart Haripoonshai.

Mengrais new kingdom quickly grew very large; however, it was restricted to what is now northern Thailand. A larger Thai kingdom, established by King Ramkamheang, ruler of Sukhothai, simultaneously flourished to the south of the Lanna Kingdom. Fortunately the leaders of the two kingdoms were on friendly terms with one another and so, with no fighting, both kingdoms grew fairly strong. In 1291, King Mengrai wanted a new capital for his growing kingdom. He chose a location for the new city on the agriculturally rich lands between the Suthep mountain range and Ping River. After deciding on the site for a new capital, construction quickly began.

The city spread out over an area measuring 800 meters by 790 meters. First a wall was built around the site for the new city. Then a defensive moat encircled the city. Strong gates, many of which are still present today, were also constructed, along with Wat Chiang Man, a temple sitting in the northeastern corner of the old city. Mengrai founded this temple and spent the last years of his life here. It affords a great example of the beautiful northern Thai Lanna style. Another notable temple, tracing its roots from 1345, is Wat Phra Sing on the western side of the city. The original building has been added to over the centuries, and it houses the Phra Singh Buddha--a golden Buddha said to have been cast in gold in A.D. 360 in Sri Lanka. Since then, it made its way to Thailand via a shipwreck and also spent time in Laos. Another important temple is Wat Chedi Luang, located in the southern part of the old city. Originally comprising four smaller temples, it bears an elegant chedi (spire) constructed in 1381, which stands where the original Chiang Mai city pillar stood. Today the temple serves as the center for Buddhist education in Chiang Mai.

Soon, the good relations that had existed between King Mengrais Lanna Kingdom and its southern Thai counterpart began to dissolve. King Ramkamheang did not want to accept the Lanna Kingdom as an equal Thai kingdom. Toward the end of the 14th century, he made repeated attempts to turn the Lanna Kingdom into a principality of his southern kingdom. You can explore this precarious relationship between the two kingdoms at Dara Pirom Museum.

The Lanna Kingdom often allied with the Burmese to protect itself, and the Burmese influence seen in Chiang Mai temple design and architecture dates from this period. It began with the founding of Nakorn Lanna 1296 and Kantoke Palace. Visitors can also re-experience Lanna times through the art and craft works of northern Thailand. Some good bets for this include Lanna Thai, Pon Art Gallery, Tita Gallery and Lanna Toys 'n Crafts.

Chiang Mai celebrated its 700th anniversary as a city in 1996.