Visual Index of Chiang Mai Sites (Site name and description)
Reuan Saw Hong House Reuan Saw Hong House (1870)
A well-preserved Lanna house in the kalae style.
Wat Chedi Luang Wat Chedi Luang (1391)
A massive but heavily damaged chedi.
Wat Chet Yot Wat Chet Yot (late 15th century)
"The Temple of 7 peaks" where the 8th world Buddhist council met in 1477.
Wat Chiang Man Wat Chiang Man (1306)
The oldest temple in Chiang Mai.
Wat Doi Suthep Wat Doi Suthep (1386)
One of Chiang Mai's oldest temples, founded on a site selected by an elephant!
Wat Duang Di Wat Duang Di (19th century)
A stunning wat with four antique buildings, most notable among them the tiered ho trai.
Wat Inthrawat Wat Inthrawat (1858)
A quintessential rural Lanna-style wat.
Wat Ku Tao Wat Ku Tao (possibly early 17th century)
An unusual pagoda designed as a series of diminishing spheres.
Wat Lok Moli Wat Lok Moli (1527-28)
A wat notable for its massive 16th century chedi.
Wat Phan Tao Wat Phan Tao (1846)
A monastery converted from a palace building used by Chao Mahawong, a ruler of Chiang Mai.
Wat Phra Sing Wat Phra Sing (1345)
The original home of the Emerald Buddha, Thailand's most important cultural treasure.
Wat Phuak Hong Wat Phuak Hong (16th or 17th century)
A wat notable for its chedi, comprised of a series of circular tiers.
Wat Prasat Wat Prasat (current buildings 1823)
A classic Lanna-style viharn with an unusual feature--a short tunnel connecting it to an adjacent chedi.
Wat Saen Fang Wat Saen Fang (14th century)
The royal cemetery of the Chiang Mai kings.
Wat Suan Dok Wat Suan Dok (16th century)
The royal cemetery of the Chiang Mai kings.

About Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is Thailand's second largest city, located in the far north of the country. Its history is deeply embedded with that of the Lanna kingdom, a regime that ruled portions of northern Thailand for over 250 years beginning in the late 11th century. Lanna, or Lan Na Thai, means "land of a million rice fields."

The early history of the Chiang Mai region is not well understood. The people whom we consider "Thai" are believed to have originally come from eastern or southern China. The migrations probably began as early as the 2nd century A.D. and eventually became large enough to displace the ruling Khmer, Mon, and Burmese population. By the 7th to 9th centuries the Thai peoples were strong enough to gain political control of portions of the region, including an area later to be called Chiang Saen. In the eleventh century the inhabitants submitted to the authority of King Aniruddha of Bagan (or Pagan, in Myanmar [Burma]) and converted to Theravada Buddhism. In the 12th century the region was renowned for its Buddhist art and bronze casting.

In 1292 the region went into upheaval when Mengrai, whose ancestors had ruled at Chiang Saen (near Chiang Mai) conquered the Mon city of Hariphunchai (Lamphun) and took control of the last major non-Thai kingdom in the north. The city also contained numerous skilled artisans whom Mengrai put to work.

After capturing Lamphun Mengrai founded Sarapi four years later. It was located far from the Ping river which was the major waterway in the Lanna kingdom. On the other side of the river Mengrai founded Chiang Mai, a name that literally translates as "New City".

The founding of the city is chronicled on a document which survives to the present day. According to the document, Mengrai asked two military allies for suggestions on where to establish the city. The divination process revealed seven auspicious signs which were thought to be favorable. These included the presence together of two white sambars, two barking white deer, and a family of five white mice. The fourth sign was the slope of the mountain to the east from the hills of Doi Suthep. The final signs were the presence of streams, rivers, and lakes that indicated an abundance of water. The full name of the new city was Nop Buri Si Nakhon Pingka Chiang Mai.

Like many capital cities in Southeast Asia, Chiang Mai did not function as a residential and commercial hub, but instead served more spiritual purposes. Its main inhabitants were Buddhist monks, nobles, and the royal family. The entire area was sanctified ground divided from the rest of the profane world by boundary markers called sima. Monks could be ordained anywhere within the city walls since the whole city was sacred (normally, monks had to be ordained in a special hall called a bot).

The town was divided into four quarters in accordance with Buddhist and Chinese principles, with the favored quarter being the northeast, where Mengrai's palace stood until the early 20th century. At the center of the town stood the Sao Itakhin (Indra's Pillar) which was the spiritual heart of the city. This pillar was moved to Wat Chedi Luang in 1775.

The western part of the city was given over to temples in accordance with the Chinese belief in a Western paradise ruled over by the bodhisattva Amitabha. Beyond the city's limits stood the 1676 meter tall mountain called Doi Suthep, which had for many centuries been considered a sacred landmark (a common belief throughout Southeast Asia).

Legend says that King Mengrai died in 1311 when he was struck by lightning. In the years that followed his grandson established the fortified town of Chiang Saen in 1327 in the area where his ancestors had ruled for many generations. The splendor of this new city was enormous, but the governmental and spiritual heart of the kingdom remained Chiang Mai.

During this time the southern kingdom of Ayutthaya was growing in power and influence. Founded in 1250, it overwhelmed its northern neighbor Sukhothai in 1378, extending its borders to the edge of the Lanna kingdom. Seeing that Chiangmai was threatened by a common foe, the ruler of neighboring Sawankhalok (Si Satchanalai) proposed a joint attack against Ayutthaya in 1451. Lanna agreed but was forced to withdraw its troops after an unexpected incursion from a hostile neighbor in Laos. Hostilities with Ayutthaya resumed in 1460 when another joint attack was suggested. This time the attack appeared to be more successful�the Lanna forces advanced all the way south through the former Sukhothai kingdom and even managed to reach the outskirts of Ayutthaya. Before they could press their advantage, another surprise attack came--this time from Yunnan China in the northeast. The Lanna forces reluctantly withdrew.

The wounded Ayutthayans got their revenge around 1502 when they managed to smuggle a "magic" Buddha image out of Lanna and bring it to Ayutthaya. An enraged Lanna mounted an attack and forced the image to be returned. The crudely carved Buddha image, the cause of this war, can still be seen (with permission from the head monk) at Wat Chiang Man.

In 1513 Lanna again attacked Sukhothai and brought home a large amount of booty. Two years later they invaded former Sukhothai and managed to hold it for a time before being driven back. Despite the constant warfare, Lanna was finally ruined by a marriage that went wrong: in 1545 a royal daughter married King Phothisat of Laos. Preferring to remain at home, the king sent his twelve year old son Setthathirat to rule in his place. When Phothisat died in a bizarre accident involving elephants, Setthathirat returned to Laos with a large portion of Lanna's treasury.

The weakened kingdom was finally annihilated by Burmese forces in 1556. For many years thereafter Chiang Mai changed hands through a number of conquerors, but never regained its former status�except perhaps, in the modern age, when it became an important cosmopolitan city in northern Thailand.

Places mentioned in this summary.


Images copyright 2000 Professor Robert D. Fiala, and 2000 Thomas Knierim

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