Brief History of Chiang Mai
King Mengrai, the founder of Chiang Mai, is at the center
Chiang Mai (New City) was founded as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom (Kingdom of the Million Rice Fields) at the end of the 13th century. This extremely fertile and therefore rich kingdom extended all over Northern Thailand, but included areas that are now in neighboring countries Laos, Myanmar and even China.
The Lanna kingdom bordered on Siam in the south, Burma in west, the Khmer Empire of Angkor (now Cambodia) to the east, and Lan Xan (Million Elephants, Laos) and China in the North. Naturally, wars were common between these kingdoms and capturing the capital often meant victory. The capitals were therefore moved frequently to get to safer, better protected locations.
The Lanna Kingdom had prior capitals in Fang, Chiang Saen, Lamphun and finally, Wiang Kum Kam, only 5 kilometers south-east of present Chiang Mai. Wiang Kum Kam was established in 1281 but only 13 years later was destroyed by the Ping River swelling over its banks. The city was overgrown and lay hidden for almost 700 years, only to be rediscovered in 1984. It's now a hardly-visited tourist attraction that is very atmospheric and beautiful, especially its impressive Wat Chedi Liam temple.
With Wiang Kum Kam abandoned, Chiang Mai was established at its ideal location in a fertile central valley of the region, protected by a high mountain to the west and a river to the east.
The place was supposedly chosen by Lanna's ruler King Mengrai himself. The city was fortified with solid city walls and many brick and wooden buildings and temples were erected over the next few hundred years.
Chiang Mai quickly became a major trading post between southern China and the closest seaports in Burma. This prominence made Chiang Mai a prized target of attacks by neighboring armies.
After defending itself successfully for centuries, the city was finally conquered by the Burmese and 1557. Lanna became a vassal state but as Burma was at constant war with Siam, the Siamese prevailed at times and ruled over Lanna.
Lanna was able to drive the Burmese out in 1774, with the help of the Siamese, who left the Kingdom independent until 1892, when Lanna became part of Siam as it is today. Lanna lost much of its areas to the nation states Burma and Laos, and Lanna is now condensed to an area of about 20,000 sqare kilometres around Chiang Mai.
Finally, in 1932 the Chiang Mai area officially became a province of Siam that in 1949 changed its name to Thailand.
Chiang Mai's genius loci is still felt today and lives in the tolerance and friendliness of its people, who lived in a beautiful, fertile environment for centuries. They welcomed traders from along the silk road to their town and fostered understanding and religious and cultural diversity.