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The History of Lanna
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THE HISTORY OF NORTHERN THAILAND

        Northern Thailand has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The remains of bronze age settlements have been found at several sites, including Phayao and Soppong. Two thousand years ago the Lawa, now a remote and little-visited hilltribe, were the dominant culture. The first related Thai culture to colonize the area lived in northern Burma, and spilled into Western Thailand, where they are still found today and known as the Tai Yai (high (or big) Thais). The province of Mae Hong Sorn still has a preponderance of these peoples.

         The origins of modern Thai peoples (who make up 80% of the population of Thailand) are obscure and the subject of much debate. Until recently, it was believed that the Thais originated in Southern Mongolia, and were pushed southeast by the expansion of the Chinese empire. More recently, evidence has come to light suggesting that a race known as the Austro- Thais in Southeast Asia were among the first people to develop agriculture and an advanced civilization which spread first north into southern China, then re-colonised their former territory in a southern migration several centuries later. Whichever theory is correct, there was, without doubt, contact and eventually conflict between Thai and Chinese, which continued for many centuries.
        The Thai civilization was first threatened in the 9th Century BC by the Tartars of Central Asia, who over a period of 600 years split the Thais into three groups. One group migrated southwest to colonize easterb Burma and western Thailand, and became known as the Shan or Tai Yai (mentioned above). Another group moved east to the Gulf of Tonkin, and the third, destined to be the modern day inhabitants of Thailand, moved less far, to the southern part of what is now Szechuan in southwest China. Here, they established a number of city-states, which although at the time independent, came more and more under the sway of the developing Chinese empire. During this period, Buddhism became accepted as the religion of the Thais, introduced by Sinhalese monks from Sri Lanka.
        In the first century AD, the Chinese attempts to absorb the Thais led to battles in which the Thais were overwhelmingly defeated, and over the next two centuries they moved steadily south towards their present home. In the 5th Century AD, internal dissent in China allowed the Thais still in China to establish an independent kingdom known as Nan-Chao, stretching from Tibet in the west to Szechuan in the north and controlling most of what is now Laos and Burma. China was forced to respect this new kingdom which withstood many invasion attempts, at times allied with the kingdoms of Tibet but eventually turning against them (with China as an ally!) when it became too powerful. In 863 AD, the Thais seized the town of Tonkin (now Hanoi).
        In the following centuries the Thais attempted to extend their control into the south of the Chinese empire, but eventually were conquered and made a Chinese province under Kublai Khan in 1253 AD. Many Thais still live in an area of southern Yunnan known as ‘Sipsong Panna’. The conflicts described above had caused a steady trickle of Thai people southwards and across the Maekhong River into northern Thailand, where they settled particularly in the areas now occupied by the cities of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Sukhothai. Here they would come into contact with two Indian based cultures. The Khmers, whose pineapple shaped chedis can be seen throughout central Thailand, were based in Cambodia, and had been extending east and northwards. The Mons, another culture with Indian roots, were established further west and north.
King Mengrai the Great Monument
      The first Thai king to control territory in northern Thailand had as his capital the town of Chiang Saen, established in 733 AD, on the banks of the Maekhong. Over the next two centuries, Chiang Saen was destroyed by an earthquake and seized for short periods by the Khmers and later by the Vietnamese, who were driven out and, in turn, had their territory seized by Chiang Saen, which also at times controlled most of Laos and Cambodia. In succeeding centuries, the royal families of Chiang Saen came to establish principalities in Phayao and Chiang Rai, the territory of northern Thailand was held by a powerful tribe, the Mons, who controlled large areas of Southeast Asia. In the 13th century, a Thai king, Mengrai, drove the Mons from their northern bastions, the empire known as Haripunchai, and extended his kingdom south to Lampang and the Haripunchai capital of Lamphun.
In the 13th century, a Thai king, Mengrai, drove the Mons from their northern bastions, the empire known as Haripunchai, and extended his kingdom south to Lampang and the Haripunchai capital of Lamphun.

        He called his new enlarged kingdom ‘Lan-Na-Thai’, meaning “land of a million rice fields,” and brought prosperity and stability to the whole area. Many towns and temples were built, and arts and crafts were encouraged. Administration was organized around rice growing; each person was given enough land to grow 5 muen of rice (about 60 kilos). Nobles were given more land, a prince 1000 rice fields. Princes were given new lands on the edge of established territories and so acted as a bulwark against external attack.

       Mengrai first established and fortified the city of Chiang Rai, in which he kept his palace until he died. The name ‘Chiang Rai’ is believed to have initially been ‘Chiang Moi’ (footprint of the elephant), since according to legend an elephant led Mengrai to the spot on which the city was built. He then moved south establishing and defending new towns in Fang, Kumkarn and Chiang Mai in 1296 A.D., the latter being in such a good position that it became the capital of the new kingdom. From Chiang Mai, Mengrai moved south in 1281 A.D. to take the the city of Lamphun from the Mons by using Lawa hill tribe allies to spread dissent in the city, thus ensuring little resistance when Mengrai’s army appeared. Fourteen years later, in an unsuccessful attempt to retake the city, the king of Lamphun Mengrai first established and fortified the city of Chiang Rai, in which he kept his palace until he died. The name ‘Chiang Rai’ is believed to have initially been ‘Chiang Moi’ (footprint of the elephant), since according to legend an elephant led Mengrai to the spot on which the city was built. He then moved south establishing and defending new towns in Fang, Kumkarn and Chiang Mai in 1296 A.D., the latter being in such a good position that it became the capital of the new kingdom. From Chiang Mai, Mengrai moved south in 1281 A.D. to take the the city of Lamphun from the Mons by using Lawa hill tribe allies to spread dissent in the city, thus ensuring little resistance when Mengrai’s army appeared. Fourteen years later, in an unsuccessful attempt to retake the city, the king of Lamphun.

      Sukhothai, which was to be the capital of a united Siam in later centuries, had until the 13th century been controlled by the Khmer civilization based in Cambodia. However, much of the population was Thai (the result of an earlier colonisation) and they eventually overthrew their Khmer masters. In 1287 A.D. King Mengrai of Lan-Na, King Ramakhamphaeng of Sukhothai, and King Ngam-Muong of Phayao made an allegiance which led to the expulsion of all other claimants to control Northern Thailand, and laid the groundwork for the first Thai kingdom of Siam.
The Sukhothai Empire
In 1287 A.D. King Mengrai of Lan-Na, King Ramakhamphaeng of Sukhothai, and King Ngam-Muong of Phayao made an allegiance which led to the expulsion of all other claimants to control Northern Thailand, and laid the groundwork for the first Thai kingdom of Siam.

       At the height of his power, Mengrai controlled a large kingdom in North Thailand and received tributes from many other kingdoms in Southeast Asia. He is said to have been killed at the age of eighty by a lightning bolt whilst visiting his son in Chiang Mai, the site marked by a statue which can still be seen in the centre of the city.

      Over the next centuries, the fortunes of Lan-Na-Thai waxed and waned, with a long list of battles with neighbouring states, led by heroic kings and princes mounted on elephants. Military might, deceit and treachery determined the outcome of these confrontations, aided or abetted by supernatural talismans and spirits. Despite these squabbles, Lan-Na continued to enjoy prosperity, the wars of the nobility usually affected the average inhabitant but little. Lan-Na enlarged, absorbing Phayao, Phrae and Nan, and resisting domination from the emerging state of the central plains - the Ayutthaya empire. However, in the 14th century the kingdom of Luang Prabang in Laos took territory from Lan-Na-Thai along the Maekhong, including the city of Chiang Khong, and caused the official capital of Lan-Na-Thai to be moved to Chiang Mai in 1345.
the Ayutthaya empire
       The 15th century was the golden age of Chiang Mai, when Lan-Na art and power reached its peak during the reign of King Tilokaraja. He was a great warlord and a devout Buddhist, able in 1455 AD to arrange the eighth world Bhuddist council in Chiang Mai. The fact that this was feasible attests to the power, wealth, safety and communications that Lan-Na enjoyed. It was not to last long, though. Squabbling between pretenders to the throne by a succession of kings and princes weakened the nobility.
The 15th century was the golden age of Chiang Mai, when Lan-Na art and power reached its peak during the reign of King Tilokaraja
         In 1545 AD Chiang Mai suffered a devastating earthquake, and in 1558 AD Chiang Mai was taken by the Burmese empire of Pegu. Most of Lan-Na remained under Burmese control for over 200 years, although for much of the population the effects were barely noticeable except during the odd small-scale rebellion, when the Burmese would sack a rebellious dukedom as a punishment. There was no direct colonization, but annual tributes to Pegu had to be paid, and a Burmese prince sat on the throne in Chiang Mai. Once secure in Lan-Na, the Burmese nobility looked to extend their influence further, particularly towards the kingdom of Ayutthaya to the south. Finally, in 1767 AD, the Burmese King Syn Byu Shin took and sacked Ayuttaya, destroying most of the culture and heritage of this previously magnificent city.
        Now secure in most of central Southeast Asia, the Burmese, together with an army recruited from Lan-Na, turned their attention eastwards, and mounted an attack on the empire of Luang Prabang (now Laos). The war drained Lan-Na of wealth and population, and pushed the people too far, leading to a series of determined rebellions. From the city of Tak, a general named Taksin achieved victories over the Burmese, and eventually became the first king of a new central Thai empire based at Thonburi (on the west bank of the Chao Phraya, opposite Bangkok). Further north, the chief of Lampang, Kawila, mounted a rebellion which led to the retaking of Chiang Mai, and the end of Burmese domination, in 1774 AD.
      Taksin become the first king of a united Thailand, and appointed Kawila as governor of Chiang Mai. The City was in a state of awful disrepair, in fact it was a ghost town until the beginning of the 19th century. In 1781 AD Taksin was declared insane and executed. His successor, and former general, Phra Buddha Yod Fa, moved the capital of Thailand across the river from Thonburi to its presents position at Krung Thep (Bangkok) on the east bank, more easily defended from any more Burmese attacks from the west. Phra Buddha established the Rama Dynasty who have ruled Thailand ever since (the present king, Bhumipol Adulyadej, is Rama IX). It was not until 1804 that the last toehold of the Burmese in Thailand, at Chiang Saen, was retaken.
King Taksin become the first king of a united Thailand, and appointed Kawila as governor of Chiang Mai
        In the 19th century, Lan-Na became an unnoticed backwater of Thailand. It was ruled by a series of ineffectual governors, and the population declined in number and vigour. In the mid 19th century, European powers began to view Lan-Na with interest.
        The French established an Indo-Chinese empire in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos to the east, and the British controlled India and Burma to the west. It was a delicate time, with both superpowers eyeing Lan-Na and each other. It was largely thanks to the statesmanship of King Mongkut and his son Chulalongkorn that Lan-Na preserved its independence.
        Territory was ceded to France to the east of the Maekhong River, and logging concessions given to the British. Much was made by the kings of Thailand of the importance of the neutral buffer zone between French and British dominions. There was a small skirmish with boats of the French navy over ownership of some tiny islands in the Mekhong River, and a rapid migration of Thais to the disputed area around Mae Hong Son which the British claimed because the population was more Burmese that Thai. King Chulalongkorn, belatedly realizing how ineffectually Lan-Na had been governed, appointed a talented High Commission to administer the north, and encouraged missionaries who imported not only Christianity (which was largely rejected by the Thais) but modern education, health care and administration.
         In the 1920’s, a British governor was appointed by the king as Governor of Lampang. The railway reached Chiang Mai in 1927, which together with a comprehensive road building programme, drew Lan-Na into the mainstream of Thai life and prosperity.
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