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Home > Culture and People > History

Mengri the Great

A Brief History

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local family circa 1900
Local family circa 1900

Lanna or Lannathai 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) & 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. It is generally acknowledged, throughout Thailand, that the Northern women are the most beautiful and people friendliest and politest in the country. The charm and gentleness of the Northerners seldom fail to impress even the most demanding of visitors.

The history of modern Thailand begins 5,000 years ago. The ancestors of today's Thai people lived in areas of Southern China. Through various migration streams they worked their way south to Thailand, Burma and Lao. They entered today's Thailand at Chiang Saen (Yonokanagakom) on the southern banks of the Mae Khong River; this gateway to Siam is known to have been a kingdom as early as 773 A.D.

The mighty Lanna kingdom was founded by King Mengri (1259 - 1317). He also brought a newly found unity to the North and annexed the Mon held territory south of Chiang Mai including their capital Lampoon (Hari Punchai). After the town fell he went in search for a new area to build a city. He found a well-watered meadow, stocked with game and other wild animals beside a huge mountain plentiful of waterfalls. Two of his friends were invited, King Ngarm Muang of Payao and King Rama Kampeng of Sukothai, to inspect the site and assist in construction to which they agreed. Each king made a small slit in his wrist and allowed the blood to spill into a silver goblet. When full they drank the contents vowing everlasting support and co-operation. (There was no war between the three kingdoms during the reign of these kings.) A monument to these three kings was built and can be located in the centre of Chiang Mai's old city. The town was built in 1296 and named Nopburi Sri Nakorn Ping Chiang Mai which was later shortened to Chiang Mai. Statue of the three kings
The statue of the three kings is set in the heart of Chiang Mai's old city

Mengri however did not live in Chiang Mai, preferring his own town of Chiang Rai, the then capital of Lanna. Chiang Mai did not become capital until 1345. His role was that of conqueror. A powerful man, it is perhaps fitting that he died after being struck by lightning in his 80th year. A shrine was built at the market where he fell and is found in the centre of Chiang Mai's old city, close to the three kings statue. Other Northern Kings met with more unusual fates such as King Kampoo who, in 1345, was eaten by a crocodile while taking a bath and King Muong Keo who passed away after eating a dish of raw horse meat. Another would be king was trampled to death attempting to rope wild elephants.

The most powerful period of this kingdoms history was during the reign of King Tilorokarat (1548-1580). Lanna's power began to wane by the end of the 15th century and was repeatedly attacked by Lao and Burma whose troops and puppet lords occupied the area on many occasions. They introduced their own styles of food, buildings, costume and culture. Chiang Mai swayed between Burmese and Central Thai control with intermittent spells of self-government; The Burmese occupied the Lanna region from 1556 until it was finally annexed by Central Thailand in the late 18th century. However their loyalties of the locals were to themselves and they sided with Thai or Burmese armies at different periods.

Chiang Mai was actually deserted for 15 years (1776-1791) as the result of successive wars. Lampang was made temporary capital. It was Rama I (of the present Chakri Dynasty) who re-established the city after several skirmishes with the Burmese. The Thai commander, Kawila, was given the title "Prince of Chiang Mai" for his valiant efforts. Chiang Mai has remained a part of Thailand (Siam) ever since despite frequent Burmese raids.

Around this time Chiang Saen was under siege by Thai forces attempting to starve out the Burmese occupiers. The Thai army did not succeed and retreated fearing a Burmese counter-attack. Meanwhile the residents revolted slaying the Burmese troops and opening the city gates for their liberating compatriots to enter.

Rama I ordered the destruction of Chiang Saen in 1804 to prevent the Burmese from using it as a springboard to attack Chiang Mai, he did likewise to the surrounding Shan states towns (now in Burma and Laos). With Chiang Saen in flames the 23,000 residents were sent to populate Chiang Mai, Lampang and Nan which is why, even today, the town of Chiang Saen is little more than a village.

Skirmishes, uprising and wars were an integral part of daily life in Lanna during these times and it would require much more space than we have here to cover many of the past conflicts.

The last ruler of Chiang Mai with Northern connections was Chao Keo Naovarat and a Bangkok appointed governor replaced him in 1939. A bridge, connecting the east of the city with the old city is named in his honour.

Typical
Lanna market scene mid 19th century
Typical Lanna market scene mid 19th century

Today Northern Thailand is part of the Kingdom of Thailand and ruled from Bangkok.

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