The History of The Lanna Kingdom

Wat Phrathat Sri Chomtong, Chiang Ma

This guide is a great accompaniment to visiting Northern Thailand, including Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and the surrounding cities and provinces. If you are interested in the grand history of the South East Asian region known as the ‘Lanna Kingdom’ and want to know more about the origins of the famous ‘Lanna Style’ then please read on. As usual, there is a useful map at the bottom of this guide which shows how the Lanna Kingdom looked at the height of it’s territorial reach, in relation to the country boundaries of today. Enjoy!

 What Comes Under The Umbrella Term, ‘Lanna Style’

‘Lanna’ is a melting pot of culture and crafts from many eras and ethnic groups. Architecture, masonry, bronzeware, silverware, woodcraft, textiles, weaving, sculpture, dance, cooking and an ethnic language make up a heritage that is revered and replicated in the 21st Century.

So here is a potted history told in order to whet your appetite for visiting the region and hopefully get you out of the tourist trap that is the ‘Chiang Mai/Hill Tribe Group Tour’ treadmill. This guide may encourage you to embark on a beautiful adventure back through Asian history starting in medieval times and ending with British Colonial influence and Bangkok rule.

8th-13th Century – The Roots Of Lanna

City states such as Lamphun and Lampang which are now provinces bordering Chiang Mai Province (see map) were already well established in the 9th Century. These cities were founded more than 400 years before the founding of Chiang Mai and a visit to Lampang (only 60km from Chiang Mai) to see relics more than 1,000 years old is highly recommended. If you have time, visit the other cities mentioned at the end of this guide too.

The inhabitants of Lamphun and Lampang were known as Lawa and Mon who had a rich culture. The kingdoms of Nan and Phrae to the east were also flourishing with a different array of cultural influences including the then Hindu, Khmer Empire.

In the 9th Century the first Thai (Tai) peoples also started settling in the area. They came from the north, migrating from Southern China and Northern Vietnam in large numbers. They were Chinese in ethnicity and were called the ‘Yuan.’ They are the original people referred to as ‘Thai/Tai’ and their very first kingdom started in Chiang Saen in the east of the region we are discussing.

The Yuan (Tai) people migrated south mainly due to the threat of the Mongols, the mighty warriors who ruled most of Asia at that time, and were heading south. The Yuan kingdom began in the 10th Century and a Yuan dynasty continued from then, gradually extending its territory little by little in all directions, even into what is now Lao.

The First King Of Lanna, King Mangrai

In 1260 the Mongols under the leadership of Kublai Khan sacked the historic Burmese Kingdom of Bagan (which is very close to Lamphun) and it is during this time that the future first King of Lanna started consolidating his position. His first move was to bring outlying areas that used to be part of the Bagan Kingdom under his control. The person who led this consolidation was the King of Yuan, Mangrai who had ascended to the Yuan throne in 1261. The process of conquering and consolidation began, initiated by the ambitious, highly political great war leader, King Mangrai.

We can therefore trace the creation of the Lanna Kingdom back to the Mongols and the threat they posed to the area. King Mangrai moved his base north to Chiang Rai, expanded his influence over the Southern cities of Lampang and Lamphun and brought areas in the north under his control reaching into China and Burma. In 1292 he conquered the famous Southern Mon Kingdom of Hariphunchai and so the Lanna Kingdom took shape. King Mangrai called his new enlarged kingdom ‘Lan-Na-Thai.’ (which for the purposes of this guide I will call Lanna) It translates as ‘Thai Kingdom Of A Million Rice Fields.’

 In 1287 the 3 Thai/Tai Kings of Lanna, Sukhothai, and Phayao made an alliance which led to the control of Northern Thailand by Thai kings for the next 300 years. This pact was very important for regional stability, and a golden era for Thai civilization began. However, only three years later, in 1290 Kublai Khan’s fierce Mongolian armies invaded Lanna. King Mangrai resisted with genius guerilla warfare tactics and sharp diplomatic skills.

Six year later, in 1296, Mangrai ordered a new capital city to be built which he named Chiang Mai. He saw this as the best location for the centre of his new empire, with its fertile land, which had plenty of rivers and a good climate. The city quickly flourished to become Lanna’s new centre although, Mangrai continued to live in his preferred city, Chiang Rai.

King Mangrai managed to avoid more invasions from the north through political negotiations and payment of large tributes. At the time of his death in 1317 his Lanna Kingdom covered a very large area although in the next century it would get even larger. As a great king, he brought prosperity and stability to the whole area. Many beautiful towns and temples were built during his reign, and the arts flourished. This is all very impressive for a conquering king who was at war so much of the time.

A key point to note about King Mangrai, the first King of Lanna, was that he wanted Buddhism to be an essential part of the state, and so ‘Theravada Buddhism’ became a lynch pin of the empire. After King Mangrai’s death, many kings of the Mangrai Dynasty would rule the Kingdom of Lanna, shifting administrative HQ between Chiang Rai, Chiang Saen, and Chiang Mai. Buddhism flourished and became a way of life for the people and many customs developed in this time, are still alive today.

King Tilorokarat – King of The Lanna Kingdom (1441-1485)

In 1441 King Tilorokarat (Tilok) the 9th King of Lanna was crowned and this marked the beginning of a great period of wealth, trade and religious expression. It was also a period of development for the distinctly ‘Lanna Style’ of arts, including dance, weaving, metalware and cuisine. King Tilorokarat was intensely religious in both Theravada Buddhism and the Brahman ways and he commissioned many now famous Lanna bronze Buddha images. There was large scale construction of temples and shrines many of which can still be visited today, either as working temples or as ruins.

The Kingdom of Nan and Phrae was integrated between 1443 and 1449 (not without resistance) and other land was also brought under Lanna control, reaching up into what is now China. Some of the Shan States (now Burma) were also integrated and at this point in history Lanna was the largest it ever was.

Lanna began trading extensively with neighboring kingdoms which created a more affluent lifestyle for the local inhabitants and led to more patronage of the arts by the rich. Although Lanna had many altercations with its neighbours at this time it also had a deep spiritual connection with some of them including Sukhothai and Bagan. Many of temples for instance have a similar style to Burmese or Sukhothai style temples.

In 1455 the World Buddhist Council was held in Chiang Mai which just shows how powerful the kingdom had become on a global scale.

16th Century – Lanna Kingdom’s Decline and Burmese Occupation

Lanna’s gradual decline can be marked by the death of King Kao in 1526. Large building projects had put a great strain on the royal treasury and the tax paying population. The massive ramparts built around cities for instance had cost the kingdom dearly. Government institutions began breaking down and 6 rulers took the throne in only 25 years. A long period unrest, treachery and corruption began in the kingdom.

At this point Lanna was being repeatedly attacked by Laos and Burma and finally in 1558 the Lanna Kingdom was taken by the Burmese. The Burmese conquerors broke Lanna up into several city states: Nan (1595), Phayao, Phrae, Chiang Rai (1600), Lampang (1614) and Chiang Khong (1624).

 A Burmese prince sat on the throne in Chiang Mai but other than in the tightly controlled Shan States, there was no direct colonisation by Burmese people, only annual tributes/taxes that had to be paid. The areas of Nan, Phayao and Phrae in the east were virtually independent because the Burmese rule was too weak to control the land they conquered. In this way Lanna culture survived and did not become integrated into Burmese culture despite 200 years of Burmese control..

Constant warfare however led to a huge depopulation of Lanna and the former kingdom became both economically and culturally ruined as the Burmese plundered Lanna’s riches to fuel their wars. Many towns and villages were abandoned and the much of the region became derelict. More than 100 years later in a monumental victory, in 1767 the Burmese occupied the Siamese kingdom in the south called ‘Ayutthaya,’ which bordered the Lanna Kingdom. After this massive victory for the Burmese, the old Lanna nobility decided to combine their resources with other Thai Kingdoms in order to defeat the very powerful but overstretched Burmese.

King Taksin of Thonburi to the rescue (1734-1782)

Taksin was a Thai/Chinese man who led the liberation of Siam (Ayutthaya and surrounding Thai Kingdoms) from Burmese occupation. By the 1770’s, the Siamese commoner turned king, unified the scattered Siamese people and created a large army which pushed the Burmese out of Siam forever. In 1775, Taksin’s armies and the armies of the Lanna noble, Prince Kawilla of Lampang, ousted the Burmese from key Lanna territory.  Kawilla was crowned king of a new, but smaller Lanna Kingdom and from then on taxes were paid by the Lanna kings to Siam.

King Kawila – King of The Lanna Kingdom

King Kawila, with support from Bangkok, rejuvenated Chiang Mai. He resettled a lot of the population from rural areas into Chiang Mai City and restored important buildings and temples built during the Mangrai dynasty.  Although Lanna was now a tributary kingdom of Bangkok, Kawila was trusted to govern his kingdom without obstruction. King Kawila worked hard to resurrect Lanna cultures and traditions, such as the coronation ceremony, important Buddhist ceremonies, Lanna celebrations, music, dances and crafts. He dressed in the full Lanna costume as the kings of the Mangrai Dynasty had once done and his dynasty ruled Lanna for more than a hundred years under the gentle support of Bangkok.

Lanna Resurges Again Under Siam’s Gaze

Although King Kawila initiated an enormous Lanna revival, the whole kingdom was in a state of disrepair and it was not until 1804 that the last of the Burmese were kicked out of the furthest corners of the kingdom which is 30 years after Chiang Mai was liberated. From 1810 the Lanna Kingdom finally went through a resurgence, once again enjoying peace and prosperity, especially the nobility. There were still small border disputes but Lanna had support from their Southern Siamese protectors at these times. While Burma was bogged down with internal conflict and war with the British, the Lanna Kingdom, gradually assimilated more and more Siamese customs, including their language.

The Lanna Kingdom in the 19th and Early 20th Century

In 1884 provincial status was imposed on the Lanna Kingdom by Siam and the Lanna kings were made into mere city mayors. All this was most probably pushed through quickly due to the threat of the British who by 1885 had full control of Burma. British influence came to the Shan states first and in then in Lanna itself. British companies arrived in Lanna to exploit the teak forests and brought Burmese and Karen (Chinese/Tibetan tribal people living in Burma) workers into Lanna all of which had a big impact on the culture of the region.

Meanwhile, alongside this growing colonial influence (which can especially be seen in the architecture of Chiang Mai),  Siam was also increasing its control. Siamese nobility was installed over the ‘northern provinces,’ (what had been called the Lanna Kingdom until 1884) and in 1886 Princess Dararasmi of Lanna was married to the King of Siam as a symbol of union. In 1893, Lanna was formally annexed into the Kingdom of Siam. When democracy came to Siam in 1932, the monarchy in Lanna ended for good replaced by a government appointed by the central Thai government.

The Legacy of Princess Dararasmi

The final piece of this story goes back to the famous Princess Dararasmi who married the King of Siam in 1886. Several years after the King of Thailand died, Princess Dararasmi took up residence again in Chiang Mai. She played a key role in reviving traditional performing arts in the area formally known as Lanna and taught folk and classical dance, music and handicraft skills to school children in the region.

While the region was gradually assimilated into the country of Thailand, she actively encouraged a renaissance of Lanna culture, which helped to keep it alive in the heart and minds of the locals throughout the rapid modernisation of the area in the 20th Century. Before the arrival of the train to Chiang Mai in 1912, travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai had taken 3 weeks and suddenly the region was opened up to the modern world and it transformed rapidly.

Lanna Culture Remains Alive Today

We can see that throughout the years, despite multiple invasions, great expansion and contractions, virtual abandonment by the people and annexation by foreign kingdoms, the Lanna culture which began it’s slow bloom from the 9th century and officially began in 1292 is still very much alive today, With key influences from Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism, Mon Culture, Animlalism and Hindu religions, Burmese culture, Chinese culture and also influence from its Thai neighbour, Sukhothai, and later Ayutthaya, the Lanna culture blossomed into a wonderful artistic and cultural style that is loved and revered all over the world today.

As a part of the Kingdom of Thailand the Lanna cities of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Lampang, Lamphun, Chiang Saen, Payao, and Nan are all administered by Thai governors and officials, just like the rest of Thailand. However, the legacy of 1,000 years of history is stunningly beautiful in its complexity, making Lanna, and Chiang Mai in particular, one of the most visited historical cities in the whole of Asia.

The area is totally modernised today and after the first train and roads were built between 1912 and 1922 progress happened fast. However, there are still some amazing gems to be seen in all the cities of old Lanna and Chiang Mai’s old city is hurtling towards UNESCO World Heritage status. We hope this brief history of Lanna has thoroughly whetted your appetite for your visit to Northern Thailand.

Map of the Lanna Kingdom and present day Northern Thailand
The map on the left shows the Lanna Kingdom in blue in 1317 at the end of the reign of the first King of Lanna, King Mangrai. The map on the right shows the major cities of the current Northern Thailand. All areas except the yellow area used to be part of the Lanna Kingdom.

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