The What’s Up Guide to History of Chiang Mai, the Capital of Lanna Kingdom

The Three Kings’ Monument, Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai was founded more than 700 years ago and has a rich culture and abundant monuments which document its passage through time. The Lanna Kingdom covered much of what is now Northern Thailand plus the adjoining regions of Laos and Burma (Myanmar). Lanna translates as a million rice fields.

The Lanna kings founded capitals in locations including Chiang Saen and Chiang Rai before settling on the Ping River Valley. The first capital was Wiang Kum Kam, but this was flooded during the mid-1290s. Wiang Kum Kam was abandoned and lay dormant until 1984 when archaeologists started the process of unearthing its statues, temples and pagodas. A Wiang Kum Kam tour gives insightful glimpses of the city during its historic heyday.

King Mengrai ruled the Lanna Kingdom during the late 13th century and after the flood at Wiang Kum Kam he decided to shift the capital a few kilometres north to higher ground. Historical records show King Mengrai established Chiang Mai in 1296. The moat around the Old City was dug soon afterwards. The city walls and the city’s oldest temple, Wat Chiang Man, were built in the ensuing decades.

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The temples of Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang in the Old City in addition to Wat Suan Dok and Wat Jet Yod were constructed over the next 200 years. This quartet of temples remains the flagships of Chiang Mai’s tourism sites to the present day. Wat Chedi Luang’s famous pagoda is only half the 82-metres in height it was when construction finished in the 15th century yet is still an impressive sight.

In the 16th century, the Lanna Kingdom declined and Chiang Mai’s importance followed suit. It was invade by the Burmese army for the first time in 1556. Siamese forces under Chao Kavila drove the Burmese out 200 years later and Chiang Mai was officially incorporated into Siam in 1775. Burmese forces attacked the following year and the city lay abandoned for the next 15 years.  

Once Chiang Mai was rehabilitated it evolved as a hub for trade, the local teak logging industry and bastion of culture. Due to its beautiful setting the city was nicknamed the Rose of the North. Chiang Mai grew in stature as a tourism destination during the 1970s. A chilled ambience, temples and jungle treks were the major draws.