750 Years of ChiangRai, the Heart of Lanna
by Joel J. Barlow
Although people lived here before that, there’s good reason to celebrate ChiangRai as 750 years old this year. 750 years ago a new polity came into being, one without which the greater polity of Thailand might never have arisen. 750 years ago, a kind of teak and bamboo curtain was established (a bit like the much later “Iron Curtain” dividing East and West Germany), and that divide prevented the Mongols “hordes” from absorbing into their Yuan Empire the plains area drained by the MaeNam ChaoPraya.
The new polity became known as Lanna; its capitol was ChiangMai, but ChiangMai was more a business and administrative than cultural center. Its kings often preferred to retire to ChiangRai, which more epitomized their cultural heritage from Sipsongpanna (Xishuangbanna), Yonok, Dali and the Sipsong Chu Tai (12 Tai Names). ChiangMai was much more influenced by Mon, and even Khmer, cultures. It was essential as a trading center - engrossed in business with areas more to the south than to the north, where an intimidating threat remained. ChiangRai, however, was able to remain tight with municipalities in bordering Shan and Lao areas (well, tight in the sense that, although they sometimes fought, they were very much of the same cultural family).
The founder of Lanna, Paw Khun Mengrai (“Good Father King Rai”; King Mangrai, though frequently used, is a redundancy) laid the basis for the long-enduring Thai political independence by creating a reliable alliance of T’ai and related, neighboring, peoples, in the Christian Era’s13th century. His alliances and strategies enabled him to resist aggression by the Mongols, who were conquering elsewhere pretty much as they pleased. A contemporary, neighboring king Paw Khun Ramkamhaeng, is officially acknowledged as the first Thai king for his promulgation of Thai written language and of Theravada Buddhism with king as the top defender and advocate. Unlike Mengrai, though, Ramkamhaeng was nominally a vassal of others, both of the Mongol empire (which he visited twice), under Kublai Khan, and also of the Angkor Khom, his antecedents.
After Mongol horsemen attacked and defeated NanChao in 1253 CE, with Shan aid they then defeated the Burmese (1277). The power of the Mongols and their Yuan Dynasty Chinese Empire were a clear threat to all peoples of the entire region. From the Pacific Ocean to Eastern Europe and Persia, Mongol horsemen were going where they willed. Mengrai couldn’t have maintained his position as king without moving his court (and people) to a less vulnerable position. Realizing he had to avoid direct confrontation between his army and the stronger Mongols, Mangrai took his people south across buffering waters (the Mekong, the Kok and the Chiang Saen Lake), away from his patrimonial JingHong in the semi-mythical Ngoen Yang, and matrimonial Chiang Rung (both in southern Yunnan). His people made a new capital and named it after him: ChiangRai. The ChiangSaen Lake, lying between NgoenYang and ChiangRai, was quite large then, as a big earthquake (about 800, or perhaps 1015 CE) had released lots of water down from the KengTung area of present Shan State. Most of the lowlands between the Mekong and Kok rivers had become jungle swamp difficult to cross except along thin pathways, where steep, thickly vegetated hills met the wetlands. This kind of area can still be seen at the Doi NangNohn lagoon just southwest of the international border at Mae Sai.
1296 is the accepted date for the establishment of Lanna, as that’s the founding date of ChiangMai - but our modern concept of a country didn’t yet exist. There was empire, with greater and lesser rulers. Only with a significant center of business could Mangrai be seen as a great king; for 34 years, Mangrai hadn’t been King of Lanna, but of ChiangRai - if indeed that name was yet well established. It took him three years of attacking and defeating other towns (Muang Mop, Muang Lai, Chiang Kham and Chiang Chang) before he founded ChiangRai. By then, he already had a son (Khun Kruang), the mother of whom receives no mention in the ChiangMai Chronicle.
Impressed with the hills of Doi JomTong (on the south bank of the Kok River, with a village called Pantu Nakorn), which he likened to the three mountains NgoenYang, he built a fortified city there, and named it after himself. Three years later, he had another son, Jao Khun Khram. It’s said that, when settled into ChiangRai, Mangrai met Princess Eua Ming Wiang Chai, of ChiangSaen (Yonok, or whatever it was called then – the name ChiangSaen came later). Wanting to marry her, he promised to forgo other women for that privilege - also not mentioned in the Chronicles.
Six years before Mengrai’s ascendancy, the Mongols took Yunnan’s northern neighbor, Nanchao; with Mengrai’s leaving, they had all of Yunnan. In 1279, all China was theirs. By 1290 Kublai Khan had annexed past the Volga to the Danube; Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, most of northern Burma and coastal northern Vietnam were included in his Empire. Kublai Khan sent armies south of the Kok, but Mengrai’s successful harassment tactics, which disrupted supply lines, persuaded them to leave. The Mongols conquered the similar Irrawaddy region (taking Pagan in 1297), but in Lanna found no established urban center to lay siege to, as Mengrai had stayed fairly mobile, transplanting his capital from place to place, unpredictably, for decades. Unable to take a major city or establish any permanent base in Lanna, the Mongols never approached the Chao Phraya River basin. Thus the soon much greater kingdom, then empire, of Ayudhaya was able to prosper, and grow into Siam.
By the time of Mengrai, T’ai people were spread over an area in excess of a quarter million square kilometers, living in co-operative, communalistic style. The village was the main political unit; we’ve no record of any complex social hierarchies. The name of Mengrai’s lineage, Luajakarat or Lawajakarat, as well as his actions, denotes intermingling among indigenous peoples (Lua, Lawa), and access to various ancient political ideas. Young Mengrai clearly saw a united political and military front with loosely-associated peoples as the only way to maintain his position and prestige; he had the sophistication to effectively use ideas as advanced as those put forth much, much earlier by Sun Tzu in his book, The Art of War (although Mangrai may well never have known of the book, or even Sun Tzu’s name).
When Mangrai came to ChiangRai, there had long been a predominantly Buddhist culture for several centuries (at least). Wat Boran in Wiang Nua, just northwest of WiangChai, may hold the oldest remnants of this by-gone society to be found in northern Thailand. Just how old the Buddha effigy there is isn’t clear, but bricks and mortar from a jedi (pagoda), wall or gate, dug up in 1972, are from the early Chiang Saen era (before the city was called that), about 1200 years ago. ChiangSaen, or Yonok, or whatever it might have been called then, closer to the Mekong River (perhaps ruins lie under the river’s course, no-one knows), had existed for quite awhile, and there were temples at Doi Khao Quai and Doi Jom Tong. Haripunchai (now Lamphun) had Mon rulers, but locals hereabouts were Leu, Lawa and forest peoples. There are about 15 groups with names including the term “Tai” here now, but exactly who was here then we don’t know. None of this area’s municipalities in any way rivaled Asia’s contemporaneous real metropolises (like southern Thailand’s Nakorn Sri Thammarat), which were larger than anything then in Europe. Those places were mentioned in accounts by people from elsewhere. For early Lanna, though, not many documents have been found, so there’s not a lot to refer to.
Between Amphoe Wiang Chai and the Kok River is Amphoe Wiang Nua, where life is about as it ought to be. Instead of malls, pollution and traffic, there’s rice and corn fields, with pumpkins, coconut, banana and other fruit, and tobacco, all growing in profusion. Tourists are few - in fact, almost non-existent. The pace of life is slow, people are friendly, reliable and honest, and passing fads of fashion must seem to many locals as but crazy fairy-tales from far away.
As everywhere in Thailand, there are many temples. One, Wat Boran, isn’t much, except perhaps in significance. It may hold the oldest remnants of by-gone Buddhist society to be found in northern Thailand. Just how old the Buddha effigy is isn’t clear, but bricks and mortar from a jedi (pagoda), wall or gate, dug up in 1972, are from the early Chiang Saen era (before the city of that area was called that), about 1200 years ago.
East of the “Ha-Yaek” at the Mengrai Monument south of the Kok River bridge on Highway 1 about 10 kilometers past the Sports Stadium, is Wat Panalai Kasem, in Ban Panalai, about 4 kilometers from Wiang Chai. At nearby Ban Wiang Nua old style clothing and architecture remains common, and at Ban Rat Jalern aren many ‘galae’ roof horns, raised houses and even polished teak ones. Wat RatJalern has fancy embossed temple doors and gorgeously colorful front wall paintings of Mae Toranee and Taewadah angels. The next small town is Ban Sansalit; Wat Sansalit is just before Wat Boran, in Ban Wiang Doem (or Derm, given the Thai predilection for transliterations using silent r’s with no counterpart in corresponding Thai script). Atthe back of Wat Boran a new temple structure is being finished. Small houses for spirits of the newly deceased stand between it and the ‘bot’ (sala si-ri tamon pracha-nuson) for chanting and services. Lots of birds fly around inside the bot; others are caged (some ‘talk’). The ancient things are in a fancier temple building, just to the right after a small pavilion at the gate. Nothing is in English… and often no-one is around. But there one can get a hint about what was here before Mangrai.
Front of Wat Sansalit
Image unearthed at Wat Boran
Another fascinating historical temple is just a few kilometers further on. Pass the turns to the interestingly named Ban Ta-bandai (water-stairs, or perhaps, “waiting for stairs” place. If it seems I should explain why sometimes I’m not sure of a translation, I’ll be getting to that presently! First let’s get to our next old temple).
Wat Bang Trai-gaeo, at Ban Trai-gaeo, is a bit down at the heels, but not a century old, I’m sure. Just past it, take a clearly marked (in English even) left turn, to Wat Ku-na (the sign in Thai calls it Boran Satan Prajao Ku-na). After about a kilometer and a half, turn right and go the same distance to Ban Ku-na (no real village) and pass the little rest stop for weary drivers (I think the only one I’ve seen in Thailand). Then turn left at the lake.
This is an amazing place. Built first by Lanna’s animist king while he was still a Buddhist, over 630 years ago, the setting charming, ambience delightful and surprises amazing. I particularly like the little “ti-pak ron jai” (place to stay for hot hearts) tiny jail.
More noticeable, in fact, impossible to miss, is a roofed over fallen tree. A sign in Thai explains that it was a rubber tree (ton yang) over 100 years old, over 29 meters tall and 4.1 meters around, found in the river early in 2004. But a caretaker there told me it was a “Ton sai” tree, and not only do I clearly remember the tree being there, and not with a new roof, either, before that, I have pictures from my first visit – over a year before that! So, I’m reluctant to trust everything I read or hear…
By the roofed tree’s roots are gifts: women’s cloths and zip up wardrobe, make-up equipment and a donation box. Clearly a spirit is believed to be in residence.
There’s no resident monk at Wat Ku-na, just a caretaker who sweeps up and sells fish food, incense and candles. Often one simply puts money in a bowl and helps oneself. The bowl is on a table in a “sala” between the small lake and a sturdier sala with a large Buddha statue. That is the main bot – with no walls.
People tend to ignore the bot, and place their offerings before a huge 5 or 600 year old Ton sai tree (well, the caretaker told me that’s what it is, I thought maybe a Bo tree… but it’s another kind of fiscus, the banyan; and, apologies to the caretaker, rubber is a kind of fiscus, too!) which often has images of royals among its roots. High up in its branches are over 20 bee hives, easily visible. The largest appears to be over a meter in length. Locally, bees building a nest is regarded as a token of great good fortune.
Extending over the lake is a small wood sala, with benches, placed above a cement walk around it, with protective railing, used for feeding the many fish – many fairly big for such a small lake. There are pla duk catfish, pla ja-la met butterfish, pla tah pien and long pla chon fighting fish, I was told by visitors feeding them.
West of the big tree, near the river, is something like bleachers for images given to the tree, and the riverside is where the Loi Kratong parade from Wiang Nua ends and people launch their kratongs.
It’s all quite lovely, with the air cooled by breezes passing above the river and lots of vegetation, including plenty of trees. Well worth a visit, especially if one wants to see a bit of unspoiled northern life.
When I started compiling ChiangRai tourist information a decade ago, WiangChai was off the tourist track, and few people there spoke anything but northern &/or central Thai. Although with a primarily rice-based economy, due to proximity to Amphoe Muang, good soil (a legacy from when the ChiangSaen Lake was huge), and plentiful water, WiangChai is more prosperous than PhrayaMengrai, Theung or other outlying areas of ChiangRai. Santiburi Golf has helped too, as has land speculation. Grounds preparation for another golf-based community, “Happy City”, is well underway, and already there are Farang faces to be seen around and about. There are internet cafes, modern homes aplenty, and other signs of development; with that, though, has come removal of some mountains (over towards otherwise beautiful Bung Luang and charmingly slow PrayaMengrai), for materials. Soon the area will be ‘discovered’ – and much busier. Global economic problems will surely affect this development, and perhaps the success of Happy City, but ChiangRai is sure to replace ChiangMai in the hearts of many. We should regard ourselves as fortunate to still be able to enjoy the unspoiled charm in Wiang Chai. One of its nicest places is just north of town on 1173, 2.5 km along PhaNgio (spelled Pha Giew on signs) Road from Ban DonRuang, 3 km. past the turn to ChaingRung and ChiangKhong.