ChiangRai, History and You
Because the world has changed so fast, many people consider the past almost insignificant, and relative to modern technologies, unimportant. But the past is the only context we have, through which to gain the informative perspective on things which we need. We cannot know where we are, if we don’t know how we got here.
750 years ago Mengrai arrived here, to a town which became named after him. Historians say he “founded” ChiangRai, but as there was already an established town, with temples, markets, and surely some form of government. Perhaps it might be better should say he found ChiangRai. Or transformed it.
History is only half a science. Half of it’s about opinion. Who “started” a war? Was King Taksin, who ruled just before the beginning of the Chakri Dynasty, crazy, and if so, when did he become crazy? Was Burma part of India, just because it was part of the same British colony? Did the USA “defeat” the Soviet Union in the “Cold War”? One cannot prove answers to questions like these to be correct, or much more than opinion.
Not so long ago, history was regarded mostly as the chronicles of the acts of kings, great military generals and other important men. Then some people started to notice that women were often of real significance too. And that human events have been determined as much by disease and other natural events, commerce, ideas, and even fashions. The people of Easter Island cut down all their trees to put up huge stone effigies - which can only be called a fashion, as it served no functional purpose. And the lack of trees resulted in most of them dying. A strange history, but history still.
Mengrai made a decision to come here, and an important decision it was. Perhaps the most important decision in all the history of Southeast Asia. Had Mengrai not done what he did, Chinese troops under Mongol leadership surely would have brought the Lanna area into the Yuan Empire. But I suspect that disease may have played an equally important role. It isn’t known for a fact, but does seems likely that the demise of the great Angkor Empire was rooted in the Black Plague, something which arose because of the success of the Mongols, but something which they surely didn’t intend. Rats carrying disease-infested fleas were able to travel further and faster, due to Kublai Khan’s success in promoting commerce, through, among other things, building roads. The rats got on ships, and eventually almost half of the people living in the well-populated parts of Europe died - from the Bubonic, or Black, Plague. This may well have happened in Angkor also; we have little other information to explain their sudden loss of strength. It’s very clear, though, that without both the fall of Angkor and Mangrai’s success at blocking the Mongol expansion, Ayuddhaya could not have so quickly arisen to the importance it did, becoming, for a while, perhaps the most populous city on our planet.
So, history, although about people, is about diseases, too. It’s also about natural events like floods, earthquakes and storms. As the 3rd decade of the CE 15th century went on, weather became significant in Lanna history, when King Sam Fang Kaen was fighting Jeen Haw from the Yunnan area. Lightning struck and destroyed the Haw headquarters, killing their chief and many others, and allowing a Lanna victory. At about the same time, another lightning strike destroyed palaces of the newly completed Forbidden City in Beijing, leading to Ming isolationism. The lightning may well have suggested to many that he’d lost the “Mandate of Heaven” and so made a change of important policy essential, in order that the Emperor at least appear to win that mandate back. Need I mention the threat of floods facing us right now?
History is about everything which affects us, about commerce and invention, ideas, fashion, the arts and even the games we play.
King Ramkamhaeng promoted a wide commerce in Sangkalok pottery, beautiful glazed ceramics, containers and dishes, while he was king. Sangkalok style pale blue or off-white porcelain with designs of flowers, foliage and fish painted beneath the glaze, were made at Sukhothai’s sister city Si Satchanalai and later, Kampaeng Phet. Most were bowls and plates, but some sangkalok ware was used for architectural decoration; much was exported to countries throughout Asia (mostly to China, but even to Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia), making Sukhothai the center of a trade empire and perhaps the most important producer of ceramics in Southeast Asia for over two centuries. Many examples are in museums throughout Asia. But while similar ceramics made here in ChiangRai were of much better quality, our local product never became famous. How did that happen? Perhaps because beauty and grace don’t mix well with business? About this, and mnay other things, you can decide for yourself. Certainly, I’d like to know, but surely don’t. Somlak Pantibun, who makes world-class pottery at Doi Din Daeng, near Ban Pa-O, east of Highway 1, would certainly like to know more about that too!
The last king of Lanna, Phra Mekut (Mah Ku or Mekhuti, ruled 1552-1564) died in the area which has become Myanmar, at Pegu or Ava, and the people there revere his spirit as a powerful Nat, Yun Bayin, #22 of the 37 widely believed in Myanmar to protect the country. Nats are an important part of Burmese culture, and represent spirits so troubled by misdeeds, so horribly, tragically dis-ordered by extreme complexities from violence, lust, greed, and other unfortunate realities, that it cannot return through the cycle of re-birth, and must remain earth-bound. Mekhut’s problems, among other things, involved the levy of taxes so heavy, and rules for conscription into the military or doing of unpaid labor, things so demanding and onerous, that the people became rebellious. Surely that consequence was unintended, unless Mekhut wanted a Burmese invasion, but intended or unintended, actions do have consequences, which we learn about through history.
Through the kind of spiritualism that gave rise to the Yun Bayin Nat, which we can see as an idea, we can have some understanding of what happened to Lanna, understanding we most likely wouldn’t have otherwise, as so many records have been lost. There are good records of Lanna, but they leave many things confused. Mengrai is said to have had two wives, but we have three names for them: Eua Ming, Rai Koma and Usa Payaki. How did that happen? Quite a lot, if not most, of the historical records of neighboring countries have been lost, some due to politics, some due to the leaves they were written on rotting from humidity. So it is good that we can learn other ways, and from other places.
To really know about ChiangRai, one must know about Mengrai, Pra Makut, and also the Burmese General Burengnong (or Bayinnaung) and the wars with Burma, which went on from the middle 1500s CE until 1825 (about 2100 BE to 2368), just as to really know about the language used by locals here, one must know of the Tai Yai in Shan State, and the speakers of an ancient Tai dialect, with written characters, who live near Luxi and Ruili in what was once southern Nanchao, at the western tip of Yunnan, China, in what has now become called Deihong Dai or the JingPo Nationalities Autonomous Prefecture. People from Bangkok used to call Kham Muang “Lao”, but it is as different from most Lao as it is from the Central Thai pasa klang. Similarly, ChiangRai has always been different from ChiangMai – and only history can explain this.
Fortunately, we aren’t totally dependent on written chronicles for learning history. Not only the study of language but excavations, textiles, personal collections and even tree rings have offered a lot that has helped develop insights. But much Thai history remains unclear: who was here before T’ai people came, and how much did the introduction of Thai language change things? How many different migrations to here from China were there, and what all was affected by them? Much about the strange history of opium use here remains unclear, as does much about the political use of buffer states (rat gan chon, or muang pradhesa raja). Were people to better understand history, misunderstandings about politics, business, religion and how best to speak properly might make for less problems, and respect for valuable resources, art and literature might come more easily to people not generally inclined to think about matters like those.
Not long ago, descendents of Dr. William Briggs of Overbrook Hospital came to visit, after contacting me for help finding their way around. I found people very glad to meet them! More recently, a shop-owner in the USA also contacted me, about wanting to sell some things which had belonged to Dr. Briggs, including his personal seal. This seal is quite like seals used with opium. This is suggestive of how many ideas about opium came from the British (Dr. Briggs was from Canada, a British colony, although his descendants are citizens of the USA. In Dr. Briggs’ time, the British were very important in this area due to their cutting lots of teak in the general area, and having a consulate in ChiangMai). The strange histories of opium, over-exploitation of natural resources, and the system of buying positions in governmental bureaucracy, the military or police, deserve much more attention, for the sake of solving pressing problems. History can also help one understand why Siam could resist European colonialism while so few else could, and why Europeans were able to think so highly of themselves from about 1500 CE until not very long ago. The history of where you live can foster respect for where you live.
Despite Dr. Briggs and government efforts, development in ChiangRai proceeded but slowly until the 1990s. The economic crash of 1997 put an end to hopes for many poorly-thought-out construction projects here, but in the last decade there’s been considerable growth. With growth, new problems replace old ones, and traffic, air and noise pollution, garbage, inflation and long waits for health-care are growing problems. Understanding of history may or may not help with these things, but it will certainly take knowledge to solve the problems, and not just knowledge of business. Only people with general knowledge will be able to think up new solutions.
In a quickly changing world, information is perhaps our most important resource. Without new information, we certainly cannot survive as well as we’d like. It is not enough to just believe; we need respect for knowledge, and understanding that knowledge is not constrained by written words. Some history gets lost, but sometimes lost things get found, too.
There’s much history in the world, and one can hardly learn it all, but to know one’s self, one must know at least some of the history which made you what you are. Only knowledge of the past can help one decide best about the future, and only history confirmed through a variety of sources can be considered knowledge.