The water was dimpled by rising carp, and a breeze sprinkled flower petals onto the surface. Under the shade of a big Ficus tree it felt ten degrees cooler than on the street. Strolling the moat side walkway under the ancient fortifications is the easiest way to navigate Chiang Mai, Thailand. Measuring slightly over one kilometer per side, the square moat is the fulcrum of the city’s many festive parades and processions.
For most travelers, this beautiful city in northern Thailand is the gateway to jungle trekking adventures in the nearby mountains. The city itself is rich in history and architecture.
The 700 year old defensive wall and moat were constructed against attacks by the neighboring Pagan Empire as well as Kublai Khan’s marauding Mongols. Today only portions of the wall remain. The square defined by the ancient defenses is an encircling patch of tranquil garden and water where visitors and locals alike relax and cool off.
The Pagan Empire arose in what today is called Myanmar (Burma) in the 12th century. It became a formidable power and began a program of expansion and conquest. The little empire of Chiang Mai was surrounded: to the west was the Pagan Empire, to the south the Siamese Empire, in the north were the Mongols, and to the east the Khmer Empire was also on the rise.
Evolving from a village of Lawa people, the city was the capital of the Lanna Kingdom in the 12th century and later simply the Kingdom of Chiang Mai. The name Chiang Mai means “new city.” Pressure from the larger bordering empires was constant. A Burmese invasion in the 15th century kept the empire subservient for two hundred years until Chiang Mai voluntarily merged with the Siamese Empire centered in Bangkok. Royal authority of Chiang Mai was maintained and tax tribute was shared in the interests of defensive protection.
The Kingdom of Chiang Mai’s forested mountains provided a wealth of hardwood lumber like teak. Chiang Mai also provided soldiers to the central Kingdom in Bangkok. Existence as a vassal state to Siam was preferable to Burmese overlords; the language of the Lanna Kingdom is a dialect of the same Thai language and the cultures are similar.
Through the modern period, beginning with the British victory in a war with Burma in 1885, Chiang Mai was increasingly under western influence over the objections of Bangkok. The succession of Lanna Empire rulers lasted into the 20th century. The last Ruler of Chiang Mai was Prince Kaew Nawarat who sat as leader from 1911 to 1939. The royal title was dissolved by Bangkok after the Prince’s death. Today’s descendents of the kingdom still carry the last name Na Chiangmai.
Chiang Mai separateness was heightened by geographic isolation. It is over 700 kilometers from Bangkok. Until the 1920s, there was no proper road into the Empire. You could only get to the city by riding elephants over jungle trails and along the course of rivers.
You can see traces of Chiang Mai’s empirical glory inside the old city. The White Elephant Gate was bombed in the Second World War by the Japanese, but the gateway is a faithful reconstruction of the original north entrance through the fortifications. There are over 30 temples dating from Lanna days. They are a blend of architectural styles with many fine wooden carvings, nagas and figures sheltered by gold filigreed pagodas. Wat Chiang Man is the oldest, constructed by King Mengrai at the time when the city became the Lanna capital. Though the temple is a ruin it still inspires reverence; it was originally the home of the Emerald Buddha which is now in Bangkok’s Grand Palace.
By Andrew Kolasinski
Born in The Hague, Andrew Kolasinski arrived in Canada as a small child riding in the luggage rack of a DC-7. Since then he has felt at home anywhere. As the publisher and editor of Island Angler, Andrew spends half the year fishing for salmon and trout, and in the off-season he travels the world looking for a story. This article was written on behalf of Tucan Travel, providers of adventure tours to Thailand and all over Southeast Asia.