What the heck is that now again? Lanna?! A dish? A fruit? An animal? Well, Lanna (the 'land of a million rice fields') is the name of a medieval Tai kingdom, which was emerging in the same time as the kingdom of Sukhothai, one of the oldest Thai kingdoms, did.

Rural Scene in Lanna by Asienreisender

A rural scene in Lanna. Temple painting in Ban Houay Meng, north Thailand. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

In the old times, the Lannanese were known for their characteristic weaving and bronzesmithing. From the mid 13th century until the 18th century it played an important role in the local history of what is nowadays the north of Thailand, north Laos, the Shan states of Burma/Myanmar and parts of the south of China (Yunnan). Lanna resisted successfully the Mongolian armies who tried to invade the area on the way to conquer further south the Chao Phraya plains, and it was for a time a rival of the kingdom of Ayutthaya, against which it fought some wars. From the 16th century on it came under Burmese influence, partially as a vassal state and was overtaken by the kingdom of Siam in around 1892. Nowadays Lanna is just an almost forgotten name for the land what once was a political and cultural unit. Still, the people of the north have their own identity, which is different from that of the central Thai.

Many rice fields...
Lanna, Land of a Million Rice Fields by Asienreisender

The land of a million rice fields and many mountains. These are the plains west of Chiang Khong near the Mekong River, bordering Laos. Image by Asienreisender, 2013


A History of Lanna

King Mangrai of Lanna
'King Mangrai | Mengrai of Lanna | King Mangrai / Mengrai Memorial in Chiang Saen' by Asienreisender

Medieval king Mangrai (also: Mengrai) was the founder and most significant personality of the kingdom of Lanna. He was born 1238/39 in Ngoen Yang as a Tai Yuan and died in 1311 or 1317 on the market of Chiang Mai, struck by lightning.

Born into a noble family who ruled the city state of Ngoen Yang (the predecessor and close by nowadays Chiang Saen), Mangrai became king in 1259 CE, succeeding his father.

His quick career was very much of a martial kind. He gained control over a number of other principalities in what became later known as the Greater Golden Triangle. In 1262/63, Mangrai founded the town of Chiang Rai as the capital for his new kingdom of Lanna. Also Chiang Mai was a foundation ordered by Mangrai.

'Lannanese Music Player | Temple Painting in North Thailand' by Asienreisender

A Lannanese musician. Temple painting seen between Chiang Khong and Wiang Mok. Image by Asienreisender, 2/2012

Lanna's southern neighbour, the Dvaravati kingdom of Hariphunchai lured with it's riches, but was too powerful to be overtaken militarily. Mangrai managed to send an agent, Ai Fa, to the court of Hariphunchai, who acted there as a royal advisor. Ai Fa managed to spread discontent among the population, which weakened Hariphunchai and made it possible for Mangrai to take the kingdom over in either 1281/81 or, rather probable, in 1292/93.

In 1287 the three kings of Lanna, Sukhothai and Phayao formed an alliance to avoid struggle among themselves and concentrate to defend the Mongolian threat from the north. As a new capital, Mangrai founded Chiang Mai in 1296. From 1301 on the Mongols tried to conquer Lanna, in terms to gain entrance to Southeast Asia. In a two years defence war, Mangrai's armees could keep the powerful Mongols out.

It's doubtful that the legal code, which is called Mangrai-sat, was really an invention of Mangrai himself, but at least he invented a first system of rules concerning the solution of conflicts.

Soon after the death of Mangrai, Lanna fell apart into two centers, with Chiang Mai as one and Chiang Rai as the second capital, both the seat of one of Mangrai's sons, who rivaled against each other. A number of Lanna's vasalls and allies turned their back to the kingdom. The fission of the kingdom was overcome only almost hundred years later. However, the dynasty founded by king Mangrai survived on Lanna's thrones until the 16th century, when Lanna was conquered by Burmese troops.

Image and photocomposition by Asienreisender, Chiang Saen, 2/2013, 2016

Lanna has a long history of it's own, parallel to Siam's history. Lanna's importance therefore in official Thai history is somewhat neglected. The focus of the official early Thai history is laid on Sukhothai and king Ramkamhaeng, a part of the history what is made up as a national myth and highly questionably. The narrative course of Thai history is then leading from Sukhothai to Ayutthaya, and from there to the Rattanakosin Era of the contemporary Bangkok/Thailand. Notably, king Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai was for a time paying tributes to the Mongolian/Chinese Yuan dynasty, while king Mangrai and the Lannanese managed to avoid becoming subdued and tributary. Mangrai is also stigmatized of having developed a book of law (Mangraisat, a first piece of written record) in analogy to the legend of king Ramkamhaeng who allegedly invented the Thai script.

Lanna as a kingdom was founded by a nobleman called Mangrai (also: Mengrai, 1238-1317 CE) in the mid 13th century. It was the time of the expansion of the overmighty Mongolians under Kublai Khan. The Mongolians ruled most of Asia until east Europe and conquered also Yunnan (south China). Mangrai therefore eluded the Mongolians by expanding his influence over the Mon and Dvaravati cities of Lampang and Lamphun in the south. Additionally he brought a number of places (muang) in the north under his control and annected in 1292 the Mon kingdom of Hariphunchai (near Lamphun).

Although Lanna was a Tai kingdom and the familiarity between the Lannanese and the Siamese of central Thailand is undoubted, Lanna came historically late to Siam. It's a smiliar story with the Laotians, who are ethnically T[h]ai but developed separately over centuries from the People of Thailand.

Map of Lanna
Map of Lanna by Asienreisender

A map of Lanna, put into the contemporary borders of the states of the region. There were no clear borders for the first city states and medieval kingdoms. Their influence was mostly located in their few cities and the nearer surroundings. The mountains weren't controlled by them. Besides, the borders shiftet all the time.

The territories of medieval Lanna are widely congruent with the extension of the Greater Golden Triangle.

It was actually due to the pressure of the Mongolians that the early Tai people were forced out of Yunnan to the south into Southeast Asia, what led to the Sinicization of the world region, which was before clearly dominated by the Indian cultures of the Mon and Khmer.

Mangrai was the founder of Chiang Rai (1262) and Chiang Mai (1296) and the heir of the city state Ngoen Yang (Chiang Saen), which was before ruled by his father. It's supposed that Lanna in Mangrai's time was inhabited by less than a million people.

Wat Pa Sak, the Lannanese Teak Forest Temple
'Lanna Style Wat Pa Sak | Chiang Saen' by Asienreisender

Wat Pa Sak, the teak forest temple in Chiang Saen, north Thailand, represents a sophisticated piece of Lannanese architecture of the time around 1300 CE. Remarkably, it's situated a stonethrow outside the city walls. Image by Asienreissender, 2/2013

In 1290 Kublai Khan's Mongolians had conquered much of China, north Vietnam and north Burma (Pagan 1297). Mongolian armies advanced into Lanna, trying to occupy it, but Mangrai and the Lannanese resisted in a kind of very flexible guerilla warfare, cutting Mongolian supply lines, attacking them at occations when they were in a weak position, moving unpredictably around all the time and giving no target for the superior Mongolian forces to fight in a big battle. Failing to conquer a bigger city or establishing any base in Lanna for further advance, the Mongols didn't come further southwards, didn't reach the Chao Phraya River plains. That's a very important key event in Thai (and Southeast Asian) history, because due to that the foundation of the later so powerfull Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya, the predecessor of the nowadays kingdom of Siam/Thailand was only possible. Also the grand Khmer empire of Angkor would have come in trouble and would maybe have been conquered subsequently by a superior Mongol army. It's remarkable that the newly founded kingdom of Lanna managed to fight off one of the most successful conquest armies in world's history. Nearby famous Luang Prabang, by the way, was for some decades under Mongol control. After a time Mangrai even became powerful enough to send Lannanese armies north into Mongol controlled territory to raid places there.

Chedi of Wat Pa Sak
'The Main Chedi of Wat Pa Sak | Chiang Saen' by Asienreisender

The main chedi (stupa) of Wat Pa Sak in Chiang Saen. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Lanna had a 'golden age' in the 15th century in the time of king Tilokarat (1441-1487). It culturally developed well, particularly in literature, and the meaningful international Buddhist council was held in Chiang Mai in 1477. The Tai Lue kingdom of Nan was integrated in 1449. In this time Lanna fought the Tai Lue and Lawa around Keng Tung (also: Chiang Tung) and Chiang Rung (Yunnan); Phrae and eleven of the Shan States were conquered. Lanna was then at the point of it's greatest territorial expansion. It's trade relations reached from Tibet, the Irrawaddy valleys over Sichuan and Yunnan (China) into north Vietnam. Lanna's territory included also the Pai River area with Mae Sariang and Mae Hong Son.

Lanna's decline began in the early 16th century. Internal fights for throne successions weakened the kingdom. Ayutthaya attacked Chiang Mai repeatedly. Burmese invaders took advantage of the situation and brought Lanna under their vassalage (1558). Lanna brought up into several city states as Nan (1595), Phayao, Phrae, Chiang Rai (1600), Lampang (1614), Chiang Khong (1624) and Khelang, who gained widely independence because the Burmese rule was in long-term too weak to maintain control over all the territory.

The Plain of Jars
'The Plain of Jars' by Asienreisender

The enigmatic Plain of Jars was home to an ancient culture long before Lanna's time. Here, in north Laos, we see also the deforestation of the mountainous landscapes. In this case it's caused less by logging and arson but by the airdrop of agent orange by American war planes in the Vietnam War. The poison is still not washed out of the soil here.

The Plain of Jars were later part of another kingdom, Lan Xang, the land of a million elephants. Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 12/2011, 2016

After the kingdom of Ayutthaya, for a while also under Burmese vassalship, revived independence under king Naresuan from Phitsanulok, Ayutthaya took over parts of Lanna for a short time. King Narai of Ayutthaya (the Siamese king with the remarkable palace in Lopburi) conquered 1662 Chiang Mai, but couldn't keep it for longer than a few years.

Noble on Elephant by Asienreisender

A noble family on a royal elephant, guarded by troops. Seen in a temple in Ban Houay Meng, north Thailand. Image by Asienreisender, 1/2013

In the early 17th century, the north of Lanna with Chiang Saen in the center was directly ruled by Burmese nobility while the south around Chiang Mai was under vassal status. Frequent warfare over centuries led to shortages of supplies of all kind and a huge depopulation of Lanna. After 1774, Chiang Mai was destroyed and completely abandoned for decades.

In the aftermath of the downfall of Ayutthaya (1767) and the emerge of the new Siamese empire of Bangkok (called the 'Rattanakosin Era' in Thai history), the Siamese conquered parts of Lanna again. King Taksin of Thonburi chopped Lanna into several smaller kingdoms who paid tributes to Siam.

The Burmese attacks into Lannanese territories ceased in the early 1820s, when Burma had to defend itself against the British approach. They lost their fight for independence and Burma became part of British India. Some British who came to Chiang Mai in 1829 to purchase elephants, oxen and buffalos, became interested in Lannas rich and thick teak forests. There was already a British logging industry established in Burma along the Salween River. Rama III and Rama IV (Mongkut) allowed the British logging around Chiang Mai; king Mongkut expanded the trade relations with the British particularly from 1855 on in an agreement with the British representative Sir John Bowring (known as the 'Bowring Treaty'). But, since the forests in the north were under the authority of local leaders, it came to severe conflicts between the lumberjacks and local people, which even led to killings. The Siamese king Rama V (Chulalongkorn), with the intention to avoid military conflicts between British Burma and Siam, established a system of bi-national courts. However, British citizens were very privileged by the law.

Handicrafts of the North
'Handicrafts of Lanna' by Asienreisender

A collection of the traditional arts and crafts of the north. Image by Asienreisender, Luang Prabang, 3/2013

The British opened a consulate in Chiang Mai in 1883. In the same year the first regular post couch service started. In the almost fifty years between 1890 to 1939 there was an annual logging of around 20,000 teak trees. Old, big teak trees. The main character in George Orwells 'Burmese Days' is active in the teak business in Burma in the 1930's. The logging revived again after the Second World War.

The Siamese kingdom took Lanna over finally in 1892. Since then it became more and more an integral part of modern Siam/Thailand. Nevertheless, it's cultural roots are locally different from those of the Siamese of central Thailand.

Rural Life in Lanna
Rural Scene in Wiang Kaeng, Lanna by Asienreisender

Peasants working in the fields. A temple painting seen in Wiang Kaeng (Lanna), north Thailand. Image by Asienreisender, 3/2012


The Modernization of Lanna

Burma was completely colonialized from 1886 on by Britain and was part of 'British India'. British Burma included the northwestern parts of the old Lanna, the Shan states. From the east the new colonial empire France expanded it's borders deep into Lanna (north Laos). The Siamese part of Lanna had control over it's own affairs and economy, but was tributary to Bangkok/Siam. And Bangkoks economical influence grew stronger. Power abuses of the more and more important Siamese officials in the region led to resistance.

A Traditional Dwelling
'Traditional Wooden House in Lanna' by Asienreisender

A typical rural house, built in the same old way as in the very past. These dwellings coined the territories of former Lanna for centuries. Only since the very past years they get more and more replaced by concrete buildings with roofs of corrugated iron. Image by Asienreisender, Chiang Khong, 4/2010

In 1892 Lanna was fully incorporated into Siam. A mail service to Chiang Mai, running since 1883, was accompanied by a telegraph connection around 1888. 1905 the first (unreliable) telephones were established. In 1899 Lannanese schools were obliged to use only Thai alphabet and language anymore. Lanna became step by step more absorbed by Siam. The very hierarchical 'sakdina' system of Siam, what was brought from the Angkorean Khmer empire to Ayutthaya after Siamese troops sacked Angkor Thom in 1431, was introduced into Lanna, which had a much, much lower level of hierarchical social structure.

In the early 20th century whole Siam had about 5 to 8 million inhabitants. Lannas depopulation over centuries of warfare had made it an almost uninhabited area. What is now the province of Chiang Rai, had 5,000 inhabitants only. In Chiang Saen were 70 people living. Malaria, dengue fever, hepatitis and a lot of other sicknesses made life hard in Lanna and killed many people. Tigers entered the small cities here and then, mostly between dusk and dawn. (That's an observation which the great British travel author Norman Lewis describes also in his book on a 1946 journey into Cambodia - 'A Dragon Apparent')

A Reclining Buddha
'Reclining Buddha, Luang Prabang | Laos' by Asienreisender

Theravada Buddhism was introduced to Lanna in the 13th century, at about the same time as in Sukhothai. Image by Asienreisender, Luang Prabang, 3/2013

But Siamese and Chinese settlers from the central plains arrived, making business in the teak trade. They mostly settled down around Chiang Mai, but spread out also more to the north to Chiang Rai and other places. Karen mahouts worked in the teak business as well, and other tribal people from the north moved into depopulated Lanna, what was now a peaceful part of Siam. King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) made efforts to repopulate the area and strengthened Chiang Rai and Chiang Saen.

Teak Logging in Lanna
Woodcutters, elephants and Karen mahouts in Lannas prospering teak industries of the late 19th century. Temple painting in Wiang Kaeng (Lanna), north Thailand. Image by Asienreisender, 2012

Woodcutters, elephants and Karen mahouts in Lannas prospering teak industries of the late 19th century. Temple painting in Wiang Kaeng (Lanna), north Thailand. Image by Asienreisender, 3/2012

The roads were bad. A trip from Bangkok to Chiang Mai lasted about three weeks, from there to Chiang Rai about two weeks. Manufactured goods as well as money were introduced not before the early 20th century. The Siamese officials charged high taxes and people were forced into corvee labor. The taxes were the main force due to which money became established and important. Rice was now for sale, the old subsistence economy changed into an early cash capitalism, which immediately became parasitic. The introduction of credits worsened the situation.

Waterways as Transport Routes
'Riverboats as a Traditional Mean of Transport in Lanna' by Asienreisender

The rivers were the prefered transport routes of the past (here the Mekong River, the by distance largest river in Lanna). They were just there and verymost ancient places were set at the bank of a river or stream. Building roads therefore was a very labour-intensive project. Roads also had to be maintained. Roads usually appeared only in towns and villages, while long overland roads were seldom. Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, Chiang Khong, 9/2011, 2/2012, 2016

Resistance against Siamese rule kept going on. In 1902 there was a Shan rebellion in Chiang Mai, where more than twenty officials were killed. The governor of Phrae was beheaded and all Siamese subjects there reportedly killed. Another revolt took place in Nan. The rebels had in mind to establish an own, independent state. The rebellion lasted 14 months. When the Siamese army came to bring it down many people were killed, and many of the victims weren't involved in the uprisings.

The railroad line from Bangkok reached Phitsanulok in 1907, Lampang in 1916 and Chiang Mai in 1919/1922. The first paved roads into Lanna were built by the Japanese in the Second World War (probably by Lannanese in corvee labour), as well as small airports for war efforts. From then on trucks as a mean of more efficient transport became part of the economy.

Involved in the Second World War, Siam/Thailand took over the Shan region around Keng Tung as well as Sanyabury in 1942 (additionally greater parts of Cambodia as Battambang and Siem Reap), what was acknowledged by Japan. These territories came back to the former colonial powers Britain and France after the end of the war in 1945/47.

Buddhist Monk by Asienreisender

Novices, monks and abbots are nowadays equipped with the high-tech of the 21st century. Mobile phones are common, rich abbots sometimes drive Mercedes or Volvo. Image by Asienreisender, Chiang Khong, 1/2013

Drug production for money became a topic in Lanna from the time of the Japanese [occupation] on. Later, parallel to the American Vietnam War (1964 - 1975), drug production and dealing grew enormously. The CIA initiated and promoted drug production (opium, heroin) in the Greater Golden Triangle to make money for secret operations in Indochina. Drug production ceased in the 1980's in the north of Thailand (see also: Mae Salong, the center of drug production in the 1970s), while it is in other parts of former Lanna, particularly in Burma/Myanmar, still a big deal. Additionally to the opium and heroin production, the 'Golden Triangle' part of Lanna is a center for production and smuggeling of amphetamines like 'yaba' or 'ice'.

In the 1960s and 1970s, particularly after the Thai military brought down in a violent bloodshed the democratic Thai government (see also: the Thammasat Massacre on October 6th, 1976), insurgency rose in Lanna. Thousands of young people and students joined the communist underground fighters in their jungle camps in Lanna's mountains.

From around 1970 on the traditional life of the local people changed to the modern, first Americanized, then globalised lifestyle of our times. Instead of walking barefoot, people started buying shoes, homewoven clothes were replaced by manufactured clothes, old women chewing betel or smoking hand-made cigars were lesser seen (it's still frequently to see in some remote places as well as in Tachileik/Burma/Myanmar or in north Laos).

'Traditional Hamlet at the Mekong River between Houayxay and Chiang Khong and Ban Pak Beng' by Asienreisender

A hamlet, widely in it's old, simple, traditional peasant style. Image by Asienreisender, on the Mekong between Houayxay and Ban Pak Beng, 3/2013

Sinks, toilets and the introduction of electricity changed the life of the people further. Instead of herbal treatment by the local shaman, illnesses became more and more cured by using pharmaceutical products. Meanwhile the roadnet is quickly expanding and pickups are common, TV-sets are 'mandatory' in even the most primitive households and mobile phones and computers are to see everywhere around (although nobody has really an idea for what it might be good). Self sufficiency is bygone for most of the Lannanese people of our times.

Lannanese houses were traditionally built of teak, nicely done with artificial decorations. Tribal houses were often built of bamboo, with grass roofs. Until around 1970 building materials were mostly natural. Now, cement is the predominant building material, and it is used inflationary. The cement industries became very powerful in Thailand, and the construction industries are a very destructive, capitalistic core sector.

Siam Cement by Asienreisender

Siam cement is one of the big concrete producing companies in Thailand. Lanna is now getting covered with concrete - there are building sites everywhere. Seen in Tachileik, Burma/Myanmar. Image by Asienreisender, 2/2013

The economic boost makes the construction industries now flooding the landscapes in concrete and asphalt. Villages, towns and cities grow and grow, hotels are built, luxurious vacation homes for the wealthy people from Bangkok and the bigger provincial cities pop up everywhere, roadbuilding is permanently going on, the number of vehicles on the roads is very much increasing (see also: 'Traffic in Thailand'), traffic jams are more and more part of all-day-life, telecommunication infrastructure is growing fast and brings (mobile-) phone and internet connections into the remoter and remotest parts of the country. Many people are in debt and will never be able to pay back (called NPL - non-performing loans). Although the living standard for the people rose with all this, it's nevertheless a process of blind dynamics, destroying traditional life styles as well as the natural environment irreversibly. It keeps and/or makes the people stupid and is not sustainable.

By the end of the 20th century, tourism started booming, as an emerging economic factor in the region. The people here are open-minded, tolerant, friendly, fun-loving, freedom of religion is given. A remarkable set of local styles in architecture, temple paintings, bronze work, weaving, tattooing, martial arts, fishing, music, language and spiritual beliefs keeps the old Lanna a particular and pleasant region to visit.

A huge impact on the peoples health is the heavy air pollution due to the massive burning of the remaining forests. Also noise pollution has reached a disastrous level.


Lanna's Culture

An particularly interesting observation for a traveller are the rich and vivid paintings in Lanna's temples. That's a regional speciality; I haven't ever seen that many temple paintings anywhere else in Thailand. The style is a bit different in the north of Laos, and the temples are far not as rich there as they are in Thailand. In Tachileik (in one of the Shan states in Burma/Myanmar) are the paintings very different. Also the painting style differs clearly from other parts of Thailand, particularly central Thailand and Bangkok (see for example the paintings in Wat Bowonniwet).

A Lannanese Village Festival
A village festival in Lanna by Asienreisender

A village festival in Lanna. Painting seen in a temple in Wiang Kaeng, north Thailand. Image by Asienreisender, 3/2012

Pali Script
Pali Stone Inscription, Lopburi, National Museum by Asienreisender

An ancient Pali stone inscription. Pali, coming from Sri Lanka, is like Sanskrit one of the scripts used for Buddhist literature. This piece I found not in Lanna but in the National Museum in Lopburi. Image by Asienreisender, 12/2012

Theravada Buddhism was introduced in Lanna at about the same time as in Sukhothai. The lively pictures in the temples were a mean of learning the old (and newly added) stories of religion and history for the mostly illiterate Lannanese.
In the 15th and 16th century an own style of Lannanese Buddhist literature was created and improved by Lannanese monks, using Pali script. In around 1477 there was the international Buddhist council held in Chiang Mai's Wat Jed Yot, a religious event of cultural importance.

In old records I always find remarks about local music and instruments and that the people were musicious. Unfortunately this old habit died almost completely out and is replaced by the superficial and commercialized pop music of our days. The only positive example of people in Southeast Asia who still play a lot of their traditional music themselves and do singing are the Batak People in north Sumatra.

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Published on February 15th, 2013

113 | Lanna

Last update on October 15th, 2016