The Ping River Valley was long a trading route between Yunnan and the Chao Phraya basin.
Evidence from archeological remains has shown that early inhabitants used iron tools in the valley at least two thousand years ago. These early people, who came to be known as the Lawa, were later supplanted by the Mon of the Dvaravati period (6- 10th centuries). Drawn by trade along the river, the Mon chose the wide, fertile valley to found Haripunchai (Lamphun), in the eighth century. It was the first city-state with a “high culture” in the valley.
The rich valley also attracted King Mangrai, a powerful Tai leader, who captured Haripunchai and then founded his “new capital” – Chiang Mai – in 1296. Wiang Kum Kam, Chiang Mai, Thailand
He chose a site typically for a Tai city – at the foot of a mountain that provided both water and timber.
Chiang Mai was the capital of the kingdom of Lanna (the kingdom of a million fields), which enjoyed a golden age throughout the 15th century. During this age the powerful inland kingdom came to control most of what now constitutes northern Thailand, north-western Laos, the eastern Shan states of Burma and Xishuangbanna in southern Yunnan. The religion of the kingdom -Theravada Buddhism – gave rise to a cultural wealth whose influence was to be felt beyond the kingdom’s boundaries down the centuries.
However, Lanna was caught between the Burmese, united under King Bayinnaung of Pegu, and the Siamese Thai of Ayutthaya. Lanna fought several times against Ayutthaya in the 14th and 15th centuries, draining the strength of the kingdom. Weakened by internal struggles for the throne and by oppression, the city fell to the Burmese forces of King Bayinnaung in 1558.
For over two centuries (1558-1774) Chiang Mai was under Burmese control. The fortunes of Chiang Mai declined for the Burmese exploited the city-state for military purposes in their wars with Ayutthaya. Rebellion brought suppression.
Eventually, northern Thai forces allied with the Siamese drove the Burmese out, but Chiang Mai was so weak that it was totally abandoned.
With Siamese help, Chao Kawila of Lampang repopulated Chiang Mai with local people and with Tai Yai (Shan), Tai Khoen from Kengtung, and Tai Yong from Muang Yong east of Kengtung; he formally re-established Chiang Mai in 1796. To this day many of the people of Chiang Mai and Lamphun find their ethnic origins in the Tai groups who came here under Kawila.
Allied to the Siamese Thai, Chiang Mai gained strength.
Wiang Kum Kam, Chiang Mai, Thailand during the 19th century increasing Western interests in the teak forests of the north, however, forced King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) of Siam to take over the administration in 1892. In the second half of the century, the first Westerners, as well as large numbers of overseas Chinese, established themselves in the valley.
Economic integration with Siam, (which came to be named Thailand in 1949) became firmer with the opening of the railway in 1921. However, the historical trade routes to the north – to Jinghong in Xishuangbanna prefecture of Yunnan and Kengtung in Myanmar – have been blocked by political barriers for much of the century.
Thus Chiang Mai remained a quiet city until tourism brought the development boom of the seventies and eighties.
The last twenty years have seen the development of the modern city and consumer work culture. The growth of the Bangkok metropolis to saturation has partly encouraged this. The present population of Chiang Mai province totals almost 1.5 million people, with well over 200,000 making their home in Chiang Mai area. Plans to reopen trade routes that link Chiang Mai to its original sphere of influence as the capital of Lanna provide a bright prospect for Chiang Mai 700 years after its foundation.