The myth of Lanna, its history and trying to reconstruct the past

The entrance to Tha Pae Gate sits along the moat surrounding the inner town of Chiang Mai, the capital city of northern Thailand. Once a fortress, these ruins are now over 700 years old and dates to a distant past – when Chiang Mai was founded by King Mangrai in 1296. Back then, according to contemporary text, it was known by another name: the Kingdom of Lanna

What is Lanna?

Lanna – a term which translates to a million rice fields – for the most of us, is a “melting pot of culture and crafts from many eras and ethnic groups,” located in the northern region of Thailand.

People will talk about Lanna’s various trademarks: the food, dialect, textiles and customs.

Research would point out that it was an Indianised state throughout the 13th and 18th centuries, ruled by different kings and dynasties.

History will tell you that it was once a powerful kingdom, competing with its neighbouring powers before becoming a tributary state under Burmese rule for over 200 years, and finally annexed into the kingdom Siam during the reign of Rama V, becoming what it is today.

It is a rather a revisionist outlook, one that conceptualizes the region’s thousand-year-old history into one singular culture.

To view Lanna based solely on its relationship to its neighbours and position as a vassal kingdom may be to overlook and undermine what was once an era rich with cultural intricacies and contextual realities.

Was there a Lanna?

To this day, no one knows where the term Lanna really originated from.

Over 60 years ago, the people of northern Thailand didn’t call themselves Lanna people, didn’t know what Lanna meant, and most importantly hardly even knew of their own history nor spoke of its language.

“Before that, this region was just Paak Nhuea (northern region) and we called ourselves Khon Mueang (local people),” said Dr Vithi Phanichphant, an acclaimed historian and authority figure in northern Thai culture and former professor of Thai Art at Chiang Mai University.

“People claim that Lanna translates to a million rice fields and that was our name all along, but that is factually wrong. The meaning of Lan could refer to countless, where Na is paddy fields. This reference can also be confused with the name of the sixth king of the Mangrai dynasty, Guena, whose name meant a million rice fields.”

Lanna, according to Dr Vithi, is pretty much a contemporary concept and made-up word revived to reimagine the ancient northern kingdom.

“Almost everyone out there wouldn’t know of this,” he said with a laugh. “That is because the Thai curriculum will not have it. The history of Thailand will not tell you about these things – it will tell you that Chiang Mai was just another city in Thailand, that Lanna was just whatever else in the kingdom.”

“When you are under Bangkok, they don’t want you to talk about how Lanna was a competing kingdom [to Siam], ” explained Dr Vithi. “But they were in competition all along.”

King Mangrai and the foundations of Lanna

The cultural development of northern Thai people began thousands of years ago, long before the existence and cultural significance of Lanna.

But it was Mangrai, the 25th king of the ancient Ngoenyang empire, of the Lavachakkaraj dynasty, who united the area.

When Mangrai succeeded the throne from his father in 1259, he started expanding the Ngeonyang kingdom into unified Tai city-states.

He moved the capital several times. He first founded Chiang Rai, then headed south to subjugate Lamphun, before building Wiang Kum Kam, and finally establishing Chiang Mai as the capital in 1296.

But what the history books may not tell you is that the young king also expanded his kingdom for other lucrative reasons rather than just unifications – with one of them being to connect with the Silk Road in China during the Yuan dynasty.

“You had the Gulf of Siam over there, here [in the north] was the Gulf of Bengal, which was even bigger because of all the shipping lanes that came through,” said Dr Vithi.

“Many things couldn’t get out of China at the time – because you’d get taxed or needed permit from Beijing and all that – so trading was not so easy, especially in Canton. Finally, they decided that maybe the goods could be snuck out of China.”

And so, an improper channel to the Silk Road was established, a secret lane carrying the goods out of China.

This small, sneaky, not so important tropical lane cutting through Thailand’s north from southwestern China to the bay also marked the beginning of Chiang Mai’s central culture – a culture and lifestyle based on servicing the caravan business.

“Lamphun was sacked, but it was too small and open, and slightly out of the way for the caravans to travel. The caravans carrying the goods tended to go over the drylands and mountains,” Dr Vithi explained.

“Down here in Chiang Mai was where they would take a break, it was a good place to relax and rest. That’s why people here are always smiling and entertaining. The whole culture was based on the caravan business.”

Chiang Mai would soon grow more in power as it got to control the lucrative trade route, to the point that it would even compete with the Southern Tai states.


The peak of Chiang Mai and Lanna came under Tilokkarat (1441-1487), the twelfth monarch of the Mangrai dynasty.

Tilokkarat was a ruthless, powerful king. He expanded his kingdom and controlled most of the Shan States, Sipsongpanna, Luang Prabang, Vientiane, before finally conquering the Kingdom of Phayao in 1456.

“If you notice from the scripts that they used in those areas – even up to today – they will be the Chiang Mai [Lanna] script,” said Dr Vithi.

Tilokkarat, inspired by how the Chinese at the time used scriptures and language to control and influence its empire, insisted for the states under him to use the Tai Tham alphabet – a new language founded through the combination Mon, Khmer, and Lao alphabets.

The Tai Tham alphabet, or more commonly known as the Lanna scripture, was created under Tilokkarat.

A strong patron in Theravada Buddhism, Tilokkarat also sent his architects abroad to Myanmar to study its temples, like the Wat Jet Yord, and build them throughout the region.

These temples, which served as a ‘practical hotel stay’ for travellers and locals, had many purposes – they were also libraries, markets, and a large sheltered area for the people to rest under.

“He would build these temples outside of the city so other localities could learn about it [Chiang Mai],” Vithi explained.

“He treated the temples as a place to listen to orders and spread the knowledge of Chiang Mai. He employed the use of his monks to send the standard scriptures and spread Lanna culture, so people can look to Chiang Mai and see it as something grand and beautiful. It was all done with language.”

“It wasn’t called Lanna at the time. But that period is what we call the official beginning of Lanna.”

Lanna’s decline, end, and its forgotten history

Lanna never rose to the same heights after Tilokkarat’s death in 1487.

By the 16th century, constant internal power struggles and continual fighting between Ayutthaya and Burma led to Lanna’s weakening – and eventual fall.

Lanna became a tributary state to Burma in 1558 and would continue to be under its grip for the next 200 years – with some short-lived autonomy in between.

It wasn’t until January 1775, however, when one of Lanna’s chiefs – Kawila of Lampang – revolted against the Burmese with Siamese help and captured the kingdom back, ending the 200-year rule.

The Kingdom of Chiang Mai was established as a vassal state to Siam, divided into five smaller principalities – Chiang Mai, Nan, Lampang, Lamphun, and Phrae.

Lanna ceased to be an entity of its own by 1893 when it was formally annexed into the modern Kingdom of Siam. The monarchy in Lanna officially ended for good in 1932, when Siam ended absolute monarchy.

Along with that, Lanna’s identity briefly ended as well. This began under King Rama V, who wanted to implement a nationalistic agenda throughout the kingdom by erasing the cultural and linguistic identity of regional principalities.

The northern dialect script and identity were slowly erased from the area, said Dr Vithi.

“Rama V ordered officials from Bangkok to get rid of the scriptures from palm leaves, and temples.”

But it wasn’t until Plaek Phibhunsongkhram’s Thai Cultural Revolution, that real erasure of northern culture began. Propaganda and a nationalistic, fascist agenda meant that all of Thailand would be homogenized and local differences shunned.

“Not long ago, the back of every school sign would read ‘don’t speak the local language,” observed Dr Vithi. “They were there until a little over 20 years ago. It is that recent!”

Signs around town would forbid the use of Lanna language and dialect. Women were told to cover their previously topless bodies and men their tattoos.

People were not allowed to speak the northern dialect, wear the northern clothing, and were encouraged to dress in a Victorian-era style.

 “All the temples had their own libraries, but if you see them now, they will be empty. All the books were burned, its ashes were thrown into the Ping river,” said Dr Vithi.

Any teaching of Lanna history was forbidden, and if you asked the people in the north half a century ago what Lanna was, none of them would be able to tell you.

In this photograph taken on November 4, 2017, a large crowd watches a float parade from a foot bridge in downtown Chiang Mai. – Chiang Mai is considered as one of the best places to experience the Loy Krathong festival in Thailand which is celebrated on the first full moon of the 12th traditional Thai calendar and which includes a theme float parade through town. Thousands of people that included tourists and locals alike lined the streets to watch the display of elaborate floats. (Photo by Roberto SCHMIDT / AFP)

Reviving the past

“History taught in Thailand would tell you that Siam began in Sukhothai. That everything happened in the south, and Chiang Mai was just whatever at the top,” said Dr Vithi.

“It is still difficult now. The curriculum taught in the north also tells us nothing about its history – there’s a little of Lopburi, and mainly Ayutthaya and Rattanakosin. It’s like a gap in history that disappeared.”

“If we don’t have this [part of history], the kids won’t know, and the adults won’t know. And they will not know who we are.”

So much has been lost, observed the former professor whose family heralded from the north, that by the late 90s, people began to really question their own identity and heritage, and that was how Lanna was revived into ubiquitous use today.

“I want the people of the north to really know that we do have our own history.”


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