Tribes and Trade: the History of Chiang Mai’s Old Town

A Rollercoaster Ride: The History of Chiang Mai’s Old Town

The story of Chiang Mai starts long ago in a culture far, far away. Founded more than 800 years ago, the city has lived through a historical epic of tribes and trade, culture and kings. While there are many backpacker hostels in Chiang Mai Old Town, the experience is incredible. And Walking around the old town can feel like a walk through time; ancient temples rub shoulders with vegan cafes and old Chinese shopfronts sit alongside modern bars. So how did this enigmatic place emerge, and what’s the history of Chiang Mai’s Old Town?

An Ancient Epicentre

The story of Chiang Mai starts way back in 1294. The northern parts of Thailand and Laos were ruled by Mangrai, a highly successful King who used alliances and diplomacy to unify warring neighboring tribes. The result was the glorious Lanna kingdom, which dominated 14th and 15th century Thailand, and Chiang Mai sprang into being as the new capital.

Walk around Chiang Mai today and the Lanna culture is still very much in evidence. Many of the dishes you’ll find on restaurant menus have their roots in Lanna times and many of the temples in the Old City date back to this flourishing year. The incredible Wat Phra Singh temple was built in 1345 and still wows visitors today!

Moving with The Times

Fast forward a few decades and it was all change for Chiang Mai. Now being rated as a strategic stronghold, it needed to be fortified and so the Old City was reorganized into the now-familiar square shape. It was at this point that the city walls were built and the moat was dug to repel invaders and protect those living inside. It’s hard to believe that local people still float Loy Krathong lanterns in the same waterways that were dug in the 14th century!

A city as successful and prosperous as Chiang Mai was never going to remain unchallenged forever, however, and the Burmese were coming. As Lanna power receded, the nearby Taungoo Bamar (Burmese) people moved in and took over the administration of Chiang Mai and its’ residents. It wasn’t all bad news for the religious locals, however, as the Burmese shared the Buddhist faith and temple construction accelerated across the city. Many of the temples you visit today were established during this phase of the city’s life.

The fall before the rise

By the mid-18th century, Chiang Mai was starting to suffer from frequent raids and attacks from other tribes and in 1776 the security situation was dire. Eventually, the local population couldn’t put up with the frequent violence any longer and the city was abandoned; the once-great capital lay in ruins. Temples fell into disrepair and the city walls crumbled. Some devout monks remained to tend the temple grounds, but several important religious centers fell prey to looting and the residents scattered across the fractured north.

These were dark times for Chiang Mai, which only ended when trade routes slowly started to reestablish themselves following an uneasy peace among local groups in the early 1800s.

Ascent to Luxuries

As the city slowly re-opened for business, another change was on the horizon in the form of colonialization. The British moved into the area from Burma looking for valuable teak forests and opportunities to make money. Early visitors talked of the crumbling city walls and moat of a place they called ‘Zimme’; the Chiang Mai we see today was emerging from obscurity.

From the tentative steps of those first few colonizers to the hordes of tourists of today, modern times have hit Chiang Mai with a bang. The temples and backstreets of the Old City have been restored, or at least preserved, and there’s been an explosion of cafes, restaurants, and hotels to accommodate the throngs of visitors who want to experience the laidback lifestyle, the vibrant culture and the incredible history of this northern capital.

The Trip of a Lifetime

Chiang Mai promises so much and delivers even more. Wandering the streets of the Old Town you can almost see the ancient invaders running through the streets, and a glimpse into modern-day temple life is a glimpse into history. Chiang Mai is a place where the past comes alive and is a truly unmissable part of your time in Thailand.