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In-depth  |   About Chiang Mai  |  History
Lan Na in the Shadow of the Mongols
The early history of Lanna
April, 2003

People say that history is how we learn the future. Examining the past is how we see what to do next claim others. Cynics state that history teaches only that humans never learn. Perhaps a little of each is true for all of us, and everyone has the opportunity to learn from everyone else, at personal, regional and national levels.

How many of us do?

On 23rd April AD 1281, marching triumphantly into Hariphunchai (now Lamphun), King Mengrai entered a city-state far different from those of Chiang Rai and the Mae Kok basin.

Genghis Khan

Hariphunchai was a model administration for his growing kingdom, one that he would adapt and use. Hariphunchai was small: one central city and several satellite towns within half a days march of each other, plus dozens of smaller villages. Only the latter were unfortified. The basic military advantage of scattered strong points dependent upon and defendant of each other is a style still used today. Yet their placement was not only military.

The Mon-Khmer lineage of Hariphunchais rulers learned, from far-reaching trade connections, the advantages of specialised industrial and production centres. They gathered a scattered population to these municipal centres, strengthening power, after recognising the simpler administration and control such concentrations offered. With concentrated communities, the southern-influenced monarchs moved beyond Muang-based political systems, into modern feudal kingships. Buddhism was expanded as the peoples faith, and varied cultures and traditions coalesced into a regional identity that transcended more ancient belief styles.

Undoubtedly, the 1200s AD saw the greatest changes for the Chiang Mai-Lamphun basins peoples. Khmer dominance of the region collapsed, Mon-Dvaravati influence withdrew to the Chao Phrayas central plains, and a serious threat to future independence emerged from Northern China the Mongol Horde.

Under Genghis Khan, the Blue Mongols overthrew the Jin Dynasty. Uniting fiercely independent tribes in 1206, Genghis crossed the Great Wall by 1213 and captured Beijing within three years. His military genius enabled continued campaigns in Russia, battling the Southern Song Emperors, but he never saw all China unified; his grandson Kublai attained that goal in 1279, and formed the Yuan Dynasty.

Before his death, Kublai led the Mongol armies into Eastern Europe, improved Chinas roads and communications to levels unsurpassed until railways arrived, installed canals, and began a famine relief system nationwide. Trade was expanded with Europe and Russia, and the west began to note the Empire in the East. The fledgling empire of Lan Na was being born against this backdrop.

Mengrai assumed power in 1259, thirty-two years after the Western Xia sub-dynasty collapsed, losing control of the Tai districts in modern Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi. There, localised ruling houses assumed greater power and territories. One was in the Chiang Hung Panna (Chiang Tung / Kentung) of the Tai Xishuanbanna (Sipsongpanna) region. It formed an alliance by marriage with Muang Ngoen Yang of the Nam Lawa (Mae Sai) valley.

The Lady Ua Ming Com Muang, daughter of Chiang Hungs king, Thao Rung Koen Chai, married the Cao Lao Meng, son of Lao Moeng of Ngoen Yang. Interesting juxtapositions arise from these names, as political turmoil withdrew most Chinese control from the region. Here, a hundred years before a southern commoner overthrew the Yuan Emperors, the name Ming appears in a ruling house: the dynastic name that Zhu Yuanzhang adopted when taking the Beijing throne. Lady Uas father has the Koen name. Was he linked with the Khoen river region, as well as the upper Mekhong? Mengrais father is forenamed Lao, and Mengrai is often recorded as being of Lawa descent.

Kublai Khan

Mengrai campaigned north of Phayao for twenty-two years, opposed only by isolated villages and towns, gathering scattered communities under his elephant-borne umbrella. By the time he arrived in Lamphun, he must have known of the growing Mongol threat. Towns in the northern reaches were too widely scattered to assist each other, and his alliances with Phayao (AD 1276) and Sukhothai (AD 1277) may not have been as firm as he wished. Another 1276 alliance, with relatives in Muang Phrakan (north-western Vietnam), may have seemed too tenuous, despite the obeisance and fealty of the Kaeo king, Thao Kaen Phongsa. Undoubtedly, he felt Sukhothai was his strongest and most powerful ally, and Mengrai maybe wished to be closer to such assistance. It is debatable however, whether at this time, Lan Na was stronger than Sukhothai, but within a few extra years, it certainly was.
After extensive flooding (of Lamphun NOT Wieng Kum Kam), Mengrai moved north from Hariphunchai, briefly to Mae Siao, then to where he built Wieng Kum Kam. Originally a northerly satellite for Hariphunchai, it became the Royal capital from 1286 until 1292. His fifth capital for Lan Na, after Ngoen Yang, Chiang Rai, Fang and Hariphunchai.

Until last year, Thai historians and social scientists usually overlooked Wieng Kum Kams value to the expansion of Lan Na. From there, Mengrai launched two major military expeditions to Ramannadesa-Hamsavati (Martaban-Pegu) in 1288-89, where he also gained another Queen, the Lady Phai Kho. Then to Phukam, a Tai-Shan kingdom near the later Ava, in 1289-90. On both occasions, he gained alliances and pledges of allegiance, and tributes of craftsmen and servants.

King Mengrai with the kings of Sukhothai and Phayao: The founders of Chiang Mai

Curiously, Queen Phai Kho may have been Ramkhamhaengs granddaughter. A favoured daughter of the Sukhothai king is said to have eloped with a Shan adventurer named Wareru, which is a name variation for the Hamsavati ruler during Mengrais expedition, another being Sutthasoma. From Phukam, the tradesmen-slaves tributed included goldsmiths, and Mengrai sent them to Chiang Hung (his mothers city) during his return to Wieng Kum Kam.
At this point, conjecture must appear. It is known that in 1290 the Mongols took Chiang Hung and Mengrais second cousin, Thao Ai appealed for help. The city was liberated and the Mongols launched a second expedition in 1296, which failed to recapture it, as Mengrai despatched a force to also repel that invasion. What is not clear is if Mengrai accompanied either army. This seems doubtful due to other events, described below.

First, did Mengrai march direct from Phukam to Chiang Hung to throw out the Mongols? At this time, I cannot say for sure. Discovering when in the year the Chinese were ejected could reveal the truth. Mengrai returned from Burma early in the year, and it seems likely that the Mongol capture was as the dry (campaigning) season ended, i.e. also early in 1290. Therefore, possibly, Mengrai fought them personally.

The Mongols 1296 assault is less sure. Mengrai marched from Wieng Kum Kam with full royal procession to reside in Wieng Nopburi (now Wat Chiang Man, Chiang Mai) on 27th March 1292. At that time, the kingdom was at relative peace. Two years later, both Mengrais favourite wife and Kublai Khan, died. From March 1292 until April 1296, there are few dated records of Mengrais activities, though we know he held city design conferences with the Phayao and Sukhothai kings. 19th April 1296 is the formal and official date of commencing building his new capital, aligned according to Buddhist beliefs. He partly copied the layout of Hariphunchai and Sukhothai, but his plans also had similarities to Sichuans Chengdu, a major medieval silk producer. (Chengdu lost its palaces in the Cultural Revolution, and its city walls and moat in the 1960s. It was one of the Kuomintangs last Chinese strongholds many of them now live in Northern Thailand as naturalised citizens.)

I believe that in 1296 the Lan Na king was too busy building his dream city to go north and defend his mothers realm. His favoured son and successor, Prince Khram, ruling Chiang Rai, with Chiang Rais and Wieng Fangs armies under his command, was much closer to the action. Khram at age 17 later proved his daring and military prowess in December 1296, when he led the combined armies of Lan Na to defeat Phraya Boek of Lampang at the Battle of Wieng Kum Kam whilst outnumbered by 10:7. Fighting on open fields, the larger, better armed and trained Lampang army should have won easily. The Chiang Mai Chronicle gives very specific and detailed accounts of Khrams tactical decisions, making it obvious to military historians that those were what decided the outcome.

My conclusion is that Mengrai was a diplomat and politician. Calling him the Bane of the Mongols and defender of Lan Na from them appears to exaggerate his battlefield participation. Chinese records, referring to Tai-Lue, Tai-Shan, Tai-Yuan and many other peoples from Kunming to Phitsanulok, and from Pagan to Saigon, laud him as the most significant Tai king. The Chinese feared his influence built through conquest, alliance and treaty. This was justified in the early 14th century, as both Chiang Mai and Chiang Hung repeatedly invaded and raided Beijings dominions. Mengrai was then definitely too old for battlefield leadership and, I suspect, Prince Khram (now Cheyyasongkhram) or other generals took the saddle in place of the Great King. Finally, in 1312, the Chinese reverting to diplomacy, received gifts of elephants from both Tai cities. At least one other mission to Beijing went from Chiang Mai during Mengrais lifetime, in 1315.

Mengrais recognition of satellite-town defence systems served well. He expanded it in emulation of millennia of Chinese tactics having allied satellite states as buffers between his kingdoms heartland and his enemies. That lesson and tactic appears forgotten in later centuries, both by his successors, and by their rivals from the Chao Phrayas river-island capital.
The satellite cities and towns of medieval Lan Na however, had another equally important purpose industrial specialisation. That lesson has not been forgGarry Harbottle-Johnsonotten, it is after all, the origin of the current One tambon, One product campaign.

When Kawila ejected the Burmese from Lan Na in the late 18th century, he also recognised the military and industrial advantages of the satellite town system. Thats why today we have specialised craft villages surrounding Chiang Mai. Umbrellas at Borsang, pottery and enamelware at Sankhampaeng, or woodcarvings at Baan Tawai, they are the remaining vestiges of village-by-village specialisation that began over a millennium ago, when the largest city in the north was the now tiny Lamphun.
That ancient industrialisation of a once tribalised kingdom has created a region with a distinct and unique culture and heritage. Look to the past Lan Na it holds a Road to the Future.

By Garry Harbottle-Johnson
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