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Yonok - The Birthplace of Lanna

THE TAI PEOPLES OF OLD, one of which is the Thai people themselves, for the most part migrated from various parts of China into what is now Southeast Asia, or the Golden Peninsula. One particular area where the Tai peoples settled was in the region of present day Chiang Saen on the Mekhong River. This territory included land north of the Mekhong in present day Laos, and perhaps part of present day Burma, and it was known as Yonok Country. An ancient chronicle emphasizes the contact that the Yonok Country, and the Tai peoples within it, had with the Khmer empire, then known as the Angkor Empire. In this chronicle, the Khmer invaded and conquered the Yonok Country.

At a time that cannot be accorded a calendar date, but certainly before the 7th century, a leader known as King Singha Nuwat - a Tai chieftain - migrated with his people from the city of Nakorn Thai Rais in China's Yunnan Province to present-day Chiang Saen. In the year 545 A.D., the original site of Chiang Saen was built and called by two different names: "Nakhapun Singhanuwat Nakorn" or "Yonok Nakorn Chaiburi Sri Chiang Saen". According to all the evidence gathered from historical chronicles, records and archeological finds, this was the original city of Chiang Saen.

The city of Chiang Saen is rich in Lanna history, archeology and art. It is a small ancient town whose real beginnings are shrouded in mystery, but its role in the development of the Lanna Kingdom in its formative years was essential to the very survival of what we now know as Northern Thailand.

Chiang Saen is often overlooked in discussions and writings regarding the historical roots of the Lanna Kingdom. There is perhaps good reason for this in that prior to the Mengrai Dynasty, beginning with King Mengrai himself in the year 1261, the exact history of Chiang Saen is sketchy, at best.

However, in spite of this, an attempt to unearth certain historical roots prior to King Mengrai's time and a look at some obscure -- but actually very important -- facts about Chiang Saen that occurred during the Mengrai Dynasty itself is very important if we are to get a true picture of the development of the Lanna Kingdom.

Most of the historical roots of the town prior to the arrival of King Mengrai unfortunately must come to us through archeological finds, and chronicles which really have no provable basis in fact. However, with the scant information available, we can at least see something of the origins of Chiang Saen. An additional limiting factor is that sometime in the 7th century, all trace of the Chiang Saen civilization seem to have disappeared, and Chiang Saen only shows up again in historical fact with the arrival of King Mengrai.

When we consider not only the time period prior to the 7th century, but also that of the Mengrai Dynasty beginning in the 13th century, it is important to remember that feudalism was the rule and tribal warfare was quite common. Too often, people think of the development of this part of the world, even under King Mengrai, as a beautiful romantic period of friendly, peace-loving people moving into green pastures. This would be a serious distortion of the truth of history.

The relevance of the feudal nature of even the earliest migrants into the region can be seen in chronicles passed down through the ages.

One chronicle tells about a Tai chief, i.e. a feudal lord, who entered the area around what is now Chiang Saen, from Sipsong Pan Na which was annexed by China into present - day Yunnan province in China, with a large force of warriors and followers. This chief convened the already existing chiefs of the area, and announced his authority over them, informing them quite clearly that they had no choice in the matter. One Khmer ruler of the region refused to recognize this new chief, according to the chronicle, and the new chief then proceeded to make war on the entire area. The result was the formation of a kingdom with the Chiang Saen area as the center, Vietnam on the east, Nan-Jao covered Prae, Nan provinces, to the north of present - day Laos, Lopburi to the south and the Shan regions of the Salween River in Burma to the west.

There are other versions of this chronicle which make it sound like the Tai invaders suffered tremendously at the hands of the Khmers in the area, but that the Tai's eventually did win. This second version interestingly includes a reference to the Lawa, i.e., Lua, people - supposedly the first inhabitants of the Chiang Saen area, having migrated north from the central plains of modern-day Thailand.
One cannot possibly tell how true each of these tales is, but their very existence shows that a civilization had developed around Chiang Saen long before the founding of either Chiangrai or Chiangmai, and long before the era of King Mengrai.

From the mid-seventh century to the beginning of the eleventh century, the chronicles about the area are so confusing, so contradictory and so skimpy that very little, if any, reliable information is available about it. It is known, however, that the Yonok country was still in existence in the early eleventh century, that it was a time of peace and prosperity, and that it was at about this time that Buddhist thought swept the Chiang Saen area.
In the meantime, there are also a few apparent facts about the area prior to the confusion that began in the 7th century, and these are significant in the area's history.

In 638 A.D. ninety-three years after the original site was constructed, a larger city was built and eventually became the center of a small kingdom. The city was then known as "Ngern Yang" and the kingdom was called first, "Hirun Nakorn Ngern Yang", and later "Haeran Nakorn Ngern Yang Chaiburi Sri Chiang Saen".

It should be noted that the year 638 is close to the mid-seventh century, the time at which the history of the area becomes a confused blur. There is some evidence that a major earthquake rocked the area around that time. However, whether due to an earthquake or centuries of raging war, or both, the kingdom continued but in such a confused and undocumented state that it is virtually impossible to piece together exactly what took place for the next 300 to 400 years.

Chiang Saen reemerges quite clearly with the arrival of King Mengrai on the scene in the 13th century, and Chiang Saen plays a more important role in the establishment of the Lanna Kingdom under the Mengrai Dynasty than is generally realized.

Many histories of the Lanna Kingdom begin with the documented unity that King Mengrai and his descendants established in Northern Thailand. Many of these present King Mengrai as a wise and benevolent ruler with great foresight. King Mengrai may have very well been exactly that, but in accordance with his time he, and most kings of the Mengrai Dynasty, were true conquerors, rapidly expanding their control over territory and, when necessary, subjugating whole peoples. It would be more realistic to see the development of Lanna in this light.

In addition, when one reads a brief history of Lanna, the distinct impression is given that, although King Mengrai first established Chiang Rai as the capital and then quickly moved it to Chiang Mai, the city of Chiang Mai was always the real center of Lanna activity. History shows that as the 18 kings and queens of the Mengrai Dynasty succeeded each other, there was a frequent return to Chiang Saen in times of political upheaval or, sometimes, simply times of nostalgia.

Mengrai was born in Chiang Saen, and was able to trace his roots back to the area of the Tai peoples, and particularly those of Sipsong Pan Na in present-day Yunnan Province. At the time of his birth in 1239 A.D., the Mekhong river area was a center of a large number of small kingdoms and principalities which stretched as far to the north as Lu in Yunnan, and also included Luang Prabang in present-day Laos. Because of the thriving civilization of Chiang Saen at that time, and because of Mengrai's heritage (his mother was the daughter of the ruler of Lu in Yunnan), Chiang Saen is important, not only as the original birthplace of the Lanna Kingdom through Mengrai, but also as the source of the line of rulers who would eventually reign in Siam's Ayutthaya period.

Mengrai succeeded his father as ruler of Chiang Saen in 1259 and (as it is written) when he saw the constant warfare among the tribal chieftains of the area, he pronounced himself the sole legitimate king. He then proceeded to impose his power and very quickly conquered his neighbors.

It is true that King Mengrai established Chiang Rai and later Chiang Mai as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom. However, the establishment of Chiang Mai took quite a long time because he first had to conquer the Kingdom of Haripoonshai (present-day Lumpoon), and he did so in an incredibly diabolical way, using the invitation of the leader of that kingdom to undermine him and ultimately conquer him. This endeavor took approximately ten years of scheming and subterfuge.

There were many logical reasons for selecting Chiang Saen as the northern defensive outpost. In addition to the desire to retain the birthplace of the Mengrai Dynasty as part of an ever expanding kingdom, Chiang Saen was an ideal location for defensive purposes. With the Mekhong River as a natural defense border on the east, the city of Chiang Saen was also the point at which a number of highly important strategic waterways met. These include the Maekok River, which flows through Chiang Rai city, the Mae Chan River, and the Mae Ruak River. All of these rivers would have provided easy access to Chiang Saen for both troop movements and communications.

It is known that the Chiang Saen of the 14th century had eight watchtowers and eleven gates, that it was one of the best-planned cities of all time in almost any part of the world, and that it was at the same time a center of Buddhist thought, and a city that existed with the constant expectation of invasion at any moment.

Finally, it should be added that it was King Gue Na who, after an interim king who ruled for 20 years after the death of Kam Fu, returned the capital of Lanna to Chiang Mai, where it remained from that time onwards.


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Last modified on:  October 27 2013