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An account of the Culture, History and People of Northern Thailand, illustrated with more than 100 colour images and a bibliography

  • By Andrew Forbes and David Henley

The concept of Thailand as a unified state populated by a single majority people, the Thai, is a relatively new concept dating from the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. Until the early decades of the present century, it was commonplace to regard the citizens of the central plains and Bangkok, the capital, as Siamese, and their country as Siam. The area around Chiang Mai, by contrast, was considered a separate – though often subsidiary – kingdom, styled Lanna, or 'One Million Rice Fields'. Its inhabitants spoke a separate, though related, Tai language. They dressed differently, the women wore their hair long in contrast to the cropped Siamese, and the men covered their bodies with dense, intricately patterned tattoos.

The 'Golden Age' of the Lanna Kingdom was in the 13th-15th centuries centuries, when as an independent state Lanna could treat on equal terms with Siam, Burma and Laos. Political and social relations were established with Sri Lanka, and monks travelled to Chiang Mai, the Lanna capital, to teach the Sri Lankan version of Theravada Buddhism.

All this was to change following the Burmese conquest and annexation of Lanna in the mid-15th century. For nearly two hundred years Lanna remained a tributary of the Burmese crown at Ava, and Burmese cultural influences made deep inroads in the region. Then, at the end of the 18thcentury, fortunes once again reversed and the people of Lanna, aided by the Siamese, drove out the Burmese and reasserted their independence.

Independence, yes – but this was a qualified freedom. The power and influence of Bangkok, the Siamese capital, was waxing, whilst that of Chiang Mai remained in decline. Gradually but inexorably Bangkok took over the administration of the north, culminating in the death of the last King of Chiang Mai in 1930 and the imposition of a nationalist 'Great Thai' cult through the military authorities in Bangkok. Cultural distinctions were frowned upon, everyone in Thailand was encouraged to speak Central Thai and to dress like the people of Bangkok.

In recent years, however, as Thailand has grown increasingly rich and confident, the centre has allowed the periphery to rediscover much of its cultural past. The people of Lanna – known as the Khon Mueang, or 'People of the Principalities' - have been quick to embrace this opportunity to discover their past. Northern script now distinguishes many street signs and historical notices in the north; Kham Mueang, the language of the north, is everywhere to be heard. Old traditions like Yee Peng Khom, the Golden Lantern Festival, are being reestablished, and everywhere there are indications of a northern cultural rebirth.

Chiang Mai and the Lanna Kingdom brings together a series of related cultural and historical essays examining the history, culture and traditions of the people of the north, seeking to explore their past, rediscover their cultural identity, and celebrate their unique heritage.

Profusely illustrated with contemporary and historical images, this book makes a unique contribution to Thai Studies and to our knowledge of the serene, sophisticated and attractive culture of Northern Thailand.

  • Andrew Forbes and David Henley  have both lived in Chiang Mai for more than twenty years together with their Thai families and consider Chiang Mai to be their home. Both speak Thai and have been involved in Thai Studies for more than two decades.

© 2014 CPA Media &  Cognoscenti Books. All Rights Reserved.