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History of Yonok, Chiang Saen and Lanna

Chiang Saen 1867

city walls and moat
Chiang Saen ancient city walls and moat

chiang saen city pillar
The city pillar shrine

city wall and moat
The city moat, complete around Chiang Saen, 8m deep

The Golden Age of Lanna (1367-1525) was when the society became as civilised, advanced and comfortable as any place on Earth. Forest monks brought Sri Lankan texts of a relatively uncorrupted, egalitarian form of Sinhalese Theravada Buddhism. The Mongol threat to the north had also gone by this time. The dynasty that started with King Mangrai lasted through 19 monarchs until 1578. Of many, one notable king was Phaya Tilokarat (1442 to1487) who took Lanna power to its peak. An 8th Buddhist World Council was held in Chiang Mai's Wat Jed Yot in 1477. His attentions to purification of the Buddhist cannons hardly tamed King Tilok's spirit, though: between 1450 and 1457 he fought the Lue and Lawa, first near Keng Tung (Shan State) then near Chiang Rung (Yunnan). He conquered Nan, Phrae and eleven of the Shan States. Lanna was at its largest, stretching from the Salween to the Mekong, from Keng Tung and Chiang Rung in the north to Lamphun (and some say Sukhotai) in the south. At Nan, Lanna men under Tilokarat fought Vietnamese.  Lanna's area of influence and trade now extended from eastern Tibet through western Sichuan to lower Yunnan, and Lanna was important in the valleys of the Red River area of northern Vietnam, as in the northern Irrawaddy. Lanna had three distinct areas: first, the northern, draining into the Mekong through the Mae Nam Kok, second, the Ping and Nan, draining the central area, through parallel, unconnected valleys, and third, the western high jungles of the Pai and Yuan rivers and Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang basins.

Wat Jeddhi Luang
Wat Jeddhi Luang

Wat Jomkitthi
Wat Jomkitthi

The present concept of the nation-state not yet having taken hold, it's best to view Lanna not as a country, but as a network of aligned principalities (Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Chiang Saen, Lamphun, Lampang, Phrae and Nan) with smaller dependent chiefdoms (Phayao, Mae Cham, Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son, Fang and others) surrounding. Tribal groups relocated between hills, but there was a clear pattern of dominance and submission. That pattern had little rigid stability - tribal peoples related to modern Karen, for instance, were never amalgamated into it. Families of leading war-chiefs cemented alliances by marriage to heirs of adjacent principalities (throughout the Shan States, Luang Prabang, Sipsongpanna, and south to Pitsanulok, Supanburi, Lopburi and Ayudhaya); while intermittent feuding and warfare remained the norm. Caravan tracks through the forests and jungles had to be maintained, as also terraced rice paddies with channels for irrigation and huge water-lifting wheels. Architects and craftsmen embellished religious buildings wherein important writing was done. Special health-care techniques were developed, and religious ideas considered. Lanna flourished with trade passing from the Southern Silk Road to the harbors of Martaban and Molmein (but not to the Chao Phraya river valley area). Cargo included foodstuffs (dried fish, coconut, walnuts and other nuts, honey and sugar, oils, pepper, cloves, ginger, benjamin and other gums, tea and salt), luxury items like betel, opium, tobacco (after 1500 anyway, and maybe over half a century earlier), ivory, gemstones, felt, velvet, sandalwood and other aromatic substances, and dry goods (jute rope, yarn and thread, silk, cotton, dyes, hides, furs, guns, gunpowder, soap, matches, gum resins, teak, lacquer, porcelain, knives, beeswax, sealing wax, baskets, straw hats, clay jugs, iron bars and dishes, and brass and bronze pots). Pewter, gold, silver, tin, copper, lead, iron, saltpeter, sulfur, loadstones, styrax, benzoin, Chinese medicines, horses, oxen, sappan wood, antler, tusks, rhino horn, and talismans were also traded, carried by up to a hundred or more pack animals, often by Haw people. Lanna princes controlled trade: taxing Yunnanese, Shan and Burmese merchants for every load, if not every transaction.

Wat Lan Thong largest old buddha
Wat Lan Thong largest old buddha

From the beginning of the 16th century, the growing power of Ayudhaya was a threat to Lanna but by the 1600s it was also internal strife that caused Lanna’s power to decline. In 1558, after a siege of 3 days, the powerful King Burengnong from Burma took Chiang Mai. Soon after, Burengnong had all of Lanna, including Chiang Saen under his control. The Burmese would then control Chiang Saen from their capital at Ava for the next 250 years. The over two centuries of rebellion, shifting alliances and recurrent warfare resultant from Burmese failure to control, consumed all Lanna, limiting material access, destroying cities and towns and displacing much of the population.

Wat Arthit
Wat Arthit Ton Kaew (one chedi built on top of an older chedi)

In 1628 Burma relocated the center for administration of Lanna to Chiang Saen. Chiang Saen suffered repeated invasions, and in 1717 the Mae Khong River flooded the town to a depth of five feet. Still, as Chiang Saen was favored by the Burmese, it came under direct administration from Ava, the Burmese capital. It was strongly held, and the last area retaken from Burma, in 1804.

In 1782 Kavila brought people from Lampang to rebuild Chiang Mai. His influence spread to Chiang Rung (Jinghong), Muang Yong, Muang Sat and towns on the west of the Salween, while he forcibly relocated thousands from Keng Tung to Chiang Mai and Lampun. Chiang Saen, being such a well protected walled and moated city, was Kavila's last conquest. It was taken only by subterfuge and help from Nan, in 1804. The King’s forces stormed the southern city wall which is lower than the rest. Chiang Saen residents were taken to Chiang Mai, Lampang, Nan and Phrae, anything of value removed and the city was destroyed. Chiang Saen became a deserted city for 100 years, but by the early 1800s peace had returned to Lanna.

Jungle, rice fields, hilltop temples, water buffalo and cart-paths typified Lanna. Bears, tigers and other large animals yet roamed extensive forests. Barefoot and bare-chested women, men so tattooed they looked like they were wearing more than they were, houses of wood and grass, elephants and morning trading-markets were common. There was scarce little cash money, but much personal recognition. Spiritual concerns were a big part of daily life, especially in terms of making offerings to monks and spirits. How far back the distinctive local music and dance styles go, we don't know, but the popular taste for tobacco and hot pepper is unlikely to have taken hold until sometime during Burmese control.

Wat Pa Sak
Wat Pah Sak (The temple of 300 teak trees)

Ox-carts brought goods (garlic, tobacco, rice etc) to market from granaries about the countryside. Only in Chiang Mai was there a daily market; elsewhere trading days were periodic. Villages were oriented mainly to cultivation; they had no shops or distinctive houses for officials, no paved streets or central plazas. Irregular lanes wound between fenced yards around gabled, undifferentiated houses, each of which had a busy loom. Government and temples kept their own compounds. Men and women carried their ploughs or drove bullocks to fields diked and ditched by their forbearers, often starting their daily rounds in eerily beautiful morning mist. Most spent their entire lives in just a small geographic area. Only a few traveled far, though there were more long-distance traders than among the Siamese. Houses and land passed from mother to youngest daughter, young men moving after marriage to the homes of their brides' parents. The village headman's job was mostly to quell conflict and keep police and other officials away. Manufactured items began to come from Bangkok by the middle of the nineteenth century, and traditional alphabets began to be replaced by the new standard, central Thai script.

Daily life under local princes, after the great depletions of two centuries of warfare, was returning to the style it had maintained in earlier centuries, when the British and French began to arrive in force. In 1829, Chiang Mai received its first influx of European foreigners, but Bangkok only took measures to assert firmer control in the 1880s. As the Europeans began harvesting hundreds of square kilometers of teak, settlers began to arrive from the central plains. The teak business needed Karen mahouts, and due to the low population density (from war and disease) other tribal peoples from further north began to move in. Government officials began to come too, with instructions to revitalize the cities of Chiang Rai and Chiang Saen.

In 1883, Lanna was considered by King Rama V in Bangkok to be a vassal state, but by 1892, had become formally part of Siam. So, from the early 1900s Chiang Saen was re-populated.

Wat Roi Koh
Wat Roi Koh

Chiang Saen National Museum
Chiang Saen National Museum

Although the Japanese conscripted people of the north and built roads which penetrate the rough, mountainous Lanna area (roads still used today), they also encouraged opium production, and the area didn't really open up until the 80s. Military governments of the 50s, 60s and 70s alienated many free-thinkers, and after student uprisings of 1973 were brutally put down and dictatorship resumed in 1976, many radicals took to the hills of Northern Thailand to join in communist insurgency. When Mao Tse Dung's victory put Mainland China under Communist government, an influx of anti-Communist Chinese had entered the Lanna area, mostly soldiers of Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang (KMT) army. The area was still sparsely populated and undeveloped into the early 1970s, by which time drug money had become the dominant force and the area called the "Golden Triangle". A large group of the KMT settled in Doi Mae Salong and the town today shows their influence. Communist activity kept the United States interested even after the Vietnam War; such interest increased proportional to American consumption of drugs produced in Tai Yai hills. Communist insurgency in the north wasn't strong, in part due to drug-producing KMT army remnants, but in the early 60s, Thailand's northern border had "unknown areas" and Opium Warlords even issued their own paper currency (until as late as 1984, in Huai Krai, 15 km south of Mae Sai on Highway1)! Up until 1967 it was possible to see mule trains of up to 500 animals carrying opium down the main road in Chiang Saen. The various groups (Communists, drug armies and KMT) gave up their weapons during amnesty programs of the 1980s, and the area became amenable for tourism. The King's mother, Princess Mother Sang Wan Sri Nakarin, or colloquially, Mae Fa Luang or Somdet Ya, took great interest in the north, and did much to help end illicit drug production in Thailand. In 1982 the drug-lord Khun Sa was pushed out, and by 1990, a Royal Foundation directed by the King's Mother was successfully containing drug production in northern Thailand. The King’s Mother built a palace on Doi Tung where she lived until she died in 1992. Visitors can tour the palace and see her beautiful gardens.

During it’s greatest era, Chiang Saen had a population of around 200,000 people, in the early 1500s. In 2007 it had a registered population of 50,000. The population of Lanna, decimated by the early 1800s, by decades of fighting and then ravaged by malaria, hepatitis, TB and other disease, began to grow again in the 1960s. In 1924, the total population was 1,342,000. Forced resettlement in the late 18th and early 19th centuries brought in perhaps 100,000 people, to make about a third of the population. Immigrants continued to come from China and Burma, including Karen, Akha, Lisu and Lahu tribals, and more recently, Ho or Haw remnants of the KMT (soldiers of Chiang Kai Check). In 1964, 12,021 tribals were recorded in Chiang Rai Province, in 1969 15,475. In 1974, 23,585 Akha, Lahu, Lisu, Yao, Karen and Miao were recorded, and "10,000 Shan, Thai, Chinese and military personnel."

Today, Chiang Saen is a sleepy farming and river-trading town that is merely an Amphur (district) of Chiang Rai. It remains pleasantly un-developed for tourism and the ancient monuments are maintained and restored when necessary. The city wall has undergone a recent restoration since 2009, when a government budget was provided. The work has been done to U.N. recognized restoration standards, strengthening the wall yet keeping it’s ruined looking condition. The original type of white lime cement has been used in the work. The many monuments are maintained by the Ministry of Fine Arts and are respected by the local people, most of whom are superstitious and believe the old temples are the realm of the spirits.

When standing at the main T junction in Chiang Saen, you can see the town was built in the bend of the mighty Mae Nam Khong river, where you can see if your enemies are approaching.

If you find Chiang Saen on Google Earth, you can clearly see the city wall outline at the bend of the river. Clear also are the Mae Nam Kham river, meandering down to the southeast, protecting the city on the west and the south, together with the larger Mae Nam Kok river further south.


The above article was written by Ian Smith at Viang Yonok, 30th March 2011, using much information provided by

1.   Dr Spencer Wood of Boise State University Idaho USA and Chiang Mai University, Thailand.

2.   Joel John Barlow, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

For Mr Barlow's full and fascinating history of Lanna, see; http://www.chiangraiprovince.com/guide/eng/40.htm

Many thanks Gentlemen.

All photographs by Ian Smith, Viang Yonok.


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