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Cosmopolitan Chiang Mai and its history

Cosmopolitan Chiang Mai and its history

Reinhard Hohler

The Golden Triangle is the area, from where colorful hill tribes
came into Thailand from Burma and Laos.

The cosmopolitan image of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city with a population of nearly a quarter of a million, is a consequence of its close proximity to the world-famous Golden Triangle. This area stretches from Northern Thailand (Lan Na) to the border areas of Myanmar (Burma) and the former Lao Kingdom of Lan Chang (Laos). It also reaches areas in China’s Yunnan Province.

Throughout the historical period starting in 1296 to the present day, Chiang Mai has attracted non-indigenous migrants, refugees, and since the end of the 19th centuries the colorful highland minorities, which tourists can see during their visits to the Vieng Ping Night Bazaar. Thus the contemporary ethnic heterogeneity of Chiang Mai’s population contrasts significantly with that over other cities within present-day Thailand.

Since the time of King Mengrai in the late 13th century, the practice of Chiang Mai’s rulers was to import craftsmen from the neighboring countries to produce lacquer goods, silverware, gong-smiths and pottery-makers. Due to a more than two hundred years occupation by Burmese forces, Chiang Mai was deserted and abandoned for 20 years at the end of the 18th century. In 1796, Prince Kawila from Lampang re-
established the town and brought back war prisoners from Kengtung in Burma’s Shan State and Sipsong Panna in China and settled them in the east and south outside the inner sacred city, where Kamphaeng Din was built to protect these new settlements.

Wat Phra That Suthep protects and dominates the city of Chiang Mai in the west.

Since the mid-19th century the immigration of ethnic groups to the city of Chiang Mai occurred for flight from war zones and the pursuit of trading opportunities. First the Ngiao or Shan traders arrived and were settled along today’s Tapae Road. As links with Bangkok as a new center strengthened, the first overseas Chinese arrived, traveling up the Ping River and settled along the Wat Ket Pier on the eastern bank of the river, later to cross over to the area of Warorot Market. In contrast, Chinese from Yunnan, called Haw, arrived in Chiang Mai after the
collapse of the Muslim revolution in Yunnan, which centered at the town of Dali. The Haw organized mule and packhorse caravans, now living as shopkeepers in an area called Ban Haw. After the Communist take-over in China during 1949, there was an exodus of Kumintang Han Chinese from Yunnan into Burma’s Shan State that ended up on Thai soil. Later, some of them settled in Chiang Mai as part of huge cross-frontier trading networks in opium and jade.

Interesting to note are the two Muslim commu-nities in the city known
as Changklarn and Ban Changphuak, who trace their ancestry to wandering Bengali cattle herdsmen from Chittagong, in present-day Bangladesh, passing through Arakan in Burma and reaching the Thai border at Mae Sot by the turn of the 20th century. From there, they arrived in Chiang Mai later. Subsequent immigration brought Sikhs and Hindus from India via Bangkok to the city. They settled in the commercial district of Changmoi and traded mainly in cloth. Also, there was a new Shan immigration after the New Win take-over in Burma since 1962. These Shan ended up as petty peddlers and traders and are engaged in a lucrative cross-border gem trade.

The most recent ethnic minority groups to migrate to the city constitute the most mobile components in the complex ethnic mosaic that characterizes Chiang Mai as distinct from other cities in Thailand. These are the Highland Minorities, normally called hill tribes. They are mainly engaged in the tourist sector and the related production of profitable handicrafts for the tourist market. Thus members of the Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Lisu, Mien and even Kachin are looking for an economic niche market being very successful to find all kind of jobs, lately even in the entertainment business, catering to Thai clients and tourists alike.

American missionaries and resident Caucasians complement the population of the cosmopolitan city of Chiang Mai for more than 100 years. A number of embassies and consulates are established in Chiang Mai as a consequence and surely will grow in the new age of globalization.

Wat Chiang Man is in the heart of the sacred old city and was founded by King Mengrai.