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Thai king Phaya Mengrai (also spelt Mangrai), originally from the Mekong riverside principality of Ngoen Yang (present-day Chiang Saen), established Nopburi Si Nakhon Ping Chiang Mai in 1296 after conquering the Mon kingdom of Hariphunchai (modern Lamphun). Traces of the original 1296 earthen ramparts can still be seen today along Th Kamphaeng Din in Chiang Mai.

Later, in an alliance with Sukhothai in the 14th and 15th centuries, Chiang Mai (New Walled City) became a part of the larger kingdom of Lan Na Thai (Million Thai Rice Fields), which extended as far south as Kamphaeng Phet and as far north as Luang Prabang in Laos. During this period Chiang Mai became an important religious and cultural centre – the eighth world synod of Theravada Buddhism was held here in 1477.

The Burmese capture of the city in 1556 was the second time the Burmese had control of Chiang Mai Province. Before Phaya Mengrai’s reign, King Anawrahta of Pagan (present-day Bagan) had ruled Chiang Mai Province in the 11th century. This time around, the Burmese ruled Chiang Mai for more than 200 years.

In 1775 Chiang Mai was recaptured by the Thais under Phaya Taksin, who appointed Chao Kavila, a jâo meuang (chieftain) from nearby Lampang principality, as viceroy of northern Thailand. In 1800 Kavila built the monumental brick walls around the inner city, and expanded the city in southerly and easterly directions, establishing a river port at the end of what is today Th Tha Phae (thâa phae means ‘raft pier’).

Under Kavila, Chiang Mai became an important regional trade centre. Many of the later Shan- and Burmese-style temples seen around the city were built by wealthy teak merchants who emigrated from Burma during the late 19th century. Not all the Shan residents were merchants, however. In 1902 several hundred labourers, most of them Shan, protested against the practice of corvée (involuntary service to the state) by refusing to construct roads or otherwise follow government orders. The ensuing skirmishes between corvée labourers and Chiang Mai troops – dubbed the ‘Shan Rebellion’ by historians – didn’t resolve the issue until the custom was discontinued in 1924.

The completion of the northern railway to Chiang Mai in 1921 finally linked the north with central Thailand. In 1927 King Rama VII and Queen Rambaibani rode into the city at the head of an 84-elephant caravan, becoming the first central Thai monarchs to visit the north, and in 1933 Chiang Mai officially became a province of Siam.

Long before tourists began visiting the region, Chiang Mai was an important centre for handcrafted pottery, umbrellas, weaving, silverwork and woodcarving. By the mid-1960s tourism had replaced commercial trade as Chiang Mai’s number one source of outside revenue.

After Chiang Mai born-and-raised politician Thaksin Shinawatra became Thailand’s prime minister in 2001, the city found itself the focus of a Thaksin-initiated development drive. The premier vowed to make Chiang Mai one of the nation’s primary centres of information technology, expand the airport, build more superhighways and double the size and wealth of the city within five years. Many local residents have reacted with dismay to these proclamations, and have organised a vocal movement to preserve quality of life.

Aspects of the proposed Thaksin developments did come into fruition, such as the continued construction of 5-star hotels, building of roads and the new Night Safari. However, although a new bus system is in place, the improved transportation system – including trams and metered taxis in the city – has not yet materialised. Since the political demise of Thaksin by the military coup of 19 September 2006, it remains to be seen whether the funding of Chiang Mai from central government will continue apace.