Chiang Mai: Then and Now
It was the German-born naturalist Sir Robert H. Schomburgk (1804-1865), being Her Majesty’s British Consul in Siam, who traveled as early as 1859 from Bangkok to Chiang Mai to explore the interior of Siam as far as the city of Chiang Mai.
In the reign of King Rama IV (1851-1868), Schomburgk left Bangkok with two comfortable riverboats on 12 December 1859, when the Menam Chao Phraya was rapidly falling in the cold season, to reach Chiang Mai on 14 February 1860.
It took him and some travel companions 28 days to reach the border town of Raheng (now known as Tak), where they had to continue the journey overland on the back of elephants and ponies. Another 14 days took them to Lamphun, where the governor provided them with provisions to go on to Chiang Mai within one day.
The road went along an irrigation canal and later through a sea of wet rice fields. Passing the village of Ban Luk, the party reached the hamlet of Bang Pokok, where the transplanting of the rice plants was going on. After the village of Tavong-tawng, the Mae Ping River was crossed to the western side to give view to the pagoda of Wat Hong and later to Wat Papa-ow.
Arriving in Chiang Mai, Schomburgk took residence in a house between the old bamboo-bridge across the river and the eastern city gate (Pratu Tapae).
The Deputy Viceroy Chao Operat welcomed Schomburgk in his residence only very shortly, because differences existed regarding the jurisdiction over British subjects residing in Chiang Mai.
Later the diplomat visited the bazaar, extending east and west on a principal street, and rounded the town proper. The town seemed to have probably 50.000 inhabitants. Pagodas were everywhere, especially in the west.
Schomburgk noted that there were many coconut and betel nut trees in and around Chiang Mai. A big lake was in the northeast of the city, frequented by a large number of wading birds.
After some 13 days, Schomburgk left the city on the way to Moulmein, in Myanmar, traversing the country of the Red Karen (Kayah). Starting the journey on 27 February 1860, it lasted 24 days. Then he went by a steamer to Tavoy and via Kanchanaburi back to Bangkok.
Hundred years later, Chiang Mai was not very much different from the description that Schomburgk had given. But today, huge infrastructure and other mega-projects threaten the city to become a kind of Disneyland.
The cosmopolitan image of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city with a population of nearly a quarter million, is a consequence of its close proximity to the world-famous Golden Triangle.
This area stretches from Northern Thailand (Lan Na) wide into 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 the other cities in 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.
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 travelling 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 Koumintang 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 two Muslim communities 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 Chang Mai and traded mainly in cloth.
Also, there was a new wave of Shan immigration after strongman Ne Win came into power in a coup in Burma in 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 characterises 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 in the cosmopolitan city of Chiang Mai since 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 globalisation.