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Last update: Jan 20, 2023

Exploring Chiang Mai in the 19th century.

Chiang Mai is situated in the broad valley of the Ping river; a large plain surrounded by low mountains and extensive forests. Well over a century ago, around 1900, the fortified town of Chiang Mai on the Ping river was surrounded by paddy fields. Small palisaded villages were scattered throughout the plains of the Chiang Mai kingdom, but the larger towns like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Nan and Chiang Saen had moats and high stone walls as protection.

The farmers here cultivated rice, tobacco, sugarcane and tea on the fertile plain, and kept cattle, mules and ponies. The monsoon forests were occasionally interspersed with bamboo groves and teak trees. There were deer, gibbons, tigers, elephants and rhinoceroses in large numbers.

Asian rhino
Hunting trophies of asian rhino and buffalo.

Nowadays the Asian rhino is almost extinct in Thailand; and a large part of the forests have gone. The large, old teak trees have disappeared from the forests, the only teak to be seen are the newly planted trees in uniform rows in teak plantations.

The more remote hill villages around Chiang Mai were inhabited by Akha, White Karen, Red Karen, Lahu, Lawa, Paloung, Padaung and a few other hill-tribes. Many of them originated from southern China (Yunnan) and Burma; some like the Akha originated in the Tibetan Highlands. These tribal people came to the morning market in Chiang Mai to sell their vegetables, fruit and other produce.

The towns in the Chiang Mai kingdom had a great number of temples and pagodas. Thousands of villages had a temple, and each temple had a pagoda. The large town of Chiang Mai had the most temples, monasteries and pagodas; most of them created by the Burmese when they occupied the independent Kingdom of Chiang Mai.

In historic times there used to be 75 wats or temples in Chiang Mai; most of these wats are still there. That makes Chiang Mai the best place for historical tourism in Thailand. More on the temples in Chiang Mai below.


A very faire and great Towne, with faire houses of stone.

One of the earliest visitors of Chiang Mai was Ralph Fitch, an English gentleman merchant who visited Chiang Mai in 1587. Ralph Fitch's visit was mentioned by Sir Henry Yule in his book "A Narrative of the mission sent by the Governor General of India to the Court of Ava in 1855". Ava was then the capital of Burma; and Sir Henry Yule was a secretary to Arthur Phayre's mission to Burma.

Henri Yule only traveled inside Burma, but also described the geography and towns of northern Thailand. On page 212 of his narrative, he describes the eastern Shan state (now part of Thailand) and the town of Zimme:

        This Iamahey, or Jamahey, is undoubtedly the Shan town of Zimme, which has been very rarely reached by any European traveller in modem times. Fitch describes it as "a very faire and great Towne, with faire houses of stone;" which is remarkable, if true.

As the explorers wrote in journals and letters to their families, each wrote their own spelling of Chiang Mai. In 1587 Ralph Fitch spelled the town of Chiang Mai as Iamahey. In 1615 The East India Company favoured Jangoma, while the early Portuguese used Chiangmai. The British in colonial times, before 1900, called it Zimme and gradually started using Chiang Mai. The French called the place Xieng Mai, and the Dutch preferred Ischeen May and Tsieengh Maeij.

Yule describes different early explorers of the independent eastern Shan State, which is now in northern Thailand; and in this context, on page 210 he mentions Jangomai and on page 214 Zengomay. So here, Yule describes the discovery of the kingdom of Zimme; and mentions no less than 5 other names for Zimme: Iamahey, Jamahey, Jangomai, Zengomay and Kiang Mai.

Yule goes on to describe captain William MacLeod's early mapping efforts of Northern Thailand in some detail. For example on page 264:

        In 1837 Captain Macleod penetrated through Zimme to the remote Shan state of Kiang Hung. (Kengtung)

And on page 308:
        The ruins of the fort of Kiang-Hai (= Chiang Rai), with the remains of Pagodas and arched gateways, were seen by Macleod on his way from Zimme to Kiang-Tung. It is said to have been the capital of the state before the foundation of Zimme.

MacLeod's maps were not very accurate, because at that time mapping was done with a sextant and distance estimation. A few decades later, James McCarthy mapped Northern Thailand with the use of triangulation, which was much more accurate.

According to Hans Penth ("On the history of Chiang Rai"); it seems that the walls and gates of Chiang Rai were torn down around 1920 on the advice of Dr. Briggs, an American missionary physician, who argued that the area along the wall and the moat was muddy and filthy and therefore a source of all kinds of illnesses, and that the wall also obstructed the flow of fresh air. That was the end of the historic fortifications of Chiang Rai.


Archibald Ross Colquhoun - 1885.

Archibald Ross Colquhoun

Archibald Ross Colquhoun was an influential colonial politician, a travel author, and an explorer who in the 1880s took part in several expeditions to Burma.

One of Colquhoun's many books appeared in 1885; the now forgotten book "Burma and the Burmans: the best unopened market in the world". It became one of the best-selling books in Britain that year.

The British government which had been in conflict with the Burmese king Thibaw for years started the Third Burma War, and conquered Mandalay in November 1885. They arrested king Thibaw and sent him to India. Henceforth Burma would be a province of British India.

The year 1885 became a pivotal year for Burma and certainly for king Thibaw. A major reason for the Brits to annex Upper Burma was the abundance of teak forests, since teakwood was essential for British ship building, warships in particular. A study published in 1821 concluded that a ship built from Indian teak in Bombay, could outlast a ship built from English oak by over 40 years. Burma was certainly not only "The best unopened market in the world" but Britain could also use the raw materials, the teak, the oil and rubies for which it was famous. And the British certainly hunted the teak trees with determination.

Around the same time the exploration of the Kingdom of Chiang Mai started; which had rich teak forests in the provinces of Chiang Mai, Lampang, and Phrae. The first explorers came to this area in search of trade routes and hardwood. To be more precise: possible train routes and teak.

Indochina 1885
Part of "Map of Indochina", 1885.
Source: "Burma and the Burmans", by Colquhoun.
(Upper Burma is still shown as independent)

Archibald Ross Colquhoun was one of the early western visitors to Chiang Mai in 1885. A quote from his book "Amongst the Shans"1 (page 204); where he refers to the Chiang Mai Kingdom in Northern Thailand:

Our teak-forests, and those of Upper Burmah, are rapidly being exhausted, and many of our foresters are now working those of Siam. If the country is opened out by railways, the large forests existing between the seventeenth and twenty-second parallels of latitude will become easily available and be a valuable source of supply.

.... Although I use the word "Shan" to denote a race of people stretching from the valley of Assam, on the west, far into the interior of China, to the extreme south of Siam, it must be understood that the name is not used by themselves, but is merely that given to them by the Burmese. They generally call themselves Tai."



The lost city of Zimmé.

In 1885 the northern part of Thailand was part of the Siamese Shan States. The northern part of Thailand had been ruled by the Burmese for hundreds of years; and at that time Chiang Mai was usually indicated with its Burmese name Zimmé. Zimme was capital of the Kingdom of Lanna.

Another paragraph from Archibald's book "Amongst the Shans":

The town of Zimmé, Kiang Mai, Tsching Mai, is situated on the right bank of the Meping river, at a height of about eight hundred feet above sea level. It is the largest place in the Meping plain. There are fields between the river, which lies on its eastern side, and the town; which is said to have been built in 1294 A.D.

There is what is called an inner and outer town, each surrounded by fortifications. The inner town, where the chief resides, is a rectangle, six thousand feet (1800m) from north to south and four thousand eight hundred feet (1500m) from east to west. Each wall has a gateway in the centre, except on the southern side, where there are two, placed five hundred yards from the corners. The gates are defended with a small bastion at the sides.

fortifications of Chiang Mai
The walls around 1911, as Archibald would have seen them.
Photo by Morinosuke Tanaka of the northern moat, looking east.

The walls are enclosed by a moat, some fifty feet in width. The depth of the moat, originally some fifteen feet, is hardly anywhere now more than six or seven feet. The walls are fast falling into ruin from continued neglect, and great portions are to be seen lying toppled over and half buried, while only here and there has any attempt been made to patch up the fast crumbling structure.

Although at one time, no doubt, a formidable place to the undisciplined forces of the Burmese and Siamese, it would present no resistance to European artillery of the present day.

The town has some nine hundred houses inside the inner fort, but there are many more than that number in the portion of the town enclosed by the outer fortifications and in what may be termed the suburbs, which are built along the banks of the Meping River.

chiang mai 1904 map
Map of Chiang Mai in 1904; Kamphaeng Din is the half circle.
Historische Karte von Chiang Mai im jahre 1904. Carte ancienne de Chiang Mai, 1904

Archibald was wrong about Chiang Mai having a rectangular shape; the old town is a square of roughly 1600 by 1600 metres. The Meping River is now called the Mae Ping River, and the old Burmese name Zimmé has been changed to Chiang Mai. On maps printed before 1900 it is called Zimmé. The town Chiang Mai has had more than 100 names in the past; see below for more examples.

More on Archibald Colquhoun here: Rail survey


From Zimmé to Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai has had more than a hundred names in the past; the French called it Xieng Mai, the Burmese called it Zimme, Zimay, Zimmay or Zam-may. From Zimme it was changed to Chiangmai or Chiang Mai. Zimme seems a very different name from Chiang Mai, but it may have gone through a phonetic route like: Zimme - Zimmay - Zam-may - Jang-mai - Chang Mai - Chiang Mai. The following paragraph lists some examples of the spellings of Chiang Mai.

A list of the historical names of Chiang Mai (alphabetical):
Cheang Mai
Cheung Mai
Chiang Mai
Chiang May
Chieng Mai
Chung Mai
C'ieng Mai
Kiang Mai
Shia mai
Tschieng Mai
Tsching Mai
Tsieeng May
Xieng May
Xieng Mai
Xieng mai
Xieng Me

And what is the name of Zimme nowadays? The most common name is Chiang Mai, but Chiangmai or Chiengmai is perfectly acceptable.



Kingdom of Lanna - From Mengrai to Inthanon.

Below is a diagram of the complicated history of the mountain kingdom of Lanna. It all started with king Mengrai, the founder of the Lanna Kingdom, and ended with king Inthawichayanon. Surprisingly, for a few centuries the northern part of Thailand was a province of Burma.

Timeline of the Lanna Kingdom and the Chet Ton dynasty, including Inthawichayanon.
King Mengrai was ruler of Chiang Saen, and founder of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai.

King Mang Rai

King Mang Rai inherited the throne of the small kingdom of Chiang Saen, and in 1262 decided to establish the city of Chiang Rai, which became the new capital. Chiang Rai means "King Rai's City". Nowadays Mang Rai is usually spelled Mangrai or Mengrai. Six years later he captured Chiang Khong, and in 1272 he moved the capital to Fang

In 1281 he conquered the Haripunchai kingdom which was governed from Lamphun, a town due south of the current Chiang Mai. In 1294 king Mangrai decided to relocate his capital further north; and in 1296 the construction of the walled town of Chiang Mai began. Mengrai now ruled a large part of northern Thailand, and is the founder of the Lanna Kingdom.

The famous King Mengrai came to an unfortunate end in 1317 in the center of the old town of Chiang Mai. There is a small shrine to King Mengrai at the crossing of Rachadamnoen and Prapokklao road, diametrically opposite the Lanna Architecture Center, where he was struck by lightning and perished.


King Inthawichayanon The last king of the independent state of Lanna was king Inthawichayanon. King Inthawichayanon, or with his Thai title Phra Chao Inthawichayanon, was born as Prince Inthanon. "Chao" is a title for high ranking royalty in Lanna state; it originates from the Chinese language, and means "the great one". The highest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon, was named after Inthanon.

Chao Inthawichayanon was the last of the seven rulers of the Chao Chet Ton Dynasty of the Lanna kingdom. "Chao Chet Ton" means the "Seven Princes Dynasty", which was started by in 1796 by the famous Kavila (Kawila); the king who reconquered Chaing Mai and Lanna from the Burmese occupiers.


To get an idea of what Chiang Mai was like 130 years ago, we can have a look at an important historic map, made in 1893 for King Inthawichayanon. This is one of the best and most detailed historic maps of Chiang Mai there is; the dimensions of land plots and wats are carefully drawn, though not completely accurate.

The map below is hand-drawn, and the descriptions are written in both the Thai and English language. Unfortunately, these can be difficult to read, and there seems to be some water damage.

Historic map of Chiang Mai
Historic map of Chiang Mai for King Inthawichayanon, dated 1893.
Edited and cleaned up by R. Schierbeek

Historische Karte von Chiang Mai im jahre 1893. Carte ancienne de Chiang Mai, 1893

Archibald Colquhoun (rail survey) estimated that in 1879 there were 500 monks living in 75 wats in Chiang Mai, an average of about 7 monks per wat (Amongst the Shans, p.138). The map shows 50 temples in the old square town in 1893.

Archibald's number of 75 wats in Chiang Mai could be a good estimate; as he included the 22 temples in the "suburbs" and around Thapae road. Of the 50 temples in the walled town, 10 have disappeared, and have been replaced by Buddhist schools or modern buildings.


Archaeological news - Wiang Kaew palace.

There is a mystifying area in the center of town, the large empty area of Wiang Kaew (see map, green). It is strange, because only important or rich people could afford such a large plot in the middle of town. In the 20th century there was a prison on this ground, which later became the Chiang Mai Correctional Institution for women.

There was a legend that it had been built on the land that had formally housed the “Wiang Kaew”, the residence of King Mengrai who built the city in 1296. Wiang Kaew was the royal court area since the establishment of Chiang Mai. This royal area had been abandoned when King Inthawichayanon moved his residence a bit eastward, to the site which is now the Yupparaj Wittayalai School (green). In 1902 the Central Prison was built on this spot.

When the prison was closed in 2013, the old prison walls got covered in a lot of graffiti, and in 2016 the city began to demolish buildings and structures. The Faculty of Fine Arts started excavations in 2020 to dig for archaeological traces of the King Mengrai palace. And lo and behold, about 1 meter underground the southern wall was discovered. The width of this wall is approximately 1,8 to 2 meters.

The discovery of this wall indicates that Wiang Kaew palace was actually here, just as is indicated on the ancient map of 1893. After Mengrai, many Lanna kings had their residence here, and the foundations of two royal buildings have been found.

map of Chiang Mai royal area

  1. Wiang Kaew (King Mengrai's palace); in 1893 this was a vacant area.
  2. Chao Ratchabut (crown prince). Here is now the old office of British American Tobacco Ltd; which was closed in 1941.
  3. Sala: public resting pavillion. Sanam: public square.
  4. Residence of Phra Chao Inwichayanon (orange), and east of it his royal garden.
  5. Khao Sanam Luang is the State Council building, in front of the king’s palace.
  6. Modern: Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre museum.
  7. Modern: Three Kings Monument Square. (Kuang Luang)
  8. Modern: Lanna Folklife museum.
  9. Modern: Yupparaj Wittayalai School.

In addition to the wide brick walls, much evidence has been unearthed, especially pottery from various sources. There was celadon-type porcelain, Sukhothai pottery, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese ceramics. Surprisingly, no Burmese wares were found.

Many in the community want to develop the area into a park and museum. Due to the significant archaeological findings which are part of the history of Chiang Mai, historians and archaeologists want to preserve it; the consensus seems to be that it should become a public area for use by everyone.

The residence of King Inthawichayanon has vanished, and is now the sporting green of Yupparaj Wittayalai School. There is a large new square, just 200m south of the old one, where the Three Kings Monument is. The Three Kings in front of the Chiang Mai City Art & Cultural Center are King Mengrai, King Ramkhamhaeng and King Ngam Muang.

The building of the Chiang Mai City Art & Cultural Center was constructed in 1924, and served as the administrative centre. From here, Chiang Mai was ruled in the 20th century, until the administration was moved out of the old town.

Of the old royal residences there is nothing left, apart from the foundations and some archaeological remains. King Inthawichayanon has unfortunately faded from history, unlike his daughter Princess Dara Rasmi. Information about Princess Dara Rasmi is widely available on the internet; and her old mansion in Mae Rim is now the Dara Pirom Palace Museum. The administration in Bangkok annexed Lanna (the Chiang Mai kingdom) in 1893, and last king was not of much interest to the Thai rulers. But the excavation of Wiang Kaew has put Inthawichayanon back on the map.

The dilapidated Wiang Kaew palace. (colorized by me)


links to literature.

  1. Amongst the Shans - by Archibald Ross Colquhoun, 1885. With upwards of fifty illustrations and an historical sketch of the Shans by Holt Samuel Hallett.
  2. A Thousand Miles on an Elephant in the Shan States - by Holt Samuel Hallett, 1890. A survey for a railway from Moulmein to Chiang Mai and Chiang Saen.

Chiang Mai links on wikipedia and other sources.


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All photos copyright ©2022 R.Schierbeek. (except the historic black and white ones).