What is Lanna? How Lanna became the identity and brand it is today

Pim Kemasingki & Thitika Tananchai take a look at Lanna Northern Thai culture, what it is and how it developed.

By | Mon 1 May 2017

What do you think of when you hear the word Lanna?

It’s likely you know that you are living in the Kingdom of Lanna, founded by King Mungrai 720 years ago. You probably think of TAT posters of pretty northern girls wearing colourful tube skirts, or pasin, holding hand-painted mulberry paper umbrellas. Your mind likely goes to the rich culture and traditions of Yi Peng and other local ceremonies, of the lilting northern dialect, of charming old wooden houses and whitewashed temples and of the unique food which rivals many world cuisines. It’s also probably pretty clear to you that the people of the north don’t share its history, culture, traditions or even language with its Siamese brothers and sisters to the south.

If so, you would have more knowledge about Lanna than just about anyone here did half a century ago.

You see, after centuries of being a backwater vassal state to, alternately Burma and Ayutthaya, between the 16th and 18th centuries, whatever remained of the Lanna Kingdom became gradually assimilated into Siam. By the reign of King Rama V during the second half of the 19th century there wasn’t much left of the kingdom; its remaining royals were relatively poor and had to send regular tributes, troops and manpower to Bangkok, and its population mainly living in small farming communities scattered around the mountainous region. There was always decent trade, as we were a town at an offshoot crossroad of the Silk Roads, but by the late 19th century, most of the wealthy were Chinese merchants and settlers, not locals.

King Rama V, fearing western influence as the Brits and Danes began to arrive with their logging companies as well as concern over the connections Chiang Mai’s royalty still had with Burma and Southern China, set a policy to bring Chiang Mai fully into the Siamese fold.

“The mission was to corrupt the feudal lords,” explained Vithi Phanichphant, an acclaimed historian and authority on all things Lanna. “Bangkok told the local royals, ‘Oh, you don’t need to deal with the foreigners, we will do it all for you. You just sit back and take a nice salary from us.’ Because they were lazy sticky rice royals, they were quite happy lounging by the Ping River playing cards all day. Bangkok would send governors and administrators up from the capital to run things, slowly eroding the powers and influence of the northern royals. The policy was so cynical that Bangkok governors were actually trained card dealers, with the sole aim of relieving the Chiang Mai royals of their wealth. Chiang Mai’s royalty soon gambled away all their riches, and until today have a reputation — backed by bankruptcy, suicide and scandals — of being avid, if not particularly skilled, gamblers. Few people know this, but gambling lost the royals so much that the royal ashes interred today at Wat Suan Dok were only moved there when Chao Dara Rasmi gambled away her residence and the old crypts where Kad Luang sits by the Ping River today. By the beginning of the 20th century, Bangkok had made sure that the Lanna royalty had no power, money nor influence to speak of.”

Once the royal lords were neutered, Bangkok began to homogenise the rest of the population. The aim was to implement a nationalistic agenda by destroying all cultural and linguistic identity, creating a One Thai Nation. By the mid-20th century there were signs around town, especially in schools, forbidding the use of the Lanna language, and women were told to cover their previously topless selves and men their tattoos, a Victorian-era sensibility. “Books were burned,” continued Vithi. “Temples used to have libraries, and most of them were destroyed. In fact, the French consul made huge efforts to collect all the palm manuscripts and save them in the consulate. Sadly the authorities raided the consulate, burnt all the books and threw the ashes into the Ping River. It was forbidden to teach any Lanna history and if you asked 99% of the people living here half a century ago what Lanna was, they wouldn’t be able to tell you. They couldn’t even tell you who founded the Kingdom.”

“When I first moved to Chiang Mai 40 years ago there was a newspaper called Lanna, but no one actually knew what Lanna was. People now claim that Lanna means land of a million rice fields and that that was our name all along. It wasn’t. The truth is that lan is more likely to refer to the word countless, whereas na is paddy fields, which could have been confused with the name of the sixth king of the Mengrai dynasty, Guena, whose name actually does mean million rice fields, so until today we don’t really know where the word Lanna came from or what it means. We never called ourselves Lanna people. We called ourselves Khon Muang, in fact we still do. Khon Muang means community, or local, people. But others in the region called us Yuan, Tai Yuan or Yon which was the ethnic group most of us belonged to. This was the real name of our people.”

So how did Lanna and its rich culture rise from the ashes of Bangkok’s suppression to become one with such a distinctive identity today? Kham muang, or the Lanna language, is spoken everywhere and the culture can be seen in every local ceremony as well as everyday life. Lanna has become such a recognisable identity that businesses are also capitalising on the cool Lanna brand with Lanna spas, hotels, products and gimmicks galore.

“Funnily enough it was the early visitors in the ‘80s and ‘90s who began to raise the question of what was Lanna,” continued Vithi. “They would come up from Bangkok and say how different things were — the architecture, the art, the customs. They made us begin to ask about ourselves and wonder who we were because so much was lost. But it was the 700th anniversary of the founding of Chiang Mai in 1996 that really saw Lanna’s renaissance. I know, it is that recent! It was a very important landmark and people took great pride in it. We all wanted to claim our heritage and that was the year that the word Lanna was brought back to popular and ubiquitous usage.”

Mission Lanna
Born in Lampang to a wealthy family — his grandmother made her money as a money lender to the gambling royals — Vithi was educated in Thailand, Hong Kong and USA before returning to Chiang Mai as a lecturer at Chiang Mai University where he soon gained a reputation for his studies of history and culture.

By the early ‘80s when I attended Vithi’s wedding in Lampang, he was known for his textile and lacquerware collections as well as his deep interest in local culture. I can still vividly recall the incredible sight of a dance troupe he had put together for the occasion, a spectacle I had never before seen in my life. Growing up in Thailand, along with just about everyone else, I was used to the painstakingly precise Thai dance, where women clad in conservative but spectacular outfits would uniformly dance routines said to have been set by the royal palace in Bangkok centuries before. But here I was in Lampang watching half naked women and topless tattooed men dance in a wild and uncomfortably sensuous manner. I remember being so shocked that this early memory has remained firmly set in my mind. I wasn’t alone, a few years later when Vithi was asked to put together a large cultural show for Chiang Mai’s first international travel conference, the city went wild.

“’This is not us!’ they screamed at me,” continued Vithi. “I was accused of ruining culture and people were very angry at me for exposing so much skin and performing dances they felt were a betrayal of the Thai heritage. But it was because they didn’t realise that this was our local culture. And for the first time we were showcasing our own culture, not Bangkok-centric culture.”
“Women of the region used to wear beautiful pasin and go topless unless it was cold, when they would wear either a loose shawl or jacket, so I had them wear the same, but for modesty’s sake I wrapped a cloth around their breasts,” he explained. “Lanna dance was also one of great individuality, not the conformed rows you see in central Thai dance. We danced with our hearts, not our hands. Our dances lacked the perfection preferred by Bangkok, but they were infused with feeling and emotion. That is what I tried to bring back.”

Lanna Renaissance
In spite of the societal backlash, Vithi was gaining respect in the academic world and in 1983 he was asked to set up the Fine Arts Department at Chiang Mai University. He created a Lanna art syllabus which was promptly rejected by university authorities who insisted that it had to be Thai art, not northern art. “So I simply changed the name to Thai art and continued to teach my Lanna syllabus. This was the beginning of art in Chiang Mai,” he explained. “I felt that there was so little knowledge of art and history of the region, I used to send out my students to go and do research on topics they were interested in; woodcarving, ancient scripture, textiles, architecture, laquerware. Soon they were going further afield to Burma’s Kentung, to Luang Prabang in Laos, to Sipsongpanna in Southern China and what we were learning was that we were all interconnected with a much wider culture of the Tai Yuan (Lanna) people of the region. It was an incredibly exciting time as my students were coming back to me with so much knowledge and information on art and culture that I never knew. That no one knew.”

“One of my worries was that my students would graduate and have no future. It was hard to see how knowledge of the Yuan textile or understanding of local mythology could benefit anyone. I mean, how could they earn a living studying Lanna? Our students had set up faculty Lanna dance troupes, some were experts on nearly obsolete cultural ceremonies and all manner of practices and others had deep knowledge of history and culture. But then what?”

I spite of his concern, Vithi’s early students, the pioneers of the Lanna frontier, went on to achieve great success in their respective careers. Some travel around the world showcasing Lanna dance and performance art, some have become consultants on Lanna architecture to the slew of hotels and restaurants adopting the Lanna brand, others are event organisers specialising in Lanna weddings, funerals or other customs and some have amassed collections of antiques and artefacts to the great envy of many world museums. His students were also to become great ambassadors of Chiang Mai. “One of my earliest students has worked for the government taking our performances all over the world to various expos and events,” he said with pride. “Many of those box office hit movies about history also wouldn’t have come about without my students and their knowledge of costumes or customs.”

In fact, the impact of Vithi and his students is immeasurable. The khom loy lanterns which now grace the skies on all special occasions, not just in Chiang Mai but around the world, can be attributed to Vithi. In the past lanterns were only released during Yi Peng festival (Loy Krathong) and only by temples, never the general public. It was Vithi who first used them to mark the funeral of historian Kraisri Nimmanahaeminda, a spectacle that has led to it becoming an integral part of any night time ceremony. All the processions and ceremonies from the Bo Sang to the Flower festivals are also the product of Vithi’s reimagining of lost customs.

“Culture is a living thing, so we worked with the students to really study and understand their roots so that they can use that knowledge to combine the traditional past with contemporary expressions and disciplines.”

As Vithi said to Citylife in a 2009 article, “these cultural, ethnic idiosyncrasies, it became evident, were very attractive to westerner. A market was born. Lanna Inc. suddenly became the most lucrative business in Chiang Mai.”

Since that first experience of Vithi’s dance troupe, I have been to many others which he, or his students have performed, whether they were at funerals, cultural shows, private functions or during festivals, much of the dance you see performed in Chiang Mai today can be traced back to the studies of culture and the imagination of Vithi. I attribute much of Lanna’s resurrection, as well as its promising future, to his inquisitive mind, creative way of seeing the past and its impact on the present, ability to anticipate possibilities, charisma and leadership, as well as pure grit and determination.