Northern Thailand, which has a history largely
independent from the rest of the country, appears to have been
populated by different groups of Thais, who assimilated with local
inhabitants and settled in the fertile valleys of the north around the
first millennium. Present-day Chiang Saen was the seat of the Ngong
Yang kingdom, and was one of the main centers. Chiang Saen and Payao,
another center, were both in contact with India, through Burma, and
traded with the Srivijaya empire. The decline of the latter led to the
emergence of a trade route to China and ultimately to the birth of
powerful kingdom in the north.
Haripunchai (Lamphun) Mon immigrants from the Dvaravati kingdom of Lopburi founded the city of Haripunchai in the 7th century, as well as a string of fortified towns around it. Devout Buddhists, the Mons were a key force in the conversion of the Thais in the north and Haripunchai remained an important cultural center for centuries.
King Mengral. Unification of the small northern principalities was achieved by King Mengrai, a Ngong Yang chief of mixed Thai and Lawa blood. Embarking on a grand scheme for conquering the whole region, he founded Chiang Rai, seized Haripunchai in 1292, annexed Payao and, in 1292, annexed Payao and, in 1296, founded his new capital of Chiang Mai He thus established the powerful Lanna kingdom, before being annexed by Siam. For a considerable period, toward the end of the kingdom, it was in effect under Burmese or Central Thai control.
The golden age of Lanna. The 15th century saw the flowering of the Lanna kingdom, which was powerful enough to host an international Buddhist gathering in 1455. Trade, art and education flourished, despite the occasional feudal battles between vassals and princes. The west bank of the Mekong (today part of Laos, Burma and Thailand) was also ruled by the King of Lanna.
The Burmese invasion. Quarrels over the possession of a powerful talisman, an image of the Buddha, led to a Burmese invasion in 1558 and Lanna became a vassal state of the King of Pegu, governed by Brumese appointed rulers. King Naresuan of Ayutthaya, fighting the Burmese who had invaded Siam, expelled these rulers from Lanna in 1598 and for the next 17 years Ayutthaya remained the dominant power in the north.
The Burmese era. In 1615, the Burmese King of Ava reestablished control over Lanna, which lasted for more than a century. Actual Burmese presence in the north, however, remained minimal and had very little effect on most of the population. The darkest period in the history of the north began with the rebellion of General Thip, who defeated a Burmese a army and prochaimed himself king of Lampang in 1727. His successors eventually ruled in the 19th century, but before that, the King of Ava sent army after army in to Lanna and Siam. After the fall of Ayutthaya, Kawila of Lampang and King Taksin of Thonburi joined forces against the Burmese. Having reconquered Chiang Mai in 1776, however, the Thais were forced to abandon the impoverished city. Lanna and Laos were decimated by the endless war; towns such as Chiang Saen, Luang Prabang and Vientiane, previously spared by the Burmese, were destroyed by the Thais to prevent their recapture. The strain, accumulated over many hard-fought battles, took its toll on Taksin and affected his mental health. He became eccentric and cruel toward his subordinates. In 1782, an elite group of officials led by Phya San rebelled, forcing Taksin to abdicate.
The 19th century. Independent but impoverished, 19th-century Lanna was governed by the family of Kawila, nominally a vassal of Thailand, but in fact autonomous. Not until 1874 was a Thai High Commissioner sent to administer the north and during the reign of King Rama V the region was slowly incorporated into the Thai kingdom. Laos, east of the Mekong, annexed by King Rama I during the Burmese War, was ceded to King Rama I during the Burmese War, was ceded to France in 1893, following a show of force by gunboats.