Thai city cheers a family legacy, and its own history

CHIANG MAI, Thailand (Reuters Life!) - Dancers in peacock feathers, usually seen at royal events, precede a group of middle-aged Thais bearing a banner that proclaims them “Bosses of the North” as relatives, living and dead, look on.

One hundred years ago, at the same cemetery in Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai, one of those relatives, Dararasmi or Shining Star, also held a party to celebrate the creation of the burial ground for her family, who once ruled Thailand’s north.

Helped by her husband, King Rama V, Dararasmi brought together members of her far-flung family and preserved a personal legacy that is inseparable from the history of Chiang Mai.

“The union between Princess Dararasmi and His Majesty Rama V kept Chiang Mai in Thai hands when it could have belonged to the British,” said Kitinard Muangngoicharoen, curator at the Dara Pirom Palace Museum, which is devoted to Dararasmi’s life.

“She also did a lot of charity work for cultural, educational and environmental causes. She played a key role in keeping the family together. That is why events like this still go on.”

This month, Chiang Mai held several events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the burial ground, and to highlight the area’s distinctive legacy in a bid to lure more tourists.

A century ago, the newly created royal cemetery, attached to Wat Suan Dok or Flower Garden Temple, also inspired major celebrations that included dancers, gambling and northern Thailand’s very first opera -- a “Madame Butterfly,” featuring a northern Thai woman in love with a central Thai soldier.

The ashes of Chiang Mai’s first seven kings and their consorts were also “invited,” along with the city’s living inhabitants, who partied for five days and five nights.


Today, that family is known as na Chiang Mai -- literally, “of Chiang Mai” -- and dozens of its members are now buried in the shadow of Wat Suan Dok, next to Dararasmi.

The history of Chiang Mai’s own royal family, which produced nine kings, began over 200 years ago.

The Lanna dynasty was founded by King Mengrai (1259-1317), who built both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. At its height, this self-governing empire spread across northern Thailand to parts of what is now Myanmar and Laos.

However, Mengrai’s dynasty proved vulnerable to outside invaders, in this case the Burmese, who ended up ruling northern Thailand for 200 years.

To bring the north back into Thai hands, two Lanna nobles, Kaovila and Phraya Chabaan, helped to overthrow Burmese rule.

Eventually, Kaovila became the first of the Chiang Mai family kings. The last king to rule was Jiao Keo Naovarat, who was replaced by a Bangkok-appointed governor in 1939.

These rulers left behind an alphabet, landmark temples, and a culture that still defines Lanna identity.

“Lanna people are defined by the way the speak, the way they eat, and the way they act,” said Jirawan Gavila, senior curator at the Bank of Thailand museum in Chiang Mai, which features a treasure trove of northern textiles.

“Northern people value good manners, being gracious, being calm and unhurried. The family have helped preserve that culture. They still set an example.”

Other than the cemetery and the museums, one of the best places to see the remains of Lanna culture is in the restaurants of the north, which still cook the royal family’s recipes.

Gaeng som pla, a tart-spicy soup featuring river fish marinated in tamarind sauce, flavored with three different types of citrus fruit, and accompanied by pickled garlic, is a hard-to-find delicacy, but worth seeking.

Kabong, or slivers of pumpkin marinated in cumin and shrimp paste and then battered and deep-fried, is another fixture of family gatherings, and is available at any Chiang Mai eatery.

Editing by Miral Fahmy