Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Chiang Mai’s Younger Brother

                                                  by Jim Goodman

War Jong Kham
    To travel from Chiang Mai north all the way to Kengtung one crosses an international political boundary, but certainly not a cultural one.  Around 400 km from Chiang Mai, Kengtung (also spelt Kyaintong or Chieng Tung) looks and feels like a Lanna town.  And in fact, historically speaking, Kengtung has had a longer and more intimate relationship—political, cultural and social—with Chiang Mai than with the Burmese or other Shan states.  Its residents are mostly Tai Khoen, whose dialect is close to that spoken in Chiang Mai, whose written literature uses the same Lanna alphabet, and whose monks belong to the same orders as those in the wats of Chiang Mai and vicinity.
    As in Chiang Mai and other Lanna towns, monks with their begging bowls make their early morning rounds on the city streets.  But they don’t have much traffic to dodge, for Kengtung is never crowded.  The big central market, where over 80% of the city’s commercial transactions take place, is the only busy place in town.  The produce for sale, tribal handicrafts on display, handicrafts products, presence of colorful mountain people, food and snack stalls and the language of the crowd all resemble and evoke markets in Chiang Mai like the riverside Wararot.
    While the houses, temples and religious monuments in general reflect the indigenous Tai Khoen style, similar to that in Lanna, other buildings attest to events and influences not part of Lanna history.  Kengtung was the last princely state incorporated into the British administrative system after seizing northern Burma.  Several colonial-style mansions and offices still exist in the city, along with a whitewashed mosque, with an attractive three-tiered minaret, dating from the same period. 
Stilted houses are common in Kengtung
Burmese-style Pointing Buddha in Kengtung
    The modern Burmese imprint is also visible in the form of a new, giant standing Buddha with his right arm stretched out and pointing to the center of the city, mimicking that on Mandalay Hill.  In addition, a new and attractive Burmese-style temple, with ornate fringed roof awnings, called Mangala Kyaung, was recently erected next to the small but pretty Naung Kham Lake in the town’s northeast.
    Credit for the 1267 foundation of the city goes to Mengrai, who conquered the Lua on the 1200 meter-high plain, set up Kengtung and left his nephew as ruling prince.  Mengrai himself returned south to Chiang Rai, founded five years earlier, and eventually, in 1296, transferred his capital to the new city of Chiang Mai.  For the three centuries or so of its independent status, Lanna’s fortunes and boundaries would vary.  When its power was waxing it occupied and directly administered Kengtung.  When it waned, the latter broke away and defended its autonomy.
    Throughout its heyday, Lanna maintained close cultural and commercial ties with Kengtung.  Chiang Mai people referred to it as their city’s “younger brother,” even though it was founded earlier than their own. The ruling house set up in Kengtung by Mengrai outlasted his own dynasty and persisted into the 20th century.  Kengtung princes sent gifts to the Chiang Mai court on the occasion of state funerals or the accession of new monarchs and the Lanna king reciprocated.  Other than that between the ruling families, ties between the two cities continued to be close the two centuries the Burmese took over the region.  But Kengtung did suffer a loss of much of its artisan class when the Burmese forced them in 1701 to move into the new administrative center they were making out of Chiang Saen.
street in central Kengtung
    By the end of the century resurgent Thai forces had driven the Burmese out of Lanna, but the latter continued to use Kengtung as a launching post for attacks on the Thai.  From their base in Chiang Mai the Thai armies, under King Kawila, responded with counter-attacks.  The war seesawed a few years before the exhausted Burmese gave up and even left Kengtung.  Its legacy was a wide swath of devastation and depopulation stretching between the two cities.  Even the victor, King Kawila, had to celebrate his triumph in a relatively empty capital.
    To re-establish Chiang Mai as a worthy capital again King Kawila turned to historical precedents in the region and began a campaign to go capture and resettle people.  In 1808 he marched his army into Kengtung, rounded up several thousand local Tai Khoen and removed them to Chiang Mai.  In later years he returned and persuaded the Kengtung prince to leave as well, along with the city’s best lacquer ware specialists, silversmiths and wood carvers.  He settled them just outside Chiang Mai Gate, south of the walled city.
    Kengtung never fully recovered from this second population transfer and it could no longer maintain its reputation for quality craftwork.  Chiang Mai benefited, of course, but by 1828 was offering a new relationship with Kengtung--“brother cities,” with increasing trade ties.  Unfortunately, Chiang Mai was a tributary state of Siam by then, and the regime in Bangkok had other thoughts about Kengtung.  Great Britain had already defeated Burma and annexed the lower part of the country.  Siam believed Kengtung was strategically important for the defense of northern Siam, the old Kingdom of Lanna, both against a possible Burmese threat and a more plausible future British one. 
    In what became known as the Kengtung Wars (1849-1854), three times Thai armies attempted to seize the city.  And three times, due less to valiant resistance than to bad roads, bad weather and bad planning, they had to turn back.  Eventually the British took the city, but did not use it as a base for campaigns against Siam.  When they finally left relations should have returned to their historic norms.  But northeast Burma was then plagued by decades of warfare and instability.  Ex-Guomindang forces, various Shan nationalist groups, opium warlord gangs, Wa soldiers from the Burmese Communist Party and troops from the Burmese regular army crisscrossed the area and marched through the city.
colonial era building
    Gunfire ceased punctuating the after-dark silence around Kengtung 15-20 years ago and tourists began trickling in.  Though that number is still well short of a torrent, the way has become easier in recent years.  Decent new buses leave twice a day, 9:00 and 12:30, from Tachilek.  What used to take ten hours in a cramped station wagon over an incredibly rutted dirt road now needs less than half that, counting checkpoint stops.  The Myanmar government built a new paved road to shorten the time and in spite of several years use it remains remarkably free of pits and potholes.
    Don’t expect any nightlife there, though.  The floating disco on the big lake Naung Tung has closed down.  Townsfolk go to bed early and except for the few restaurants and small shops still open, the streets, too, are dark, the only light being that reflected from the shops.  Even in business hours shops are never very busy, though they may have three or four clerks ready for anyone stopping to look at anything.
    Kengtung’s chief attractions are its elegant old temples.  The finest is Wat Jong Kham, originally built in the 13th century, redone and renovated often since.  Besides the gilded chedi in the courtyard, with precious stones and golden balls attached to the tip of its spire, the temple also features a set of old Buddha images behind the main altar and frescoes all over the interior walls.  In gold paint on a dark brown background, these vignettes depict both religious scenes from Buddhist mythology as well as secular ones like riding buffalo carts or dining on khantoke tables.
fresco inside Wat Jong Kham
   Buddha images, Wat Jong Kham
    Nearby Wat In, named for the god Indra, also features similar frescoes, as well as an even larger collection of old Buddha images, no two exactly alike.  The book depository in the compound seems to have been influenced by colonial architecture and the temple itself, excluding the statues, dates from the 19th century.
    Except for the murals, Kengtung wats resemble those in Lanna, a reminder of the historical and cultural connections between Chiang Mai and its younger brother Kengtung.   So do the stilted wooden houses in the city’s suburbs.  Only when you leave the city to return to Thailand and go through the passport checks and the Tachilek border crossing does it dawn on you that, in fact, though you have been visiting a Lanna-type city, it was in an entirely different country.
chedi in a Kengtung pond
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