Chiang Mai, also sometimes written as "Chiengmai", is the largest and most culturally significant city in Northern Thailand, and the capital of Chiang Mai Province. It is located at 18°47'20?N, 98°59'00?E, some 800 km north of Bangkok, among some of the highest mountains in the country. The city stands on the Ping river, a major tributary of the Chao Phraya river.
In recent years Chiang Mai has become an increasingly modern city, although it lacks the cosmopolitan gloss of Bangkok. It has many attractions for the thousands of foreign visitors who come to the city each year. Chiang Mai's historic strength derived from its important strategic location on an ancient trade route, and long before the modern influx of foreign visitors the city served as an important centre for handcrafted goods, umbrellas, jewellery (particularly silver) and woodcarving.
While officially the city (thesaban nakhon) of Chiang Mai only covers most part of the Mueang Chiang Mai district with a population of 150,000, the urban sprawl of the city extends into several neighboring districts. This Chiang Mai Metropolitan Area has a population of nearly 700,000 people, nearly half of the whole Chiang Mai Province.
King Mengrai founded the city of Chiang Mai (meaning "new city") in 1296, and it succeeded Chiang Rai as capital of the Lannathai kingdom. Mengrai constructed a moat and a wall around the city to protect it against raids from Burma. With the decline of the Lannathai kingdom, the city lost importance and often was occupied by either the Burmese or by the Thais from Ayutthaya. As a result of the Burmese wars that culminated in the fall of Ayutthaya in April 1767, Chiang Mai itself was so depopulated that the remaining inhabitants abandoned the city for fifteen years (1776 - 1791). Lampang functioned as the capital of what remained of Lannathai during that time.
Chiang Mai formally became part of Siam in 1774, when the Thai King Taksin captured the city from the Burmese. Chiang Mai rose in both cultural, trading and economic terms to gradually adopt its current status as the unofficial capital of the north of Thailand, second only in national importance to Bangkok.
The people generally speak Kham Muang (also known as Northern Thai or Lanna) amongst themselves, but the Central Thai of Bangkok is used in education and is understood by most. The old Kham Muang alphabet is now only studied by scholars and Northern Thai is commonly written using the standard Thai alphabet.