Look up Chiang Mai province in a guide or on a map and you’ll see the same Thai place names cropping up over and over again: Doi this, Mae that and so on. So what do they all mean? Some you may well have already guessed at but here goes with a few of the more common names you’re likely to come across.
Firstly, and obviously… Chiang itself. This is the North Thai, or Lanna, spelling of an old Tai word meaning town or city. We say Tai rather than Thai as it’s common to several of the dialects of the wider Tai language family as well as Northern Thai itself. In Lao the equivalent is Xieng, as in Xieng Kok or Xieng Khouang for example — the former being originally part of the Tai Shan states and the latter founded by the Tai Phuan people — and derivatives are found across the region. Jinghong in Yunnan was formerly Xieng Hung, Burma’s Kentung was known as Chieng Tung and even Vietnam’s Dien Bien Phu is likely a corruption of Xieng Bien Phu.
Chiang Mai is obviously the capital of the province — or changwat — of the same name and is divided into districts known as amphoe. Districts in turn are comprised of sub-districts or tambon. For example Chiang Mai zoo is in Tambon Suthep, Amphoe Muang, Changwat Chiang Mai or Suthep sub-district, city district of Chiang Mai Province.
Muang is another northern Thai word for city, though it implies a greater degree of importance, political organisation, and even autonomy than Chiang. Traditionally it refers to a kingdom or chiefdom occupying one of the region’s valleys, even if that chiefdom was itself controlled by a larger neighbour. Again, as with variants of Chiang, Muang is found across the Tai-speaking areas of Southeast Asia. This includes for instance Muang La or Muang Khua in Laos, Muang Theang and indeed the present Thai name for Thailand is actually Muang Thai or Kingdom of Thailand. (Though in a divergence from its original usage muang is now commonly used to describe any city or major town in the country, for instance Muang Krabi and Muang Phichit).
To further complicate matters Nakhon (or Nakorn or Nakhorn), derived from the Sanskrit word Nagara, also means city, though strictly speaking it refers to a capital city such as Nakorn Sri Ayuthaya or Nakhon Si Thammarat. Indeed to emphasis its former status you may sometimes see Chiang Mai referred to as Nakhon Ping.
Moving down the scale a bit, the ubiquitous Ban or Baan that you’ll see all over maps of Thailand means village (as well as meaning house) so Ban Mai = New Village; some settlements may have grown into large towns but still keep their original ‘village’ name.
In the towns — if you hadn’t worked it out yet – thanon means street and soi equals alley or side street. The latter are often named after the main street they lead off, so say Ratchadamnoen Soi 1 will be the first sidestreet off Ratchadamnoen Road on the odd numbered side (well, depending upon which end of the street you start at!).
Other common names of geographical features include mae (river) and doi which is north Thai for mountain — thus giving Suthep Mountain for Doi Suthep and Sai River for Mae Sai.
You should now be ready to begin making up your own Thai place names — Doi Mae Mai and so on — or at least have a better idea of what you’re looking at on a map of Northern Thailand.
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 30th December, 2011.