Wat Ku Tao, the “Leaning Tower”

Ruined temple

Wat Ku Tao, the "Leaning Tower"

The “Leaning Tower” of Wat Ku Tao

This temple is a couple of km west of Chiang Saen, just off road no. 1016. Wat Ku Tao (วัดกู่เต้า) is not visible from the road. There is a cluster on the left side of the road, just after the intersection with road no. 1290. Wat Ku Tao is close to the bank of the Kham River. The complex contains the ruins of a viharn, a chedi, and three superimposed cylindrical structures, decorated with stucco of angels in adoration and several other structures. The Fine Arts Department thinks this temple dates back to the 17th century. According to below video they also think that there is direct link with Wat Ku Tao, the Shan temple in Chiang Mai.

Ruined chedi Wat Ku Tao
Tower of Wat Ku Tao

Holt Samuel Hallett visits the temple

British railway engineer Holt Samuel Hallett visited Wat Ku Tao, which he called Wat Koo Tow, in the late 1870s. He wrote: “A short distance from Kiang Hsen (Chiang Saen) I halted near an irrigation-canal, 100 feet wide and 6 feet deep, to visit the Wat Koo Tow, a celebrated leaning pagoda, which, unlike any other pagoda that I have seen in Indo-China, has been built in the Chinese style. The figures of the Tay-wa-boot or male angels, which are excited in bas-relief in excellent plaster, are Burmese in design.”

Holt Samuel Hallett’s book features a very nice illustration of Wat Ku Tao. It shows a Buddha image and the leaning tower it its full glory as it was in the late 1870s.

illustration of an old leaning tower Wat Ku Tao
Wat Koo Tow. Unknown illustrator. From: Holt Samuel Hallett, A Thousand Miles On An Elephant In The Shan States (1890)

Construction background unknown

The Fine Arts Department placed an information board at the temple which says that the construction background of this temple is unknown but I think it is plausible it was constructed some time during the Burmese occupation of Chiang Saen between the late 16th century and 1804.

Holt Samuel continued to Kiang Hsen: “On remounting the elephant, a deer sprang up form the long grass close by and crossed the track.”(..) and three-quarters of a mile from the pagoda, entered the fortifications which enclose the west central gate of Kiang Hsen.”

Ruined temple
Wat Ku Tao

Reginald Le May visits Wat Ku Tao

British Acting-Consul Reginald Le May passed Wat Ku Tao on his way to Old Chiang Saen in early 1914. He later wrote in this book “An Asian Arcady”: “A narrow track had been made through the grass, and down this we went for more than an hour, until I was suddenly aware, on our right, of a tall building rising out of the grass some two hundred yards away. The jungle was too dense, and I was too tired, to approach and examine it then, but I learnt subsequently that it was a well-known monument, called “The leaning tower” of Old Chieng Sen.

It sloped at a distinct angle from the ground, and was built of red brick, circular in design, with a castellated turret. It is thought to be of Chinese origin, by reason of the figures which have been found carved upon it, but whether it was designedly built to lean, or the foundations have sunk on one side, is more than can be said at present.”

Ruined temple
Viharn and chedi

Restoration of Wat Ku Tao

Since 1804 Chiang Saen has been a abandoned and ruined city. The temples became ruins and fell prey to natural disasters such as flooding and earthquakes. The illustration in Hallett’s book and old pictures show that the chedi was higher than it is now. I guess the below photos, that are stills from the video of the Fine Arts Department, date from the 1950s or even later. They took these pictures from an angle that doesn’t show that the chedi is leaning. The Fine Arts Department has done little restoration which is fine with me. They made

Location of Wat Ku Tao

The location of the temple is on Google maps so it easy to find. There is no entrance fee. Most likely you will find the ruins deserted. It is not on the itinerary of many people. For those who are interesting in history, I highly recommend a visit.

References for this article

I have visited the ruined temple several times. I have not been able to find anything about this ruined temple, apart from the information in the video of the Fine Arts Department.

The account of Holt Samuel Hallett comes from

Holt Samuel Hallett, A Thousand Miles On An Elephant In The Shan States (1890)

The account of Le May comes from his book:

Reginald Le May, An Asian Arcady: The Land & Peoples of Northern Siam. Cambridge: W. Heer & Sons, 1926. Repr. 1986, Bangkok: White Lotus. 


Man in front of chedi
Frans Betgem in Chiang Saen

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