Wiang Tha-Kan , the forgotten ancient city
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A forgotten ruined settlement
Wiang Tha Kan (เวียงท่ากาน) is an ancient settlement and archaeological site, about 35 km south of Chiang Mai. In and around the current village there are 22 archaeological sites, mostly ruins of temples. The settlement was rectangular, 500 by 700 meters in size. There were double earthen walls and a moat, parts of which are still visible. Some of the temple ruins are within this area; some of them are outside. It is located in a beautiful area, not far from the Ping River.
The History of Wiang Tha Kan
It is not easy to find information about the history of this archaeological site. The settlement dates back to the period of the Mon Kingdom Hariphunchai (ca.750-1282). King Mangrai, the founder of Chiang Mai, conquered Hariphunchai in 1282 and founded Wiang Kum Kam afterwards. Wiang Tha Kan thus predates Wiang Kum Kam. After the demise of the Hariphunchai Kingdom, it became part of the Lanna kingdom. The construction of the temples of Wiang Tha Kan took place in the period after the settlement became part of the Lanna Kingdom. The oldest parts of the settlement are probably the moat and city walls. In 1558 Burmese troops conquered the Lanna Kingdom, after which Lanna became a part of a Burmese empire until the end of the 18th century.
King Kawila repopulates Lanna
At the end of the 18th century, Siamese and Lanna forces finally drove the Burmese out of Lanna. Large areas of the Lanna kingdom had suffered enormously under the years of fighting and destruction. Chiang Mai was in ruins and probably so were the temples of Wiang Tha Kan. King Kawila was the first king of the revived Lanna kingdom.
He convinced people who had fled the area to come back to repopulate areas around Chiang Mai and Lamphun. He conquered parts of northern Shan State in Myanmar and brought back people he captured. A Thai historian called Kawila’s Lanna rebuilding campaign “Put vegetables into baskets put people into towns.” Many of the people who ended up in Wiang Tha Kan were Tai Lue and Tai Yong (Tai Lue people from Muang Yong in Shan State). Although there were people living again in the plains between San Patong and the Ping River, they didn’t reconstruct the temples of Wiang Tha Kan.
Archaeological excavations in the 1980s
Thai archaeologists visited the village in 1965 for the first time. In the mid-1980s archaeologists from Chiang Mai University started excavations around Wiang Tha Kan. They found skeletons, terracotta pottery, bronze Buddha images and other ancient artefacts. In the following years restoration on some of the ruins started. The Fine Arts Department restored the ruins of Wiang Tha Kan and established a small visitor center.
While the Ministry of Interior spent a lot of money on the development of tourism infrastructure in Wiang Kum Kam, not much was done to promote tourism to Wiang Tha Kan. It is probably too far away from Chiang Mai, I guess. To be honest, I prefer Wiang Tha Kan to Wiang Kum Kam. Wiang Tha Kan is located in and around a village in a beautiful, rural area and you will probably be one of the few visitors, which makes it quite a unique and exclusive experience.
Wat Klang Wiang and the visitor center
Wat Klang Wiang (วัดกลางเวียง) means the temple (Wat) in the middle (Klang) of the fortified town (Wiang). It is the largest site in Wiang Tha Kan. There are ruins of five temples and two well preserved and restored temple towers (chedi or stupa or pagoda). Next to this compound which probably had walls all around it, is a small visitor center that offers good information before you start exploring other sites of this ancient city.
Wat Nong Sa and Wat Pa Phai Ruak
Both these ruins are located just outside the moat and city walls. At Wat Nong Sa there is an information board telling us that the temple dates back to the late Hariphunchai and early Lanna period. This should be the late 13th-early 14th century. Excavations revealed Hariphunchai, Lanna and Chinese ceramics and earthen wares. There are fundaments of three groups of buildings, including several viharns, ubosots and chedis.
Not far is the Wat Pa Phai Ruak, which is named after a bamboo (phai ruak) forest (pa). Also here there are a number of fundaments of viharns, chedis and ubosots. There are two information that give somewhat contrasting information regarding the date of foundation, which is probably the same period as the Wat Nong Sa.
Wat Ton Kork, the biggest monument
This is the most impressive ruin of Wiang Tha Kan. It is a bit outside the old walled settlement, on the road towards Sanpatong. Wat Ton Kork is a large stupa with fundaments of buildings next to it and behind it. Also here the information board of the Fine Arts Department is rather vague on the period of the foundation of Wat Ton Kork. As with other ruins I just guess that they once were temples that sometimes were built on top of remains of buildings that date back to the Hariphunchai period.
Wat Ku Mai Daeng
This temple is a just south of Wiang Tha Kan. It’s meaning is the temple (wat) that contains ashes (ku). Mai Daeng is the Thai name of the Burmese rose wood tree, correct me if I am wrong. “Ku” means that this temple contained ashes of someone or something. It is very nice temple ruin in the countryside. The Fine Arts Department made a very nice video about this temple ruin:
Wat Ubosot and Wat Pa Pao
These temple ruins are located not far from each other. Wat Ubosot (ubosot is ordination hall) has a very well preserved chedi and the fundaments of a viharn. It is next to a modern ubosot that seems to be still in use. Wat Ubosot is within the old city wall and moat. According to the information board the Fine Arts Department did some restoration work here in 1988 and performed excavations. They found Buddha statues, votive tables with Buddha images and earthen ware from North Thailand and China.
Just outside is the Wat Pa Pao, which has the ruins of two temples. Excavations revealed earthenware from North Thailand and China.
Wiang Tha Kan in 2021
For me these ruins exceptional. We love archaeology and history. If you visit the ruins, it makes sense to visit the nearby wonderful Chiang Mai Doll Making Centre and Museum as well.
The countryside around this archaeological site is very picturesque and beautiful so it is fantastic for cycling. The bicycle ride of the Mae Wang trekking and cycling tour of Green Trails ends at the ruined city. Our favourite ruins are Wat Klang Wiang, Wat Khu Mai Daeng and Wat Ton Kork.
References for this article
It is not easy to find information about this forgotten ancient city. At the Wat Klang Wiang there is a small, not very well maintained information center. I have visited Wiang Tha Kan numerous times during bicycle rides.