The Ancient City of Chiang Saen
Table of Contents
My visits to the Ancient City of Chiang Saen
Although my first visit to Chiang Saen was in 1988 I never took the time to explore this fantastic ancient city until a couple of years ago. With age comes wisdom, they say. I had been back in Chiang Saen several times since my first visit. In 1998 I spent a couple of nights in Chiang Saen and explored the Golden Triangle and Mae Sai by bicycle but never looked further than the ruined temples Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Pa Sak. In recent years I became involved in the project that aims to get Chiang Mai inscribed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Consequently I did some research on the UNESCO website and became familiar with the concept of the tentative list. Countries put sites on this list to line them up and eventually submit them to become inscribed on the list of World Heritage Sites. The Ancient City of Chiang Saen is not on this list and I think it should be.
Chiang Saen: introduction
From its foundation between 1327 and 1329 until its destruction in 1804 Chiang Saen was one of the most important cities in North Thailand. It was a strategic borderpost of the Lanna Kingdom and an important center of Buddhism. Between roughly 1558 and 1804 it was part of a Burmese kingdom with relatively short intervals.
Chiang Saen’s fortifications are the best preserved and most formidable in North Thailand. Besides that, there are at least 75 brick monuments, of which most are located within the old walled city. These are mostly chedis and temple foundations, dating back to the period from the foundation until the late 17th century. Some have been restored, others not. I made a first selection of the most interesting monuments but I will add more in the near future. I added the videos of the Fine Arts Department of some of the sites. This page is a work under construction.
Chiang Saen should be a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Chiang Mai has been on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 2015. The Chiang Mai World Heritage Committee has worked hard to get Chiang Mai to be submitted to UNESCO in order to become inscribed on its World Heritage List. It appears that the Chiang Mai World Heritage project has stalled.
In early 2020 Thai authorities decided to submit Si Thep Historical Park to UNESCO instead. Si Thep is one of the most significant Dvaravati culture sites in Petchabun province. Few people have heard of it or have visited this historical park. I visited Si Thep in 2013, which was a real pleasure. Having visited Chiang Saen several times in the last couple of years, it surprised me this historical site is not even on the tentative list of UNESCO.
UNESCO and Chiang Saen
Even though I understand the importance of the preservation of a significant historical site like Si Thep Historical Park, I think you have to look at the broader picture and take tourism into account as well. The UNESCO World Heritage Status gives a huge boost to a destination. I doubt though that this will happen with Si Thep Historical Park, which is hardly on any tourist trail at all.
Besides that Chiang Saen is of more historical importance than Si Thep, in my opinion. Although I would regret to see busloads full of tourists in Chiang Saen, this ancient city deserves a lot more attention and visitors than it gets right now. Both Chiang Mai and Chiang Saen should become inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, in my opinion.
Touring Old Chiang Saen
The ancient city of Chiang Saen is a town that is one three sides bordered by a wall and a moat and one side by the Mekong River. Within this walled city of about two square km are numerous ruins of temples. There are also ruins outside the walled city, which I will present in a separate section. The best way to explore the ruins in the walled city is by bicycle. The Fat Free bicycle shop in Chiang Saen rents out bicycle for 100THB per day. If you are not a cyclist you can tour the sites by vehicle as well. A vehicle that is outstanding is the motorized samlor, the public transportation three-wheeler. They are parked in front of the market.
You will need at least one full day to visit the most important sites but two days would be better so you can visit Chiang Saen Noi and other ruins outside the city walls. You can then also combine Chiang Saen with some other sights in the area, such as the Golden Triangle and Wat Phra That Pha Ngao.
The City Walls of Chiang Saen
The town of Chiang Saen is on the North, West and South is bordered by a wall and a moat. On the east the town is protected by the Mekong River. Some people think that there have been defence works on the river but there is no evidence of this. The Fine Arts Department hired the Sivakorn Karn Chang Co. Ltd. to reconstruct the city walls. This work took place between 2009 and 2013.
The shape of Chiang Saen’s walled city is not rectangular but slightly bended. Excavations revealed that under the brick walls there are earthen walls that shows that there was a settlement here before the foundation of Chiang Saen. The Lanna kings probably built earthen walls which the Burmese military strengthened with bricks at a later date.
The fall of Chiang Saen
In 1804 a combined force of troops from Chiang Mai, Lampang and Mam with support of forces from the kingdom of Siam succeeded in breaching the defenses of Chiang Saen. It had taken a siege of more than a month. If you climb the city walls of Chiang Saen you can see how difficult it must have been to conquer this town. The moat is very deep and the walls very high. Compared to the city walls in Chiang Mai, the fortifications of Chiang Saen look much stronger. The fortress of Chiang Saen withstood and repelled many attackers in the past but the 1804 was the end.
The combined Lanna/Siam forces pushed the Burmese troops out and captured the civilian population, more than 23000 people. The victorious troops ransacked the town, destroyed its temples and forced the people of Chiang Saen to resettle in Chiang Mai, Lampang, Lamphun and Nan. The jungle took over the ruined remains of fortifications and places of wisdom. Holt Samuel Hallett, who visited Chiang Saen in 1884, described a deserted place without inhabitants, with countless Buddha statues strewn around and ruled by tigers, leopards, wild buffalo and other wildlife.
The Temples of Chiang Saen
According to the Buddhist monastery Division there are 160 temples in Chiang Saen district. I am not sure if this refers to only the temple ruins or also to active temples. Within the walled city there are only few active temples and many temple ruins. When British consul Reginald Le May visited Chiang Saen in 1914 there were only about 70 people living in the old city. Of course there are now a lot of people living in the old walled city but there are also large open areas. The ruined temples are on street corners, in small alleys, in people’s backyards. Many of them have names but some of them are numbered.
The 7th regional office of the Fine Arts Department has put information boards at many of them but some of the old boards have disappeared and not replaced. Most temple ruins have names and some are numbered, such as “Ancient Monument no.16”. Some of the boards have a bit of information about the temple but not much. Most of the ruins date back to the 16th and 17th century.
The Chiang Saen National Museum
This small museum is the best place to start your exploration of old Chiang Saen. The museum is open every day, except on national holidays and on Monday and Tuesday. On other days the opening times are from 0900 until 1600. The entrance fee for foreigners is 100THB per person and 50THB per person for Thai nationals.
The museum exhibits artifacts, Buddha statues and stones. Apart from information about the history of Chiang Saen, the museum also showcases the traditional dress of the Tai Lue people and of the hilll tribes, that live in Chiang Rai province. The museum also provides a free bicycle map of the old city.
Ruined temples within the city walls of the ancient city of Chiang Saen
Wat Phra That Chedi Luang, the big stupa
Wat Phra That Chedi Luang (วัดพระธาตุเจดีย์หลวง) is the most popular and well known ruined temple of Chiang Saen, next to the Chiang Saen Museum, close to the Chiang Saen Gate. The chedi is the tallest in Chiang Saen. Wat Phra That Chedi Luang means the Temple of the big chedi with a relic. “Luang” means “big”. “Phra That” means relic, presumably a relic of the Buddha.
Next to the chedi is a large viharn with a Buddha statue. In front of the temple complex is a statue of the founder of Chiang Saen, Phaya Saen Phu.
Wat Phra Buat, the temple of the ordained monk
According to legend Phaya Kue Na, the sixth ruler of the Mangrai dynasty, constructed this temple in the year 1346. This is what a plaque at the site says. According to my information Kue Na ruled from 1355 until 1385 so this information doesn’t seem to be correct. Wat Phra Buat (วัดพระบวช) is on the main road of Chiang Saen, opposite Wat Mung Muang. “Phra” means monk, “buat means “to ordain or to be ordained”. Wat Phra Buat thus translates as the temple of the ordained monk.
The temple of the standing monk, Wat Phra Yuen
According to a legend Phaya Khamfoo, the son of Phaya Saen Phu, built a chedi in 1331 for keeping 140 relics. Later in the reign of Chao Luang Thippanetr this chedi was broken. He ordered Phaya Luang Chaichit to restore it in 1638. At present Phra Yuen (วัดพระยืน) is a deserted temple consisting of a octagonal style chedi. “Phra” means monk, “Yuen” means “to stand”. Wat Phra Yuen translates as the temple of the standing monk.
Wat Athi Ton Kaeo: the temple of the orange jasmin:
Phaya Muang Kaeo was the 11th ruler of the Mangrai Dynasty. He ruled the Lanna Kingdom from 1495 until 1525. In the year 1515 he visited Chiang Saen, which was troubled by conflicts between different sects of the Buddhist monkhood. On that occasion he constructed Wat Athi Ton Kaeo (วัดอาทิต้นแก้ว). He also presided over the ordination of young men of Chiang Saen so that monks of different sect could take part in the same ceremony.
“Athi” means “such as”, “Ton Kaeo” is a small tree that is native to Southeast Asia, also known as Orange Jasmine. Wat Athi Ton Kaeo translates as the temple of the orange jasmin.
The temple of a hundred verses: Wat Roi Kho
There is no information on the construction background of this temple. The Buddha statue is in the position of subduing Mara or calling the earth to witness. Wat Roi Kho (วัดร้อยข้อ) was probably built in the 16th century. “Roi” means one hundred, “Kho” means verse.
Wat Pa Ngua Chiang
This temple is located just behind a building on the main road, which runs along the Mekong River. It has a chedi and the remains of two buildings. On Google maps there is a picture of an information board that is not there anymore. On this board the temple is called Wat Pa Ngoy Chaing, which is the wrong translation of the Thai name วัดป่างัวเชียง. The correct translation is Wat Pa Ngua Chiang.
Wat Mung Muang
There is little information about the history of this temple as well. There are two viharas (assembly halls), one big and one small. There is also an ubosot in this complex which is surrounded by a boundary wall. According to the information at the temple it dates back to the 19th century, which seems a little late to me. I think it is from an earlier date. Wat Mung Muang (วัดมุงเมือง) is on the main road of Chiang Saen, opposite Wat Phra Buat. “Mung” means thatched roof, “muang” means city. Wat Mung Muang means the temple of the city of thatched roofs.
The temple of King Saen Muang Ma: Wat Saen Muang Ma
This temple is named after the 7th king of the Mangrai dynasty: Phaya Saen Muang Ma, who ruled the Lanna Kingdom from 1385 until 1401. There used to be an information board from the Fine Arts Department at the site of this temple. It is not there anymore. The chedi is in fine shape. The viharn faces the east. Wat Saen Muang Ma (วัดแสนเมืองมา) dates back to the 15th or the 16th century.
Wat Sao Khian
Also little information about this temple that consists of a chedi, a viharn with an beheaded Buddha statue on a pedestal in the viharn and an ubosot. According to the information Wat Sao Khian (วัดเสาเคียน) might date back to the 16th century. “Sao” means pillar, “khian” means to girdle. Wat Sao Khian translates as the temple of girdled pillar.
Lovely Wat Chetawan Ka Pheuak
The Yonok Chronicle mentions that the Burmese king Suddhodhammaraja in 1636 ordained one thousand men to become monks and established a temple named Wat Chetawan at the Nang Ka Pheuak Palace in Chiang Saen. He then invited the venerable monk from Wat Pa Phai Don Tan to be the abbot. The Fine Arts Department restored this complex in 2019.
King Suddhodhammaraja was in fact King Thalun (1584-1648), the eighth king of Toungoo dynasty of Burma (Myanmar). Wat Chetawan Ka Pheuak (วัดเชตวันกาเผือก)is shaded by beautiful rain trees.
Wat Muen Chiang
The legend has it that Muen Chiang Song, a ruler of Chiang Saen, had Wat Muen Chiang (วัดหมื่นเชียง) constructed in 1488 for keeping 640 relics. The chedi is similar to the chedi of Wat Phra That Chomkitti, which Muen Chiang Son also constructed.
Wat Phuak Phan Tong
This temple probably dates back to the 16th century. According to a legend Phaya Surasee led an army to attack the Burmese in Chiang Saen in 1774. A monk of this temple asked for peace to protect Chiang Saen. In 1804 King Kawila defeated the Burmese with an army of Lanna and Siamese troops. After this victory he marched the people of Chiang Saen through Wat Phuak Phan Tong (วัดพวกพันตอง) to Chiang Mai.
“Phuak” means group, “Phan” means thousand and “Tong” is banana leaf. This temple is the temple of the thousand banana leafs.
The temple of the reclining Buddha: Wat Phra Non
The Wat Phra Non (วัดพระนอน) is the temple of the reclining Buddha. There were some artifacts discovered at this site such as a votive tablet, ceramics and a sandstone Buddha image. This temple probably dates from the 15th-17th century so very little information. Wat Phra Non is in a very narrow side street of the main Mekong road.
Wat Sangkha Kaeo Don Than
The Yonok Chronicle has it that, after the establishment of Hirannakhon Ngoeng Yang, Lao Chok, constructed the Sangkha Kaeo Don Than temple (วัดสังฆาแก้วดอนทัน) also known as the Sangkha Yang Ngoen temple. This statement corresponds with the Chronicle Vol.61 in which a temple called Sangka Yang Ngoen temple is mentioned to be located near Pha Khao Pan temple in the eastern side of the city. At present, it is a deserted temple.
The ruins are of the base of chedi’s base left to be seen behind a Vihara which faces the east. Another structure is the base of an ordination hall. An engraved figure on a brick depicting a scene from the Maha Vessantara Jataka, the last life before the enlightenment of the Lord Buddha was discovered here. The architectural style indicates that the temple might have been constructed around the 16th century.
Wat Mahawan or Wat Maha Wan (วัดมหาวัน) is a complex that has two ruined assembly halls and the remains of a chedi. The complex is split in half by a road. Not much is known about its history but it is thought the temple dates back to the 16th century, according to the information board.
Wat Kwang, Wat Chumsang and Wat Prasat Khum are very close to each other in the same little side street, close to the Mekong River. The chedi if Wat Kwang (วัดคว้าง) has collapsed. According to information at the temple, it dates back to the 16th or 17th century.
Wat Prasat Khum
The Wat Prasat Khum (วัดปราสาทคุ้ม) is right next to Wat Chumsaeng and close to Wat Kwang. It consists of the remains of an assembly hall with pillars and walls. The chedi is well preserved and very beautiful. The Fine Arts Department didn’t provide any information at this site unfortunately.
The Wat Mongkol (วัดมงคล) is a complex of two viharns (assembly halls), close to the northeast corner of the city wall, not far from the Mekong River. The Fine Arts Department has an information board at this site, which mentions the 16th century as the period of construction. According to this board, a king Named Phaya Sprasoth Majachaui Songlra Lumpha constructed this temple. I have never heard of a king with this name. There are two main temple ruins with some small structures. The best preserved has remains of the wall, pillars, a chedi and the shape of a Buddha image. The second ruined assembly hall is closer to the road.
Ancient Monument no.16
This temple ruin is in the southwest corner of the walled city, close to the city walls. It only has a number: Boran Sathan no.16 (โบราณสถานหมายเลข 16). Boran sathan means archaeological site. According to the Fine Arts Department there are remains of a chedi, a viharn, a mondop, a building, a pond, a wall and a gate. There are indeed ruins of several structures. What I like about this site is its location. It is in a deserted corner of the walled city: there are no buildings close to the ruins. This site was not on Google Maps so I submitted it.
This temple ruin is located on the road that runs along the Mekong River. According to the information of the Fine Arts Department it dates back to the 15th century. The Department did reconstruction work on Wat Satsadee (วัดสสดี) from 2006 until 2008. They found evidence that the temple underwent several reconstructions and that it once was destroyed by fire.
Ruined temples outside the city walls of the ancient city of Chiang Saen
Wat Pa Sak, the temple of the teak forest
The Wat Pa Sak is one of the main temple ruins of Chiang Saen. If tourists have little time to visit Chiang Saen, they stop at Wat Pa Sak and Wat Chedi Luang. “Pa” means forest, “Sak” means teak wood so Wat Pasak means the temple or monastery of the teak forest. Wat Pa Sak is an extensive complex for which foreigners have to pay 50THB entrance fee. There are remains of several assembly halls but the central monument is the stupa.
It is unclear when Wat Pa Sak was constructed. According to the information of the Fine Arts Department, the design of this chedi shows influences from Wat Ku Kut and the Chedi Chiang Yan in Lamphun. The chedi of Wat Pa Sak also has square diminishing tiers with niches for standing Buddhas, just as the Chedi Mahabon at Wat Ku Kut. The stucco decoration above these niches shows influences from Sukhothai and Sri Satchanalai.
Wat Phra That Chom Kitti
In the year 1487 a ruler of Chiang Saen called Muan Chiang Song constructed a chedi at this location. According the Chiang Saen chronicle there was already a much older chedi, that enshrined a hair of the Buddha, at this location.
Wat Phra That Chom Kitti (วัดพระธาตุจอมกิตติ) is on a small hill, called Doi Noi. At the ground level there are the remains of another temple, called Wat Suan Sanuk. The staircase has no Naga statues. Beware in the rainy season. The moss-covered steps can become very slippery. There are several structures and images on top of the hill, such as an ubosot with an interesting Buddha image. Further up is a ruined chedi called Wat Chom Chaeng and the viharn. From the viharn you have a nice view on the Mekong River and on Chiang Saen.
The most famous attraction of Wat Phra That Chom Kitti is the, slightly leaning, chedi. Employees of the Louis T.Leonowens Company, based in Lampang, visited Chiang Saen in 1936. They took some pictures of this chedi, which was in a ruined state.
Impressive Wat Sri Khong Maen
The Wat Sri Khong Maen (วัดศรีคองเเมน) is an impressive complex outside the city moat and close to Pasak Gate. According to a legend, this once was the residence of a Burmese King called King Suttho Dharmmaraja (1626-28). In 1782 the Burmese dug another moat on the north and the east of the complex to supply the city moat with water.
The Fine Arts Department performed excavations here and restored the temple in 2003-04. They found glazed Lanna wares, fragments of Chinese porcelain, terracotta roof tiles, bricks, and pieces of small bronze Buddha images. Wat Sri Khong Man is an extensive complex with 6 main structures, beautifully located in a forest of tamarind trees. It is one of my favorite sites and a must-visit ruin in Chiang Saen.
The bell-shaped stupa of Wat Jorm Mork
This temple is located west of the walled city of Chiang Saen, on the bypass road. You could easily pass this outstanding ruined temple that is not visible from the road. That would be a pity as this is one of the must-see ruined temples because of its unique, bell-shaped stupa. At the road side there is an information board that tells that the Fine Arts Department conducted excavations at this site in 2005. They found earthenware, Chinese ceramics, pipes, parts of Buddha images and other artefacts.
A staircase leads to the temple that is located on a small hill. There are remains of other structures around the main viharn with the bell-shaped stupa. It is a beautiful site that probably few people visit. Take care in the rainy season. The steps of the staircase are covered with green moss that becomes very slippery after the rain. Wat Jorm Mork (วัดจอมหมอก) is definitely worth visiting.
Remote Wat Pa Daeng
The Wat Pa Daeng (วัดป่าเเดง)is a temple ruin about four km from Wat Chedi Luang. It is to the northwest of the ancient city of Chiang Saen. The signage is very clear. The last km is a dirt road, which is going up a little bit at the end. After a lot of rain a normal car might have some difficulty here. I rode my bicycle there and had no problems.
The temple ruin is on a little hill. Because of its location Wat Pa Daeng probably doesn’t attract a lot of visitors but it is worth going there. Wat Pa Daeng means the the temple of the red forest. “Pa” means forest, “Daeng” means red. According to the information at the temple. Wat Pa Daeng is associated with the Aranyavasi sect (สงฆ์อรัญญาวาสี) which constructed forest temples, hence the location outside Chiang Saen.
Wat Padaeng’s Buddha image is the largest in Chiang Saen. The structure that houses the image looks similar to Wat Sri Chum in Sukhothai. The Fine Arts Department dates this temple back to the 14th century. After the Burmese occupied Chiang Saen, monks probably abandoned Wat Pa Daeng.
Wat Ku Tao, the “Leaning Tower”
Wat Ku Tao is a couple of km west of Chiang Saen. I devoted a separate post to the “Leaning Tower” of Chiang Saen. I have the idea that this is one of the most overlooked temple ruin of Chiang Saen. Along the road there is no clear signage so it is easy to pass by. It is one of my favorite ruined temples of the Ancient City of Chiang Saen.
Unnamed ruins north of the city wall
During my latest visit, in March 2022, I passed these ruins (โบราณสถาน) on one of my bicycle trips. They are the remains of a viharn, chedi and ubosot, I guess. There is no information sign or board from the Fine Arts Department and it looks like there never have been. The ruins are nothing special but I just thought it was nice to include them.
You can find the unnamed ruins north of the city wall here on Google Maps
Little Chiang Saen (Chiang Saen Noi)
Little Chiang Saen (Chiang Saen Noi )
Little Chiang Saen or Chiang Saen Noi (เชียงแสนน้อย) in Thai is a cluster of temple ruins, just south of Chiang Saen. You have to pass Wat Phra That Pha Ngao and shortly afterward there are sights on both sides of the road. There are several ruins that are considered part of Little Chiang Saen. I think they all were part of a large village, a kind of satellite community of Chiang Saen. In hard times the people probably took refuge within the formidable fortifications of Chiang Saen.
Chiang Saen Noi is also known as Wiang Preuksa (เวียงปรึกษา), which means “a walled city of consultation”. According to sources it is here that Phaya Saen Phu, the grandson of Phaya Mangrai, met with other people to discuss the foundation of Chiang Saen, which took place in 1327 or 1328.
Wat Phra That Song Pee Nong
Wat That Kieo
Wat That Kieo (วัดธาตุเขียว) is a fairly large complex on the opposite side of the road, not far from Wat Phra That Song Pee Nong. The complex is right next to the road. If you enter the complex there is a viharn and a big stupa on the left hand side. On the right hand side there are remains of quite a few structures, which can be mondops, ordination halls or libraries.
On my last visit I found out that there is another ruin, a couple of hundred meters behind the main stupa. Just go to the back of the stupa and look in northerly direction. You have to walk a short distance through a corn field to get there. Wat That Kieo appears to have been an important temple complex. Little is known about the construction date but according to the information at the site it dates back to the 17th century. It is proof though that this was the center of a large community near Chiang Saen.
Wat That Khong
De Wat That Khong is very close to the Wat That Kieo, right next to the road. There are remains of a wall and it seems that this temple was much larger that what is left now. The viharn seems to have been cut off by the construction of the road.
Ancient Monument no.21
This is another stupa on the west side of the road, close to Wat Phra That Song Pee Nong. The ruined temple consists of a viharn and a chedi as well as some minor structures. The numbering of these ruins is a bit obscure. Why there are only no.17 and no.21 in this area is not clear. Ancient Monument no.21 (โบราณสถานหมายเลข 21) or archaeological site no.21 is located in the backyard of a boat builder.
Ancient Monument no.17
This Ancient Monument consists of two small temples on a cremation site on the east side of the road. A couple of hundred meters from the main road are the remains of two viharns with altars. The Ancient Monument no.17 (โบราณสถานหมายเลข 21) is another archeological site in Chiang Saen Noi, which must have been a major community.
Sources for this article
David Wyatt and Aroonrut Wichienkeeo, The Chiang Mai Chronicle, Chiang Mai 1995
Sarassawadee Ongsakul, History of Lanna, Chiang Mai, 2005
Michael Freeman, Lanna, Thailand’s Northern Kingdom, Bangkok, 2001
Sawang Lertrit, Cultural Resource Management and Archaeology at Chiang Saen, Northern Thailand
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Vol. 31, No. 1 (Mar., 2000), pp. 137-161 (25 pages)