Wiang Kum Kam, the “Atlantis” of Chiang Mai
Wiang Kum Kam, the “Atlantis” of Chiang Mai
Wiang Kum Kam is an archaeological site south of Chiang Mai. It contains the ruins of a 13th-century fortified city encircled by moats. Many of the ruins had been submerged under mud and silt for centuries. In the 1980s the Fine Arts Department started excavating the ruins. Garry Harbottle-Johson wrote the only English language guidebook of the ruins: Wiang Kum Kam, Atlantis of Lan Na, A History & Visitors Guide (Chiang Mai, 2002). I like his referral to the fictional island Atlantis. Unfortunately, this excellent book has been out of print for years. I bought my copy in a secondhand bookstore in Chiang Mai.
There is a story that this ancient town was rediscovered by chance. Local people found ancient votive tablets buried in the ground. That doesn’t seem to be true. Edward Walter Hutchinson lived on the Ping River between 1932 and 1940, close to Wiang Kum Kam. In one of his photo albums, there are some photographs of ruined chedis and other temple ruins that he identified as being Wiang Kum Kam. That shows that local people knew about the existence of the ruins of this ancient city. They were probably not aware of the extent of the ruined city that was submerged under the surface. The area must have been mostly forest and rice fields in those days.
Excavations of the Wiang Kum Kam ruins
Only in the 1980s, the Thai Fine Arts Department started excavating and clearing the ruins of vegetation. They did some minor restoration work on several ruins. Wiang Kum Kam measured about 850 by 600 meters. There are remains of ancient walls and a moat. There are ruins of several dozens of ancient monuments inside and outside the ancient settlement. Sadly enough, the area had been developed by the time the work began on the ruins. Houses, properties and roads were built on top of or next to the ruins. During our last visit in March 2020, we saw more construction of houses and other structures.
The excellent visitor centre
Wiang Kum Kam has a small but very interesting visitor centre which has been renovated recently. The visitor centre is an excellent place to start your exploration of the ruins. It only has a couple of rooms, but there are good explanations in English, and interesting artefacts are on display. There are a couple of videos to watch: one about the foundation of the settlement by King Mengrai. The other video in the last room is about the excavations. In one of the rooms, you can get an idea of how the temples looked like before they became ruins. The visual technique is quite stunning. The visitor centre offers a great introduction to visiting the ruins. In front of the centre, you can hire a horse cart to bring you around.
History of Wiang Kum Kam
King Mengrai or Mangrai was the first king of the Lanna Kingdom. He founded Wiang Kum Kam in 1286. He made it his capital. It didn’t last very long. It was on the Ping River, and floods happened regularly. Mengrai therefor founded Chiang Mai only ten years later and made it the capital of the Lanna Kingdom. Not much is known about Wiang Kum Kam in following centuries. Some say it remained an important town until the 16th century. Allegedly the Ping River changed its course and flooded the town. It led to its abandonment. Over the years, mud and silt buried the structures. Archaeologists think that the fortified city was already destroyed when it was finally submerged.
King Mengrai built Wiang Kum Kam built on the site of an old Mon settlement of the Hariphunchai Kingdom. Wiang means “fortified town”. The Fine Arts Department excavated and did work on a total of 42 temple ruins have been excavated. Most of these ruins consist of a viharn and a chedi. At many sites, there are traces of a wall.
Wat Chedi Liam
For us, Wat Chedi Liam is the most significant and beautiful temple of Wiang Kum Kam. Dating back to 1288 it has a spectacular stepped, pyramid-shaped chedi. It was inspired by Wat Kukut, aka Wat Chamathewi in Lamphun, which has a similar style chedi. Wat Chedi Liam means “Temple of the Squared Pagoda”. This temple was formerly known as Wat Ku Kam which means “Temple of the Golden Stupa”.
Wat Chedi Liam is one of the two temples that are still active. A wealthy Mon-Burmese teak trader called Luang Yonakan Phichit financed the restoration of Wat Chedi Liam. The style of the chedi of Wat Chedi Liam is called Mon-style: it has niches with Buddha statues which is typical for this style. On Friday afternoon there is a popular week market around this temple.
Edward Walter Hutchinson made below picture. His caption says: “Chedi Siliam, modern pyramid at Nonghoi on road to site of old city of Kum Kam, Chiengmai. Apparently inspired by Wat Kukut Pyramids.”
Wat Chang Kam (Wat Kan Tom)
The Wat Chang Kam (Wat Kan Tom) is the second active temple King Mengrai ordered its construction in 1290. Its bell-shaped chedi has elephant protruding out its base. Allegedly Wat Chang Kam means “temple carried by elephants” referring to these elephants. The Fine Arts Department excavated ruins near this temple and did some restoration in 1984.
Wat Hua Nong
This is an extensive site that actually consists of three temple complexes. The Fine Arts Department started excavating Wat Hua Nong in 1988. According to Gary Harbottle-Johnson, these ruins were located along the Ping River before it changed its course. This is one of our favourite sites. It is a little bit out of the way. Most tourist don’t visit Wat Hua Nong which is a pity.
Wat Ku Pa Dom
This temple is probably 500-600 years old. The Fine Arts Department has not been able to find the original name so they decided to name it after “Pa Dom”, the owner of the land. They found the remains of an assembly hall, stupa, ordination hall, well, gateway, and boundary hall.
Interesting is that a road covers part of this temple ruin.
Wat That Kao
The Wat That Khao (“temple of the white chedi”) was named after its brick chedi. The Fine Arts Department did work on this ruin in 1985-86. Wat That Kao dates back from the 16th century. It has a viharn, a chedi and a Pavillion. The brick chedi has collapsed. Next to Wat That Khao are the ruins of a pavilion enshrining a large image of the Buddha in meditation posture. The image is not the original one.
The Wat E-Kang is believed to date back to the 16th century. The original name of the temple is unknown. The local people named the temple after the monkeys called “kang” in Northern Thai.. The Fine Arts Department started work on the ruins in 1985. Wat E-Kang has a chedi and a viharn. The well-preserved chedi is one of the most impressive of this ancient city. Not much remains of the viharn.
Wat Nan Chang
Wat Nan Chang Dates back to the 16th or 17th-century. The Fine Arts Department excavated this ruin in the years 2002 and 2003, The ruins were submerged under almost two meters of sediment. They probably built the temple to face the Ping River which ran a different course many centuries ago.
Wat Phaya Mangrai
The temple was named after the King Mengrai or Mangrai. This ruins is very close to the south-eastern side of Wat Phrachao Ong Dam.
Wat Phrachao Ong Dam
A burnt bronze Buddha image was discovered at the site of this ruin. people decided to call the temple Wat Phrachao Ong Dam. The ruins are very close to the north-western side of Wat Phaya Mangrai.
Wat Pu Pia
The Fine Arts Department excavated and partly restored The Wat Pu Pia in the years 1985 and 1986. Wat Pu Pia consists of a viharn, a chedi and a pavilion used to perform Buddhist ceremonies. The brick chedi is very well preserved. Wat Pu Pia is one of our favourite ruins in this ancient city.
Wat Ku Khao
What is left of this temple is a large-based chedi. According to the Fine Arts Department, this temple also consisted of an assembly hall, altar, boundary and gateway. Fine arts restored this big chedi in 1989 and 2002. The chedi is located on the Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road which is outside the ancient city. The Fine Arts Department thinks this chedi dates from the 16th and 17th century.