Wiang Kum Kam, the ruined city
Table of Contents
Wiang Kum Kam, the "Atlantis" of Chiang Mai
An introduction to Wiang Kum Kam
Wiang Kum Kam (เวียงกุมกาม) 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. According to the Chiang Mai Chronicle King Mangrai built this settlement in the years 1286/87, after his conquest of Lamphun: “….King Mangrai moved to build Wiang Kum Kam. He built a moat around the city on all four sides, channeling the flowing waters of the Mae Raming. He built a palisade on all four sides of the city, and had a great many dwellings and buildings constructed.”
After the construction of Wiang Kum Kam, the king decided to build a cetiya (chedi) for worship and veneration. This was Wat Ku Kham, which is now known as Wat Chedi Liam. This chedi is modeled on the chedi of Wat Kukut or Wat Chamathewi in Lamphun. He also constructed an “extensive royal dwellling, palace, and halls spreading all around the site”.
The foundation of Chiang Mai
According to the Chiang Mai chronicle King Mangrai left Wiang Kum Kam in 1292 and took residence east of the site of the current Wat Chiang Man. He invited King Ngam Muang of Phayao and King Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai to discuss the size of the city before he built it. These three kings are immortalized in the Three Kings Monument in the old city of Chiang Mai.
Wiang Kum Kam only served as the residence of the king for a short time. Something must have convinced him to move his capital to a new location.
The name of Wiang Kum Kam appears sporadically in the Chronicle until well into the 15th century. It is believed that a major flood which occurred in 1524/25 might have submerged the city, leading to its abandonment. The Chronicle mentions that a flood drowned many people in the Sri Phum area, which is near the northeast corner of the moat of Chiang Mai. As Wiang Kum Kam was at an elevation about 12 meters lower than Chiang Mai, this flood must have been devastating for Wiang Kum Kam.
The Rediscovery of Wiang Kum Kam
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, a British expat, 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 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.
Wiang Kum Kam appeared on an aerial photograph, taken by the Fine Arts Department, dating back to 1954. The Fine Arts Department excavated and partly reconstructed a total of 42 temple ruins. Most of these ruins consist of a viharn and a chedi. At many sites, there are traces of a wall. Below are three photographs Hutchinson took in the 1930s.
Excavation and restoriation 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. Besides that 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 Visitor Center of Wiang Kum Kam
You should start your exploration of Wiang Kum Kam with a visit to the excellent visitor center. This center provides essential information that will bring the ruins to life.
A couple of years ago the Visitor Center underwent a major facelift. During my last visit in March 2020, I was very impressed. They have introduced holograms of the major ruins which must have been a major expense. This unique technology creates an impression of how the ruins probably looked in the past. I found it an absolutely amazing experience. Overall they have improved the presentation of the exhibits and the information. This makes a visit to the visitor center an absolute must before you visit the ruins.
There are a couple of videos to watch: one about the foundation of the settlement by King Mangrai. The other video in the last room is about the excavations. The Visitor Center only has a couple of rooms but it is well worth visiting. In front of the Visitor Center there are a number of souvenir stall. Here the horse carriages are waiting as well.
The temple ruins of an ancient city
Wiang Kum Kam is not far from where I live. I have visited the ruined city numerous times from the moment I moved to Chiang Mai in 1998. I have witnessed some of the excavations and followed the development of the site as a tourist destination. For this section I have selected the most interesting sites, to start with the magnificent Wat Chedi Liam. The fine Arts Department has made some very nice videos of some of the temple ruins, which I have featured below the text.
Wat Chedi Liam, the Mon-style temple
For me, Wat Chedi Liam (วัดเจดีย์เหลี่ยม) is the most significant and beautiful temple of Wiang Kum Kam. Dating back to 1288 it has a spectacular stepped, pyramid-shaped chedi. Wat Chedi Liam translates as “the temple of the squared pagoda”. 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 (วัดกู่คำ) 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 Yonakarn 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 weekly market around this temple.
Edward Walter Hutchinson made the 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.” Most tours start at the Visitor Center and end at Chedi Liam.
Wat Chang Kham (Wat Kan Tom)
The Wat Chang Kham (วัดช้างค้ำ) aka Wat Kan Tom (วัดการโถม)is the second active temple in Wiang Kum Kam. 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 (วัดหัวหนอง)in 1988. According to Gary Harbottle-Johnson, these ruins were located along the Ping River before it changed its course. This is one of my favourite sites. It contains the ruins of three temples, a gate and other structures. The stupa with the protruding elephants is lovely. Wat Hua Nong is a little bit out of the way so most tourists don’t visit this site, which is a pity.
The Fine Arts Department made this video of Wat Hua Nong:
Wat Ku Pa Dom
This temple is probably 500-600 years old. The Fine Arts Department named Wat Ku Pa Dom (วัดกู่ป้าด้อม) after “Pa Dom”, the owner of the land. They found the remains of an assembly hall, stupa, ordination hall, water well, gateway, and boundary hall. Interesting is that a road covers part of this temple ruin. I remember seeing people working on the excavation of this temple ruins in 1998.
The Fine Arts Department made this video of Wat Ku Pa Dom:
Wat That Kao
The Wat That Khao (วัดธาตุขาว) was named after its brick chedi. The name translates as “the temple of the white stupa or reliquary”. The Fine Arts Department did work on this ruin in 1985-86. Wat That Kao dates back to 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. I took the picture of Wat That Kao several years ago. Much of the vegetation on the left side of the Buddha image is not there anymore unfortunately.
This ruin is believed to date back to the 16th century. The original name of the temple is unknown. Local people named the temple after the monkeys called “kang” in Northern Thai language. The Fine Arts Department started work on the ruins in 1985. Wat E-Kang (วัดอีค่าง) 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. The Wat E-Kang was the location of a show during the 2nd Asia-Pacific Water Summit in Chiang Mai in May 2013.
Wat Nan Chang
This ruined temple is very close to Wat E-Kang and dates back to the 16th or 17th-century. Wat Nan Chang ( วัดหนานช้าง) is the temple of Nan Chang, which is the name of a person. The Fine Arts Department excavated this ruin in the years 2002 and 2003. Almost two meters of sediment covered the ruins. 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 King Mangrai. This temple ruin 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. Therefore local people decided to call the temple Wat Phrachao Ong Dam (วัดพระเจ้าองค์ดำ). It translates as “the temple of the black lord”. 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 Wat Pu Pia (วัดปู่เปี้ย) 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. The name translates as “the Temple of the old man named Pia”.
The Fine Arts Department made this video of Wat Pu Pia:
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. The Fine Arts Department restored this big chedi in 1989 and 2002. Wat Ku Khao (วัดกู่ขาว) is located on the Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road which is outside the ancient city. This huge chedi dates from the 16th and 17th century. The name Wat Ku Khao translates as the “Temple of the White Chedi”.
The Fine Arts Department made this video of Wat Ku Kao:
Wat Ku Maisong
The Fine Art Department performed excavations and restoration at this location in 1989-1990. “Ku” means chedi and “Maisong” is a kind of tree that grows in this area. They found artifacts such as terracotta Buddha tablets, a sandstone stupa of the Phayao art school, and a brick inscription with Lanna alphabets. Wat Ku Maisong probably dates back to the 16th-17th century.
Visiting the ruins of Wiang Kum Kam
Touring the ruined temples
The best way to visit the ruins of Wiang Kum Kam is by bicycle or motorbike. I prefer to ride my bicycle. The ruins are not far from the center of Chiang Mai so you could rent a bicycle and pedal there yourself. Several companies, such as Green Trails, organize bicycle tours to Wiang Kum Kam. At the visitor center there are horse carriages that can be chartered for a small fee. For groups there are tourist buses available.
If you have your own bicycle or motorbike you can also visit the more remote and less visited ruins such as Wat Hua Nong and the smaller, scattered ruins.
Development of the ruins as a tourist destination
About ten years ago Chiang Mai authorities invested a lot of money in the “gentrification” of a part of the ruined city. The objective was to promote tourism to the ruined city. They introduced the horse carriages and the tourists bus.
Dinner at Wiang Kum Kam
On May 19-20, 2013 the 2nd Asia – Pacific Water Forum Summit took place in Chiang Mai. More than 1,000 delegates from 40 countries attended this conference that was held at the Sirikit Convention Center. This followed in the aftermath of the devastating floods in Thailand in 2011. On Sunday May 20 they organized a dinner at Wiang Kum Kam for all the delegates. For this dinner authorities ordered the construction of a huge building with a view of Wat E-Kang.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra hosted this dinner. Deputy Prime Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi, who was in charge of a 350 million THB water management scheme dressed up as King Mangrai in a 40-minute show about the watermanagement of the king and flooding at Wiang Kum Kam. Environmental activists criticized the performance as disrespectful. They never used the building for any other occasion and removed it eventually in 2020, a terrible waste of money.
The growth of tourism
In 1998 few people visited the ruins. They were definitely not on the itinerary of tour groups. With the explosive growth of the number of Chinese visitors in the second decade of this century, Chinese tour groups started to appear in Wiang Kum Kam. I have witnessed this development. Tours ended at Wat Chedi Liam where buses were waiting to pick them up after the tour. It was nice to see that Wiang Kum Kam was now firmly on the tourist map. Unfortunately Covid-19 changed the situation but I hope tourists will come back.
Practical information and Facts
Facts on Wiang Kum Kam
- After a long time the visitor center of Wiang Kum Kam is open again: Opening Hours: 08:00 – 17:00
- Location: Wiang Kum Kam is about 5 km southeast of the Old City, an easy bicycle ride.
- How to get there: the nicest route is to follow the old Chiang Mai-Lamphun road with the big yang trees, cross the intersection with the Mahidol Road and continue about two km. You will see the chedi of Wat Ku Khao on your right. Turn right there and you will encounter more ruins.
- Wiang Kum Kum has no entrance fee.
References for this article
Some of the sources I have used:
- The visitor center, which has excellent information and a great video with English subtitles
- Garry Harbottle-Johnson, Wiang Kum Kam, Atlantis of Lan Na, A history and visitors guide, Chiang Mai, 2002.
- This is the most comprehensive guide of the ruins of Wiang Kum Kam. It is unfortunately out of print.
- 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
- A Thai language site on the restoration with some old pictures:
เวียงกุมกาม : เมืองโบราณใต้ตะกอนทราย
Serene Ng, Spencer H. Wood,Alan D. Ziegler, Ancient floods, modern hazards: the Ping River, paleofloods and the ‘lost city’ of Wiang Kum Kam, Natural Hazards Magazine, 2015