Last week, I made a trip up to Thailand’s northernmost province of Chiang Rai. The archaeology of northern Thailand is something I am not familiar with and so it was a real treat to stop by the ancient city of Chiang Saen which sits near the Golden Triangle border between Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. Chiang Saen’s proximity to the border highlights its importance as strategic outpost at the western bank of the Mekong River and confluence with the Ruak River separating Thailand and Myanmar.
Map of Chiang Saen. Up is west, north is to the right. The remains of a fortification wall encircles the city from the south, west and north. Much of the wall was dismantled in the 19th century, and the eastern wall has been lost to erosion by the Mekong River.
The remains of the fortification wall at the Chiang Saen City gate on the western side, which is still the main entryway into the city.
In the northern Thai chronicles, Chiang Saen was established in the 14th century by King Saenphu (1325-1334) of the Lanna Kingdom where it became an important religous centre, evidenced by the number of ancient temple ruins in its vicinity. From the 16-18th centuries, the city was under Burmese rule until it was retaken by King Kawila of Lanna (which was by then was a Siamese tributary). For most of the 19th century, Chiang Saen was deserted as it was a strategic battleground between the Burmese and Siamese kingdoms at war. It was only in the late 19th century that the city was resettled during the reign of King Chulalongkorn.
Today, Chiang Saen is a small town of about 50,000 people and it is reminiscent of a quieter Ayutthaya in that the ruins of many temples can be found within and outside the city walls. The National Museum in Chiang Saen gives a good overview to the history of the city and the cultures of the other ethnic groups who live in the area. Chiang Saen as a religious centre also gave rise to its own artistic style of Buddha, many examples of which can be seen in the museum.
The museum at Chiang Saen is a good starting point to explore the city because there are a few other ruins within walking distance. The museum is just inside the Chiang Saen gate, and just outside this gate is Wat Pa Sak, whose main chedi (stupa) is reminiscent of Sukhothai and other artistic styles. This chedi features recessed chambers along the side housing standing Buddhas.
Right next to the museum, Wat Chedi Luang was supposedly built by King Saenphu as a reliquary containing a piece of the Buddha’s sternum. The chedi has been repaired a few times, notably in the 16th century and in 2014 after an earthquake. The wiharn (hall housing the main Buddha image) also looks to be partially restored with the ancient brick foundations intact but a modern roof installed. Inside, a Buddha modern image is enshrined (which you can see in the video).
Elsewhere within the ancient city are many smaller remains of temples. Given that the city was a battleground in the 19h century, it is not surprising that they are in a state of ruin although there were information panels at all the places I visited. Wat Phuak Phan Tong (left) and Wat Roi Kho (right) were both assumed to date to the 16th century, based on the finds in the grounds. The former has a fragment of a giant Buddha image in-situ, while the latter had a more intact (and by the looks of it, Burmese-style) statue on site.
There were understandably very little tourists around in Chiang Saen (although we did spot some at Wat Pa Sak), but even before pre-covid times there would not be many. Chiang Saen does not even feature on the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s website, which is a shame. The city is about an hour’s drive from Chiang Rai city, and a worthy stop on its own, or on your way to the Golden Triangle junction where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. It is no doubt this strategic location that gives Chiang Saen its historical and archaeological significance today.
For more information about the Lanna Kingdom, I recommend Benjamin Williams’ excellent primer on his site Paths Unwritten.