Discovering Chiang Mai – A Tour of Ancient Ruins
We decided to extend our stay in Chiang Mai an extra day before heading to Pai. We had met up with an old friend of Macrae’s who was in Thailand for a week with some friends the night before and were invited to join them to watch a Muay Thai fight the following night. So while we knew what our plans were for the evening, we hadn’t figured anything out for the day. We mentioned our lack of plans to our host, Bob (whom we found on Airbnb), and he told us about the ancient temple ruins not too far from where we were staying. He said they had uncovered and restored them several decades ago and were now accessible to the public but since it covers such a wide area, they have horse drawn buggy rides for 300 Baht ($11 CDN). So, with his directions and instructions, we set off to explore.
His directions were clear and we found ourselves following signs for Wiang Kum Kam, the ancient city we knew we were looking for, but missed the driveway for carriage rides and instead turned into the gates for a temple. There were ruins in view immediately as we turned down the first street to the temple. It was one of those perfect mistakes. One that turns out to be for the better despite any initial concerns.
Not only did we not have to pay the 300 baht for the ride, but we had accessed the small village and could now explore at our leisure on our scooter. We enjoy the adventure of discovering new things on our own and taking our time to do so, so this ended up being the perfect way to see the ruins. We also ended up being able to see more ruins than the carriage ride would’ve taken us to (we met someone who was taking a carriage ride and he said they had only seen a handful).
It was pretty incredible to see ancient ruins, picture how they must’ve looked when they were at their prime and even how it must’ve looked when they were found. You could see on some areas how deep they had to dig in order to unearth the ruins and it must’ve been incredible to discover them hidden amongst the trees and shrubbery.
According to the various information sources, signs and centres, and what we were told, the city of Wiang Kum Kam was the capital of the Lanna Kingdom before the King declared Chiang Mai as the new capital in 1296. Wiang Kum Kam was abandoned and flooded several times and finally, buried metres under the ground. It wasn’t until 1984 that the ancient city was discovered and restoration began.
The first ruins we came upon, Wat Chang Kam or Wat Kan Thome, is situated in a small square with stalls of souvenirs sold by Buddhist monks, a temple that was in prayer when we arrived, and some other buildings of worship. This was the area we initially drove into off the main highway before delving further into the village.
Wat E-Kang, so named by the locals because of the many monkeys (Kang) that once inhabited the area when the ruins were shrouded in trees. The study of the soil here was what started the study into the flooding of Wiang Kum Kam. Ancient artifacts found in this area date back to the 16th and 17th centuries A.D.
Wat Pupia was named by the locals as no official name was found in any historical documents. The excavation and restoration started in 1985 and ended in 1986. Despite the belief that there are other buildings and components to this site, excavation could not continue due to land disputes. It is believed this temple dates back to the 16th-17th centuries A.D.
Wat That Kaow (or Wat Thatkao) was named after the formerly lime plastered, white coloured pagoda. Facing the east, this temple has a bell-shaped main pagoda and according to the excavation in 1985, a Buddha image was found and presumed to be the original Buddha image. The current Buddha image was donated by the locals. The temple ruins themselves are dated around the 15th-16th centuries A.D.
Wat Phra Chao Ong Dam or Phaya Mangrai is a set of ruins, adjacent to eachother, so named because it was found with a bronze Buddha image in the area (Phra Chao means the Buddha image in some dialects in the North). This temple is dated to the 15th-17th centuries A.D.
Wat Ku Magluer used to be a mound with a big Magluer tree. Several important artifacts found at this area are pieces of a lime Buddha, pieces of a bronze Buddha images and a bronze miniature Chedi. This temple is dated between the 16th-17th centuries A.D.
This temple is near Wat KumKam Teepram and marked as Wat KumKam Teepram No.1. There is apparently no record of this temple in any historical documentation. The villagers call it by the name Ton Khoi after a type of tree that grows in the area. This temple has been dated to the 16th-17th centuries A.D.
We didn’t end up seeing all the Wats (temples) posted on the signs along the drive but we saw a fair number. The surprising thing we noticed was that there was not a lot of people or tourists visiting any of the ruins. In fact, when we first pulled in through the gates to the first ruins where the present-day temples were, we thought they must be closed for the day. It was deserted save for a few monks and some vendors. At the ruins themselves, we saw one horse-drawn carriage, a small tour bus with a group of tourists, and two fellow scooter drivers. That was it. This seems to be a little known, hidden gem in Chiang Mai and we would definitely recommend a visit through, especially since at least for now, you’ve got them all to yourself.
The drive through the village was a truly unique one. Seeing the living, breathing village surrounding the long-forgotten ancient ruins, driving through the streets with random ancient temples scattered between the houses and people, it was this juxtaposition of thriving life with the crumbling, faded ruins of life-past that really made this place truly special to visit.