Picturesque, historic Chiang Saen is the pick of the bunch of Chiang Rai province’s Mekong towns yet is also probably the least visited. It’s quiet – sedate, even – but does have more than its fair share of markets, interesting sights in and around town, good accommodation choices and better than okay eating options.
Archaeological finds in the area have dated early settlement here to Neolithic times, some 15,000 years ago, continuing through bronze and iron ages. As with neighbouring settlements such as Sob Ruak, which claims an eighth century ruin, it was probably inhabited by Lawa people before the arrival of the first wave of Tai migrants in the 13th century. These ancestors of modern Thais migrated through what is now northwest Vietnam and northern Lao, principally down the Red and Mekong River valleys, and this far northeast region of Chiang Rai province was their first foray into today’s Thailand. With its millennia of early settlement, Chiang Saen is then the oldest Thai city in modern Thailand; when early Thais built Chiang Saen, Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Lopburi were all Mon/Khmer towns.
Some Thai historians claim the area was settled by a certain Tai chieftain from Yunnan as early as the sixth century, but since his city is rumoured to lie under what is now Chiang Saen Lake, nobody’s verified this.
According to the Thai Fine Arts Department, the earliest confirmed records have the city being constructed by King Saen Pu, under the instructions of his grandfather Mengrai, in 1328 and by its heyday it was an extensive city containing 76 temples within, and another 63 without, its walls creating what must have been a spectacular sight. Mengrai himself continued the Thai march south, founding first Chiang Rai, before building a new capital on the old Mon site of Chiang Mai so, even from early days, Chiang Saen was relegated to a back seat. For long periods control alternated between Burma, Lanna and Siam and the battered, much sacked, city was even levelled in 1804 under Rama I’s orders, with its population being carted off to Lampang and Chiang Mai so it wouldn’t present a tempting target for the pesky Burmese. It wasn’t until Rama V in the 1880s that the town was re-populated and in 1957 was granted district status within Chiang Rai province.
Whereas the ancient city overflowed its walls, dotting the immediate surrounds with temples, modern Chiang Saen can’t even fill the intra-mural area. Quiet residential streets, gardens and orchards, with a ruined temple on almost every corner, abut the old brick ramparts. The partially restored city wall is in good shape — it apparently originally did have an east side, which has long since sunk into the Mekong, but many of the ruined temples are today little more than truncated chedis or piles of bricks. Angkor Thom this is not!
It is a great place to wander though and the laidback locals are particularly friendly. Sadly, Chiang Saen sees few foreign visitors other than those who pop by as an afterthought on a Golden Triangle day tour; most skip it all together on a mad dash to Chiang Khong to get on a boat to Laos.
There are enough interesting sights to keep you busy for two or three days; say a day around town taking in the markets, museum and old temples, a trip up to Sob Ruak to visit the opium museums and tick the Golden Triangle selfie box, and then a day checking out the sights outside town such as the lake and a couple of hilltop temples, plus, perhaps, a boat trip on the final day. Also, for a change, all of this can be conveniently done by bicycle so you don’t need to mess around with public transport or hiring motorbikes. Do try and time your visit for a weekend if possible, because this is when the town really comes to life and the riverside area and markets are at their most bustling and picturesque. Chiang Saen is a lovely spot and a clear Chiang Rai highlight.
The town’s main streets, Rimkhong and Phaholyothin roads, form a T-junction at the riverside. The former stretches along the banks of the Mekong between the old south and north gates, before continuing to Chiang Khong and Sob Ruak, (the 1129 south and 1290 north respectively), while the latter goes from the river to the main gate on the east side before heading off towards Chiang Rai as Route 1016. The police station, main post office, banks, market and bus stops are all along this road as is the National Museum and Wat Chedi Luang. Opposite Chedi Luang is an information centre, which has some excellent maps and pamphlets on the town and surrounding area.
The principal cross-streets are Sai 1 and 2, which are locations for some of the town’s accommodation options. Most of the remainder of the intra-mural area is quietly residential, with gardens and the ubiquitous brick ruins. Completing the town’s grid system are narrower lanes leading off the riverside named Rimkhong Soi, 1, 2, 3 and so on.
The town hospital is just out of town to the west while low hills lie to the south and northwest of town and feature pretty hilltop wats. The small but very busy port is at the foot of Phaholyothin to the right as you look at the river, as is immigration, though foreigners have to cross at either Mae Sai for Burma or Chiang Khong for Laos. To the left is a splendid riverside promenade where the evening beer and barbecue vendors set up shop from late afternoon.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 8th October, 2016.