Photo: Khao soi in Chiang Mai.

I had a mate from Siem Reap visit me in Chiang Mai recently. He’s a guide, so knows Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat, Ta Phrom and so on inside out . His first comment on arriving was, “Oh, it’s got a city wall… and a moat, and it’s square shaped is it?!”

“Well, yes,” I said. “Imagine Angkor Thom if it had been inhabited for the last 800 years and you’ve got it.”

The slightly more impressive moat at Angkor Thom

The slightly more impressive moat at Angkor Tom.

In 1296 King Mengrai founded Chiang Mai — it means “new city” — as part of the expansion of his Lanna kingdom south from Chiang Saen, his hometown, and Chiang Rai, his former capital. As he conquered the former Mon city states of Haripunchai (Lamphun) and Lampang, he perhaps felt it prudent to move his power base further south too, to keep an eye on his new and prestigious acquisitions. He initially occupied the riverside settlement of Wiang Khum Kham, which shows evidence of earlier Mon habitation, but due to flood problems relocated his new capital to its current site.

The final version of Angkor Thom you see today dates to the reign of Jayavarman VII, which occurred around 100 years earlier, but for argument’s sake, the two are more or less contemporary — with Chiang Mai being occupied ever since and Angkor Tom being abandoned some time in the 14th century.

Note that most of Cambodia’s great Angkor period cities — Preah Khan Kompong Svay, Banteay Chmar, Angkor Thom, Banteay Prei Nokor and so on — were totally abandoned with the fall of the Angkor empire, while the Khmer cities located in Thailand such as Lopburi, Surin and Phimai, remained inhabited and evolved over the centuries into the modern towns we see today. The old Lanna cities such as Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Fang and Chiang Saen fall into the latter category.

Wiang Khum Kham

Wiang Khum Kham.

Archaeological research indicates that the early Mon cities that dotted central Thailand north to Chiang Mai were generally irregular in layout, (look at Ayutthaya for instance), and show no signs of the Khmer-style square layout with walls and moats aligned with the cardinal points. So Mengrai seems to have adopted a more Angkorian style with his city constructions and fortifications. (He was worried about the Burmese.)

Chiang Mai’s city wall is aligned north/south, though each side is only slightly more than half the length of Angkor Thom’s walls — the moat is a lot narrower — but it does have five city gates: Chang Puak to the north, Tha Pae to the east and Suan Dok to the west, all centrally located in their respective walls (though without the same precision as Angkor Thom’s gates), while the south side has two gates. (Angkor Thom has two gates in its east wall — the Victory Gate and the Gate of Death.)

Phratu Suan Dok - the west gate

Phratu Suan Dok, the west gate.

Obviously, Chiang Mai has grown and sprawled considerably in recent times, but the old city’s still home to much of the city’s activity, accommodation and eateries. So next time you’re wandering the lanes of old Chiang Mai, imagine what it might have been: jungle trails leading from ruined chedis to crumbling temples with monkeys swinging from Wat Phra Singh, and water lilies clogging the moat at Tha Pae. Alternatively, when in Siem Reap imagine a 7-eleven opposite Bayon, an Angkor-style boutique resort at the foot of the elephant terrace and a traffic-laden one-way system paralleling the moat.

Last updated on 19th July, 2011.

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