A relaxing dose of history
Published/Last edited or updated: 30th July, 2017
Located just a 10-minute tuk tuk ride from downtown Chiang Mai, the ruins at Wiang Khum Kham ancient city make for a very pleasant half-day trip.
Just outside downtown Chiang Mai, on the edge of the Superhighway, lie the recently excavated ruins of the ancient city of Wiang Khum Kham. While the ruins themselves aren’t exactly spectacular—several brick temples and pagodas in fairly ruinous states—it is an historically very important site and a visit is made worthwhile by the attractive setting and the fun means of transport provided for your tour of the ruins.
Although there are thought to be at least 40 ruined temples in the ancient city, many still lie unexcavated under gardens and suburban houses. At present some 20 or so sites have been cleared of earth and vegetation and lie scattered amid the leafy gardens and lanes of this quiet residential suburb. There are also a couple of more recent, but attractive, functioning temples that have been constructed adjacent to the ruins.
The city must have covered a large area and the various sites are too spread out to be visited on foot, but lie mainly on quiet lanes, so enterprising locals have given you the option of a horse and cart to get around. The carts wait in the car park of the Information Centre and cost 300 baht for a one-hour tour of, usually, eight principal sites. Carts seat two adults and there should also be one or two hanging around at each of the main temple sites as well, such as Wat Chedi Si Liem.
They used to rent bicycles here—a perfect way of getting around—but alas they don't anymore. The alternative is oversized golf buggy-type electric vehicles, which are fine if you’re in a large group, but unlike the similar ones at Chiang Mai Zoo you can’t just hop on one—they are private hire only, for 550 baht. These also await passengers in the car park at the Information Centre on the Superhighway.
If you don’t want to hire a buggy or pony (or are hiring one elsewhere), then there’s no point is stopping at the Information Centre since, despite the name, they have zero information (or at least, none when we visited in mid-2017). Locked doors behind the reception desk had signs saying Archaeological Finds, Early Period, King Mengrai and so on, though when we asked why they were closed we were told it was because as yet they contain no exhibits. Helpful and apologetic staff did let us photograph the single laminated brochure they had.
Authorities should seriously up their game here, since it is a very worthwhile, but at present confusing site. Plenty of signs on the Superhighway lead you off towards Wiang Khum Kham but as soon as you enter the labyrinth of suburban lanes, the signs become either non-existent, confusing or illegible. We saw several visitors travelling from temple to temple by tuk tuk but the average driver hired from outside your downtown guesthouse will have no idea about the site’s geography, nor history.
Not promising, but never fear—we have a cunning plan! At a roughly central position amid the various sites you’ll find—and this is well signposted—the De Wiangkumkam Hotel. They have both bicycles for rent (50 baht for as long as it takes) and maps, plus an extremely helpful and knowledgeable proprietor. What’s more, it’s a good spot for lunch or a coffee and if you’ve brought your bathers you can also cool down from your cycling excesses in their pool. If you’ve headed down here without a guide, and haven’t gone for a pony, then this where to start.
Once you’ve actually found the temples, each site does have an English description, but the information can be confusing. The problem lies in accuracy rather than availability. Going by the information on hand, the ruins must have been built by Thais and have therefore by default been ascribed to King Mengrai in the 13th century. He supposedly created Wiang Khum Kham before deciding it wasn’t a great spot—too close to the flood-prone Ping River—and moved his capital to Chiang Mai instead, whereupon Khum Kham was abandoned. (The Ping has since changed course; it used to lie much closer to the site than it does today.)
However from the extent of the ruins it’s clear the city must have been occupied over a lengthy period and by a large number of people. Indeed, most archaeologists now date the city’s original founding to the 11th century, and meaning that it was built by the Mon of the late Dvaravati civilisation as a satellite town for their nearby capital of Haripunchai (today’s Lamphun).
Despite what information boards tell you then, the ruins cover a period from the 11th century right up until the 16th and 17th centuries (including Mon/Dvaravati, Mon/Khmer/Sukhothai and Thai Lanna periods). It wasn’t finally abandoned until the 18th century when some catastrophic floods finished the place off and covered all the remains in a layer of river mud, under which they’ve stayed hidden until recently. The first ruins were uncovered in the 1980s and some, which you are also welcome to visit, are only now being excavated.
The Mon-style chedi of Wat Chedi Si Liem and Wat Chang Kham are the most noteworthy. Wat Chang Kham also has a reconstructed traditional-style Thai house which is remarkably similar to any of the present day hilltribe houses you can see in most of Northern Thailand.
The information centre area, Wat Chedi Si Liem and Wat Chang Khan all have drink stalls and at weekends or busy times food stalls too. Most of the statues, carvings, inscriptions and so on found here are currently in the Chiang Mai National Museum but since that was also undergoing a makeover when we visited we can optimistically hope some exhibits are being prepared for transfer to Wiang Khum Kham.
A tuk tuk from Chiang Mai will be around 150-200 baht each way and you could either ask the driver to wait, or wander up to the Superhighway and flag one down when you’re ready to go back.
A fun though slightly expensive alternative is to take a boat from Wat Chai Mongkon on Charoen Prathet Rd. After a 15-minute cruise along the Ping they will drop you at a pier close to Wiang Khum Kham, where a pony and trap will be waiting. Return boat trip plus your chariot will set you back 800 baht per person. Allow two hours. (See Ping Cruises for more details.)
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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