Photo: Freighter on the Mekong.

Walking tour of the old city

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Plenty of trees, little traffic and ancient ruins sprinkled just about everywhere mean historic Chiang Saen lends itself perfectly to a walking tour. The following is a short stroll, taking in some of the old town’s highlights, but if you’re feeling more energetic you can simply substitute feet for pedals on a longer cycling tour. Conversely if you’re short of time you could whizz around on this walking tour on two wheels instead.

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Kala or demon guardian at the National Museum

Bagan-style Kala, or demon guardian, at the National Museum.

This itinerary begins at Wat Chedi Luang on Phaholyothin, the town’s main axis. The venerable old stupa and partially restored temple is the most intact and spectacular of the old town’s myriad remains and is the only one to have souvenir stalls accompanying it. More useful is the Heaven on Earth coffee shop, with a prime location opposite the temple’s photogenic east gate. Grab a caffeine hit before the walk starts.

Closest you'll get to Angkor in Chiang Saen is Chedi Luang's east gate

The closest you’ll get to Angkor in Chiang Saen is Chedi Luang’s east gate.

On the same side of the road, and just a short distance towards the city walls, you’ll see the Chiang Saen National Museum. This is a great little museum, but it does present one drawback with our plan: you can’t do this walk on Mondays or Tuesdays because the museum is closed. It’s good, so it would be a shame to miss it — we’d allow the best part of an hour for a visit.

Opposite the museum, in the grounds of Wat Mahathat, is an information centre with a display of photos of the town plus maps and useful free pamphlets. Wat Mahathat itself is a truncated chedi set in a grove of trees, probably dating from the 15th or 16th centuries, though no-one is certain since no inscriptions have been found.

The old moat still contains water

The old moat still contains water.

Soi Robvieng (or Rob Wiang) runs down the side of the information centre and across the road you’ll see the old brick city walls. Unlike later settlements, such as Chiang Mai, these walls enclose an irregular shape — though it’s vaguely rectangular — and though the south, west and north sides are all still relatively intact, the eastern wall has long sunk into the Mekong River. The three remaining sides total 4.5 kilometres, so including an eastern wall it would have extended to around six or seven. Originally the city had 11 gates and four forts and the western one, where Route 1016 to Chiang Rai built on top of the old causeway traverses the gate, is the best preserved gate and fort. A circular, brick bastion beyond the walls is what remains of said fort and passing through the gate you make a right at this point. From here you get good views of the moat in both directions. It’s tree-lined and still full of water though would have been far wider when originally dug.

Brick ruins lie in every direction

Brick ruins lie in every direction.

Stretching off to your left is a shady, grassy park with a collection of ruined temples and chedis. At this point there’s a ticket office charging 50 baht per person if you want a closer look, or you can continue north along the path leading alongside the moat. Since Chedi Luang is free we reckon a 50 baht contribution to maintenance and upkeep is only fair. The ruins are brick with laterite bases and while none of them are exactly spectacular, they do give an impression of the extent of the old city and the well-tended gardens are a good spot for birds and butterflies if you’ve got bored of looking at bricks. The most impressive is Wat Pa Sak.

Wat Pa Sak, Teak Forest Temple

Wat Pa Sak, the Teak Forest Temple.

This attractive and well-preserved stupa dates to Phaya Saen Phu’s early 14th century make-over and was originally located in a teak forest, hence the name Pa Sak, which translates as Teak Forest Temple. Continuing along the path that runs parallel to the walls for some 200 metres you’ll reach Nong Mut Gate and fort, which have both been extensively restored and, without a major highway passing through, give a good impression of how the city’s 14th century entrances would have appeared.

Eroded Buddha image at Wat Pa Sak

Eroded sculpture at Wat Pa Sak.

Passing through the gate takes you onto Nong Mut Road heading due east towards the river. Complete our circular route by taking the first right, which will lead you back along Sai 1 to the crossroads with Phaholyothin, from where you’ll see Chedi Luang. Continuing down Nong Mut (which becomes Rimkhong Soi 4) will take you down to the riverfront passing several other ruined brick temples. On Nong Mut, around halfway between the gate and Sai 1, is a very good little cafe serving juices and coffees.

Including the museum visit plus a coffee break, we’d allow around two to three hours. It’s nor far distance wise, but there is a lot to see.


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What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Chiang Saen.
 Check prices, availability & reviews on Agoda or Booking
 Read up on where to eat on Chiang Saen.
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Chiang Saen.
 Read up on how to get to Chiang Saen, or book your transport online with 12Go Asia.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
 Planning on riding a scooter in Chiang Saen? Please read this.
 Buy a SIM card for Thailand—pick it up at the airport when you arrive.
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