Not many people who visit Chiang Mai are aware that the city has its own set of ruins, known as Wiang Kum Kam. While not comparable to the glorious ancient capitals of Sukhothai or Ayutthaya, Wiang Kum Kam couldn’t be easier to explore. The ruins are a quick ride from Chiang Mai’s city center, cost nothing to see and can be enjoyed in a single afternoon. Wiang Kum Kam, in fact, even predates Chiang Mai. If the area wasn’t so susceptible to flooding, Chiang Mai as we know it may have never even been built.
Scattered among a modern residential area, the archaeological site consists of at least 20 or so ancient temples. Some, however, are certainly more worthy of your time than others. In the following guide, we’ll be covering which temples you shouldn’t miss and the ideal route you should take to see them. And of course, we’ll also be going over the interesting history of the former capital that for hundreds of years was believed to be lost.
A Brief History of Wiang Kum Kam
Wiang Kum Kam was founded by King Mangrai, the founder of the Lanna Kingdom and most of its major cities. Mangrai was born prince of a small kingdom situated in current Chiang Rai Province. It was just one of several independent ethnic Tai states in the region, and upon succession to the throne, Mangrai sought to unify these states. He succeeded, eventually forming a large kingdom known as Lanna (‘Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields’).
King Mangrai then founded the city of Chiang Rai in 1262, and it remained the Lanna capital of for a little over a decade. He then moved it to Fang in 1273, which is now a town in present-day Chiang Mai province.
Eventually, Mangrai invaded Lamphun, the capital of the Haripunchai Kingdom. Haripunchai had long been a political and cultural powerhouse in the region, and Mangrai’s capture of its capital made Lanna the most dominant force in the North (read more here).
Though the Theravada Buddhist culture of Haripunchai greatly influenced the religion and art of Lanna, Mangrai decided against making Lamphun his new capital. Instead, he decided to build a grand new city from scratch. It became known as Wiang Kum Kam, and a great number of temples were built there. Unfortunately, though, the area experienced constant flooding. After a number of years, Mangrai decided to find somewhere else more suitable for a capital city. This of course, would become Chiang Mai.
But Wiang Kum Kam was not abandoned. In fact, in spite of the regular floods, it remained a thriving city for hundreds of years. The city was finally abandoned at some point during the long Burmese occupation of Lanna, which lasted from the 16th – 18th centuries. Though it was repeatedly mentioned in the ancient chronicles, people eventually forgot where the city was located. After a long time of abandonment, the layers of soil brought by the floods eventually covered up the ancient structures.
But in 1984, when doing some digging around Wat Kan Thome temple, archaeologists found a set of ancient artifacts which prompted them to extend their digging. Discovering a large cluster of temples beneath the soil, they realized that they’d finally discovered the long-lost city of Wiang Kum Kam.
The following itinerary can be done on foot, which should last from somewhere between 2 – 4 hours. A lot depends on how much your general walking pace.
Hiring a bicycle at the Information Center, where our itinerary starts, is also an option. Obviously, this would allow you see to see more in a shorter amount of time, the only caveat being that you’d have to return to the same place to drop off the bikes.
Your best option for getting to the ruins is hiring a Grab car (the only ride sharing game in town now after Grab took over Uber’s Southeast Asian branch). From the city center, it should just take you around 20 minutes or so, and wherever you finish your adventure, just hire a new car to take you back.
Once you reach the Information Center, you can even hire a horse carriage for around 300 baht! This might be ideal if you’re traveling as a group, though you may not end up getting to see all the noteworthy temples.
In the map above, the essential temples are marked in blue while the lesser impressive ones are marked in yellow. First, we’ll cover an itinerary which takes you to all the essential temples, with some brief info on the others at the very end.
Wiang Kum Kam: A Self-Guided Tour
Below we’ll be going over the ideal walking (or cycling) route to see Wiang Kum Kam’s essential temples in a single afternoon. While it’s possible to do this itinerary in reverse, starting at Wat Chedi Liem and heading south from there, its worth started off at the information center for a number of reasons.
Note: The Wiang Kum Kam on Google Maps is just a random point, and there aren’t any temples or museums at that particular spot. Be sure to specify the ‘Wiang Kum Kam Information Center’ or the name of a specific temple when hiring a Grab car.
The Wiang Kum Kam Information Center
The Wiang Kum Kam Information center is situated further south than the main ruins, and when looking at a map, it doesn’t seem like the logical place to start for those coming from Chiang Mai. It’s worth beginning your journey here, though, as the modern-museum contains a lot of useful information about the site’s history and recent archaeological finds.
As mentioned above, this is also the place to hire a horse carriage or rent a bicycle. Opting for either one of these, of course, means you’d be finishing your tour here as well. If you proceed on foot, then the logical place to end would be Wat Chedi Liem.
Wat Ku Padom
Heading north from the Information Center, your next stop should be Wat Ku Padom. This relatively large temple is also among the more recent of Wiang Kum Kam, dating back to sometime in the 16th century.
The temple originally contained a large viharn, whose base is still visible, as well as an ubosot and a chedi. And as you can still see today, the entire temple complex was surrounded by a wall. The viharn’s staircase and its railings remain in good condition.
Wat Kan Thome
Wat Kan Thome (also known as Wat Chang Kham) is one of two Wiang Kum Kam temples that still functions as an active temple. According to the chronicles, this temple dates as far back as the year 1290. While the ruins of the original can be spotted nearby, many of the wooden structures standing today were built much later.
There’s a lot to see around the temple complex. Upon entering, you’ll come across a traditional Lanna-style house which has been preserved as a small museum. You’re free to walk inside, where you’ll find a number of traditional artifacts.
Nearby is a shrine to King Mangrai himself, and locals believe that this is where the legendary king’s spirit prefers to reside. This is a perfect example of how animism and ancestor worship continue to blend cohesively with Theravada Buddhism in present-day Thailand.
Don’t miss the large white chedi, while the temple grounds are also adorned with expressive statues and sculptures. And among the most impressive of the structures is the elegant ho trai, a common temple structure designed to hold important palm leaf manuscripts.
A very faded signboard at the site seems to indicate that the large viharn was built in 1891, long before the nearby Wiang Kum Kam ruins were dug up.
Wat That Noi
While hardly essential, you’ll be passing by a small temple called Wat That Noi on the way to and from Wat Kan Thome. The area seems to be a favorite hangout of a local feral dog community, who aren’t exactly the most welcoming of hosts.
Heading northwest, you’ll come across Wat E-Kang. This temple, easily recognizable by its large brick chedi, dates back to the 16th century. The chedi was built in the popular Lanna style of that era. It’s a rather complex design consisting of three layers of an octagonal base, on top of which are three more ridged layers. Above that are several more rounded layers with a small bell-shaped design topping it all off.
In front of the chedi once stood a viharn. The viharn’s platform and some of its original columns are still easily distinguishable. Interestingly, the area was once known as a gathering spot for wild monkeys, but you’re unlikely to come across any today.
Wat Nang Chang
Just across the road, you’ll find the large temple ruins of Wat Nan Chang. These ruins actually comprise of temples from two different eras. At some point after the original temple was destroyed and covered in soil by frequent flooding, people built another temple on top of it.
Another peculiar aspect of this temple is that it once faced north, unlike most temples which face east, or sometimes west. It’s possible that a now dried up portion of the Ping River may have flowed down to this point, and that Wat Nan Chang was built to face it. Interestingly, Ming dynasty Chinese ceramics were also discovered amongst these ruins, indicating a trade relationship between Lanna and China.
Now head west before arriving at Wat Pupia, just before the intersection. Despite being one of the most impressive temple ruins of Wiang Kum Kam, there are no mentions of Wat Pupia in any of the ancient chronicles.
After excavations were carried out in 1985, archaeologists found a well-preserved chedi in front of a large viharn, with an additional structure built next to it. Apparently, experts believe that there’s more to the temple that’s yet to be discovered, but land ownership disputes have put a hold on future digging for now.
Wat That Khao
Next, head north until you pass by Wat That Khao on your left-hand side. This temple, dated to sometime in the 16th century, would’ve once featured a massive chedi. Today, only the large base of it remains.
While parts of a large Buddha image were found among the ruins, the statue that sits at Wat That Khao today is a more recent addition, contributed by local residents. This is another temple whose excavations have been put on hold due to land disputes, but it likely would’ve been one of Wiang Kum Kam’s largest and most important temples in its day.
Wat Phra Chao Ongdam & Phaya Mangrai
Further north along the same road, you’ll pass by this pair of temples on your right-hand side. Situated just next to one another, Wat Phra Chao Ongdam was named after a bronze Buddha image found on the premises. Wat Phaya Mangrai, meanwhile, was named after Wiang Kum Kam’s founder, King Mangrai himself. Both temples once consisted of your standard chedis, viharns and balustrades. While not the most impressive temples of Wiang Kum Kam, this secluded grassy area is worth at least a quick stopover.
Wat Chedi Liem
Wat Chedi Liem (also sometimes spelled Wat Chedi Liam), another one of the area’s living temples, is also one of Wiang Kum Kam’s oldest, dating back to 1288. The temple is most known for its tall Suwanna chedi built as a copy of Wat Chama Thewi’s chedi in Lamphun. King Mangrai, in fact, built the chedi shortly after conquering Lamphun, and it’s a style closely identifiable with the Haripunchai Kingdom. This is only one of five such chedis remaining in all of Thailand.
The temple also contains a viharn and a beautiful Lanna-style ubosot. You’ll also come across various statues of monks, the Hindu god Brahma, small elephant figurines and more. Nearby, you’ll also find some stands selling some drinks and snacks.
If you have the urge to see everything you possibly can, or just really enjoy walking, you may also want to check out the temples listed below. These are located east of the walking route outlined above, and are marked yellow in the map at the beginning of the article. The most interesting of the five is easily Wat Hua Nong.
Wat Phan Lao
Wat Ku Ailan
Wat Ku Aisi
Wat Ku Maisong
Wat Hua Nong
This large temple complex originally comprised of quite a few different structures, and despite its ruined state, its size remains impressive today. One of its main architectural features was its Sri Lankan-influenced chedi, which was once surrounded by elephant statues. It likely would’ve been reminiscent of the chedi at Chiang Mai’s Wat Chiang Man.
If you’re just in Chiang Mai for a short time, staying in the Old City is a good idea. If you look at a map of the city, you will spot a square surrounded by water. Staying anywhere within or just outside of the square would be fine, as you can easily get around the Old City on foot. Most of Chiang Mai’s prominent temples and other historical sites are located here.
The other best area to stay in is called ‘Nimman.’ This is a reference to the general area around Nimmanhaemin Road. Basically, if you’re within walking distance of Maya shopping mall, you’re in Nimman. This is where you’ll find a lot of Chiang Mai’s trendy cafes and restaurants, while new shopping complexes are popping up all the time. At the same time, though, there’s no shortage of cheap, local eats. Furthermore, the location is conveniently located in between Doi Suthep and the Old City.
Chiang Mai is the transport hub of the north and can be reached in a number of ways. The easiest would be to simply fly. Thailand has plenty of budget airlines, and it’s easy to find a one-way ticket from Bangkok (usually DMK airport) for just around 1,000 baht (roughly $30).
You can also easily reach Chiang Mai by bus from virtually any city in Thailand. Chiang Mai is also connected to the rail system, meaning you can get there directly by train from Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Phitsanulok and other cities.