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Last update: 2 July, 2017

Unexplored Chiang Mai.

Archibald Ross Colquhoun - 1885

The year is 1885. Great Britain has just annexed Upper Burma, and Burma has become a province of British India. A major reason for the Brits to conquer Burma were the abundance of teak forests, since teakwood was essential for British ship building, warships in particular. Around the same time the exploration of northern Thailand started; which had rich teak forests in Chiang Mai, Lampang, and Tak.

Archibald Ross Colquhoun was one of the early western visitors to Chiang Mai in 1885; at that time the town still had the Burmese name Zimme and it was part of the Shan States. A paragraph from his book "Amongst the Shans":

        The town of Zimme, Kiang Mai, Tsching Mai, is situated on the right bank of the Meping river, at a height of about eight hundred feet above sea level. It is the largest place in the Meping plain. There are fields between the river, which lies on its eastern side, and the town; which is said to have been built in 1294 A.D.

There is what is called an inner and outer town, each surrounded by fortifications. The inner town, where the chief resides, is a rectangle, six thousand feet (1800m) from north to south and four thousand eight hundred feet (1500m) from east to west. Each wall has a gateway in the centre, except on the southern side, where there are two, placed five hundred yards from the corners. The gates are defended with a small bastion at the sides.

The walls are enclosed by a moat, some fifty feet in width. The depth of the moat, originally some fifteen feet, is hardly anywhere now more than six or seven feet. The walls are fast falling into ruin from continued neglect, and great portions are to be seen lying toppled over and half buried, while only here and there has any attempt been made to patch up the fast crumbling structure.

Although at one time, no doubt, a formidable place to the undisciplined forces of the Burmese and Siamese, it would present no resistance to European artillery of the present day.

The town has some nine hundred houses inside the inner fort, but there are many more than that number in the portion of the town enclosed by the outer fortifications and in what may be termed the suburbs, which are built along the banks of the Meping River.


chiang mai 1904 map
Historical map of Chiang Mai in 1904; Kamphaeng Din is the half circle.
Historische Karte von Chiang Mai im jahre 1904.

Archibald was wrong about Chiang Mai citadel being a rectangle; it's really an almost perfect square of 1600 by 1600 meters. The Meping River is now called the Mae Ping River, and the old Burmese name Zimme has been changed to Chiang Mai. On older maps printed before 1900 it is called Zimme. The town Chiang Mai has had more than 100 names in the past; the French called it Xieng Mai, the Burmese Zimme, Zimay, Zimmay or Zam-may. In the twentieth century Zimme or Zam-may was changed to Chiangmai or Chiang Mai.

The walls that Archibald talks about have disappeared around 1900 and only the bastions at the four corners remain.


The old wall of Chiang Mai.

The only truly original parts of the old walls that remain are the bastions and a few remains of the wall at the four corners of Chiang Mai. The four corner bastions are more or less in original state; though a few have been restored in centuries past. Below is a photo of Jaeng Sri Phum bastion in the northeast corner.

Jaeng Sri Phum bastion Jaeng Sri Phum bastion, on the northeast corner.

Thapae Gate, in the middle of the eastern wall, was rebuilt in 1986 around a concrete framework, based very on old photographs of the outer Thapae Gate which was located where Thapae road crosses the Kamphaeng Din wall! ( Therefore the new Thapae Gate is historically quite incorrect, nevertheless, tourists love to make selfies by the sign for Tha Phae Gate in front of the fresh, straight new walls. Been here, done that.

Tha phae gate 1910
Historical old photo of Thapae/Thaphae gate in 1910

Besides the four corner bastions there is a fifth one: the Jaeng Thiphanet or Thipanet Bastion on the southwestern corner of Kamphaeng Din; where it makes a 100 degree corner. It is difficult to see from the road to the airport (Mahidol road) because it's surrounded by buildings and trees which shield the old walls and bastion.

Thipanet  bastion Thipanet bastion, on the Kamphaeng Din SW-corner.


Kamphaeng Din.

Kamphaeng Din is the old dirt wall that circles around the southeast area of Chiang Mai - the "suburbs". The square brick city wall around the old town was the "citadel" or main old town; the dirt wall went around the suburbs and poorer part of the town.

Although Kamphaeng Din is less impressive than an old brick city wall, it is completely authentic. And best of all: the dirt wall is for a large part still there - the remains of Chiang Mai's city walls have been reduced to nothing or perhaps a few feet of bricks in some places.

chiang mai wall Kamphaeng Din wall; a 3 meter high earth and clay rampart.

The dirt wall is about 3 meter high, and here the lowest part is strengthened with a stone wall (see above). The rest of the wall is almost invisible behind the brush and trees. Why is the old dirt wall still there whereas the original brick city walls have gone? Perhaps because the bricks could be reused, but nobody was interested in the old earthen walls. Only the trees found a fertile soil and started growing abundantly and covered the walls with their lush foliage.

chiang mai 1904 map
The earth wall has eroded severely in some places.


Bicycle and walking tour suggestions.

A bicycling tour around the Chiang Mai moat is only six and a half kilometers and can be done in half an hour - the average bicycle rider can do about 15km per hour. If you go on the inside of the moat you can also stop at the park in the SW-corner, have a Club sandwich at the "Good Morning Chiang Mai" restaurant; and visit the secret mossy statue garden further on for a cup of tea or cappuccino - if you can find it.

A bicycle tour round the old town inside the moat is enjoyable because there is not much traffic, but on the road outside the moat one needs more attention because there's a lot of traffic and at the Taphae gate usually a small traffic jam. The road on the western side of the old town also has a lot of traffic coming from the airport to the Nimmanhaemin area. If you want to see the Kamphaeng Din walls then the problem is figuring out which parts remain. Of the original 5km long Kamphaeng Din wall between 1300 and 1600 meters remain; so roughly about one-third is still traceable, the rest has completely gone. The Kamphaeng Din road followed part of the old dirt Kamphaeng Din wall.

Bicycle rentals shops in Chiang Mai

There are many bicycle rentals shops but most of them rent really basic bicycles; these cost 50 - 80 baht/day. A better quality bicycle or mountainbike is surprisingly difficult to find and goes for 120 - 300 baht/day. That is about the same price as a scooter rental - Thai people like motorized transport better then bicycles. The rentals shops usually prefer to keep your passport but sometimes also accept a deposit.


Chiang Mai literature.

Archibald was by no means the first traveler to visit Chiang Mai. An earlier visitor was Captain W. C. McLeod; who arrived in Chiang Mai on January 12, 1837. The very first westerner though was Ralph Fitch, an Englishman who visited Zimme in 1587.

Mr. Colquhoun and Mr. Holt Hallett were colleagues studying and reporting on a proposed railway connecting British Burma with China. Holt Hallett was tasked with a survey for this railway. His book, "A Thousand Miles on an Elephant in the Shan States" was first published in 1890 and is still an excellent source of information on Northern Thailand. The railway, alas, was never constructed.

  • Amongst the Shans - by Archibald Ross Colquhoun, 1885. Illustrated by Holt Samuel Hallett.
  • A Thousand Miles on an Elephant in the Shan States - by Holt Samuel Hallett, 1890. A survey for a railway from Moulmein to Chiang Mai and Chiang Saen.
  • Surveying and Exploring in Siam - by James McCarthy (1900). James McCarthy created Thailandís first accurate maps, from 1881 to 1893.
Holt Samuel Hallett estimated his location by observing the walking speed of his elephants; he went up north from Chiang Mai to Chiang Saen and back via another route and found he had calculated his location wrong by just a few hundred meters. James McCarthy used triangulation and modern equipment to create accurate maps. Triangulation is a surveying method that measures the angles in a triangle formed by three survey control points.


How to Spell Chiang Mai

The town of Chiang Mai has had more than a hundred names in the past; the French called it Xieng Mai, the Burmese Zimme, Zimay, Zimmay or Zam-may. From Zimme or Zam-may it was changed to Chiangmai or Chiang Mai.

( source: )

Whereas Bangkok is a mere 200 years old, Chiang Mai was founded in the late 13th century. It was once of the capital of Lanna, an independent Thai Kingdom and has remained one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements of the Kingdom. The north was teak country where elephants used to work in the forests; it is the commerce that drew foreign entrepreneurs to north Thailand. Teak was important for British shipbuilding; it is resistant to termites and rust and could be relied upon not to splinter when hit by cannonballs. As they wrote in journals and letters to their families about this beautiful area, evidence shows each wrote their own spelling of Chiang Mai.

Ralph Fitch, the Englishman who visited Chiang Mai in 1587 (four hundred years ago) spelt the town Iamahey. In 1615 The East India Company favored Jangoma, while the early Portuguese used Chiangmai. The French called the place Xieng Mai, though the Dutch preferred Ischeen May and Tsieengh Maeij.

Historical names of Chiang Mai (alphabetical)

Cheang Mai
Cheung Mai
Chiang Mai
Chiang May
Chieng Mai
Chung Mai
C'ieng Mai
Shia mai
Tschieng Mai
Tsching Mai
Tsieeng May
Xieng May
Xieng Mai
Xieng mai
Xieng Me

Chiang Mai links.


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All photo's copyright © 2016 R. Schierbeek, Netherlands.