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Last update: Nov 14, 2019

  1. Chiang Mai in historic times.
  2. The wall and bastions.
  3. Kamphaeng Din.
  4. The Thaphae Gate Puzzle.

1] Chiang Mai in historic times.

Chiang Mai is situated in the broad valley of the Ping river; a large plain surrounded by low mountains and extensive forests. Well over a century ago, around 1900, the fortified town of Chiang Mai on the Ping river was surrounded by paddy fields. Small palisaded villages were scattered throughout the plains of the Chiang Mai kingdom, but the larger towns like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Nan and Chiang Saen had moats and high stone walls as protection.

teak felling The farmers here cultivated rice, tobacco, sugarcane and tea on the fertile plain, and kept cattle, mules and ponies. The monsoon forests were occasionally interspersed with bamboo groves and teak trees. There were deer, gibbons, tigers, elephants and rhinoceroses in large numbers.

Nowadays the Asian rhino is almost extinct in Thailand; and a large part of the forests have gone. Teak trees can only be seen in uniform rows in plantations, but the large, old teak trees have disappeared from the forests.

The more remote hill villages around Chiang Mai were inhabited by Akha, White Karen, Red Karen, Lahu, Lawa, Paloung, Padaung and a few other hill-tribes. Many of them originated from southern China (Yunnan) and Burma; some like the Akha originated in the Tibetan Highlands. These tribal people came to the morning market in Chiang Mai to sell their vegetables, fruit and other produce.

The towns in the Chiang Mai kingdom had a great number of temples and pagodas. Thousands of villages had a temple, and each temple had a pagoda. The large town of Chiang Mai had the most temples, monasteries and pagodas; most of them created by the Burmese when they occupied the independent Kingdom of Chiang Mai.


Archibald Ross Colquhoun - 1885

Archibald Ross Colquhoun Archibald Ross Colquhoun was an influential colonial politician, a travel author, and an explorer who in the 1880s took part in several expeditions to Burma.

One of Colquhouns many books appeared in 1885; the now forgotten book "Burma and the Burmans: the best unopened market in the world". It became one of the best-selling books in Britain that year.

The British government which had been in conflict with the Burmese king Thibaw for years started the Third Burma War, and conquered Mandalay in November 1885. They arrested king Thibaw and sent him to India. Henceforth Burma would be a province of British India.

The year 1885 became a pivotal year for Burma and certainly for king Thibaw. A major reason for the Brits to annex Upper Burma was the abundance of teak forests, since teakwood was essential for British ship building, warships in particular. Burma was certainly not only "The best unopened market in the world" but Britain could also use the raw materials, the teak, the oil and rubies for which it was famous.


Around the same time the exploration of the Kingdom of Chiang Mai started; which had rich teak forests in the provinces of Chiang Mai, Lampang, and Phrae. The first explorers came to this area in search of trade routes and hardwood. To be more precise: possible train routes and teak.

chiang mai 1904 map
Part of "Map of Indochina", 1885.
Source: "Burma and the Burmans", by Colquhoun.
(Upper Burma is still shown as independent)

Archibald Ross Colquhoun was one of the early western visitors to Chiang Mai in 1885. A quote from his book "Amongst the Shans" on Teak exploration (page 204):

        Our teak-forests, and those of Upper Burmah, are rapidly being exhausted, and many of our foresters are now working those of Siam. If the country is opened out by railways, the large forests existing between the seventeenth and twenty-second parallels of latitude (The Chiang Mai kingdom in Northern Thailand) will become easily available and be a valuable source of supply.

    .... Although I use the word "Shan" to denote a race of people stretching from the valley of Assam, on the west, far into the interior of China, to the extreme south of Siam, it must be understood that the name is not used by themselves, but is merely that given to them by the Burmese. They generally call themselves Tai."


The town of Zimmé.

The northern part of Thailand, Lanna, had been ruled by the Burmese for hundreds of years; and at that time Chiang Mai was usually indicated with its Burmese name Zimme. In 1885 it was part of the Siamese Shan States.

Another paragraph from Archibalds book "Amongst the Shans":

        The town of Zimmé, 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 being a rectangle; it is really an almost perfect square of 1600 by 1600 metres. The Meping River is now called the Mae Ping River, and the old Burmese name Zimme has been changed to Chiang Mai. On maps printed before 1900 it is called Zimme. The town Chiang Mai has had more than 100 names in the past; see below for more examples.

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


Tha Phae gate

2] The wall and bastions.

The fortifications around the old town of Chiang Mai were rebuilt by General Chao Kawila (Chao Kavila) after he liberated the city from the Burmese at the end of the 18th century. To defend against further attacks by the Burmese, he added the bastions at each corner.

There are four corner bastions: Jaeng Sri Phum (NE), Jaeng Katam (SE), Jaeng Ku Ruang (SW) and Jaeng Hua Rin (NW). A Jaeng means bastion or fort.

There used to be five gates in the four walls, clockwise starting from the northern Chang Phuak gate: Chang Phuak gate, Tha Phae gate, Chiang Mai gate, Suan Prung gate, and Suan Dok gate. The restored remains of the gates are still there; and since most of the walls have disappeared many modern road crossings of the moat have been added.

fortifications of Chiang Mai
The old fortifications of Chiang Mai in the 19th century.

The few remains of the wall at the four corners of Chiang Mai are not original; in 1996 to 1997 archaeological excavations were made, before the wall remains were extensively renovated. They reused old bricks mixed with new brickwork to restore what remained of the walls. Unfortunately, the remains are just some low walls close to the corners of the old town.

During the winter of 2018/2019 a new large scale renovation was started using new brickwork. Thus, the restored parts in the walls and bastions are clearly visible.


The bastions on the four corners seem to be quite original; but all of them have been restored, some of them several times, in centuries past. At the north-east corner, Jaeng Sri Phum bastion, the excavation site has been covered with a roof and left open.

Below is a black and white historical photo of Jaeng Sri Phum bastion in the northeast corner.

Jaeng Sri Phum bastion Jaeng Sri Phum bastion in 1967 before it was renovated. Jaeng Sri Phum bastion
Jaeng Sri Phum bastion, on the northeast corner (2017).
Also spelled Chaeng Si Phum or Jaeng Sriphoom.


There used to be more walled cities in Thailand, these walls have mostly been demolished and the bricks reused for houses and road building. Many smaller villages in the Siamese Shan kingdom had just a ditch with a bamboo palisade. Some pieces of the old walls of Nan remain and have been restored, but they are only a very small part of the old wall.
chiang mai compared to Mandalay

Perhaps the best remaining example of a walled city similar to Chiang Mai is the Mandalay fortified city, which has walls of 2032 metres length. This is such a large size that bicycling along these extended walls becomes quite monotonous, especially in the hot midday sun. Mandalay is also a relatively "modern" town, it was founded in 1857. To visit an ancient walled city, you could consider Angkor Thom in Cambodia; which is a huge fortified city and about 800 years old. Angkor Thom was built around 1200 by King Jayavarman VII; and the 5 entry gates to Angkor Thom have his face on the four sides of it's towers.

Besides the four corner bastions Chiang Mai has a hidden fifth one: the Jaeng Thiphanet or Thiphanet 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 is surrounded by buildings and trees which shield the old walls and bastion.

Thipanet bastion Thipanet bastion, on the Kamphaeng Din SW-corner.
photo taken from the top of the Kamphaeng Din wall.

The Thiphanet Bastion is in a poor part of Chiang Mai, surrounded by houses which are partly built on top and next to the old earthen walls. More on the earthen walls in the next paragraph.

The outside of the bastion is enclosed by bushes and trees, the top can only be reached from Thiphanet road through small alleys, not from the Kanchanpisek park side. However there are some guard dogs, which can suddenly pop up from behind fences and try to scare you with very loud "WOOFs". Perhaps have a look at the Kamphaeng Din wall on the eastern side of Chiang Mai first, which is much easier.


3] Kamphaeng Din.

Chiang Mai was originally laid out at the end of the thirteenth century as an almost perfectly square fortress. Later an outer earthen and brick wall was added: Kampaeng Din wall. Kampaeng Din is Thai for Earthen rampart or earthen wall. It circles around the southeast area of Chiang Mai along the Mae Kha canal. It is mostly made of a quite strong clay substance and has surprisingly survived many monsoon rains.

Kamphaeng Din circles around the southeast area of Chiang Mai - the "suburbs". The square brick city wall around the old town was the "fortified city" or main old town where the king and nobility lived along with the Buddhist monks in their monasteries; the clay and earthen wall went around the suburbs where the common people lived.

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

chiang mai wall Kamphaeng Din wall at Kanchanpisek park.

On the western side near Thipanet road there is a stretch of wall which completely intact. This is the best part of the wall; it is located in the Kanchanpisek Park at the southwest corner, Jaeng Ku Ruang, just outside of the old city. This quiet park is just south of the popular Nong Buak Hard park in the SW corner of Chiang Mai old town; one has to cross the moat and a busy road to reach it. The clay wall is about 5 metres high at this location, but lower in most other parts.

Why is the old earthen 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 clay soil and started growing abundantly and covered the walls with their lush foliage.

chiang mai 1904 map
The earth wall on Kamphaeng Din road has been eroded severely in some places.

If you want to see the Kamphaeng Din walls then the easiest part to see it is east of the old town, along the Kamphaeng Din road which runs along the old wall. Walk down Loi Kroh road and turn left into Kamphaeng Din road; it's just before the bridge over the stream that borders the old earthen walls. Of the original 4000 metre long Kamphaeng Din wall between 1300 and 1600 metres remain; so roughly 30 to 40 percent is still traceable, the rest has completely gone. Only the canal remains; and together with the many trees growing in the clay soil of Kamphaeng Din it creates a green line around the city.

The Chiang Mai Department of Fine Arts and the Chiang Mai Municipality have made plans for a project of restoration of the ancient Kamphaeng Din fortifications and the canal around it. This project has not started yet.

Below is an illustration of a detailed development plan by the Louisiana State University of the Mae Kha canal which is currently a rather polluted canal next to the Kamphaeng Din wall. Chiang Mai has Waste Water Treatment plants, but not anywhere around the old canal. More on this cleanup and greening campaign here: www.asla.org/2016studentawards (ASLA, Louisiana State University)

mae kha canal map
An illustration of the Mae Kha canal development plan.


You may be surprised to know that the very large and modern town of Chiang Mai is only partly connected to a sewer system. A lot of sewage goes straight into the Mae Kha canal. Thailand is great at building new roads, and tax breaks on new trucks, which generate more traffic jams. These jams clearly show the need for many more new roads to accomodate the many new cars. But a sewage system for a large town is not very interesting, let alone a sewage system for the poorer neighborhoods.

But, after many years of research and studies,; it seems that finally Chiang Mai officials are getting serious about cleaning up the canal. A five year plan has been made for the Mae Kha Canal preservation, with a 2.5 billion baht budget. The 2,5 billion baht is 75 million euro, so that shows a commitment to a good waste water system and landscape improvement. More: chiangmaicitylife.com. (2 July 2019)


4] The Thaphae Gate Puzzle.

Where was the old 1899 photo of the Thapae Gate?

Tha Phae square is the centre of activities and celebrations in Chiang Mai. Chinese tourists love to feed the pigeons and make selfies; totally ignoring the large signs in Thai, English and Chinese to NOT feed the pigeons. Most of the tourists love to make selfies by the Tha Phae Gate sign on the fresh modern bricks. Been here, done that.

Tha Phae gate 2015
Tha Phae gate selfie.

The modern Thapae Gate (or Tha Phae Gate) looks from afar like a modern wall, and it seems to be a contemporary reconstruction. It is very loosely based on an old photograph of the Thapae Gate from 1899. But it is a rather oversized wall, totally straight as if measured out with laser alignment equipment and modern tools.

Tha Phae gate 1899
Historical old photo of Thapae/Tha Phae gate in 1899
Boonserm Satraphai, "Chiang Mai in Memories", 2011, p59.

From the old photo it is clearly visible that Thapae Gate used to have a double gated entrance, as was common in many old town walls. On this site www.lanna-ww2.com all the ancient gates are described. Hak Hakanson makes the point that the photo of Thapae Gate in 1899 might have been located to the east of the current location; where Thapae road crosses the Kamphaeng Din wall. The Kamphaeng Din wall is indicated on the map below.

Tha Phae gate
Chiang Mai map from King Inthawichayanon, dated 1893.
Colouring and minor edits by R. Schierbeek

Let's have a look at the detailed map above from King Inthawichayanon; also called the Mahadthai map. This is one of the best and most detailed historic maps of Chiang Mai there is of this period; and the dimensions of land plots, wats and houses are quite accurate for the time. The descriptions are mostly written in Thai and English language, but unfortunately these can be difficult to read; and there seems to be a bit of water damage in some spots. This map was likely produced in the early 1890s by a member of James McCarthy’s cartographic survey team.

King Chao Intha-wichayanon was the 7th Ruler of Chiang Mai from 1870 until 1897. The inner Thapae gate (1) is on the left; which is now a modern square with a reconstruction of the wall and gate. The outer Thapae gate (2) is on the right; where Thapae road crosses the Kamphaeng Din wall. Just outside Kamphaeng Din wall is a small canal. The inner Thapae gate has a defensive tower on the NE corner of the courtyard. Holt Hallett writes about these two entry portals as being courtyards made from stone walls in his book "A Thousand Miles on an Elephant in the Shan States"; but didn't describe the gates in detail.

The inner Thapae gate.

Tha Phae gate

If we look carefully at the wall in the background on the historic photo, it seems there are a quite lot of trees there, instead of houses and rooftops which one would expect inside the city. Furthermore, the shadows seem to indicate that the sun is shining from the right side. Since the sun is most of the time in the south, the photographer could well be looking towards the east.

On the right is Thapae gate as it was drawn on the old 1893 map, with a small courtyard. It seemed to have a defensive tower. The historic photo is not clear, but in the back behind the left figure there seems to be a large structure - perhaps the tower?

However, if you look carefully at the Thapae gate drawing there appear to be a problem. The offset between the 2 gates is quite large on the drawing, much larger than it appears on the photograph.

Tha Phae gate 1899 On the right is a map of the old inner Thapae gate projected on current roads. The viewpoint where the photo was taken would be at the crossing of Rachadamnoen and Moon Muang road.

So, is it is probable that the photo was taken from the inside of the old city, looking eastward? The trees in the background would make sense, they probably grew along the moat. Nowadays there are many trees on Thapae square.

On the other hand, the offset between the gates is quite large; it could be offset by 10 metres. It seems difficult to make this map match the photograph.

The hypothesis that the photo was taken at the location where Thapae road crosses the Kamphaeng Din wall is certainly a possibility. Has the photo been taken at the outer Thapae gate? That is worth an investigation; let's take another look.

Perhaps it is useful to do some photo analysis on the black and white photo.

Tha Phae gate

Observations on the black and white Thapae Gate photo.

  1. The photographer is positioned in the middle of the road right in front of the gate. He is positioned only very slightly off-center.
  2. Two people are standing in the front gate, a man on the right and a smaller man on the left. In the background another person is posing.
  3. If the man on the right is about 1,50 to 1,60 metres tall, then the camera height is approximately 1 metre. (horizon comparison)
  4. If the right man is 1,50 metres tall (P), then the walls incl. ramparts are about 3 x 1,50 = 4,50 metres high (H = 3 x P), perhaps max. 5m.
  5. The two wooden gates are offset (O) by a bit more than half the wall height (H); therefore, the offset is roughly 2,5 metres.
  6. The gate width is about 4 metres.
  7. The road seems to be well-used. It is slightly elevated toward the gate in the back.
  8. Behind the gate and the wall in the back there are a lot of trees.

The outer Thapae gate.

Tha Phae gate

There is a possibility that the photo was taken at the outer Thapae gate, looking eastward. Could the road, courtyard and gates fit into a relatively narrow road like Thapae road? The trees in the background would make sense, they probably grew along the canal and the rough ground around it.

If we project the old map from King Intha-wichayanon on the current roads and buildings it matches surprisingly well. With some resizing and tweaking the result is visible below. The Thapae road is 14 metres wide at the east side of the outer gate; which is 3 car lanes plus sidewalks, and the gate fits in like a glove. On the western side of the outer gate Thapae road becomes smaller and is only 2 car lanes wide.

Tha Phae gate

The Wat south of Thapae road is the whimsical Wat Buppharam; the red-roofed temple buildings north of Thapae road are Wat Saen Fang. Wat Saen Fang is a quite old temple with history going back to the 14th century but the present building was built in the 19th century by the Burmese when they occupied Chiang Mai. The central white/grey square building in Wat Saen Fang is a Burmese-style chedi (a chedi is the thai name for Buddhist stupa).

These walled temple areas fit reasonably with the map, because Wats were holy places which were rarely abandoned, unlike houses which could be sold and converted into modern buildings. The accuracy of the Wat Buppharam temple is a bit off, it is a trapezium (trapezoid) shape rather than a rectangle.

The large ponds east of the gate were filled in and now have modern buildings on them. The canal has also been straightened; but the position of the canal at Thapae road is the same.

The last piece of the puzzle.

Tha Phae gate

Let's have a look at the last piece of the puzzle. On the right is the outer Thapae gate with the offset (O) drawn in; which amounts to a bit less then a car lane. The width of the road is 3 car lanes, 3*3=9 metres plus two sidewalks and a small bike lane equals 14 metres. A car lane is generally between 2.5 to 3.25 metres wide (highways are wider); so for the offset we can estimate roughly 2,5 to 3 metres. That offset of 2,5 metres corresponds nicely with the offset in the 1899 Thapae gate photograph.

Is the mystery of the "Tha Phae Puzzle" solved? My impression is that the position of the photographer is at the outer gate. The inner gate with its defensive tower on the courtyard just does not correspond with the photograph.

The offset derived from the road width when Inthawichayanon's map is projected on the current roads matches the estimate offset in the photograph. If you have another opinion or idea on where the photo was made then let me know!

Tha Phae gate
The current Thapae road looking east, taken in front of Wat Saen Fang (2019).

At the current Thapae road at the old site of outer Thapae gate not a trace remains of the wall or old gate. Except perhaps Wat Saen Fang, the temple north of Thapae road. The walls of Wat Saen Fang are much thicker and higher than normal temple walls, and they have two square towers at the same place of the old defensive towers. Could this massive looking wall be the old stone wall of Chiang Mai town? The northern large corner tower/bastion seems to have been reconstructed as a smaller square tower, and the northern wall has been displaced, thus enlarging the area of Wat Saen Fang.

The walls of Wat Saen Fang
The wall and square towers of Wat Saen Fang (2019).


Back to the modern Thapae gate on Thapae Square. It resembled the old photograph of the Thapae Gate from 1899, remember. Well that old Thapae Gate in 1899 looked very different from the modern one.

Yes, the current gate and wall are a totally straight reconstruction from 1985. The wall is built around a hollow concrete support structure; nothing of it is original. Therefore, the new Thapae Gate is very much fake and has nothing to do with the original gate and walls. The only part that looks like the original is the hardwood door which is similar to the city door on the historical photo. All the rest is a very contemporary piece of imagination.

Finally a photograph of the plaque at the modern Thapae gate. Notice the phrase: "Based on a photograph of ONE of the Thapae gates."

Tha Phae plaque
The plaque at the modern Thapae gate about the
naming of the inner and outer Thapae gate.


Chiang Mai links.


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All photo's copyright © 2018 Roelof Schierbeek, Netherlands.