Last update: Sep 14, 2018
Unexplored Chiang Mai.
Archibald Ross Colquhoun - 1885
Chiang Mai is situated in the broad valley of the Ping river; a large plain surrounded by low mountains and extensive forests. The fortified town of Chiang Mai on the Ping river was surrounded by extensive paddy fields a hundred years ago. Small palisaded villages were scattered throughout the Chiang Mai kingdom, larger towns like Chiang Rai, Nan and Chiang Saen, which were part of the kingdom, had moats and stone walls as protection.
Around 130 years ago 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 dizzying number of other hill-tribes. Many of them originated from southern China (Yunnan) and Burma; the Akha originated in the Tibetan Highlands. These tribal people came to the morning market in Chiang Mai to sell their vegetables, fruit and 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 mountain Kingdom of Chiang Mai.
The year 1885 was a pivotal year in Burma; Great Britain was busy annexing the last part of the country; Upper Burma. Great Britain's army would conquer Mandalay in November 1885, and henceforth Burma would be a province of British India. 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. 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.
Historical map of Indochina in 1885.
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 northern part of Thailand, Lanna, had been ruled by the Burmese for hundreds of years; and at that time the 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.
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 is 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 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.
The old walls and bastions of Chiang Mai.
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 are five gates on the 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 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 - 1997 archaeological excavations were made before the walls near the gates were extensively renovated. They reused old bricks which were inserted into new brickwork for the little bit that remains of the walls.
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 in 1967 before it was renovated.
Jaeng Sri Phum bastion, on the northeast corner (2017).
Also in different spelling called Chaeng Si Phum
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.
Perhaps the best remaining example of a wall similar to Chiang Mai's is the Mandalay citadel, which have walls of 2032 meters 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. For an ancient walled city you could visit Angkor Thom in Cambodia; which is a huge citadel 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 there is a 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, on the Kamphaeng Din SW-corner.
Chiang Mai was originally laid out at the end of the thirteenth century as an almost perfect square fortress, with an additional, outer, earthen and brick wall. Kampaeng Din means earthen rampart in Thai, and 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 "citadel" 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 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 clay 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.
Kamphaeng Din wall; a 3 meters high earth and clay rampart.
The clay wall is about 3 meters high, and at the photo above the lowest part is strengthened with a stone wall. The rest of the wall is almost invisible behind the brush and trees. 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.
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 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 meter long Kamphaeng Din wall between 1300 and 1600 meters remain; so roughly 30 to 40 percent is still traceable, the rest has completely gone. Only the canal outside it is there; and together with 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, recognized as a potential heritage which can increase cultural Sustainable Architecture and Urban tourism. This project has not started yet.
The Tha Phae 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 selfie.
The modern Thapae Gate (or Tha Phae Gate) looks from afar like a modern wall, and it certainly is contemporary. It is a totally straight reconstruction from 1985 built around a concrete structure; it is very loosely based on an old photograph of the Thapae Gate from 1899. Therefore, the new Thapae Gate wall is very much fake and has nothing to do with the original gate and walls. It is oversized, nothing in the material is original, the ramparts are too large, and everything is totally fake. The only part that looks like the original is the hardwood door which looks like the city door on the historical photo.
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. A point is made that the photo above 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.
Chiang Mai map from King Inthawichayanon, dated 1893.
Colouring and minor edits by R. Schierbeek
Let's have a look at the detailed map from King Inthawichayanon. King Chao Intha-wichayanon was the 7th Ruler of Chiang Mai from 1870 until 1897. The inner Thapae gate is on the left in the moat; the outer Thapae gate 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 describes these two entry portals made from stone walls in his book "A Thousand Miles on an Elephant in the Shan States", but not in detail. (see below).
Layout and photo angle of the Thapae gate in 1899
If we map the Thapae Gate layout with the modern roads and Thapae square it seems to match. The 1899 Thapae/Tha Phae Gate photo seems to have an offset between the two gates that matches the roads as they are now; and probably as they were at the time.
However, 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.
Let's do some photo analysis on the black and white photo.
Photo analysis on the black and white Thapae Gate photo.
- The photographer is positioned in front of the gate but slightly off-center, to include both gates and the road in the picture frame.
- The two wooden gates are offset by what seems to be 4 to 5 meters.
- 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.
- If the man on the right is about 1,50 to 1,60 meters tall, then the camera height is approximately 1 meter. (horizon comparison)
- If the right man is 1,50 meters tall, then the walls incl. ramparts are about 3 x 1,50 = 4,50 meters high, perhaps max. 5m.
- Then, the two wooden gates are offset by about to 4 to 5 meters.
- That would make the gate width about 4 meters wide.
- The road seems to be well-used. It is slightly elevated toward the gate in the back.
- Behind the the gate and the wall in the back there are a lot of trees.
On the right is a map of the old Thapae gate projected on current roads. The offset between the inner and outer gate seems larger than in the photo, though this is difficult to determine from such a rough map.
If we look carefully at the wall in the background, 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.
So, 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 grew along the moat; right at the place where the trees are now on Thapae square.
On the right is Thapae gate as it was drawn on the old 1893 map, having a defensive tower on the courtyard. The photo is not clear, but in the back behind the left figure there seems to be a large structure - perhaps the tower?
What if the photo was made at the outer Thapae gate?
There is a possibility that the photo was taken at the outer Thapae gate, looking eastward. Could the road and gates offset of around 4 to 5 meters fit on 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 match the map from King Intha-wichayanon with the current roads and buildings; it matches surprisingly well. With some resizing and turning the result is visible below. The Thapae road is 14 meters wide at the outer gate; which is 3 car lanes plus sidewalks, and the gate fits in like a glove.
The Wat in the lower left is the whimsical Wat Buppharam; the red-roofed temple buildings north of Thapae gate road in the centre 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 pentragram 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 moved and modified; but the position at the gate and Thapae road is the same.
Is the mystery of the "Tha Phae Puzzle" solved? My impression is that the position of the photographer is probably at the outer gate. The inner gate with its defensive tower on the courtyard just does not correspond with the photograph; although a larger size print might change my mind. Wouldn't it be nice if a better, larger Thapae gate photo showed up? Perhaps some day it comes to light. If you have another option or idea on where the photo was made then let me know!