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Last update: July 19, 2018

Unexplored Chiang Mai.

Archibald Ross Colquhoun - 1885

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 conquer 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 northern Thailand started; which had rich teak forests in the provinces of Chiang Mai, Lampang, and Phrae.

chiang mai 1904 map
Historical map of Indochina in 1885.

Archibald Ross Colquhoun was one of the early western visitors to Chiang Mai in 1885. The northern part of Thailand, Lanna, had been ruled by the Burmese for hundreds of years; and at that time the town was usually indicated with its Burmese name Zimme. In 1885 it was part of the Siamese Shan States.

A paragraph from Archibalds 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 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 wall 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.

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 - 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 only truly original parts of the old walls that remain are the bastions; but all of them have been restored, some of them several times, in centuries past. At the north-east corner 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, before restoration around 1920. Jaeng Sri Phum bastion
Jaeng Sri Phum bastion, on the northeast corner (2017).
Also in different spelling called Chaeng Si Phum

The modern Thapae Gate, in the middle of the eastern wall, was rebuilt in 1986 around a concrete framework, very loosely based very on an old photograph of the Thapae Gate from 1910. Therefore, the new Thapae Gate is a totally straight modern wall and has nothing to do with the original gate and walls. Nevertheless, tourists love to make selfies by the Tha Phae Gate sign on the fresh modern bricks. Been here, done that.

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

Where was the historical photo of Thapae Gate?

On this site all the ancient gates are described. A point is made that the photo above of Thapae Gate in 1910 might have been located to the east of the current location; where Thapae road crosses the Kamphaeng Din wall (the old dirt wall, see the historical map above).

Tha phae gate 1910
Layout and photo angle of the Thapae gate in 1910

My opinion is that the 1910 Thapae/Tha Phae Gate photo does have an offset that matches the roads as they are now; and probably as they were at the time. If we map the Thapae Gate layout with the modern roads and Thapae square it matches very well; see below.

Tha phae gate 1910
Map of the old Thapae gate projected on current roads.

The offset between the two walls and the quite large space between the front and back wall (estimate: 15-20 meters) matches the modern Thapae square quite nicely. Another point against the hypothesis that the photo was be taken at the location where Thapae road crosses the Kamphaeng Din wall is that an elaborate brick gate entry in a simple dirt wall does not make much sense.

We will probably not know for sure until some archaeology department starts looking for the foundations - that is not likely to happen anytime soon.


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 is 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 meters high earth and clay rampart.

The dirt wall is about 3 meters 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 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 followed 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 dirt walls. 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.


Private museums and Whacky Wats.

Unusual and off the grid places

After a few weeks of sampling the many different restaurants, the traditional Thai and Indian food, the fusion food, the many small vegetarian places, the modern Japanese restaurants, you may get the impression that Chiang Mai is the food capital of Northern Thailand. It certainly is. But Chiang Mai is also an important cultural city and a center of modern art. Northern Thailand has many unique museums, some small, some private, many unknown, that are very interesting; here are a few examples.
  • The MAIIAM Museum of Contemporary Art opened its doors in 2016. The Museum houses the Bunnag-Beurdeley familyís permanent collection. MAIIAM is located close to San Kamphaeng, 12 km east of Chiang Mai. Entrance fee is 150 baht. (Only interesting if you like contemporary Thai art - there is no history here.)

    MAIIAM Museum of Contemporary Art
    MAIIAM Museum of Contemporary Art.

  • Lanna Traditional House Museum - This teakwood house museum is an open-air museum; part of the Centre for the promotion of arts and culture, Chiang Mai university. Entry fee is 20 baht.
  • The Dara Pirom Palace Museum in Mae Rim is worth visiting, half an hour north of Chiang Mai. The museum is an old historic house which was home to the famous Lanna princess Dara Rasami, who was one of the consorts of Chulalongkorn, King Rama V of Siam.
  • Wat Ket Karam or Wat Sra Ket is a small but nice temple on the eastern riverside road, and it has its own little museum.
  • Wat Ket Community Traditional Museum is located inside the Wat Ket temple grounds; it is a somewhat dusty collection; varied items that mostly date from the early twentieth century and perhaps the late nineteenth; like textile, photographs, statues, phones, radios, swords and daggers, old currency and household items. The black and white photographs of old Chiang Mai are interesting. An eclectic collection of beautiful, weird, interesting, bizarre, religious and artistic objects. No entry fee but there is a donation box.
  • The Wat Ket area has many interesting old houses which have been turned into galleries and cafe's. Some of the trendy restaurants are very popular at night, and in the afternoon there is a beautiful view of the Ping river to enjoy.
  • Not a museum but an interesting and historic place: the McKean Rehabilitation Center and Hospital. In 1905 Dr. McKean got permission to establish a leprosy colony or leper asylum on a large island in the Ping river, about 10km south of the old city. Now the colony has been turned into a rehabilitation center which it is surrounded by teak plantations. The hospital, colonial houses, church and the many small dwellings for the leprosy patients are still there.
    There are plans to modernise the area, and create a McKean Rehabilitation park:
  • Wat Jed Yod is probably one of the least visited major temples because it is located outside of the old town in an inconvenient place. Jet Yod translates to "seven peaks" and refers to the seven chedis which top a structure in the temple complex. It's a very unusual temple building because it is a copy of the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodhgaya in India. It was built in the fifteenth century to host the Eighth World Buddhist Council.
    Wat Jed Yod is located on the highway which rings Chiang Mai; it is right next to the Chiang Mai National Museum. Both places are not directly connected however, and signage is minimal so you might want to use a smartphone with GPS map to find it.
  • Wat Ban Den is about an hours' drive up north on the way to the Sticky Waterfall (Bua Thong waterfall), just east of Mae Taeng in the small Inthakin village. It is a relatively unknown Wat and not signposted in english so you'll need a GPS map to find it.
    Wat Ban Den is one of Chiang Maiís most remarkable and surprising temples; and one of the largest temple complexes in Chiang Mai province. The complex contains a large number of structures including an ordination hall, a viharn, a meditation hall and several other buildings. A few large mythical Naga serpents guard the Wat on each side of the stairs, and all over the temple grounds are white lion figures called Singha.
    As you probably guessed from the Naga serpent photo below; the wat is relatively new. It was completely renovated in 1988 by abbot named Kruba Tuaengg, who aimed to establish a Buddhist wat with spectacular effects.

Wat Ban Den Naga
A Naga serpent guarding Wat Ban Den.


Chiang Mai literature.

Archibald was by no means the first traveller 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.

  • 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.

The railway that Holt Samuel Hallett and Archibald surveyed and promoted; running from Burma to China was never constructed. The proposed railway would start in Moulmein (Mawlamyine, Burma), go north-east into Thailand towards Zimme (Chiang Mai), through Kiang Hai (Chiang Rai) and ending in Kiang Hsen (Chiang Saen); the terminal point. The railway that was eventually constructed in Thailand started in Bangkok and ended in Chiang Mai.

Chao Uparat Bunthawong
A very early photo of Chao Uparat Bunthawong taken by Francis Chit in 1863
Notice the typical Lanna hairstyle, which is still popular these days.


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. On most maps older than 100 years Chiang Mai is called Zimme. From Zimme it was changed to Chiangmai or Chiang Mai. Zimme seems a very different name from Chiang Mai, but it may have gone through a phonetic route like: Zimme - Zimmay - Zam-may - Jang-mai - Chang mai - Chiang Mai.

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 of Thailand was teak country where elephants used to work in the forests; it was commerce and trade that drew foreign entrepreneurs to northern 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 English gentleman merchant who visited Chiang Mai in 1587 (four hundred years ago) spelt the town Iamahey. In 1615 The East India Company favoured 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.


Background: aboutme

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

Archibald Ross Colquhoun