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Last update: Sep 28, 2022

Exploring Chiang Mai in the 19th century.

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.

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.

Asian rhino
Hunting trophies of asian rhino and buffalo.

Nowadays the Asian rhino is almost extinct in Thailand; and a large part of the forests have gone. The large, old teak trees have disappeared from the forests, the only teak to be seen are the newly planted trees in uniform rows in teak plantations.

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.

In historic times there used to be 75 wats or temples in Chiang Mai; most of these wats are still there. That makes Chiang Mai the best place for historical tourism in Thailand. More on the temples in Chiang Mai below.


A very faire and great Towne, with faire houses of stone.

One of the earliest visitors of Chiang Mai was Ralph Fitch, an English gentleman merchant who visited Chiang Mai in 1587. Ralph Fitch's visit was mentioned by Sir Henry Yule in his book "A Narrative of the mission sent by the Governor General of India to the Court of Ava in 1855". Ava was then the capital of Burma; and Sir Henry Yule was a secretary to Arthur Phayre's mission to Burma.

Henri Yule only traveled inside Burma, but also described the geography and towns of northern Thailand. On page 212 of his narrative, he describes the eastern Shan state (now part of Thailand) and the town of Zimme:

        This Iamahey, or Jamahey, is undoubtedly the Shan town of Zimme, which has been very rarely reached by any European traveller in modem times. Fitch describes it as "a very faire and great Towne, with faire houses of stone;" which is remarkable, if true.

As the explorers wrote in journals and letters to their families, each wrote their own spelling of Chiang Mai. In 1587 Ralph Fitch spelled the town of Chiang Mai as Iamahey. In 1615 The East India Company favoured Jangoma, while the early Portuguese used Chiangmai. The British in colonial times, before 1900, called it Zimme and gradually started using Chiang Mai. The French called the place Xieng Mai, and the Dutch preferred Ischeen May and Tsieengh Maeij.

Yule describes different early explorers of the independent eastern Shan State, which is now in northern Thailand; and in this context, on page 210 he mentions Jangomai and on page 214 Zengomay. So here, Yule describes the discovery of the kingdom of Zimme; and mentions no less than 5 other names for Zimme: Iamahey, Jamahey, Jangomai, Zengomay and Kiang Mai.

Yule goes on to describe captain William MacLeod's early mapping efforts of Northern Thailand in some detail. For example on page 264:

        In 1837 Captain Macleod penetrated through Zimme to the remote Shan state of Kiang Hung. (Kengtung)

And on page 308:
        The ruins of the fort of Kiang-Hai (= Chiang Rai), with the remains of Pagodas and arched gateways, were seen by Macleod on his way from Zimme to Kiang-Tung. It is said to have been the capital of the state before the foundation of Zimme.

MacLeod's maps were not very accurate, because at that time mapping was done with a sextant and distance estimation. A few decades later, James McCarthy mapped Northern Thailand with the use of triangulation, which was much more accurate.

According to Hans Penth ("On the history of Chiang Rai"); it seems that the walls and gates of Chiang Rai were torn down around 1920 on the advice of Dr. Briggs, an American missionary physician, who argued that the area along the wall and the moat was muddy and filthy and therefore a source of all kinds of illnesses, and that the wall also obstructed the flow of fresh air. That was the end of the historic fortifications of Chiang Rai.


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 Colquhoun's 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. A study published in 1821 concluded that a ship built from Indian teak in Bombay, could outlast a ship built from English oak by over 40 years. 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. And the British certainly hunted the teak trees with determination.

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.

Indochina 1885
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" (page 204); where he refers to the Chiang Mai Kingdom in Northern Thailand:

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 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 lost city of Zimmé.

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

Another paragraph from Archibald's 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.

fortifications of Chiang Mai
The walls around 1911, as Archibald would have seen them.
Photo by Morinosuke Tanaka of the northern moat, looking east.

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
Map of Chiang Mai in 1904; Kamphaeng Din is the half circle.
Historische Karte von Chiang Mai im jahre 1904. Carte ancienne de Chiang Mai, 1904

Archibald was wrong about Chiang Mai having a rectangular shape; the old town is a square of roughly 1600 by 1600 metres. The Meping River is now called the Mae Ping River, and the old Burmese name Zimmé has been changed to Chiang Mai. On maps printed before 1900 it is called Zimmé. The town Chiang Mai has had more than 100 names in the past; see below for more examples.

More on Archibald Colquhoun here: Rail survey


From Zimmé to Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai has had more than a hundred names in the past; the French called it Xieng Mai, the Burmese called it Zimme, Zimay, Zimmay or Zam-may. 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. The following paragraph lists some examples of the spellings of Chiang Mai.

A list of the historical names of Chiang Mai (alphabetical):
Cheang Mai
Cheung Mai
Chiang Mai
Chiang May
Chieng Mai
Chung Mai
C'ieng Mai
Kiang Mai
Shia mai
Tschieng Mai
Tsching Mai
Tsieeng May
Xieng May
Xieng Mai
Xieng mai
Xieng Me

Thapae road
Thapae road in 1902.


Back in time to Thapae Gate.

Thapae Square is the centre of activities and celebrations in Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai revolves around Thapae Square, which is livelier than the Three Kings Monument Square in the middle of the old town. The large open Three Kings Square does have two museums, but somehow it is not the center of activities.

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 Thaphae Gate sign on the fresh modern bricks. Been here, done that.

Thaphae gate 2015
Thaphae gate selfie.

The Thaphae Gate and wall that you see at Thapae Square are modern reconstructions from 1985. The gate is a contemporary reconstruction, very loosely based on an old photograph of the Thapae Gate from 1899. But the walls are rather oversized, and totally straight as if measured out with laser alignment equipment and modern tools. The wall is built around a hollow concrete support structure and nothing of it is original.

Therefore, the modern Thapae Gate is quite fake and has nothing to do with the original gate and walls. The only part that looks like the original is the wooden door contruction, which were designed like the doors on the historical photo. All the rest is a very contemporary piece of imagination.

Next to Thapae Gate is a plaque which explains the history of the inner and outer Thapae gate; and which also states: "Based on a photograph of ONE of the Thapae gates". There used to be two gates on Tha Phae road, one in the square city wall, and one at the outer defence ring where Thapae road crosses the Kamphaeng Din wall. (Kamphaeng Din)

Thapae gate 1899
Ancient photo of Thapae / Tha Phae gate in 1899
Boonserm Satraphai, "Chiang Mai in Memories", 2011, p59.
Thapae Tor, ancienne Porte de Thapae, Thapae poort

From the old photo it is obvious that Thapae Gate was shaped like a double gated courtyard, as was common in many walled towns. On this site 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 outer circular wall. The Kamphaeng Din wall is indicated on the map below.

Where was the 1899 photo of Thapae Gate taken?

Thaphae Road runs from Thaphae Gate to the Mae Ping River. Tha Phae translates to "raft landing"; in ancient times the Ping River was the main transport route. Let's have a look at the detailed map below from 1893; which was created in King Inthawichayanon's time. great

Thapae gate Part of a historic map of Chiang Mai for Inthawichayanon, dated 1893. Colouring and edits by R. Schierbeek.

The inner Thapae gate (1), or Prathu Thapae Nai, is on the left. This is where the modern Thapae Square is nowadays. The outer Thapae gate (2), or Prathu Thapae Nok is on the right; where Thapae road crosses the Kamphaeng Din wall. Just outside Kamphaeng Din wall is a small canal, with two large ponds.

For a long time there have been doubts about the location of the original "Thapae Gate", where the photograph was taken in 1899. Was this gate located at the inner Thapae gate (1) and part of the square city wall; or was it at the outer Thapae gate (2)?

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.

Solving the mystery ...

Where was the photographer located? If you look carefully at the photo you can take a guess at the photographer's position. There are hints, which are difficult to see, but there are also clues which are obvious and incontroversial. Once you spot the right hints, the pieces of the puzzle will all come together.

Thapae gate 1899
Thapae gate historic photo from 1899.
Thapae Tor, Porte de Thapae colorisée, Thapae poort

If you want to find the location of the Thapae Gate photo, look here: thapae.htm.



Lanna History - King Inthawichayanon's map.

King Inthawichayanon

The last king of the independent state of Lanna was king Inthawichayanon. King Inthawichayanon, or with his Thai title Phra Chao Inthawichayanon, was born as Prince Inthanon. "Chao" is a title for high ranking royalty in Lanna state; it originates from the Chinese language, and means "the great one". The highest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon, was named after Prince Inthanon.

Chao Inthawichayanon was the last of the seven rulers of the Chao Chet Ton Dynasty of the Lanna kingdom. "Chao Chet Ton" means the "Seven Princes Dynasty", which was started by in 1796 by the famous Kavila (Kawila); the king who reconquered Chaing Mai and Lanna from the Burmese occupiers.

Below is a diagram of the complicated history of the mountain kingdom of Lanna. It all started with king Mengrai, and ended with king Inthawichayanon. Surprisingly, for a few centuries the northern part of Thailand was a province of Burma. King Mengrai created the towns of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai and conquered the Haripunchai kingdom (Lamphun).

Timeline of the Lanna Kingdom and the Chet Ton dynasty, including Inthawichayanon.
King Mengrai was ruler of Chiang Saen, and founder of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai.
Effectively, he founded the Lanna Kingdom, which covered a large part of Northern Thailand

To get an idea of what Chiang Mai was like 130 years ago, we can have a look at an important historic map, made in 1893 for King Inthawichayanon. This is one of the best and most detailed historic maps of Chiang Mai there is; and the dimensions of land plots and wats are carefully drawn, though not completely accurate.

The residence of Phra Chao Inthawichayanon was on Prapokklao (Phra Pok Klao) road, close to the central square, just north of the current Lanna Folklife museum. (the green area on map below)

The map is hand-drawn, and the descriptions are written in both the Thai and English language. Unfortunately, these can be difficult to read, and there seems to be some water damage.


The 75 wats of Chiang Mai

Archibald Colquhoun (rail survey) estimated that in 1879 there were 500 monks living in 75 wats in Chiang Mai, an average of about 7 monks per wat (Amongst the Shans, p.138). The map below, made for King Inthawichayanon, shows 50 temples in the old square town in 1893.

Archibald's number of 75 wats in Chiang Mai could be a good estimate; as he included the 22 temples in the "suburbs" and around Thapae road. Of the 50 temples in the walled town, 10 have disappeared, and have been replaced by Buddhist schools or modern buildings.

Historic map of Chiang Mai
Historic map of Chiang Mai for King Inthawichayanon, dated 1893.
Edited and cleaned up by R. Schierbeek

Historische Karte von Chiang Mai im jahre 1893. Carte ancienne de Chiang Mai, 1893

Archaeological news - Wiang Kaew

There is a mystifying area in the center of town, the large empty area of Wiang Kaew (see map, green). It is strange, because only important or rich people could afford such a large plot in the middle of town. In the 20th century there was a prison on this ground, which later became the Chiang Mai Correctional Institution for women.

There was a legend that it had been built on the land that had formally housed the “Wiang Kaew”, the residence of King Mengrai who built the city in 1296. Wiang Kaew was the royal court area since the establishment of Chiang Mai. This royal area had been abandoned when King Inthawichayanon moved his residence a bit eastward, to the site which is now the Yupparaj Wittayalai School (green). In 1902 the Central Prison was built on this spot.

When the prison was closed in 2013, the old prison walls got covered in a lot of graffiti, and in 2016 the city began to demolish buildings and structures. The Faculty of Fine Arts started excavations in 2020 to dig for archaeological traces of the King Mengrai palace. And lo and behold, about 1 meter underground the southern wall was discovered. The width of this wall is approximately 1,8 to 2 meters.

The discovery of this wall indicates that Wiang Kaew palace is actually here, just as it appears on the ancient map of 1893. After Mengrai, many Lanna kings had their residence here, and the foundations of two royal buildings have been found.

map of Chiang Mai royal area

  1. Wiang Kaew (King Mengrai's palace); in 1893 this was a vacant area.
  2. Chao Ratchabut (crown prince). Here is now the old office of British American Tobacco Ltd; which was closed in 1941.
  3. Sala: public resting pavillion. Sanam: public square.
  4. Residence of Phra Chao Inwichayanon (orange), and east of it his royal garden.
  5. Khao Sanam Luang is the State Council building, which was in front of the king’s palace.
  6. Modern: Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre museum.
  7. Modern: Three Kings Monument Square. (Kuang Luang)
  8. Modern: Lanna Folklife museum.
  9. Modern: Yupparaj Wittayalai School.

In addition to the wide brick walls, much evidence has been unearthed, especially pottery from various sources. There was celadon-type porcelain, Sukhothai pottery, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese ceramics. Surprisingly, no Burmese wares were found.

Many in the community want to develop the area into a park and museum. Due to the significant archaeological findings which are part of the history of Chiang Mai, historians and archaeologists want to preserve it; the consensus seems to be that it should become a public area for use by everyone.

The residence of King Inthawichayanon has vanished, and is now the sporting green of Yupparaj Wittayalai School. There is a large new square, just 200m south of the old one, where the Three Kings Monument is. The Three Kings in front of the Chiang Mai City Art & Cultural Center are King Mengrai, King Ramkhamhaeng and King Ngam Muang.

The building of the Chiang Mai City Art & Cultural Center was constructed in 1924, and served as the administrative centre. From here, Chiang Mai was ruled in the 20th century, until the administration was moved out of the old town.

Of the old royal residences there is nothing left, apart from the foundations and some archaeological remains. King Inthawichayanon has unfortunately faded from history, unlike his daughter Princess Dara Rasmi. Information about Princess Dara Rasmi is widely available on the internet; and her old mansion in Mae Rim is now the Dara Pirom Palace Museum. The administration in Bangkok annexed Lanna (the Chiang Mai kingdom) in 1893, and last king was not of much interest to the Thai rulers. But the excavation of Wiang Kaew has put Inthawichayanon back on the map.

The dilapidated Wiang Kaew palace. (colorized by me)


Surveying Chiang Mai in 1893.

The walled town was not a perfect square, but is often described as a rectangle. I would like to suggest that it is more of a trapezium (or trapezoid) shape, since the southeast corner is clearly off. On the map below the green lines are a perfect square. The surprising fact is that the map-makers have drawn this trapezium shape of the town very accurately. The northern wall is 1600m wide, the southern wall is 30m less long, a difference of 2 percent.

Historic map of Chiang Mai
Current roads of Chiang Mai projected on historic map.
The green squares are the corners of a rectangle.

The accuracy is hard to comprehend, when they made so many errors elsewhere. For example, in the SE-corner, it seems like someone drew Wat PhaKhao in the wrong spot, on the west side of an alley where it really was on the east side. The streets around it were also shifted about 80m to the northwest. But overall, they managed to measure the streets of Chiang Mai quite precise.

The surveyors probably had access to a theodolite, after all, this instrument was not a recent invention. The "Great Theodolite", which weighed approximately 200 pounds, was constructed 2 centuries ago in 1782. James McCarthy, who created Thailand’s first accurate maps, worked as Government Surveyor from 1881 to 1893 for the Royal Survey Department and used theodolites and triangulation.

It is possible that the professional surveyors measured the moat-roads and main roads, and some of the many alleys were measured by approximation. Perhaps a junior employee was assigned to survey the SE-corner, and misplaced Wat PhaKhao on the wrong side of the road. The inaccuracies in some spots are very surprising, but we can only guess at the reason.

The town of Mandalay, founded in 1857, is a precise square with walls of 2032m by 2032 meters. Mandalay is a relatively "modern" town, with a street plan based on a grid. Chiang Mai was created many centuries earlier in 1296, and has irregular streets, very different from the old Burmese square cities like Bago, Taungoo or Mandalay.

Map of the current main roads of Chiang Mai compared to 1893.
Red line = 20th century road.

However, as is visible in the map above, a few new east-west roads have been created in the beginning of the 20th century to improve the accessibility of the old town. This has created a more rational street grid. Two of these wide new roads are Ratvithi (Ratchawithi) road and Ratchamanka road, which run parallel to the central axis, Rachadamnoen road.

During the Second World War Japanese troops demolished large parts of the city walls in order to use the stones for road construction. After WW2 the urban development of the old town continued, and the remaining parts of the walls were removed. This made room for a dual lane ring road on the inside of the moat. The outside of the moat got a similar two-lane ring road. The outside ring road now has one-way traffic in a clockwise direction, the inside is counterclockwise, and many U-turn places were created across the moat.

It is quite sad that the old walls and gates were removed, but at least the four bastions and the moat remain. The advantage of the ring road is that there is relatively little traffic in the old town, and it is a very nice, walkable city, which also has plenty of room for bicycles. The busy outer road can be tricky for bicyclists, specially on the western side where there is a lot of traffic from the airport to the Nimmanhaemin area.

To accommodate the increased traffic a few larger ring roads were created, the closest to town is the "superhighway". The many highways around town certainly make car traffic easy, and there are still very few traffic-jams around the town. The exception is the busy Huay Kaew Road, the primary road leading out of Chiang Mai to Doi Suthep. This road has many traffic lights along the way, with waiting times of up to 7 minutes.

Quite surprisingly, the old town has only 5 traffic lights. The outside ring road has 3 traffic lights, and most car drivers choose to go around on the ring road, instead of taking the roads in the old town where one has to drive more cautiously. The one place that could use traffic lights is the outside ring road at Thapae square, where pedestian crossers have to wait or run for it to cross the road.



Chiang Mai links on wikipedia and other sources.

  • Amongst the Shans - by Archibald Ross Colquhoun, 1885. With upwards of fifty illustrations and an historical sketch of the Shans 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.


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All photos copyright ©2022 R.Schierbeek. (except the historic black and white ones).