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Last update: Dec 3, 2021

The center of Chiang Mai.

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. The center of Chiang Mai is the Thapae Square plaza.

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 at the plaza.

The modern Thaphae Gate and wall are a totally straight reconstruction from 1985. It is a contemporary reconstruction, very loosely based on an old photograph of the Thapae Gate from 1899. But the gate and 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; 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 construction, which were designed like the doors on the historical photo. All the rest is a very contemporary piece of imagination.

Thapae plaque
The plaque at the modern Tha Phae gate.

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 defense ring where Thapae Road crosses the Kamphaeng Din wall. (Kamphaeng Din)

The Mystery of Thapae Gate - the Big Puzzle.

For a long time, there have been doubts about the location of the original "Thapae Gate", where the photograph was taken in 1899. Was it where the modern reconstructed gate is now, in the square city wall; or was it at the circular outer defense wall, which was for a large part a high dirt wall with a small canal around it?

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 clearly visible that Thapae Gate used to have a double gated entrance, 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.

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.

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

The inner Thapae gate (1), or Prathu Thapae Nai, is on the left. 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.

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.

If we look carefully at the wall in the background on the historic photo, it seems there are a lot of bushes and trees there, instead of houses and rooftops which one would expect inside the city. Let's have a look at the inner Thapae gate on the old map, and compare it with the situation now.

Thapae square

On the left is Thapae gate as it was drawn on the old 1893 map, with a small courtyard. On the right is a map of the old inner Thapae gate projected on current roads. The viewpoint from where the photo was taken would be at the crossing of Rachadamnoen and Moon Muang road.

The old gate had a defensive round 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, there seems to be a problem. The offset between the 2 gates is quite large on the drawing, much larger than it appears on the photograph.

Is it is possible that the photo was taken from the inside of the old city, looking eastward? The trees in the background are strange, there should be some houses there. Also, the offset between the gates could be about 10 meters. It seems difficult to make the photograph match the map.

The hypothesis that the photo was taken at the spot of the outer Thapae gate, where Thapae Road crosses the Kamphaeng Din wall, is certainly a possibility. That is worth an investigation; here is a bit of photo analysis on the black and white photo.

Thapae gate

Observations on the black and white Thapae Gate photo.

  • The photographer is standing in the middle of the road right in front of the gate. He is positioned only very slightly off-center.
  • Two people are standing in the front gate, a man on the right and a smaller man on the left. We can guesstimate the man on the right to be about 1,60 to 1,70 meters tall. Few people at that time would be much taller than that.
  • If the right man is 1,65 meters tall (P), then the walls incl. ramparts are about 3 x 1,65 = 4,95 meters high (H = 3 x P).
  • The two wooden gates are offset (O) by a bit more than half the wall height (H); therefore, the offset is roughly 2,6 meters.
  • Behind the gate and the wall in the back there are a lot of trees.

The outer Thapae gate.

Thapae gate

There is a possibility that the photo was taken at the outer Thapae gate. Could the road, courtyard and gates fit into a relatively narrow road like Thapae Road?

If we project the old map from King Inthawichayanon on the current roads and buildings it matches surprisingly well. With some resizing and tweaking the result is visible below. Thapae Road is 14 meters 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 the road narrows to only 2 car lanes.

Thapae 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, going back to the 14th century; but most of the present buildings date from the 19th century. The viharn at Wat Saen Fang used to serve as the Ho Kham (palace residence) of king Chao Kawilorot, in the 1860s. The central white/grey square building in Wat Saen Fang is a Burmese-style chedi (a chedi is the thai name for Buddhist stupa).

Old photo of the entrance portal and long entrance lane of Wat Saen Fang.
Taken from Thapae Road, at the beginning of 20th century.

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 been straightened; but the position of the canal at Thapae Road is the same.

Thapae gate Let's have one more look at the old map, projected on modern roads. On the right is the outer Thapae gate with the offset (O) drawn in; which amounts to a bit less than a car lane. The width of the road is 3 car lanes, 3*3=9 meters plus two sidewalks and a small bike lane equals 14 meters. A car lane is generally between 2.5 to 3.25 meters wide (highways are wider); so for the offset we can estimate roughly 2,5 to 3 meters.

That offset corresponds nicely with the offset of 2,6 meters in the 1899 Thapae gate photograph. This establishes that the photo was very probably taken at the outer Thapae gate. But the mystery remains, what about all the trees in the background. This is a gate around a town, but it looks like a jungle?


Update 2021 - Solving the mystery ...

When Inthawichayanon's map is projected on the current roads, the offset, derived from the road width, matches the estimated offset in the photograph. The only question still open is where the photographer stood, outside the gate or inside?

Where was the photographer located? If one looks carefully at the photo, one may take a guess at the photographer's position. There are clues and hints hidden in the foreground and background. Here's one hint for starters: look for the little triangle.

The research I did in 2017 pointed to the photo being made at the outer gate. Something was still bothering me; the background with the many bushes and trees baffled me for a long time. Where were the houses? In 2021, after a long, hard look at the old photo, the penny dropped. I now believe I can confidently place the photographer on the exact spot where he stood more than a century ago. All the pieces of the puzzle are here on this page, they just need putting together.

There are hints, which are difficult to see, but there are also clues which are obvious and uncontroversial. Once you spot the hints, the pieces of the puzzle will all come together.

If you want to solve the Thapae Puzzle by yourself; stop reading from here on, and try to do it yourself.

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



Where is the last piece of the puzzle?

Where was the 1899 photo of Thapae Gate taken? We'll start with some hints in the background.

Hint 1

Let's start by focusing on the wall in the back. The road is curving slightly to the left. Notice that we can see the side of the wall, due to a slight curve in the road. We can also see the side of the battlements. This means that the two walls are not parallel, but perpendicular to the road.

Thapae hint

The road in the photo is curving slightly to the left, which would suggest a different layout of Thapae gate than what the original drawing shows.

Thapae gate


Hint 2

The next hint is a triangle in between the trees. It is barely visible, but the triangle shape suggests a roof. It could have been red.

Thapae hint

What could this roof be? Remember the photo of the entrance portal of Wat Saen Fang? This is in the right spot, and could be about 5 meters high, and is just visible over the 4 meter high walls. That matches the position of the roof of the portal.

The entrance portal and long entrance lane of Wat Saen Fang.
Taken from Thapae Road, at the beginning of 20th century.

Below is a map of the gate area, which shows the line of sight to the entrance portal, as well as the many trees growing behind the walls. It all seems to fit quite well.

Thapae map


Hint 3

The photos below were taken from the same general area as the Thapae gate photo. The right photo shows a log barricade blocking Thapae Road at Mae Kha canal (Kamphaeng Din). The old Thapae Gate, which was in a bad state of maintenance, had been demolished somewhere around 1900.

Thapae Road
Historic Thapae Road photos of 1902 and 1903

In 1903 there was a Shan rebellion at Phrae. To stop the Shan rebels, barricades were erected around all roads to Chiang Mai. After the Burmese rebels captured Phrae Province, robbed the provincial treasury, and killed Praya Chaiyaboon, governor of Phrae, they threatened to capture Lampang and Chiang Mai.

The British teak company officers ordered nine teak barricades to be erected across key roads around Chiang Mai in the shape of a /\. This operation was led by none other than Louis Leonowens, son of Anna Leonowens (author of the novel "Anna and the King of Siam"). The Shan rebels moved towards Lampang, but were defeated there, and order was restored.

Thapae Road
Thapae Road photo - tree outline.

The photo above is taken by Luang Anusarnsunetorn in 1902, and it shows the houses beyond the old gate. All houses along the road were low, single-story houses. It is clear that, due to the slight curve in the road, the low houses would be invisible behind the high stone walls.

Notice the peculiar trees. The one on the left is shaped like a normal tree, the one on the right is irregular; I will call it the Big Funky Tree. It is easily recognizable on many photos of Thapae Road in the first half of the 20th century, taken toward the west. Unfortunately, all these photos are low resolution, but the trees stand out because there were no other large trees on the road, and because of the shape of the Big Funky Tree.

Actually, if you look closely at the Big Funky Tree, it could consist of a few trees. Difficult to make out from the black and white low-resolution photo, but that would explain the irregular shape.


Putting the pieces together.

The most obvious clue however, is that we are standing outside of the defensive gate. The battlements on the walls are in front of walkways; we can't see the walkway because we are outside of the walls.

And what about the Big Funky Tree? Perhaps that is a "Can't see the forest for the trees" hint. There is a big tree somewhere in the old photo, or is there? Maybe more than one?

The clues and hints tell us that:

  1. The offset of the 2 gates in the photo fits exactly with the outer Thapae gate.
  2. The slight road curve to the left of Thapae Road fits with the photo.
  3. The roof fits with the position of the entrance portal of Wat Saen Fang.
  4. The large trees on the right are probably the same as the Big Funky Tree, which is visible on many other historic photos of Thapae Road.
  5. The battlements on the walls show that we are on the outside.

Thapae map
My impression of the outer Tha Phae gate situation in 1899.
Pratu Taphe Nawk or Prathu Thapae Nok means Outer Thapae gate.

This seems to be the only way the different elements of the photo make sense. The wall position, the road curve and the offset all match; the layout is just a bit different from the old drawing. All the small pieces create the big picture: the quiet Thapae Road between the gates leads westward, towards the old town of Chiang Mai, and to the current Thapae Square. There is no clear proof that the Big Funky Tree is in the photo, but since there were no other large trees, it seems likely.

Thapae gate 1899
Thapae gate photo from 1899, edited and colorized (colourised) by me.
Historische photo von Tha Phae Tor. Ancienne photo du porte de Tapae, Thapae poort.

The old picture of 1899 has come to life and offered a glimpse into the past, when it was still a small, insignificant town; the capital of Lanna. Lanna was part of the independent Shan States, and not yet a part of Thailand. Things would soon change.

The walls of Wat Saen Fang
The northern corner tower/bastion and wall of Wat Saen Fang (2019).

Currently, at the site of the outer gate, Thapae Road is just a busy road with lots of traffic. Not a trace remains of the wall, or of the old gate. Except perhaps Wat Saen Fang, the temple north of Thapae Road with the long entrance lane. 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 large bastion on the northeast corner seems to have been reconstructed as a smaller, square tower in the 20th century.

The original Thapae Gate looked quite different from the modern replica on Thapae Square, and it was in a different place. Thapae Square is still the focal point of Chiang Mai, and usually livelier than the central Three Kings Monument Square. From Thapae Square one can walk eastward down Thapae Road; and turn left at Wat Saen Fang to go to the Chinese quarter. But if you keep on walking east on Thapae Road, you can admire the remaining wooden houses, like the Raming Tea Lodge, a "Gingerbread House".



Markets and the Night Bazaar.

Walking a bit further down Thapae Road, we can see on the right the wide Changklan road where the popular "Night Bazaar" is held. On the left is the Warorot Market, which is the large, main market of Chiang Mai, not just a tourist market. Warorot Market overlaps with the Chinese quarter. The main part of Warorot Market is housed in 2 large buildings, and at its rear, on the riverside, is the fresh flower market. The "Night Bazaar" is a tourist market, selling t-shirts and trinkets, and more t-shirts and trinkets. Warorot Market on the other hand has everything you could possibly need, and more.

And the best market is: Sunday Walking Street, a night market which runs every Sunday from about 5 pm to midnight. Sunday Walking Street runs on the whole length of Rachadamnoen Road and some streets around it, inside the old town. Unlike the daily "Night Bazaar", there is a lot of streetfood to be tried, like pad thai, sushi, and barbequed chicken. And perhaps for that reason it is quite popular with Thai tourists.

thapae road 1940
The market on Thapae road in 1940.
Note the Big Funky Tree in the background.

The large wooden house under the arrow is the Kiti Panit General Store, a vintage house built in 1880. Kitipanit Store was the first general store in Chiang Mai, the old house was renovated in 2019 and is now a large restaurant, serving traditional northern Thai food. There are a few more heritage houses along Thapae road, for example the Raming Tea Lodge, but most buildings are modern, concrete structures, built after world war 2.

Kitipanit Store
Kitipanit Store in 2020, after restoration.



Links on wikipedia and other sources.


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All photos copyright © 2021 R.Schierbeek. (except the historic black and white ones).