Wiang Kum Kam – An Ancient City beneath the Water

Wiang Kum Kam

Wat Chedi Liam

Beneath the wreckage of what once was a big ancient city, the story of a very developed city in the land of Lanna Thai has been revealed. Wiang Kum Kam is a city that vanished under the water due to a severe flood. As time passed by, a new city and a community was built on the same piece of historical land. Now, the history that was once lost with Wiang Kum Kam has been rediscovered and can be retold after being hidden in the earth for so long. The history of an ancient city beneath the water.

Wiang Kum Kam was not in my ‘to do list’ before I arrived in Chiang Mai, but after reading an article in an inflight magazine I became interested in it, and managed to get more information on the Internet. I rented car and made my way there, following directions from a free map of the town I found at the airport. It took 20 minutes to get to the site, a rural and leafy suburb of Chiang Mai where small paved roads crisscross with ruined temples spread out throughout the village – and sometimes even in people’s backyards – until you reach the site main entrance.

There, I parked in a shaded area where a few horseback carriages were resting, their drivers chatting time away, the horses looking bored. I contracted one for 300thb, hopped on and was soon on my way to the ruins. Horse–drawn carriage is a great way to see the place; the driver’s English was poor, but I had read the pamphlet given at the entrance and together with the plaques written in English at every temple, I got acquainted with Lanna history. The cart stopped at about 6 temples, though there are many more, most not yet restored. The ruins are more of historical importance than a spectacle in themselves, but the attraction is nevertheless worth the trip.

I loved the whole experience, the place is peaceful as there are not so many visiting tourists around. If you have enough time on hands and you are interested in history, this is a great way to get away from the city traffic for a few hours.

THE HISTORY

Wiang Kum Kam

Wiang Kum Kam

Wiang Kum Kam was built by Phya Meng Rai after he destroyed and subjugated the Mon Haripoonchai Kingdom in 1281. He stayed in Haripoonchai for a few years and then in 1286/7 settled and built Wiang Kum Kam, his new city.

Phya Meng Rai believed that, apart from religion, Wiang Kum Kam should be a center of trade, agriculture and politics. Wiang Kum Kam was considered a very appropriate location as the natural environmental factor was believed to be conducive to the growth of the society at the time. As far as transportation was concerned, villagers used rivers as their means of commuting between different cities, and Wiang Kum Kam was built along the Ping River. It was also located in the middle of an area that was rich in resources and thus it could provide good agricultural development around the city. And finally, Wiang Kum Kam was located just in the middle of the Lanna state, making it very appropriate to be the control center of other cities around it. However, at the time when the city was being built, it was not known that  the site was in very low land.

Wiang Kum Kam was a highly developed capital city during the reign of Phya Meng Rai, which is considered to be the best era for the highest growth of the city. Phya Meng Rai received high fame after conquering Harippoonchai City and building the new Wiang Kum Kam, and legends revealed interesting stories about him and the city. He was the undisputed leader of the region.

After about a few years of Phya Meng Rai’s reign, the weakness of Wiang Kum Kam was discovered and, considered the high risk of major floodings, he searched for a new location and found it where the modern Chiang Mai lies, a mere 5km away. Located in between Suthep Mountain and the Ping River, it gradually sloped from the west to the east on a hill neither too high nor too low. It was indeed a far more suitable location.

Wiang Kum Kam

Wat Cham Kan

Phya Meng Rai moved the city in 1292, but Wiang Kum Kam did not vanish: it remained a very developed community that eventually became a dependent of Chiang Mai for more than 200 years until Burma was able to successfully invade Chiang Mai. Nobody knows exactly during whose reign the big floods of Wiang Kam Kam occurred. However, evidence shows that the floods probably occurred during the time that Burma conquered Chiang Mai.

The burmese ruled Chiang Mai for more than 200 years and there is no mention whatsoever of Wiang Kum Kam existence, although the flood was so severe it was put on record. During that period, the city was very unstable. Besides the floods, there was severe draught in Chiang Mai, the city was very poor and the government authorities were captured and sent to Burma as prisoners. Wiang Kum Kam city was thus left devastated and it therefore became an ‘underground city’.

It was only in 1964 that, through an excavation, important evidence was unearthed and was made known to all: there was an ancient city which was embedded underneath the earth for hundreds of years. The Fine Arts Unit 4 restored 11  areas around the ancient city and proved that Wiang Kum Kam was really an underground city. The area was excavated and the present ruins restored without stop until 2002.

Wiang Kum Kam has today developed to become an historical attraction of Chiang Mai. Wiang Kum Kam traces of progress and development still remain, reflected in stones, walls, rocks and pagodas. The memory of such a developed city has now been revealed in order for us to know and learn from the past. Even though it’s in the distant past and it appears only as a dim and vanishing light, Wiang Kum Kam is and will remain in the heart of all Thai people.

Source of Reference for the History part: from the book “Wiang Kum Kam – A Historical Study of An Ancient Community in Lanna” – 5th Edition, by Associate Professor Sarasawadee Ongsakul, Faculty of Humanities, Chiang Mai University.

USEFUL INFORMATION

Wiang Kum Kam

Wat Chedi Liam

To get to Wiang Kum Kam, you can hire a car, a motorbike or a bicycle and follow the Chiang Mai-Lamphun Route 106 southeast for about 3km, then look for a big sign to the right that says ‘Wiang Kum Kam’ and one that says ‘Wat Sri Boonrueng’. From this junction it is another 2km. Tuk tuks and pick-ups should charge about 100thb each person for the ride.

You can tour the site via horseback carriage, tram, or rent a bicycle. Horse carriage costs 200-300thb for a tour of about 1 hour (you need to negotiate) and trams charge 500THB. Read about the place online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiang_Kum_Kam to get the gist of what you will see, as guides do not speak English.

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About the author

Thomas has a university background in the UK and in Latin America, with studies in Languages and Humanities, Culture, Literature and Economics. He started his Asian experience as a publisher in Krabi in 2005. Thomas has been editing local newspapers and magazines in England, Spain and Thailand for more then fifteen years. He is currently working on several projects in Thailand and abroad. Apart from Thailand, Thomas has lived in Italy, England, Venezuela, Cuba, Spain and Bali. He spends most of his time in Asia. During the years Thomas has developed a great understanding of several Asian cultures and people. He is also working freelance, writing short travel stories and articles for travel magazines. Follow Thomas on www.asianitinerary.com

View all articles by Thomas Gennaro