The Moat and Fortress Wall of Chiang Mai

moat-NW-cornerWhen I first came to this small city, it was the ancient crumbling city walls and the moat surrounding it all that which made Chiang Mai so incredibly interesting for me. In order to get into the “Old City”, I have to cross a bridge over the moat which is full of water. The moat today has fountains built into it that are lit at night, with tropical trees shading the area as a beautiful historical park. It is one of the most magical places on Earth. When walking around the moat, you can easily put yourself into another century.  This is no Disneyland; this is the real thing, much of it unchanged from an era far predating my home country.   Chiang Mai is an amazing place. Chiang Mai gateChiang Mai, which translates into “new walled city”, was founded on April 12, 1296. That was about 300 years before William Shakespeare was writing for the theater and about 500 years before America was born. Our little town is a very old place. King Mangrai, the first monarch of the Lanna Kingdom, founded Chiang Mai at the location of small trading settlement of local people, and immediately developed a plan for a fortified city protected by walls and a large moat.

Whenever a new visitor checks out a map of Chiang Mai, they are immediately struck by the near perfect large square in the center of the city. That has not changed since the beginning of Chiang Mai. It is not a perfect square, but it is pretty close, with each side being about 2km long. That makes it an easy and fascinating morning walk to encircle the entire old city, and this should be one of the first things a new visitor to Chiang Mai should do.

Old map of the city of Chiang Mai

Old map of the city of Chiang Mai

For a few centuries, the entire city of Chiang Mai was within the fortress walls. Chiang Mai was a thriving center for trade, Buddhism and art. Just as it is today, there were many temples in the old city and monks swathed in orange wandering the streets giving blessings to those that gave food offerings. Respectful visitors today are welcome to wander in an out of the different temples, soaking up much of the history of Thai Buddhism and the Lanna Kingdom.  You are likely to meet a monk, eager to test out his English and give you some of the background of the temple. King Mangrai’s plans back in 1296 called for only 5 gates to the city (and these gates are still used today), and entrance to the walled city was guarded by Lanna soldiers and war elephants. The first Westerner to see this exotic city was an Englishman, Ralph Fitch, the Elizabethan explorer, around 1586, when Chiang Mai was already 300 years old. The biggest fear for the Lanna Kingdom was always Burma. Burma had a very aggressive relationship with all of her neighboring Kingdoms to the East. In 1614, Burma managed to gain control of Chiang Mai and for almost 200 years it was turned it into a Burmese military CM Wallgarrison for attacking the Kingdom of Siam to the South. The fortunes of Chiang Mai declined dramatically as Thai people completely abandoned the City. In 1767, the magnificant capital city of Siam, Ayutthaya, was sacked and burned to the ground by the Burmese. Eventually, after Chiang Mai had been occupied for almost 200 years, the Thai peoples from all over Northern Thailand united, threw out the Burmese, and managed to re-establish Chiang Mai as a city of the Lanna Kingdom, but it was only a shadow of it’s former glory. Chiang Mai was an empty city devastated by the occupation.  In 1892, the King of Siam (Rama V), united the Lanna Kingdom with Siam and the city of Chiang Mai regained strength as a trading center in Northern Thailand.

Moat around central Chiang Mai

Moat around central Chiang Mai

After the Burmese were thrown out of Chiang Mai in 1774, the Lanna king began constructing another outer moat and wall protecting the surrounding villages that became extensions of the city. This outer moat and wall still exists but it is pretty much forgotten by modern explorers of Chiang Mai. It is there behind dilapidated houses, polluted streams and even running through the Night Bazaar.  Parts of these fortifications are sometimes difficult to recognize because they have not been restored and maintained like the inner moat and wall. A part of this wall and moat can be seen just a little south of the southwest corner of the old city wall in a small park. You can also find part of the wall on a small street near the Night Bazaar. Wall and moatThe inner city of Chiang Mai today is not greatly different from the way it has been for many centuries. It makes for fascinating walks through the winding small streets, discovering a hidden coffee house and interesting little shops.  For sure you will discover smiling Thais, uniformed school kids and wonderful street food. You might question why any city would make their streets so narrow, and it is easy to picture that same road maybe 6 or 7 hundred years ago with an elephant or a rickshaw or hundreds of local Thais pushing carts of vegetables to the market. The markets in the old city, on the edges of the old city and just beyond are pretty much in the same location they were in centuries ago, selling similar exotic fruits from the mountain villages just as they do now. The Chiang Mai fortress walls and moat are part of why this city has become one of the most interesting places to visit in the world, and it makes living here fascinating for anyone that has an interest in the history of the region.

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Chiang Mai makes another Conde Nast Traveler List:

The world’s friendliest – and unfriendliest – cities named – (Australia) – 05 August 2013

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9 thoughts on “The Moat and Fortress Wall of Chiang Mai

  1. The romantic walls and fountains remind me of those small walled cities in Alsace or Italy, but none of them have a city moat. I think it is the preservation of the combination of these two historical features in a medieval city that is rare and stunning.

  2. “Chiang Mai, which translates into “new walled city”, was founded on April 12, 1296. That was about 300 years before William Shakespeare was writing for the theater and about 500 years before America was born.”

    Which would be how long after or before the date when Buddha died? According to Thai tradition?

    • I believe it is generally accepted that the Buddha died in Kushinagar, India in 483 BCE (by Western calendars). It is my understanding that Buddhism came to Thailand between 200 and 300 BCE (mainly during the reign of Emperor Asoka from India in the years of 269 to 237 B.C.E). Chiang Mai was established some 1,779 years after Buddha died looking at Western calendars. In Theravada Buddhism (Thai Buddhism), this is currently the year 2556, and year -0- is the day in which the Buddha attained parinibbāna, the complete nirvana, which occurs upon the death of the body of someone who has attained complete awakening. Chiang Mai was founded at the beginning of Songkran in the Thai year 1839, or 1,839 years after the Buddha died according to the Thai calendar.

  3. Hi, thanks for the article. I don’t quite catch your drift though regarding how old CM is compared to… what, Milwaukee? I mean, the first Roman town walls went up in Britain about 1250 years before CM’s. If I’m following you correctly, this would make Roman Britain more virtuous or morally superior or something. No doubt I’m missing something?

    • Compared to Milwaukee, Chiang Mai is very old. In fact much older than any city in my home country (or the country itself). That does not make CM superior to Milwaukee, but warrants a decent amount of respect. Britain gets a lot of respect for having such a deep and long history. The difference is most Westerners are pretty familiar with England a millennium ago, but I don’t think any (outside of a few Chiang Mai expats) are aware that our little city here in Northern Thailand has a long history as well.

      • I appreciate your reply. 99% of Westerners have never heard of Chiang Mai. I, personally, and some other people I’ve talked to were surprised to learn how relatively LITTLE history CM and LOS in general have in comparison to China, the Middle East, Europe etc. That’s why I’m a bit puzzled by what I take to be the drift of your essay. As a matter of fact, I’m most fascinated by this Ralph Fitch who visited CM in the 16th century (“when CM was already 300 yrs old”) and of whom I’d never heard. No doubt I mix with different people than you? Mind you, I’ve visited CM three times (and will be back again in a couple of months) and well above 75% of the expats (close to 100% of the women) I’ve met had clearly lost the plot. And not just bar acquaintances only, haha.

        Regarding the walls, the first time I saw them (at Thapae Gate, for example) my first thought was, “Jeez, a troop of boy scouts could take this place!” Are these really a genuine reproduction?

        • Most of the historical info I get is from the internet. We are lucky to live in this age when information of almost any kind is so readily available literally at our fingertips. Years ago, to get this kind of info you would have to have a very boring life spending most of it buried in some old libraries. We are very lucky nowadays. To get info on Fitch, you will have to do so digging. He worked for what eventually formed into the East India Company, doing Asian exploring for Queen Elizabeth in the 1500′s. Here is a copy of his full original report to her: I personally find this stuff fascinating, especially when I am able to walk on the same ground and have similar experiences that this man had so long ago. And remember, Chiang Mai was already over 300 years old (older than the USA is now) when he got here, the first European to visit.

          The walls that we see today in Chiang Mai were pretty much rebuilt in the late 1800′s and certainly it was much later than that when they were made more or less into a park that is so beautiful today. You can find old photos of the wall dating back a hundred years or so. Much of the rebuilding was done from the original material that was in the same spot and crumbled. One of the first things I notice is the Thai way of stacking bricks to make fortifications as opposed to the European methods which seem more like poured concrete or at least much bigger stones than the small Thai bricks. For sure the CM walls are not high, but imagine the place guarded by heavily armed soldiers in armor riding on top of pachyderms. That’s the way it was on those same paths around the wall we use now. There were plenty of armed conflicts right outside those walls, and I can feel the spirit of many that fell on the same ground that I take on my morning walks. Remember we are here for only a minute. What is around us has been here for ages, and we are mere spectators for the moment.

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