The fields were burning as I stepped off the 30 cent train. In front of me was a small Chinese temple and an even smaller clock tower. The train pulled away northward into the smoky flatlands, leaving me in this town so small there was not even a room to rent.
It felt good to be somewhere remote again on the hunt for Lost Cities. Lopburi, where I had just come from is certainly not lacking in ruins, but they are all engulfed by the modern town. I had no idea what I would find here, but I was certainly not in the middle of Lopburi’s suburban development anymore.
I had been led here from a satellite photo indicative of many abandoned Dvaravati sites throughout Thailand: a rounded island artificially created by a moat in the landscape. Further research told me that there was also a museum run by the local monks.
Glancing back over at the small Chinese shrine, I somehow doubted they were the monks of that temple who served as curators.
Only one semi-obvious road led away from the train station in the direction of the Chansen Ancient City, also often written as Chan Sen. A couple hundred meters down was the municipality office with a sign nearby pointing the way, in English, to the Chansen Museum.
After that sign, the path became less clear. I followed the road further into the small town. Though the adults around were mostly indifferent to me with the occasional smile, the children who saw me were another story. They began shouting out hello and any other random English words they knew. Unfortunately, none of them knew ‘museum’ and could point me in the right direction.
The main temple of the town was very apparent, but I did not see any immediate signs of the museum. The road curved around a small reservoir, and I hoped that following it would lead to the museum or to the moated Ancient City itself. On the way, I passed a fenced-in schoolyard full of children. Again, these students started yelling random English words through the fence, including the baffling “My name is Goodbye.” Honestly, I wouldn’t have been surprised, as many of the Thai nicknames tend to be unexpected English words.
Halfway around the reservoir, I was approaching a very large Chinese Buddhist temple. Uncharacteristically and unnecessarily large for a town this size. But, it was still worth a few photos.
Two students from the school I had passed chased me down on their bicycles out of curiosity. One of them was obviously a bit more adept with English and translated much of the small conversation we got into as I assembled my new camera.
The Chinese temple was still very much under construction. Its prismatic architecture faded as I went further back, giving way to a grey almost-skyscraper for the area. Behind that were cranes, bulldozers, and other heavy construction equipment still putting together parts of the temple, despite them already having existing shrines inside.
As with most Buddhist temples, they had no aversion to me walking about freely and taking photos. Throwing in a few stray Thai phrases I knew, I got quite a few smiles and waves.
Just down from the temple I saw my first sign of the Ancient City of Chansen; the moat. It was a semi-straight waterway which curved in the distance. More indicative than that, though, was that it seemed a uniform width. It was very obviously artificial.
Closer toward the main city temple was a road going on to the Ancient City island. I crossed, expecting to at least find the Museum, but hoping to find some left-standing monument. Unfortunately, the island proved empty. Though I did get a large amount of strange looks as I walked down a swampy road with a camera around my neck, both from the homes I passed and those driving by me.
After trying a few paths, and even following an intriguing sign, I gave up on trying to find anything on the island.
Retreating back over the moat onto the shaded grounds of Wat Chansen, I noticed a curious thing through the tinting of building’s window: an English word. And it said museum! Looking around through other windows of this building, it became clear that it couldn’t be the museum, but there was still hope that it was on the temple grounds.
Nearby two monks sat on the stoop of another building in their bright robes smoking in the company of the stray dogs who populate the temple. I walked over and asked as best I could about the museum. One of the monks smiled and stood, beginning to lead the way to a fairly ornate peach stupa that was under some kind of construction.
I had to be careful not to overtake him as he was showing me the way. A leg and foot slightly smaller than the other meant that he was walking slower than I normally would have. When we reached the base of the stupa, he gladly unlocked it for me and proceeded to turn on all the lights and even the fans for me without attempting to speak at all.
I thanked him before he left the building.
For a place as small as Chansen, this exhibit seemed pretty thorough, with nearly every item also translated into English as well. It began the story of Chansen about 3500 years ago when people from the northeast (presumably from the Ban Chiang culture) settled in the area and began to excavate the ores found nearby. Other artifacts found apparently showed contact with cultures as far away as Vietnam and southern China.
Many simplistic pots and jewelry surrounded this part of the exhibit. If this culture did stem from the same metalworkers of Ban Chiang, they certainly did not have the same keen sense of aesthetics in the work.
The figures and designs became more intricate as the timelines passed and by about 1700 years ago Indianized culture began to spread by way of sea trade and the Dvaravari culture. This was the height of Chansen and likely when the moat and most of the agricultural works nearby were made.
Within a few centuries, Chansen began to diminish as other nearby towns, particularly Lopburi, increased as regional hubs. The expanding influence of the Khmer Empire likely played some role in this, though the museum made no mention of them.
A small repopulation of the area began in the late 1800s when the railway was built through. Apparently this brought a decent influx of Chinese as well, which might explain the large Chinese temple across the reservoir.
In 1950, a monk named Phra Khru Nisai Jariyakhun became the abbot of Wat Chansen and began to renovate it as a center of local identity. This included collecting and housing the artifacts that would eventually become this museum. It was a shame, as I’m sure he would have agreed, none of the structures seemed to remain, but his work has done a great job of establishing a history for this literal backwater in Thailand.
Signing the guestbook and shutting down the lights, I was out the door and back toward the train station. It was a curious little place, this Chansen, I thought as I hopped back on the train through the still-smouldering rice fields back to Lopburi.