Name: Wiang Suan Dok
Where: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Location: 18.788928, 98.967697
What to do: View a historic temple and walled city predating Chiang Mai.
Getting there: The Suan Dok ancient city and historic temple are within walking distance from the Old City’s western city gate.
Cost: THB 20 / USD 0.67 (temple entrance fee)
Despite its popular reputation as being one of the best largely-intact ancient cities in Thailand, the modern city of Chiang Mai actually contains 5 distinct ancient cities, with a sixth being buried by the northeast corner of the current Old City. Three of these cities belonged to the Lawa, an ethnic group predating the arrival of the Lanna Thais into the region from the north.
The Story of Wiang Suan Dok
Wiang Suan Dok is a walled city first established by the Lawa people over 1000 years ago. The city walls measure 570 meters on each side. After its abandonment by the Lawa, it was adopted by the Thai Lanna Kingdom and set up as a holy site outside of their capital. The temple established at the ancient city’s center, Wat Suan Dok, has been a revered place for the Lanna people for over 600 years.
Chiang Mai’s Ancient Lawa Cities
Centuries before Chiang Mai was established and the Tai people moved into what is now Thailand, the region was inhabited by the Dvaravati and Lawa peoples. The Dvaravati culture is believed to be a Mon-Burmese people who held heavy influence over much of Thailand and were responsible for the introduction of Buddhism to the area. Their ruins and relics can be found from southwestern Thailand all the way into Isaan at sites like Sri Thep and Roi Et. Their northern influence was centered in Hariphunchai, modern-day Lamphun.
Despite the Dvaravati seat of power in Hariphunchai (Lamphun) being only 30 kilometers from modern Chiang Mai, the Lawa people were the first to establish themselves in the Chiang Mai valley. Here, they built 3 walled cities. These were Chetaburi (Wiang Ched Rin), Nava Rattha (Wiang Suan Dok), and Wiang Nopburi.
In the Lanna Chronicles, the Lawa cities are said to have fought a number of unsuccessful battles against Hariphunchai. At some point in its history, Nava Rattha faced economic hardships and was abandoned. It was later revitalized as the new walled city named Jetthaburi. However, this was also short-lived as enemies attacked the city, eventually driving out the Lawa from the area for good.
The Arrival of the Thais
By the time King Mengrai and his Lanna Kingdom moved into the Chiang Mai valley, very little remained of the Lawa influence. Their walled cities were abandoned and used by the Lanna Thais as camps to build their new cities from. Their first attempts to settle in the area at Wiang Kum Kam on the eastern edge of the Mae Ping River ended in disaster.
Instead, they moved to the western bank and set up camp at Wiang Nopburi. Here, King Mengrai dedicated the former Lawa city to be the home of Wat Chiang Man, the oldest temple in the city and a base from which to build Chiang Mai.
Meanwhile, the abandoned Jetthaburi (called Wiang Suan Dok by the Lanna Thais) lay directly west of the newly-built Chiang Mai and was adopted by its royalty, King Kue Na in particular, to create a royal garden, eventually leading to the temple’s name Wat Buppharam or Wat Suan Dok, each meaning Flower Garden Temple, in Pali and Thai, respectively.
Establishment of Wat Suan Dok
Decades later, a Sri Lankan monk who was visiting Sukhothai made his way to Chiang Mai. This monk, named Sumanathera presented the Lanna King Kue Na a relic of the Buddha, supposedly a shoulder bone of Siddhartha Gautama. According to legend, this relic miraculously split itself in two. King Kue Na ordered the construction of a temple at the center of Wiang Suan Dok to house one fragment and the other is said to exist at Wat Phra Doi Suthep.
With this decree, Wat Suan Dok was founded 1371, the monk Sumanathera began spreading the word of Theravada Buddhism to the Lanna Kingdom. While the area inside Wiang Suan Dok’s city walls has changed from royal gardens to commercial and residential development, the historic temple has endured and underwent several renovations.
Visiting Wiang Suan Dok
Despite the temple itself being a common and easily accessible tourist site in Chiang Mai, there is more to see in Wiang Suan Dok than only the temple. However, Wat Suan Dok is the best place to start.
Wat Suan Dok
The Wat Suan Dok temple has long played an important religious role throughout Chiang Mai’s history since its establishment in 1371 CE. And although it is easy to miss from the road if you happen to be driving by in busy traffic, the wooden temple and its large collection of accompanying stupas will certainly catch your attention if you happen to look its way.
Turning left off of Suthep Road, I saw a sign saying I was entering the Mahachulalongkornrajavidya University Chiang Mai Campus. The temple grounds itself are actually a part of this university, which is the local branch of the oldest Buddhist university in Thailand.
The road to the university’s building continues right in front of Wat Suan Dok’s main entrance. Meanwhile, I found a rather large parking area running along the south side of Wat Suan Dok. Obviouslyintended for tourists, I got off my motorbike and followed the paved trail to Wat Suan Dok’s iconic group of pure white stupas.
This collection of stupas belongs to Chiang Mai’s royal cemetery and the majority of the structures are there in memorial of deceased royals and nobles of Chiang Mai’s Lanna dynasties. No actual bodies would be buried here, though. In Thai Buddhism, bodies are cremated rather than buried. The stupas are all kept up with care and fresh coats of white paint to honor their deceased ancestors with reverence. Visitors are welcomed to tour the cemetery and take photos, however, a sign at the entrance reminds you to be respectful as you do so.
Looming over the Royal Lanna Cemetery is Wat Suan Dok’s main stupa, which is gilded in gold and was built in 1373. Its narrow bell style stands 48 meters tall and is a blend of Sukhothai and Sri Lankan architecture. The stupa was used to house one half of the sacred Buddhist shoulder bone relic bestowed to the Lanna kings by the monk Sumanathera. However, most of this account is legend, as countless temples claim to house historic items from (or even body parts of) Siddhartha Gautama. Of course, this isn’t at all possible.
Despite the ornate stupas surrounding the temple, the viharn (main hall) of Wat Suan Dok doesn’t look like much from the outside. Heading around the large building to the main entrance by the university road, stepping inside granted a much more impressive view than the outside.
The interior of Wat Suan Dok is a spacious and airy single room which is supported by two rows of wooden columns running along the main walkway to the Buddha statues. The entire building is open to the elements, as seems to be common in several of the all-wooden temples in Northern Thailand. The main corridor is dominated by red and gold with small highlights of a deep blue color on the columns.
Curiously, the open interior was cluttered with many tables and boards of offerings and prayers left by devotees at the temple.
Like most other Buddhist temples in Thailand, there is a single main Buddha statue dominating the far end of the viharn. It was accompanied by several smaller statues of Buddha himself, a meditating monk, and two figures in traditional Thai garb, presumably Lanna royalty. Unlike the red and gold that permeate the rest of Wat Suan Dok, the pedestal on which these statues stand is a soft purple color adorned with flower carvings highlighted in gold.
Behind this pedestal and the main Buddha statue is a standing Buddha facing out the rear of the temple. He appears to be gazing at Wat Suan Dok’s historic golden stupa and perhaps also watching over the legacy of the temple’s memorialized Lanna Kings.
Wiang Suan Dok City Walls
Of course, Wiang Suan Dok is much older and more expansive than only Wat Suan Dok. However, only two sections of the ancient Lawa’s city walls seem to remain: the northwestern wall and the southern wall.
Leaving my bike in Wat Suan Dok’s parking lot, I walked back toward Suthep Road and turned left. Only 300 meters down the road, I came to what looked like nothing more than a rise in the ground overgrown by trees. A closer look and you can see random bricks sticking out from the dirt. And, when you look across the road, you’ll see the same risen earth there.
This is where Suthep Road runs through ancient Wiang Suan Dok’s western city wall. Though it looks like it was once marked as such, the sign had long since faded beyond readability when I visited. The section of wall ends abruptly south of the road, giving way to homes and other buildings.
However, when I crossed to the northern side of the road, the earthen ramparts continue on for some ways until they terminate at what was the northwestern corner of Wiang Suan Dok’s walled city. Today, this section of wall is located on the edge of Chiang Mai University’s buildings for the Faculty of Dentistry and Pharmaceuticals. This thankfully means they are both left intact and open for anyone to visit.
One source I read on ancient Suan Dok claimed these wall once rose 10 meters. As I walked along the city walls on the edge of the campus, I found this quite unbelievable. Considering the city’s relatively small size, 10-meter walls would place them nearly twice the height of Chiang Mai’s city walls. The dirt and stray brick remnants of the walls were, of course, not reflective of their heyday. However, 10 meters seems a bit boastful.
Reaching Wiang Suan Dok’s northwestern corner, the city wall continues to the east along the city’s northern boundary. Here, Chiang Mai University does another great job in preserving their heritage. They have actually built a small bridge over the wall into their campus gardens. Walking over the bridge allows you to see the city wall from the top, and even to cross over remains of the small ditch that was Wiang Suan Dok’s ancient moat.
The southern wall of Wiang Suan Dok is a bit harder to find. Wat Suan Dok is surrounded by quiet, residential neighborhoods to the south. The streets through these homes are a little confusing. However, a little searching and I was able to find earthen ramparts similar to those on Suthep Road.
This wall marked the southern boundary of Wiang Suan Dok. What little remains today of the southern Suan Dok wall runs along Suan Dok Road Soi 4. Portions of the ancient wall have been cut through to make way for driveways into people’s homes and the rest is overgrown with fairly dense shrubbery. Although it is a curious find, there is little to actually see.
From Soi 4, it’s an easy walk or ride back to Suthep road and onward to more sights of Ancient Chiang Mai.
How to Get to Wiang Suan Dok
Chiang Mai’s western gate has historically been called Pratu Suan Dok since the founding of the city in 1293. Heading directly out of the gate will bring you to the busy Suthep Road. Follow this road for 1 kilometer past the Sriphat Hospital and several businesses and you’ll eventually be at Wat Suan Dok, which was at the exact center of Wiang Suan Dok.
If you continue 300 meters past Wat Suan Dok, you’ll find the most obvious section of the ancient Wiang Suan Dok city wall, where it is bisected by Suthep Road. A longer section of the wall, and the northwest corner can be seen on the north side of Suthep Road along the CMU Faculty buildings.
Meanwhile, the remaining stretches of the southern city wall can be found along Suan Dok Soi 4. This side street is reached by going down Suan Dok Road and turning right onto Soi 4.
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lanna Kingdom founded by King Mengrai in 1293.
Mon-Burmese ethnic group based in modern Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Responsible for the introduction of Buddhism to Thailand.
Dvaravati kingdom in northern Thailand centered in the modern town of Lamphun. Eventually conquered by the Lanna Kingdom.
Thai kingdom based in northern Thailand and northwestern Laos. Its capitals included Chiang Saen, Wiang Kum Kam, and Chiang Mai.
Ethnic minority group who constructed three walled cities in the Chiang Mai valley: Wiang Nopburi, Wiang Ched Lin, and Wiang Suan Dok.
A legendary prince born in Lumphini, Nepal who would go on to found Buddhism. Known generally as the “Buddha”.
City in central-northern Thailand and abandoned capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom.
Ethno-liguistic group originating in southern China who migrated south ~1000 years ago, becoming the modern Thai and Lao peoples.
Thai word meaning “temple”
Wat Suan Dok
“Flower Garden Temple”, a historic temple west of Chiang Mai built to by King Kue Na to house the Buddhist Relic from the Sri Lankan monk Sumanathera.
Lanna Thai word for “walled city”
Wiang Kum Kam
The first city established by the Lanna Kingdom in the Chiang Mai valley. Abandoned after successive years of flooding to establish Chiang Mai.
Abandoned Lawa walled city used as a based from which to build Chiang Mai. Located in the northwest corner of Chiang Mai’s Old City in the current location of Wat Chiang Man.
Wiang Suan Dok
Abandoned Lawa walled city used by Lanna royalty as a garden. In 1371, Wat Suan Dok was established in the center of Wiang Suan Dok.
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