Archaeological travel guide to temples and ancient ruins of the moated Dvaravati city of Chansen in Central Thailand.
Name: Chansen Ancient Town
Where: Chansen, Nakhon Sawan, Thailand
Location: 15.11726, 100.45213
Description Chansen is an ancient Dvaravati moated city which has yielded many ancient artifacts now displayed in the Wat Chansen Museum.
Getting there: Train from Bangkok, Ayutthaya, or Lopburi.
Long before the early Thai kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya spread their dominance over the Central Plains of Thailand, the moated cities of the Dvaravati dotted the landscape. Often taking the shape of circular settlements, with larger moated cities expanding into more irregular shapes, these Dvaravati settlements would lay the foundations that future generations of settlers, namely the Angkorian Khmers and Ayutthayan Thais, would build their civilizations upon.
The Story of Chansen Ancient Town
Chansen is one of the many smaller moated Dvaravati cities spread throughout Thailand’s central region. Like other small cities, Chansen is surrounded by a circular moat, which it retains to the present day. Because of these moats, the Dvaravati towns are easily distinguishable from aerial or satellite photos, which is how I actually first found Chansen.
Chansen in the Dvaravati Period
Evidence of Chansen’s habitation begins as early as 3500 years ago when people from the northeast (presumably related to the Ban Chiang culture) settled in the area and began to excavate the ores found nearby. Other artifacts found have shown contact with cultures as far away as Vietnam and southern China in this prehistoric era.
This early prehistoric period shows continuous habitation at Chansen through the First Millennium CE, and well into the late Dvaravati period, circa 1000 CE. This indicates that, although Chansen was a longstanding settlement, as the Dvaravati culture began spreading throughout Central Thailand, Chansen became one of their early important centers.
Chansen has turned up many of the most interesting artifacts of the smaller Dvaravati settlements, including artifacts showing the city’s (and by extension, the Dvaravati culture) connection to the Funan settlement of Oc Eo (modern Vietnam), Taxila (modern Pakistan), and even Roman coins— although these would stem from links in trade routes, not direct contact with Rome. Many of these artifacts date from c. 200-600 CE, before the Dvaravati period, meaning that Chansen was already an important center of trade even before the Mon people arrived in the area.
The moat around the city is almost certainly from the Dvaravati period and would have been built sometime following 600 CE. Chansen’s moat, which is approximately 2 meters wide and encloses an area of 2.5 square kilometers, is about all that remains of its Dvaravati habitation. The island within the moat hosts no ruins of temples or any other structures, despite the high number of artifacts that have otherwise been excavated.
Evidence indicates Chansen never hosted a high population, nor was its moat ever expanded, as happened with more important Dvaravati towns as they grew. Given its proximity to Lopburi, a highly important Dvaravati center, it is likely that Chansen’s importance declined as Lopburi grew more influential in the late 1000s CE. It is likely that Chansen persisted into the later Dvaravati years due to its history with metalworking, which would have been able to bolster the city’s status even when commercial shipping was refocused in Lopburi.
A Brief History of the Dvaravati
The Dvaravati Culture was the first civilization of ancient Thailand, predating the Thai and Khmer Empires by many centuries. Sometimes referred to as the Mon Kingdoms, the Dvaravati were a collection of early city-states first settled in the Central Plains of Thailand along the coastal trade routes between India and China. As their cities became more prosperous, the Mon-Dvaravtai people began expanding their settlements northeast in the modern region of Isaan and in the north, forming the Hariphunchai Kingdom.
The Dvaravati built walled cities, engineered spectacular monuments, and crafted unprecedented Buddhist artworks throughout the regions that would become Thailand and Laos. Despite the widespread nature of the Dvaravati civilization, they emerged at a time when regional writing systems had not yet taken hold. Records about the Dvaravati were scarce, and they were considered semi-legendary by some researchers. However, as more Dvaravati writings, artifacts, and other material culture were rediscovered, subsequent research has begun piecing together the ancient record of this previously lost civilization, as just how the protohistoric Dvaravati built the basis for the subsequent generations of Khmer and Thai culture.
Chansen in the Modern Period
Within a few centuries, after the Khmer began ruling over Dvaravati territory, Chansen’s importance began to diminish as nearby towns, particularly Lopburi, increased not only as regional commercial hubs, but also political power centers. This trend would continue as the Khmer at Lavo were replaced by the Thais at Ayutthaya in the 13-1400s CE.
A small repopulation of the Chansen area began in the late 1800s when the north-south (Bangkok-Chaing Mai) railway was built through. Apparently, this brought a decent influx of Chinese migrants as well, which might explain the Chinese temples found in town.
In 1950, a monk named Phra Khru Nisai Jariyakhun became the abbot of Wat Chansen, the small town’s main Buddhist temple. He began to renovate the temple as a center of local identity. This included collecting and housing the artifacts that would eventually become the Wat Chansen Museum. It is a shame that none of the town’s ancient structures seem to remain, but the work that Phra Khru Nisai Jariyakhun has done resulted in a fantastic display of local history for this literal backwater in Thailand.
Visiting Chansen Ancient Town
Smoke from Chansen’s burning rice fields was in the air as I stepped off the 30-cent train from Lopburi. In front of me were a small Chinese temple and an even smaller clock tower. The train pulled away northward into the smoky flatlands, leaving me in a town so small there was not even a room to rent.
It was good to find myself somewhere relatively 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.
The Road to Ancient Chansen
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. However, none of them seemed to know ‘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 named Bueng Wat Chansen, 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 if that were the case. Many Thai nicknames do tend to be unexpected English words, and I have personally met Copter, Neutron, Beer, and Dragon, among others.
Halfway around the Bueng Wat Chansen reservoir, I was approaching a very large Chinese Buddhist temple. It was uncharacteristically and unnecessarily large for a town this size, and I would later be told by a commenter that this temple, called the San Chao Pho Nakkarat Shrine, would be started by a local fortune teller who had gained some fame and a cult following.
Nevertheless, 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.
This large 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 a few smiles and waves.
The Chansen Ancient City
Just down from the temple, I saw my first sign of the Ancient City of Chansen; the moat. It was a semi-straight waterway that 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 number 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 a couple of intriguing signs in Thai, I gave up on trying to find anything on the island.
The Wat Chansen Museum
Retreating back over the moat onto the shaded grounds of Wat Chansen, I noticed a curious thing through the tinted windows of one building: 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 in their bright orange robes sat on the stoop of another building. They were 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-colored stupa that was still under some construction.
I had to be careful not to overtake the monk as he was showing me the way. One leg and foot slightly smaller than the other, meaning 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 was very thorough, with nearly every item also translated into English as well. The displays posted around the room briefly explained the history of Chansen and the greater region of the Lopburi-Pasak Valley.
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.
According to the display, after a few centuries of prosperity during the early Dvaravati period, 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.
Signing the guestbook and shutting down the lights, I was out the door and retracing my path 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-smoldering rice fields back to Lopburi – the town still overshadowing it 1000 years later.
How to Get to Chansen Ancient Town
GPS Coordinates: 15.1172, 100.45243
Chansen is located away from any major transportation routes other than the north-south rail system. The rail line provides easy access for a half-day trip from Lopburi, which is a major tourist attraction. It’s advisable to play any trip to Chansen from Lopburi, as there is no available lodging in the town of Chansen itself.
Capital of the Khmer Empire, located near modern-day Siem Reap, Cambodia.
City in central Thailand and historic capital of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, which was succeeded by the Thonburi Kingdom in 1767.
Thai kingdom based in central Thailand, later referred to as Siam. Its capital was the city of Ayutthaya until the city was destroyed by the Burmese, forcing the state of Siam to relocate to modern Bangkok and found the Thonburi Kingdom in 1767.
The first advanced culture in Thailand based in Udon Thani Province, which mastered bronze working, rice cultivation, and elaborate pottery.
Mon-Burmese ethnic group based in modern Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Responsible for the introduction of Buddhism (Theravada sect) to Thailand.
Early mainland Southeast Asian culture (1st-6th Centuries CE) which grew along the Mekong Delta coast with influence from the China-India maritime trades routes. Funan was among the first regional cultures to adopt an Indianized society .
Dvaravati kingdom in northern Thailand (c. 750 – 1292 CE) centered in the modern town of Lamphun. Eventually conquered by the Lanna Kingdom.
The common name for the northeastern region of Thailand.
Ethnic group originating in Cambodia who established the Chenla kingdoms and subsequent Khmer Empire, which controlled much of Southeast Asia.
Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which ruled much of Southeast Asia from their capital at Angkor.
City in northern Thailand and the historic capital of the Hariphunchai Kingdom. Known historically as Hariphunchai.
Dvaravati kingdom in central Thailand centered in the modern town of Lopburi. Eventually conquered by the Khmer Empire.
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lavo Kingdom founded by the Dvaravati culture. It was subsequently ruled by the Khmer Empire and the Ayutthaya Kingdom. Known historically as Lavo.
Ethnic group originating in Myanmar who established the first civilizations in modern Thailand. The Mon kingdoms in Thailand are collectively referred to as Dvaravati.
An ancient port city of the Funan culture located in the Mekong Delta, modern-day Vietnam.
Thai kingdom based in central-northern Thailand, after the overthrow of Khmer rules. Its capital was the city of Sukhothai, which was later conquered and absorbed by the Ayutthaya Empire.
- Chansen Exhibition. Wat Chansen Museum, Nakhon Sawan, Thailand.
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- Mudar, Karen. “How Many Dvaravati Kingdoms? Locational Analysis of First Millennium A.D. Moated Settlements in Central Thailand.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, www.academia.edu/8112430/How_Many_Dvaravati_Kingdoms_Locational_Analysis_of_First_Millennium_A_D_Moated_Settlements_in_Central_Thailand.
- Murphy, Stephen A. “The Case for Proto-Dvāravatī: A Review of the Art Historical and Archaeological Evidence: Journal of Southeast Asian Studies.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 26 Sept. 2016, www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-southeast-asian-studies/article/case-for-protodvaravati-a-review-of-the-art-historical-and-archaeological-evidence/6ABA16AADF5C3B4D62086719BEEF6A5C.