500-year-old temple ruins were discovered buried under Chiang Mai’s Buddhist temple Wat Yang Guang.

Fast Facts

Name: Wat Yang Guang

Where: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Location: 18.775800, 98.989021

What to do: View newly-discovered 500 year-old ruins underneath a quiet, modern temple.

Getting there: The temple is in a local neighborhood walking distance from Chiang Mai’s Old City.

Cost: Free

Chiang Mai is one of those cities in Thailand where its ancient past is left crumbling alongside modern resorts being built. It’s a tangible history often left to its own fate, but still receiving daily reverence and offerings from local patrons. At one of these unsung temples in the southern outskirts of Chiang Mai, recent renovations uncovered a previously unknown history buried under its modern structures.

The Story of Wat Yang Guang Temple

Passing by Wat Yang Guang, you wouldn’t think too much of it. It lies in Haiya, a neighborhood in the southern part of the city outside which is off the radar of most tourists, who tend to stick to the Old City, the riverside, and Nimman neighborhoods.

The octagonal stupa of Wat Yang Guang guarded by chinthe (singha) lion statues.
The octagonal stupa of Wat Yang Guang guarded by chinthe (singha) lion statues.

Chiang Mai is home to hundreds of Buddhist temples. In fact, the city has the highest concentration of these wats of anyplace in Thailand. And, while many of them are massive tourist draws due to a unique design or their visible history (including dozens in ruins), most are passed by daily by tourists and locals alike. Wat Yang Guang is one of the less remarkable temples, despite its history going back nearly 700 years.

While there are no written records dating the temple’s origin, Wat Yang Guang is thought to be a location where King Mengrai rested while scouting the Chiang Mai Valley for a location to build his new capital, which would become Chiang Mai. Two centuries later, Chiang Mai and the Lanna Kingdom had fallen under the control of the Burmese Toungoo dynasty. During this period of Burmese occupation of Chiang Mai, Wat Yang Guang was abandoned.

After a series of military campaigns led by King Kawila, Chiang Mai began an era of reconstruction under the Thonburi Kingdom’s (Bangkok’s) sphere of influence. During this period, new settlers from the Burmese city of Kengtung began rebuilding the Wat Yang Guang, even naming it after Ban Na Yang Guang, a town near Kengtung. This is why the temple features several Burmese design elements (maroon color, chinthe statues) today.

Wat Yang Guang undergoing reconstruction  in September 2019.
Wat Yang Guang undergoing reconstruction in September 2019.

In 2006, Wat Yang Guang began renovations to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the coronation of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (King Rama IX). These renovations led to the discovery of Wat Yang Guang’s buried ruins in 2017. In that time, the surrounding ubosot was deconstructed and excavated by the Fine Arts Department. As of 2019, a new ubosot is being constructed over the excavated foundations of the centuries-old temple.

Visiting Wat Yang Guang Temple

The first visit I made to Wat Yang Guang was soon after reading an article on the discovery of 500-year-old ruins beneath the existing temple, albeit the article was over a year old at the time. During this visit, I didn’t bring a camera, but made it a point to stop in to see what, if any, ruins were actually dug up and now visible.

The Haiya street entrance to Wat Yang Guang
The Haiya street entrance to Wat Yang Guang

When I pulled into the parking lot, I was surprised to see the temple grounds literally torn apart and still under construction. Considering this important archaeological find occurred in 2017, 2 years prior, I expected to see some completion in terms of preservation of the finds, not a construction debris and building materials strewn about the entire temple grounds.

The dug-up ruins are those of an ubosot, the primary hall of worship in a Thai Buddhist temple. On my first visit, the excavated pit around these ruins was muddied by rains at the time. During subsequent visits, it was easier to gain get a closer view at the excavated temple ruins. Several layers of worn brick foundations are visible beneath ground level, although they are surrounded by a newly-built concrete foundation in order to build a new ubosot.

The old ubosot's Buddha statue in its protective casing.
The old ubosot’s Buddha statue in its protective casing.

During this period, the ubosot’s main Buddha image was boarded off in a protective casing to spare it any damage from the construction.

At the base of this Buddha image is the most interesting part of the find. Here, colorful inlaid decorations and bas-reliefs adorn the bottom of the statue. At the time of each of my visits, these ornate ruins were not under the same protection as the Buddha image itself. They were instead very dirtied by the surrounding dirt and left to further damage from the elements.

Close-up of the excavated ruins at Wat Yang Guang.
Close-up of the excavated ruins at Wat Yang Guang.

As of September 2019, the metal frame for the new construction had been erected over the excavation site.

How to Get to Wat Yang Guang Temple

GPS Coordinates: 18.775800, 98.989021

The best place to start is Chiang Mai Gate (Pratu Chiang Mai) on the southeastern side of the Old City. From the gate, you will see the enduring ruins of Chiang Khong stupa wedged tightly between two modern shops.

Chiang Khong stupa sits outside Chiang Mai Gate at the corner of Nantaram Rd.
Chiang Khong stupa sits outside Chiang Mai Gate at the corner of Nantaram Rd.

Next to this is a street corner branching into Nantaram Road and Wualai Road. Turn left on to Nantaram Road and then stay on the left as it splits into Suriyawong Alley.

You’ll know you’re on the right road when you begin passing several other large ruined stupas on the east side of the road. After the largest of these (part of Wat That Klang), there will be a flat-topped brick gate on the west side of the road. This is the traditional entrance to Wat Yang Guang. The entrance for cars and other vehicles is a couple meters further.

Fast Facts

Glossary

bas-relief
An art style where surface material is removed to create an elevated image. It differs from a relief in that its features are shallower than the items it depicts.

Bhumibol Adulyadej (King Rama IX)
King of Thailand from 1946-2016.

Chiang Mai
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lanna Kingdom founded by King Mengrai in 1293.

Kawila
Lanna prince who led successful campaigns against Burmese domination, liberating Chiang Saen. He led the rebuilding of Chiang Mai after becoming governor of Lampang under the Rattanakosin Kingdom.

Kengteng
City in northeastern Myanmar which was historically part of the Lanna Kingdom.

Lanna
Thai kingdom based in northern Thailand and northwestern Laos. Its capitals included Chiang Rai, Wiang Kum Kam, and Chiang Mai.

Mengrai
Final ruler of the Ngoenyang Kingdom (Chiang Saen) and founder of the Lanna Kingdom from 1291-1311 who established Wiang Kum Kam in 1286 and its successor Chiang Mai in 1293.

Thonburi Kingdom
The historic successor of the Ayutthaya Kingdom founded in 1767 in modern Bangkok. It was succeeded by the Rattanakosin Kingdom in 1782.

Toungoo dynasty
The ruling dynasty of Myanmar from 1510–1752. It waged wars with and conquered several surrounding kingdoms, including Siam, Lanna, and Lan Xang.

ubosot
The primary hall of worship in a Buddhist temple.

Wat Yang Guang
Temple in Chiang Mai where 500-year-old ruins were discovered under the existing buildings.

Sources

Ben

Ben

Nothing that notable to say yet. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in writing and anthropology and have no idea what I want to do with them. For now, I’m content with an unbound lifestyle; going where I want and doing what I can, and hopefully gaining some interesting stories along the way.

6 Comments

  • Love the pictures and the story. Thanks for sharing!

  • Whoa! Your travels are amazing! My Grandmother was born in Beijing – in the Russian Quarter. Will you be traveling their? Or maybe you have already… I’ll have to see more of your blog. Blessings!

    • Ben says:

      Hi Annie, thanks for sharing. I actually haven’t spent any time in Beijing, or much of the east coast at all. The northern and central interior parts of China interested a bit more, although there’s certainly plenty around the Beijing I’d love to see as well. With winter coming up, I think I’ll avoid that for the next few months though.

      How about you–any plans for some time in China coming up?

  • lidipiri says:

    I love the way you introduce us to places… and I love Chiang Mai. Thank you!

  • I love “Ancient ruins discovered underneath xyz”. When Philadelphia was renovating the building that houses the Liberty Bell, they discovered slaves’ quarters underneath. Now they’re covered with glass so you can see. Fascinating!

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