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Archaeological travel guide to the ruins of Nong Ngu, an ancient village outside of Chiang Mai that has been retaken by the forest.

As this blog has been trying its best to document, ruins abound throughout Chiang Mai from the Lanna Kingdom and its predecessor, the Dvaravati Hariphunchai Kingdom and even the Lawa. In fact, in the immediate area of Chiang Mai, there are no fewer than 7 independent historic settlements. Perhaps the least documented of these is the abandoned village of Nong Ngu.

The Nong Ngu Archaeological Site is a ruined village at the far eastern edge of the Chiang Mai-Lamphun Valley. It has been reclaimed by the Doi Saket forest and is now maintained on the grounds of Wat Luang Nong Ngu. While the monks of the temple say that ruins date back 1000 years, archaeological surveys date them to approximately 600 years ago.

Here, we’ll look at the sparse little history that is known about this ancient satellite settlement of Chiang Mai and how you can visit yourself.

The Story of Ancient Chiang Mai’s Nong Ngu Archaeological Site

The Nong Ngu Archaeological Site is about 20km to the east of Chiang Mai in the foothills of Doi Saket mountain. It is not too far from the popular Wat Phrathat Doi Saket temple — a common stopover for those on the road to Chiang Rai.

Early Accounts of Nong Ngu

There is no historic account of a settlement at the modern location of the Nong Ngu Archaeological Site. However, ruins and artifacts have turned up in the forest for time enough to garner the attention of the local temple, who began to take care of the site located in the adjacent forest.

Connected to this area, the Wat Pa Pao temple in San Kamphaeng hosts a storied Buddha image. In the tale of this image’s origin, it was originally recovered from an unnamed village near Doi Saket and presented to the other village chief, who enshrined it in the current temple. Little other information on either the image or the location it originated from exist.

Ruined brick wall at the Nong Ngu Archaeological Site
Ruined brick wall at the Nong Ngu Archaeological Site

The 2013 Excavations of Nong Ngu Archaeological Site

Based on the accounts of the area and the story of the Wat Pa Pao Buddha image above, the 8th Fine Arts Department began excavation of the area in 2013. In total, the excavations identified 6 archaeological sites, including ruined temples, a reservoir, and numerous artifacts.

Some artifacts on display at Wat Luang Nong Ngu
Some artifacts on display at Wat Luang Nong Ngu

Upon examining the Wat Pa Pao Buddha image itself, the art style reflected elements of 2 known historic images:

  • Phra Lavo or Phra Chao Khaeng-khom — currently housed in Wat Si Koet, and commissioned by King Tilokkaraj in 1483
  • Phra Chao Kao-tue — currently in Wat Suan Dok and commissioned by King Muang Kao in 1504-1510 C.E

Both these images derive parts of their style from the Lavo Buddha images, which had originated in Central Thailand. However, based on the dates of these art styles and artifacts excavated from the Nong Ngu Archaeological Site, the Fine Arts Department dated the site to about 500-600 years old.

This stands in contrast to the 1000-year-old date told to me by the monk who guided us through the temple site. This would place the village during the middle of the Hariphunchai Period, when the Dvaravati-Mon culture ruled the entire region. However, given the evidence of Lanna Thai art styles and Northern Thai ceramics uncovered at the site, a more recent date of 5-600 years is more likely, with the note that this doesn’t disqualify the possibility of habitation during the Hariphunchai Period as well.

The Nong Ngu Archaeological Site and Wat Luang Nong Ngu Today

Shrine located in the forest surrounding Wat Luang Nong Ngu
Shrine located in the forest surrounding Wat Luang Nong Ngu

Today, the Nong Ngu Archaeological Site sits in the forests as a part of the local temple, Wat Luang Nong Ngu. The temple is small and quite removed from the main road, requiring about a 1km walk back through a dirt road. 

The temple maintains a small display of some artifacts removed at the site, although whether they originate from the 2013 excavations or random local finds is unclear. There are signs in Thai that can guide you through the hiking trails to specific dog sites, however, the grounds were not cleared regularly enough to hike through during my visit. 

Visiting Ancient Chiang Mai’s Nong Ngu Archaeological Site

The Nong Ngu Archaeological Site is one of those historical spots that is close enough to Chiang Mai city that it’s not hard to get to, but far enough that it’s inconvenient to get to. Plenty of times, I had planned on making a motorbike trip out to the area, but never got around to doing it.

It’s also a spot that (at least when I was looking into it) there is little information available, either in Thai or English.

Finding the Nong Ngu Ruins

As my days in Chiang Mai were winding down, I had a rental car for an extra day, so we decided to make an afternoon trip over to this far side of the Ping River Valley. The drive brought use down toward San Kamphaeng before looping us north through small relatively nameless villages that dot the eastern countryside.

When we arrived near the entrance to Nong Ngu, there was a discrete sign pointing the way to the site in English, but very little else to let us know what we were looking for or where to go to find it. 

Th dirt road back to Wat Luang Nong Ngu
Th dirt road back to Wat Luang Nong Ngu

Along the main road is a narrow bridge over a canal, which although wide enough for a car to fit through, looked too risky to try to turn into . Instead, we parked the car along the roadside and began walking across the small bridge and back along the dirt road.

This brought us past a handful of homes in the forest, as well as a few territorial dogs.

Arriving at Wat Luang Nong Ngu

The naga gate at Wat Luang Nong Ngu
The naga gate at Wat Luang Nong Ngu

After walking back through the forest trail for nearly a kilometer, we were no closer to finding any sign of ruins or temple, although a large clearing in the forest was not far ahead on the Google Maps GPS. Soon enough, the temple of Wat Luang Nong Ngu came into view with its gate adorned with large green nagas.

There was no immediate sign of ruins or archaeological excavation on the temple grounds. We were, however, greeted by a troupe of dogs who began barking and moving toward us from the forest at the far end of the temple grounds.

The Wat Luang Nong Ngu cleared main etmple grounds
The Wat Luang Nong Ngu cleared main etmple grounds

A moment later, we were welcomed by a monk speaking English as he walked out from one of the nearby buildings. I told home that we were looking for the ruins that were supposed to be nearby, and he pointed us toward the trail that the dogs were occupying. He also told us not to worry about the dogs, they were all friendly.

Sure enough, as we headed toward the trail, the dogs began cautiously sniffing our feet and then followed us into the forest, as if they had guided other visitors into the temple retreat. One of them seemed to take a particular liking to Ida as well, as he was always sticking just a step or two behind her.

The Forest Ruins of Wat Luang Nong Ngu

One of the forest Buddhas we initially though might have been rebuilt on the ruins
One of the forest Buddhas we initially though might have been rebuilt on the ruins

Less than 100 meters down the trail and we arrived into another clearing in the forest. This one was much denser forest and appeared to have been cleared more as a forest sanctuary for the temple, in contrast with the prior open clearing where the main temple buildings were located.

Along the edges of this clearing were 2 Buddha statues on brick bases, but still no signs of the ruins that were supposed to be there. As our dog companions continued on into the woods, the two of us debated whether these brick bases were repurposed from the original ruins — something not uncommon in many Buddhist ruins around Thailand.

A moment later, the same monk emerged from the path we had walked in on. He had brought us each a walking stick along with one for himself and led us into the forested edge of the clearing near where the dogs had run off to. 

Overgrown brick wall supported by sandbags
Overgrown brick wall supported by sandbags
Closer view of this wall
Closer view of this wall

Along the clearing’s edge was a small stream reinforced with sandbags. Above them, the monk pointed out the overgrown remnants of a brick wall that may well have fallen into the stream without those sandbags. 

Finding their caretaker had returned, the dogs joined us as this monk led us deeper into the forest. He explained to us that this used to be a village around 1000 years ago. I asked him if he could elaborate about that, as that would place this village during the middle of the Hariphunchai Period, almost 300 years before the Thai people arrived in the region and founded Chiang Mai.

A small walk back, he brought us to another overgrown brick structure on a small hill. While this first looked like another wall, as we reached the top of the hill, we were able to see the interior of a square chamber. This was most likely an emptied relic chamber of one of Nong Ngu’s ancient stupas.  

Leading us to the core of a ruined stupa
Leading us to the core of a ruined stupa
Inside the square walls lining the ruined stupa
Inside the square walls lining the ruined stupa
Inside the square walls lining the ruined stupa
Inside the square walls lining the ruined stupa
Inside the square walls lining the ruined stupa
Inside the square walls lining the ruined stupa

From these ruins, there was no real way to tell if this stupa was indeed from the Lanna or Hariphunchai era. The monk informed us there were 4 other stupas nearby, but they were deeper in the forest and the route to get there hadn’t been cleared for a long time. Considering how little we were able to see in these ruins, we opted against going further into the forest.

Rather than going back on the short path we had entered from, the monk guided us a longer way around on another path. Apparently there were several other spots that he could show us, and this brought us past a small artificial reservoir, but we were unsure whether this was from the original settlement or more recent.

Hiking back to the temple clearing
Hiking back to the temple clearing

The Wat Luang Nong Ngu Museum

Back at the original clearing where the main buildings of Wat Luang Nong Ngu stood, we returned our walking sticks to the basket where they were kept. Our guide told us of a small collection of artifacts that had been discovered that were on display in the main viharn.

Inside the main worship hall (viharn) of Wat Luang Nong Ngu
Inside the main worship hall (viharn) of Wat Luang Nong Ngu
Artifacts on display at Wat Luang Nong Ngu
Artifacts on display at Wat Luang Nong Ngu
Artifacts on display at Wat Luang Nong Ngu
Artifacts on display at Wat Luang Nong Ngu
Artifacts on display at Wat Luang Nong Ngu
Artifacts on display at Wat Luang Nong Ngu

I removed my shoes and went inside. To the right of the temple’s main Buddha image and against the rear wall were shelves with several items that had presumably been recovered during the 2013 excavations by the Department of Fine Arts, as photos from this excavation were posted near the doorway. However, it is just as likely that they may have been recovered by local residents and donated to the temple.

Among the artifacts were restored ceramic, an engraved brick, and a detailed snake with a wavy body. It was a modest collection, but still an interesting one to see. 


With that, we thanked the monk who had guided us around, said goodbye to the dogs who had accompanied us through the woods and headed back to return the car in Chiang Mai.  

How to Get to Ancient Chiang Mai’s Nong Ngu Archaeological Site

GPS Coordinates: 18.81817, 99.19284

The only signs you'll see for the Nong Ngu Archaeological Site look like this
The only signs you’ll see for the Nong Ngu Archaeological Site look like this

The Nong Ngu Archaeological Site is located in the forests at the base of the Doi Saket range, at the far eastern side of the Chiang Mai Valley. While there are several roads that lead in that direction, there is no direct way there. Likewise, there is no public transportation available — you will need private transportation to reach Nong Ngu.

The simplest way to reach Nong Ngu is to take Highway 118 heading northeast out of Chiang Mai city toward Chiang Rai. Not long before 118 goes into the mountains, it crosses road 3044. Touring south onto 3044 will take you along a long and winding, often overgrown 2-lane road. However, this will eventually lead to the Nong Ngu Archaeological Site about 11 km from the turnoff. You should begin to see signs for Wat Luang Nong Ngu near where 3044 crosses road 4062.

From this intersection, it is a short distance to the bridge entrance to the temple area, then about 1km walk back into the forest and Wat Luang Nong Ngu temple grounds, where the ruins are located.

Fast Facts

Fast Facts

Name: Nong Ngu Archaeological Site (Wat Luang Nong Ngu)

Where: Doi Saket, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Location: 18.81817, 99.19284

Description: 600-year-old village overgrown by the Chiang Mai jungle.

Getting there: Nong Ngu is located on the grounds of Wat Luang Nong Ngu,

Cost: Free


Glossary

Chiang Mai
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lanna Kingdom founded by King Mangrai in 1296.

Dvaravati
Mon-Burmese ethnic group based in modern Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Responsible for the introduction of Buddhism (Theravada sect) to Thailand.

Hariphunchai
Ancient name of Lamphun, Thailand and the historic capital of the Dvaravati Hariphunchai Kingdom.

Hariphunchai Kingdom
Dvaravati kingdom in northern Thailand (c. 750 – 1292 CE) centered in the modern town of Lamphun. Eventually conquered by the Lanna Kingdom.

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

Lavo Kingdom
Dvaravati kingdom in central Thailand centered in the modern town of Lopburi. Eventually conquered by the Khmer Empire.

relic chamber
Space inside a Buddhist stupa where a special object is enshrined, often cremated ashes or a physical object thought to belong to the historic Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama.

stupa
Buddhist monument used to enshrine sacred relics or memorialize important figures. Its dome, bell, or otherwise tower-like appearance is an architectural representation of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.

viharn
The main worship hall in a Buddhist temple.

wat
Thai word meaning “temple”

Sources 

  • Sooksawasdi สุรสวัสดิ์ ศุขสวัสดิ์ Surasawasdi. “การศึกษาพระพุทธรูปจากแหล่งโบราณสถานวัดหลวงหนองงู อำเภอดอยสะเก็ด จังหวัดเชียงใหม่ (Study on the Buddha Image from Wat Luang Nong-Ngu Archaeological Site, Doisaket District, Chiang Mai Province).” Silpakorn University Journal, so05.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/sujthai/article/view/106778.

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

What are your thoughts?