Archaeology travel guide to the ruins and ancient temples of Chiang Mai’s predecessor — Wiang Chet Lin.
Wiang Chet Lin is a legendary city hidden in the forested foothills of Doi Suthep and long predating Chiang Mai . It waged wars with the Thai Kingdom’s direct predecessor and allied with the Thais against their common enemy.
Name: Wiang Chet Lin (Misankorn)
Where: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Location: 18.812019, 98.950131
What to do: View the ruins of a 1500-year-old forgotten Lawa city founded by a legendary monk.
Getting there: Taxi, bicycle, or bus from city center.
Hidden in the forests skirting the base of Chiang Mai’s famous Doi Suthep mountain, the walled city of Wiang Chet Lin spans back into the era of legend. This unique circular walled city is said to have been founded by a fabled monk who descended from the mountain, and then went on to establish the city of Hariphunchai, which would rule the region for centuries to come. Although it was renovated in by the Thai Lanna Kingdom as a fortified outpost, Wiang Chet Lin was nonetheless forgotten in more recent centuries.
The Story of Wiang Chet Lin
Mentions of an ancient city straddling the foot of Doi Suthep go back through the records of three different cultures in the region’s history. Artifacts and even physical traces of this city’s wall surfaced throughout the centuries. Despite this, actual archaeological evidence of that city was not actively sought out until a survey done in 1986. These archaeological excavations proved conclusively that there was a city long-predating Chiang Mai in these forests.
This city is referenced by several names and spellings depending on the source. These include Misankorn and Chetthaburi as its original name, as well as various transliterations of its later Thai name of Wiang Chet Lin. Translated from Thai, Wiang Chet Lin means “walled city of 7 streams” (“wiang” meaning walled city” and ‘chetlin” referring to water sources), the name can which can also be found written as Chedlin, Jedlin, Jed Rin, etc. due to their not being a standardized transliteration of Thai.
Adding to the confusion surrounding these varying names is the fact that two distinct legends claim the founding of a city here. While the excavations done since 1986 has served to reconcile and clarify some of these details — in particular proving the city was much older than the later legend claims — there are still many unclear and details springing from these early accounts.
The Legend of Vasuthep and Camadevi
Main article: Lawa People Cultural Profile
Dating back to the Hariphunchai period, a number of local legends and writings of local chronicles tell of a monk named Vasuthep who descended from the mountains surrounding Chiang Mai. In doing this, he established a city for the native people of the area, the Lawa. This city was named Wiang Misankorn and was built the foot of what is now Doi Suthep Mountain. The monk then went on to establish Hariphunchai (modern-day Lamphun) around 600 CE.
In some accounts, Vasuthep (also called Suthewa) was the son of two Lawa chieftains, who, according to the stories of Hariphunchai, were cannibals until meeting the traveling Siddartha Gautama and embracing Buddhism. After becoming a monk and retreating as a hermit in a cave in the mountains, Vasuthep returned to found Hariphunchai.
By most accounts, Vasuthep invited the princess of the Dvaravati Lavo Kingdom (modern-day Lopburi) to rule this new city of Hariphunchai. In some variations, this Queen Camadevi was the daughter of a local nobleman who had been partially raised by Vasuthep until she was spirited away to Lopburi. In other versions, she was indeed a royal heiress from the Lavo throne.
All accounts agree, however, that along with Queen Camadevi came the high culture associated with the Dvaravati. This included Buddhism, fine art and architecture, and the Mon written language. Camadevi is, even today, considered the most important figure in the history of Lamphun.
The Lawa leader at this time, Khun Luang Wilangka is said to have organized 80,000 men and waged several unsuccessful wars on Hariphunchai. By one account, these wars were prompted by an unrequited marriage proposal from Wilangka to Camadevi. In another, the Lawa of Misankorn, under fear or threat from the more civilized Mon-Dvaravati culture, attacked Hariphunchai.
It is important to note that most of these legends stem from the Hariphunchai narrative. As they expanded their influence over the next few centuries (700-1100 CE). It may be that these stories of Suthep, Camadevi, and Wilangka were a story representing, and perhaps justifying, the Mon-Dvaravati culture expanding into the Lawa realm.
The Historical Walled Cities of the Lawa
While the founding of Wiang Chet Lin may have fallen under the shroud of time, there is archaeological evidence of three walled Lawa cities in the Chiang Mai-Lamphun Basin. These cities were Wiang Misankorn (Wiang Chet Lin), Nava Rattha (Wiang Suan Dok), and Wiang Nopburi (where Chiang Mai would eventually be built). These cities and the Lawa people who built them are considered by archaeologists and the Lanna Thais as the original inhabitants of the region.
Of these three sites, Wiang Misankorn had yielded the most archaeological evidence of its Lawa period. The earthen wall surrounding the city is in a circular pattern, a characteristic of the oldest settlements in the region. This is opposed to the later rectangular city plans such as Sukhothai and Chiang Mai.
Wiang Misankorn in the Hariphunchai Period
As Wiang Misankorn and its sister cities near Doi Suthep thrived, the Dvaravati city of Hariphunchai continued to extend its influence over the region of what is now Northern Thailand. Hariphunchai established several fortified cities throughout the Chiang Mai-Lamphun Basin, including Wiang Mano, Wiang Tha Kan, Wiang Khelang (Lampang).
It is here, however, that local legends, chronicles, and archaeological evidence present an incomplete and sometimes contradicting picture of how these two peoples interacted with each other. Many accounts and chronicles tell of several conflicts and even wars between the Lawa and Hariphunchai.
Meanwhile, standing atop Doi Pui, the taller peak immediately next to Doi Suthep, is the ancient Buddhist shrine of San Ku. Though its original name has been lost, San Ku predates all other Buddhist monuments in the area of Doi Suthep. San Ku also shares construction elements with Wat Ku Din Khao, a Buddhist temple dating from the Hariphunchai Period which was within Wiang Misankorn and is currently located in the Chiang Mai Zoo. When excavating and restoring these two sites, earthenware and Buddhist votive tablets from the Hariphunchai art style were found.
These findings from San Ku and Wat Ku Din Khao suggest that there was a level of cooperation between the Lawa at the base Doi Suthep and the people of Hariphunchai.
However, most of these accounts agree that by the time the Thai King Mangrai arrived in the area, the Lawa cities were all but abandoned after a final defeat by Hariphunchai Kingdom.
This prompted the remnants of the Lawa to ally themselves with Mangrai in his conquest of Hariphunchai.
Wiang Chet Lin in the Lanna Period
After Mangrai conquered Hariphunchai and absorbed its domain into the newly established Lanna Kingdom, he conducted a coronation ceremony meant to commemorate Lawa people’s indigenous ownership over the area, while at the same time symbolically handing over ruling authority to his new Thai dynasty. This idea is also commemorated in the official name of Chiang Mai, “Nopburi Sri Nakorn Ping Chiang Mai”. This name of “Nopburi” is the abandoned Lawa city over which the newly-built Chiang Mai was constructed.
While Nopburi and even Nava Rattha were integrated into Chiang Mai proper by the successive kings of Lanna, Misankorn was left forgotten.
Nearly a century later (~1400s CE), there was a war between the king Phaya Sam Fangkaen, the rightful heir to the Lanna throne, and his brother who ruled Chiang Rai. His brother, Thao Yi Kumkam, allied with Sukhothai to overthrow Phaya Sam Fangkaen.
This series of conflicts resulted in the defeat of Thao (prince) Yi Kumkam, who retreated in exile to Sukhothai. To further fortify Chiang Mai from future attacks, Phaya Sam Fangkaen ordered the construction of a walled city at the base of Doi Suthep mountain, where Yi Kumkam and his Sukhothai allies had attacked from. This fortified city was built in the shape of a circle and named Wiang Chet Lin.
The city of Wiang Chet Lin appears three more times throughout Lanna history. The first and most significant of these is when Phaya Sam Fangkaen’s own son, Prince Lok, used Wiang Chet Lin as a staging ground to overthrow his father. After this coup, he ruled over Lanna as King Tilokkaraj.
Visiting Wiang Chet Lin
Very little remains of either Lawa city of Wiang Misankorn or the more recent Lanna city of Wiang Chet Rin, despite its circular profile being clearly visible on any view from above, be it by plane or satellite. Today, the ancient city hosts a large portion of the Chiang Mai Zoo, the Thai-Danish Dairy Farm, and two universities. It is bisected by Huay Kaew Road, which begins the ascent up Doi Suthep from the Misankorn’s western edge.
That said, there are remnants of the overlapping eras of this lost city’s mostly forgotten history easily within walking distance of Thailand’s most popular tourist city — Chiang Mai.
Huay Kaew Arboretum (Southern City Wall)
Huay Kaew Arboretum is a bit grandiose name for this roadside park next to the Chiang Mai Zoo. However, here is the best place to begin exploring Wiang Chet Lin and where you can find the ancient city’s clearest remains. Running from the road along the entire edge of the park is a raised earthen mound which is actually a lengthy, intact section of Wiang Chet Lin’s ancient city wall.
Within the Arboretum, you can follow any of several paths around the wall, or even easily climb to the top. Once atop, you gain a better picture of its overall circular formation as it begins curving to the north, where it is bisected by Huay Kaew Road.
However, this road cutting through the wall provides an unexpected chance to see the interior construction of Wiang Chet Lin itself. At the roadside, you can see several complete layers of the city wall’s brickwork. It’s unclear whether these date from the original Lawa city of Wiang Misankorn or the Lanna period renovations of Wiang Chet Lin. Whichever period they hail from, these walls have been covered by centuries of soil accumulation and dug deeply into by the tree roots.
All of this can be seen in this small cross-section on the sidewalk, which is unfortunately obstructed by barbed wire.
Wat Ku Din Khao
Curiously located inside the Chiang Mai Zoo next to the elephant habitats, Wat Ku Din Khao isn’t much to look at first glance. However, it is one of the oldest ruins in the entire region, predating even Wiang Kum Kam, the predecessor city of Chiang Mai.
The ruins are noted for encompassing several eras of the region’s long Buddhist history, containing strata from renovations in the Lawa, Hariphunchai, and Lanna periods. It shares many common elements with the ruined temple of San Ku, a Lawa-Hariphunchai era temple found atop Doi Pui, the peak neighboring Doi Suthep, which lost its prominence after the Lanna Kingdom established Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
Wat Ku Din Khao contains a unique style of large brickwork (bricks measuring 25 x55x15 cm) which is only found in this era of consecution. This brickwork also played a part in matching Wat Kin Din Khao to San Ku.
One source noted 6 sets of ruins from the Lawa period were found within the Chiang Mai Zoo, however, Wat Ku Din Khao seems to be the only one visitors can access.
Wat Moo Boon
Wat Moo Boon is one of the most unique ancient temples in Chiang Mai and I truly wish there was more information available on its history. If you’ve ever wandered into a ruined temple in northern Thailand and wondered what it originally looked like, Wat Moo Boon can answer that question. Unfortunately, there is no other information available on the temple’s history available at the site itself, the Chiang Mai National Museum, or any further reference material that I’ve been able to find.
The temple ground itself is located 500 meters down an unassuming and questionably paved road that runs along the western wall of Wiang Chet Lin. However, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that Wat Moo Boon was a part of the ancient Lawa city.
There are 3 monuments of interest here of varying and/or questionable historical authenticity. The first you’ll notice is undoubtedly the stupa is the complete brick stupa (chedi) which has been entirely reconstructed in a traditional style. However, there is no stucco or further adornment, giving the temple a faux-ruined appearance, despite its brickwork being mostly recent.
Next to this stupa is a rather unique brick structure containing a statue of a man in traditional Lanna garb. The structure seems to contain elements of an altar, a memorial, and an ancient monument wrapped into one. Although there are no informational signs in English clarifying who this statue depicts, a monk confirmed that this is the legendary Lawa king, Khun Luang Wilanghka.
The final monument at Wat Moo Boon is the wat (temple) itself — a fully reconstructed brick viharn in the style of all those ruined ancient temples found through not only Chiang Mai, but all of northern Thailand.
Western City Wall
The western wall of Wiang Chet Lin runs along a rough north-south road which splits off of Sriwichai Alley (Road 1004) before it begins the climb up Doi Suthep mountain. There isn’t too much to see along this stretch, however, it’s worth making a stop on the way to Wat Moo Boon. There are a few small stretches of raised earth and the occasional ancient brickworks sticking out.
How to Get to Wiang Chet Lin
GPS Coordinates: 18.812019, 98.950131
Wiang Chet Lin is located at the foot of Doi Suthep mountain in the northwest of Chiang Mai city. The area can be reached by any method of transportation in the city. This includes the city’s staple red trucks and tuk-tuks, or the more recent city buses using the R1 line which runs the northern city from Central Festival Mall to the Chiang Mai Zoo.
Alternatively, Chiang Mai is convenient for private transportation as well. I personally drive there on a motorbike from the center city, but a bicycle is entirely possible as well.
Legendary Lavo princess and first ruler of Hariphunchai who brought Buddhism and Dvaravati culture to northern Thailand.
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lanna Kingdom founded by King Mengrai in 1293.
Revered mountain on the western edge of Chiang Mai. The mountain peak has been used by both the Hariphunchai and Lanna Kingdoms to house sacred Buddhist relic temples.
Mon-Burmese ethnic group based in modern Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Responsible for the introduction of Buddhism (Theravada sect) 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.
Dvaravati kingdom in central Thailand centered in the modern town of Lopburi. Eventually conquered by the Khmer Empire.
Ethnic minority group who constructed three walled cities in the Chiang Mai valley: Wiang Nopburi, Wiang Ched Lin, and Wiang Suan Dok. They are also referenced in historic writings as Lua, Milukku, Tamilla, and La.
Common local name for the Lawa people of northern Thailand. Not to be confused with the Lua people of Laos.
Fabled Lawa hermit monk who is said to have founded Wiang Misankorn and Hariphunchai, and invited Camadevi to rule Hariphunchai.
Lanna Thai word for “walled city”
Wiang Chet Lin
Fortification built by Lanna King Sam Fangkaen over the ruins of Wiang Misankorn.
Lawa city at the base of Doi Suthep founded before the Hariphunchai Period.
Abandoned Lawa walled city used as a base 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.
Legendary ruler of the Lawa people who waged war on Hariphunchai with 80,000 men after being rejected by Camadevi.
- “Ancient City in the Protohistoric Era” display. Chiang Mai National Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
- Damrikul, Surapol. “San-Ku Archaeological Site, Doi Pui Hill: Sacred Site of Wasuthep Hermit.” Journal of Fine Arts, vol. 5, no. 1, 2014, http://cmuir.cmu.ac.th/jspui/handle/6653943832/65062.
- Grabowsky, Volker. An Early Thai Census: Translation and Analysis. Institute of Population Studies, Chulalongkorn University, 1993.
- “History of Northern Thailand: Hariphunchai Region” display. Chiang Mai National Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
- “Lua: Wiang Jed Lin Native Group” display. Chiang Mai National Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
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- Pongpandecha, Narong and Ken Taylor. “Interpretation of the Cultural Landscape and Heritage Values of “Mae Koong Bok Village”, Tambon Sanklang, San Patong District, Chiang Mai, Thailand.” Suthiparithat Journal, 93rd ed., vol. 30, Dhurakij Pundit University, Bangkok, Thailand, 2016.
- Stratton, Carol, and Miriam McNair. Scott. Buddhist Sculpture of Northern Thailand. Buppha Press, 2004.
- Swearer, Donald K., and Sommai Premchit. The Legend of Queen Cāma: Bodhiraṃsis Cāmadevīvaṃsa, Translation and Commentary. State University of New York Press, 1998.
- Wichien, Aroonrut. “Lawa (Lua) : A Study from Palm-Leaf Manuscripts and Stone Inscriptions.” Kyoto University, 2012. https://www.academia.edu/6206063/Lawa_Lua_A_Study_from_Palm-Leaf_Manuscripts_and_Stone_Inscriptions.
- Williams, Benjamin. “Wiang Suan Dok: Ancient Chiang Mai’s Holy Outer City.” Paths Unwritten, 22 July 2019, https://pathsunwritten.com/suan-dok-chiang-mai/.