Chiang Saen Thailand's Northern
Port in the Maekhong River Basin
Chiang Saen has sometimes been described as a sleepy town and, in some ways, it still is. But all is not slumbering in this historic town pleasantly sited on the Thai shore of the majestic Maekhong River. The riverfront is usually abuzz with activity as Chiang Saen has found itself to the forefront of export and import trading with Yunnan Province in China.
Heavily burdened Chinese riverboats constantly arrive with cargoes of produce especially apples and Thai lorries patiently queue as goods are discharged and trucked away to Chiang Rai, Chiangmai, Bangkok and all points south. Thai products, bound for Yunnan, are then loaded aboard the riverboats and, in increasing numbers, embarking tourists who want to see more of the Maekhong River Basin.
At present, riverboats are shallow draft but there are continuing discussions, sometimes controversial, between the Thai, Chinese and Lao Governments that would see the Maekhong riverbed being deepened to permit navigation for larger, deep drafted vessels. Whatever happens, Chiang Saen is enjoying this new boost to the local economy and visitors are able to enjoy more of the river. Local long-tailed boats scud the waters and may be hired for an hour or so. It is a fun way to see some of the river scenery and life along the Thai side of the river. It is also possible to take a long-tailer across the river to Laos but make sure you have a visa for Laos (visas CANNOT be issued locally).
Away from the riverfront, the old walled town of Chiang Saen lies as it has done for hundreds of years. The fortified, Lanna town was established by King Mengrai in 1261 but the original setting of the area predates even that time. There are various schools of thought as to where the original setters arrived from the Khmer Kingdom or Lawa people from the Central Plains of the Chao Phraya River but details are vague to say the least. More likely the original settlers were of the Tai tribe in their migratory wandering from Sipsongpanna (in China's Yunnan Province where Tai people still live) to the Maekhong River and the Shan Plateau (Burma/Myanmar). Such conjecture only adds to the interest of visitors when visiting the ancient sites and ruins of the town.
Much of the town's historic past is brought together at the Chiang Saen National Museum which was established in 1957. The museum is not large but the staff has worked diligently to present a picture of Chiang Saen from its earliest times. There are three distinct sections which, together, cover the history or the settlement including archeological excavations, Lanna Buddha images, northern Thai ceramics, monuments from the town and surrounding areas plus the importance of the Maekhong River. A visit to the museum is recommended to anyone interested in this first town of King Mengrai's Lanna Kingdom. (Museum closed Mondays and Tuesdays)
Behind the National Museum is the temple of Wat Jedi Luang which was built on the orders of King Saen Phu, the 3rd king of the Mengrai Dynasty. The Jedi (Chedi) is regarded as the "Grand Jedi" and is of solid brick construction typical of the times. Another temple, also built by King Saen Phu, is Wat Pa Sak which is sited within what used to be a forest of soaring teak trees. Sadly, the teak trees have long fallen to the axe but the main temple jedi has been restored and rises above the surrounding temple ruins. The "filigree" embellishments hint at some Burmese influence.
Outside the town walls is the very ancient temple of Wat Prathart Doi Jom Gitti. This temple pre-dates the founding of Chiang Saen; the foundations have been dated to the 7th Century and are, indeed, pre-Tai. Interestingly, the word "Jom" is the ancient word for Khmer so this lends credence to the thought that Khmer people exercised influence in the area. A Buddha image, in high relief, decorates the jedi and also there is a bronze plaque. As the Thai word "Doi" (mountain/hill) indicates, the temple is perched on the crest of a hill and affords a splendid panorama of Chiang Saen and the Maekhong River as far as the Golden Triangle. This is a very popular sight for visitors.
Chiang Saen is an easy town to explore on foot but hiring a bicycle or motorcycle makes it easier, cooler and less tiring. Also, if there are several in the group, hiring a songtaew or tuk-tuk is recommended. The driver will take visitors to the various points of interest and wait until the party is ready to move on again. The practice is to negotiate the hire price before beginning the tour and pay when the program is finished.
Ancient Chiang Saen the first town of the Lanna Kingdom makes for an interesting excursion from Chiang Rai or Mae Sai. It has a laid-back charm, a host of historic sites to see and a modern approach to trade and commerce on the waters of the broad, benevolent Maekhong River. It is another interesting and different place to visit during your time in Northern Thailand.