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Chiang Saen Past and Present

map of chiang Saen Ancient Chiang Saen sits dreaming sleepily on the banks of the mighty Mae Khong river. Who would ever imagine its former days of power and glory? Yet, believe it or not, this quiet district town, gate way to the "Golden Triangle", was once the centre of power of the long-gone Lanna Kingdom.

Though the time origins of this enormously old town are shrouded in the mists of time, it is certain that it predates the later and more influential cities of Chiangmai and Chiangrai. About 1,450 years ago, one of the earliest of the Tai chieftains, King Singhanuwat -- drove his armies south from Yunnan and settled at the site of present day Chiang Saen. His newly established capital was called either Nakhapun Singhanuwat Nakorn or Yonok Nakorn Chaiburi Sri Chiang Saen. With in one hundred years this fortified outpost had expanded dramatically to become the hub of a self-contained kingdom called Haevan Nakorn Ngern Yang Chiarburi Sri Chiang Saen.

The next 600 years of history is lost in the tale of Chiang Saen. These were turbulent times in many ways, and earthquakes and a succession of feudal wars have all been cited as the causes of this gap in the city's story.

With the advent of King Mengrai, some 700 years ago, the focus of history brings Chiang Saen to the fore of events once again. King Mengrai and his dynasty had mostly concentrated their efforts in establishing Chiangmai as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, with occasional shifts of direction leading to short interludes of predominance of Chiangrai. Yet, whenever trouble threatened the fabric of this long-gone kingdom. Mengrai and his heirs chose to regroup in Chiang Saen, the birthplace of King Mengrai himself. His lineal ancestors further developed one city of Chiang Saen into one of the best fortified towns of its age as defence against a series of invaders from the north. The present shape of the city dates from those times when King Saen Pu and his father Kam Fu, both of king Mengrai's direct line, developed the city into one of the finest fortified towns of its age.

Chiang Saen has since its inception been under the influence of Buddhism, and its most substantial ancient buildings reflect this. Many of the finest building of these bygone times are, sadly, little more than dilapidated ruins poking forlornly through a green cloak of vegetation, but there are still many fine examples of preserved or renovated temples and stupas that reflect the architectural history of Chiang Saen. These structures clearly tell the story of external influences on building styles during the city's past, and Khmer, Singhalese, Lao and Sukhothai forms, corresponding with different periods in Chiang Saen's history, are all represented.

The main sites of historical and architectural interest in the town are listed below. Wat Pa Sak, the teak forest temple, was build in the time of King Saen Phu about 600 years ago. The temple has been reduced to ruins with the ravages of time, but the Jedee, which has been carefully restored, still stands. Wat Jedee Luang, built at about the same time. This impressive Jedee is of brick plastered with stucco, with traces of the bronze covering, typical of the architecture and religious art of old Chiang Saen, still visible on the spire. Other temples of interest in the city are Wat Moong Muang, Wat Pra Buad and Wat Pra Jao Larn Tong, housing a Buddha image of the same name in the genuine Chiang Saen art style.

Watching over the city, perched on a hill to the worth, is Wat Pra Thaat Jom Gitti, which predates the Lanna Kingdom by over one hundred years. From here there are panoramic views of the city, the Mae Khong River and the surrounding lands. Wat Pha Ngao the temple of the cliff of shadow, was only recently moved to the site of an ancient, long-deserted temple. Clearing the forest that had smothered the old site, a huge Buddha image was found, thought to once have been the principal image of the erstwhile temple. Deciding to restore the statue to its former glory, the temple committee lifted the image in order or the work to be done. While constructing a new plinth for the image, levelling the ground, some rocks were found. Investigating these they were found to cover the head of a beautiful Buddha image, made of limestone and then gilded, between 700 and 1,300 years ago. The image had been deliberately buried at some former time, possibly to hide it from invading armies.

The modern city of Chiang Saen, with its ruins, and its branch of the National Museum, is well worth a visit. Though sadly the ancient city walls are largely ruined, the old city plan remains the same now as in days gone by. With the Maekhong River as a natural defence at its back, and its strong wall at the front and sides, Chiang Saen, this yawning backwater, once dominated the surrounding lands, commanding the confluence of the Maekhong with some of its major tributaries including the Mae Kok and Mae Chan Rivers.

Apart from its ruins and its proximity to the famous and infamous "Golden Triangle" where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet, Chiang Saen is a perfect starting point for expeditions into the surrounding lands. Chiang Saen Lake not far from the city, is a good place to observe immigrating wildfowl, especially in November and December. Legend has it that the Lake was once a village beside a swamp. Domestic wildfowl used to swim on the Lake but were eaten by a gigantic white eel. Seeking to rid themselves of this menace, the people made a great fishing line, with an enormous hook, which was tied to the back of a goose. Catching the monster eel, but not realising it was divine the villagers ate it with relish. Discovering this, an angel visited the village. Finding a widow who had eaten none of the eel, the angel told her not to leave her house it she heard a loud noise in the night. At midnight, a great wind and ceric sounds were heard all around her house, but heeding the angels words, the widow waited until dawn before peering from her window. Where once had been a swamp and a village was now a great Lake.

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