From Beneath the Sands of Time
Wiang Goom Gaam Chiangmai's Ancient City
Immediately to the south of Chiangmai, and just beyond where the Super Highway crosses the River Ping, lies another city. It is the ancient, fortified township of Wiang Goom Gaam. It is quiet, peaceful and often overlooked as not too many visitors go there. That is one of the reasons I enjoy exploring Wiang Goom Gaam there is a solitude and sense of history which is inescapable. Yet the normal hustle and bustle of Thai life surrounds the area. Why is this? The answer is that up until comparatively recently, Wiang Goom Gaam did not exist as far as the eye is concerned.
The name had been mentioned in chronicles of long ago but, aside from that, not a lot was known. At least, it should be known that the name of Goom Gaam was originated from the term of Koom Kaam, Koom means Royal Residence meanwhile Kaam means area or territory. And so it might have remained had not the Fine Arts Department (responsible for archeology) started digging in and around Chiangmai during the mid 1980's. Thanks to a lot of research, hard work and effort the ancient city of Wiang Goom Gaam is, once again, enjoying the light of day and a tremendous amount of archeological and religious interest.
The writer is not an expert on the history of the old Lanna Kingdom but authorities indicate that Wiang Goom Gaam was established in 1286 by King Mengrai. At that time, the Kingdom of Lanna extended far beyond the borders we know today. At its greatest, the Kingdom reached west as far as Ava (Myanmar/Burma), north to Kunming (China, Yunnan Province), east to Phu Hoet (Vietnam) and south to the present day, Thai city of Lampang. It was a vast area and although most of the far-flung regions were self governing, as vassal states they paid tribute to the Kings of Lanna.
Some say that Mengrai was a Shan Prince of the Tai people; he became King of Lanna in 1259. King Mengrai was both a warrior and a wanderer; he made a point of building fortified towns to consolidate and protect his kingdom. The cities of Chiang Saen (on the Mekhong River) and Chiang Rai were both settled by King Mengrai and pre-date the founding of Chiangmai. King Mengrai had taken Lamphun (the Old Kingdom of Hariphunchai) in 1281 but, after spending a few years there, he wanted a "New City" (Chiangmai) on the rich, fertile flood plain of the River Ping. He moved north from Lamphun and established a fortified settlement on a river-bend which would give protection on two sides and flood a moat dug around the remaining two sides. This was Wiang Goom Gaam and the year was 1286.
King Mengrai ordered that palaces, homes and temples be built in this defensive position and so it was done. People labored and toiled to strengthen the fortifications and to build many beautiful temples in the Lanna style. However in 1292, with Wiang Goom Gaam established, King Mengrai decided to move again. This time he didn't move far only a few miles north and thus began the founding of Chiangmai as we know it today King Mengrai's New City. Wiang Goom Gaam, deprived of King Mengrai and his Court, began a long, slow slide to oblivion. It was still populated, of course, and the temples had become places of worship and recognition and thus it continued for many years. King Mengrai passed away in Chiangmai during 1317 at the good old age of 79 years. Both Chiangmai and Wiang Goom Gaam were neighbors for at least 260 years until disaster!
During, or after, 1558 (archeologists refuse to be pinned-down to an exact date), it rained and rained to an extraordinary degree; the River Ping rose and swelled abnormally and waters burst across the flood plain. Being immediately beside the river, and on a bend, Wiang Goom Gaam was caught. People fled as the water rose many meters above normal and, when the floods eventually receded, Wiang Goom Gaam was no more. With the exception of the odd temple standing on higher ground, the entire township had been buried under at least two meters of silt, gravel and debris from the flood. And so it remained for centuries. Talk of the place continued for years but slowly the knowledge of Wiang Goom Gaam drifted from people's memories leaving only some mention in chronicles of that time. The soil, which now covered Wiang Goom Gaam, settled, dried and was eventually used for agricultural purposes rice paddies, fruit orchards and many residential homes were built atop the buried city.
Specialists from the Department of Fine Arts discovered this hidden Lanna treasure when digs around Chiangmai were being conducted in 1984. And what a find it has proven to be; so far, 34 ancient sites have been identified and unearthed. Archeologists are confident that more will follow.
Today, a visit to Wiang Goom Gaam will bring history to your fingertips or, more likely, to the soles of your feet. Temples, which survived the flood, continue to function as places of worship Wat Chedi Liam is a beautiful example and is a haven of peace. Red brick ruins of other buildings and temples that have been excavated surround the area. To walk, or cycle, around ancient Wiang Goom Gaam gives one a feeling of reverence and tranquility. And an invitation to let one's imagination drift back in time.
Happily, Wiang Goom Gaam is not commercialized (unlike X'ian's buried Terra-cotta Army) so it is a very interesting and relaxing place to visit for a morning or afternoon. To get there, take the old Chiangmai-Lamphun Road to Mae Ping Police Station (see map 1 in this magazine) and watch for a chedi (currently being restored) on the right-hand side. Proceed down the soi at the side of the chedi (the ancient city is mostly off to the left of this road) and follow the signs to the various ancient sites. To be in touch with the past, go and touch Wiang Goom Gaam.