Chiang Saen is the oldest city in Chiang Rai and it was probably one of the oldest cities of Thailand. was once the center of power of the long-gone ancient Northern Thailand’s kingdom called Lanna Kingdom. The city existed even long before the establishment of Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. It is one of the oldest and most historically significant towns in the Thailand.
What to see or do here? There are plenty of places and activities, but this article we only have a quick look at where are the highlights here.
History is Alive
As appeared in history records from many scholars, in the 6th century A.D., a Tai (ไต) king from Yunan (now part of China), name Prince Singhanuwat (สิงหนุวัติ) migrated his armies and followers down to the south and settled just on river bank – where the Ruak River confluences with the Mae Kong river to form three separate land (now called “Golden Triangle”). Singhanuwat’s settlement on the western bank of the mighty the rive later had rapidly become the center of a new kingdom. The new city is called “Singhanuwat Nakorn”. Later about a hundreds years or so, it dramatically become the hub a self-contained kingdom.
After that nobody knows what happened, the history of kingdom just lost from there for about 600 years. The city, the wall and historical buildings have been destroyed which is believed to be because of huge earthquake. Later there was a resurrection of the city by remaining princes and the city was revived. The new city is called “Wiang Perksa” (เวียกเปิกสา) and price Lao Jok become the king. Then the city’s name was changed to “Nakorn Ngern Yang Chiarburi Sri Chiang Saen”. It had many names, sometimes called “Yonok Nakorn Chaiburi Sri Chiang Saen” (โยนกนครชัยบุรีศรีเชียงแสน) or just “Yonok”, and sometimes called “Wiang Hiran Nakhon Ngoen Yang” (หิรัญนครเงินยาง).
The most well-known the prince of Ngoen Yang was the 25th prince, Mengrai (1238 – 1317 AD), who later became King Mengrai and founded the Kingdom of Lanna and also the two cities Chiang Rai around 1262 and Chiang Mai around 1296.
After Lanna Kingdom was founded, Wiang Hiran Nakhon Ngoen Yang was renamed to Chiang Saen where ‘Chiang’ (เชียง) literally means ‘a city’ and ‘Saen’ (แสน) is believed to be name of King Meng Rai’s nephew, King Saen Phu (พระเจ้่าแสนภู), who server as King of Chiang Saen between 1327 AD and 1341 AD.
Later Chiang Saen experienced a decline, it was no longer a capital city but there was still the great expansion on the Buddhism through many governors as seen from the ruins discovered, 75 temples within the city and 66 outside Chiang Saen, which all certified the Chiang Sean civilization under the influence of Buddhism.
Around in 1557 AD, Chiang Saen and Chiang Rai were invaded and captured by the Burmese, and remained under Burmese rule for several hundred years. The Burmese were later sacked by King Rama I around 1803. After that it was left as ghost town for a hundred years until it was repopulated around 1900 AD. Chiang Rai was proclaimed a province of Thailand in 1933 and Chiang Saen become one of Chiang Rai’s districts. Chiang Saen has a city wall surrounding the historic city like Chiang Mai and it borders to the Mekong River. Now the wall is gone, but you can still see small portions of it remains.
Nowadays Chang Saen is one of the most well-known cities of Chiang Rai. It is synonymous with beautiful old buildings and Lanna Arts. Much of the town’s historic past is brought together at the Chiang Saen National Museum. The museum is not large it is really a nice place to see 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 and some ancient ceramics.
Like many parts of Northern Thailand, there are temples and temples. If a visitor wants to see some historic place in the city, there is a series of ruins known as Ku Tao, Wat Pa Sak, and Wat Phra That Chom Kitti (พระธาตุจอมกิตติ) which are located a few kilometers from each other. These are all ancient ruins that are well worth a visit. This is far but they have a good walk along narrow paths in the process. Especially Wat Phra Thart Chom Kitti which is located in the tophill. The temple has been dated to the 7th Century, even before the King Singhanuwat’s settlement. On the top hill, visitors can enjoy a good view of Chiang Saen and the Mekong River. Around Chiang Saen itself are more temple ruins, and in the town is a fine museum of Buddhist art from the Chiang Saen period.
But the most famous temple it Wat Chedi Luang, which is believed to be built around 3rd century. In Thai, wat means a “temple”, Chedi means pagoda and luang means huge. It is located next to the museum and it features the tallest pagoda in Chiang Rai. The 88-metre high brick pagoda is in the bell shape of the classic Lanna style. The temple is just a shell compared to its glorious past, although its tranquil beauty can still be observed.
World’s biggest drug production was here
If asking a question what can damage human lives the most, drug should be at the top of the list. In case you don’t know, the Gold Triangle had been the most extensive opium-producing areas in the world about some 50 years ago. It started after the Opium Wars took place, between the Chinese and British traders after the traders began to smuggle opium into India and China with the goal of generating cash and as payment for tea purchases.
The result was high addictions and unsettled situations in China. Production of opium continued to be a profitable business and demand for the production did not decrease after the Opium Wars was over. Production kept increasing dramatically during the 1950’s in in the region (mostly in Myanmar) and huge amounts of money flooded into the region, hence the term, the Golden Triangle. Most of the world’s heroin came from the Golden Triangle until the early 80s and after that Afghanistan became the world’s largest producer. Frank Lucas, well-known American former heroin dealer, who was portrayed by Denzel Washington in the 2007 feature film American Gangster, used to export his 98-100% pure so called “Blue Magic” from Myanmar and ship from here.
Hall of Opium Museum is very worthwhile to visit (200 Baht entry fee). It received the PATA (Pacific Asia Travel Association) Gold Award winner 2004 under the category of Education program. The museum is located at Baan Sob Ruak (บ้านสบรวก), close to the very fields where millions of poppies once bloomed, the Hall of Opium gives a full picture of the opium trade, it’s history, some of the characters involved and how it blighted the lives of addicts. Thanks to the hard work of the Princess Mother over many years, to initiate royal projects in Chiang Rai, the trade in opium in Chiang Saen was gradually eliminated.
In the museum, we enter the hall through a long dark tunnel surrounded by ghostly figures which are caved into the wall and symbolized the addition. In the first room, the displays show how opium is manufactured into colorful poppies. Here, the museum uses stunning multimedia to present the effects. As many of us may already know, opium usage begin since ancient time. The exhibition lights slowly revolving showing the Sphinx from Egypt and timeline displays show the visitors how endemic opiates where even those ancient time.
The next door of the museum shows flashbacks of the two Opium Wars wreak such havoc of China, and the colonisation of India and the rise of international drug cartels. Then the few last rooms show how opium is smoked with a mockup of an old-style opium den and scrawny mannequins of smokers. The cautionary tales continue with a “Hall of Shame” of dope persons whose lives were wasted by the addiction. And the last section is called “The Hall of Reflection”, it encourages visitors to realize what they have learnt so far.
One of Chiang Saen’s claims to fame is its wealth of hill-tribes. Hill-tribes in Chiang Saen and other parts of Chiang Rai once suffered in poverty and were in addiction to opium, but nowadays the fortunes were given a shot in the arm as His Majesty the King mercifully developed Royal Projects to educated them about other forms of agriculture.
The Golden Triangles, is legendary for many aspects, including drug trade described above. But it is also a legendary place for a boat tour with mountainous views and tiny riverine communities for ambiance. Chiang Saen is an easy town to explore on foot renting a motorbike and driving around the quiet back roads in the area is the best way to see more of this city.
Chiang Saen’s signature vehicle is not a Tuk-Tuk (ตุ๊กตุ๊ก) or Sang Thaew (สองแถว) or even motorcycle, but it is a big motorcycle with a back seat for 4 passengers called a “Sky Lab”. Chiang Saen is only one among a few places in Thailand that has sky lap besides Choburi province, Ayuthaya province and a few cities in Northern Thailand.
Hi-end Jungle Experience
The accommodation experience in this town is intimate, with homely and affordable guesthouses taking precedence. There are, however, some luxurious resorts within driving distance for those who want their creature comforts.
Chief among the luxurious ones is Four Seasons Tented Camp. This hotel has been rated as one of the top Thailand’s hotels year after year, and it is rated as world’s top hotels by TripAdvisor.com from time to time. The Fifteen exclusive luxury camps are reminiscent of 19th-century adventure expeditions with handcrafted furniture, hardwood floors and traditional thatched roofs. With this quality, it comes with a price of 47,000 tag Baht ($1,500) a night as the minimum rate. As described beautifully by the hotel brochure, right from the start, when you enter the jungle-surrounded resort by boat, you know you’re in the magical place where fairy tales come true. The hotel contain almost 200 acres, and it could be the biggest hotel in Northern Thailand, in terms of occupied area.
Within the resort area, walking up the jungle path to the hill surrounded by bamboo, there are tremendous tents overlooking green field. Here you can do elephant trekking. There are more than 30 elephants raised at Elephant Foundation, which is also supported by Four Seasons Tented Camp called The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF). The foundation was established in 2006 by the resort with another partner to provide a safe haven for abused and retired elephants and has now developed to support larger conservation and education projects. So when you ride an elephant here, you can be sure that you’re not supporting brutal elephant riding tourism.
How to go to Chiang Saen
Chiang Saen is 30 kilometers from Mae Chan District and you can travel through the Highway No. 1016. Otherwise if you travel from the municipality, take the Highway No. 100 then take a right into the Highway No. 1016 and drive for 30 kilometers.
The most convenient way is to rent a car in the municipality then drive to Chiang Saen but you can also opt for the motorbike as it would be easier riding due to the condition of the roads. The cost of car rent in Chiang Rai is about 800-1,200 Baht a day.
This method is for those who have a lot of time to spend. You can hop on the buses from Chiang Rai anywhere and it costs only B20 for one-way trip. The travelling time is unpredictable depending on the traffic and the stops the buses make, which could be from 45 minutes to two hours. For those who travel from Chiang Mai needs to ask for the buses that drive through the ‘new route’ (sai mai) with the less stops and it will take about 4-5 hours while the old route would take more than 9 hours.
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