Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Mai Châu to Lai Châu: Through the Thái Lands of Vietnam


                                                               by Jim Goodman

Black Thái woman in Sơn La
       From 1999-2002 I made three trips to Vietnam, focusing on the people and places of the northern border areas.  I had already been researching the minorities of southern Honghe Prefecture, just across the border in Yunnan, China and many of them lived on the Vietnam side.  These included the Thái, who were animist like their counterparts in the various Dai sub-groups in Honghe.  As I had been living in Thailand for twelve years before my first Vietnam excursion, the Thái in Vietnam were naturally of more than marginal interest for me.
       With over 1.5 million, the Thái are the third largest ethnic group in the country, behind the Kình (Vietnamese) and the Tày.  They inhabit the plains and river valleys of the provinces along the Lao border, from Ngh An to the northwest corner of Lai Châu.  Most travelers encounter them by taking the route throughout northwest Vietnam, beginning in Mai Châu in Hòa Bình Province, then west to Sơn La and Đin Bin Ph, north to Lai Châu and then east to Sapa. 
Thái house in Mai Châu district
White Thái woman
       Mai Châu, 160 km southwest of Hanoi, was already built up as a tourist attraction by then, featuring home stays with local villagers.  The town lies in a secluded, flat valley surrounded by high hills.  It is the administrative center for the district’s Thai and Hmông villages but back then was scarcely more than an urbanized village, with a school, a few government buildings, some three-story shop houses in the Hanoi urban style and a single hotel, usually empty.
weaver at her loom in Lác village
       Travelers don’t stay here, but continue to nearby Lác village.  A friend in Hanoi gave me the name of a family in Lác to stay with, which turned out to save me a lot of probable trouble trying to choose a house on my own.  Lác was well geared to the tourist trade and every house was a shop and guesthouse.  Woven textiles and sundry other items were on display in front of every house, along with cold drinks stands. 
       The hostess recommended to me was quite gracious and friendly, fed me well and conversed with me about Thailand and Vietnam.  She made no effort to press me to buy something, but as soon as I was outside I was confronted with the sheer commercialization of the village.   Prices for drinks were quite high, too, though because the village had many active weavers, operating looms under their stilted houses, at least some of the textiles on sale were locally produced.
the central pond in Sơn La
       Lác villagers, and those of the other settlements in the valley, are the White Thái sub-group.  They live in stilted houses of wood and bamboo, with thatched roofs.   Inside, the walled-off kitchen is at the far end.  The host family provides a mattress and mosquito net for the guest and when there are more than one, family members may sleep in the kitchen.
       The autumn harvest was completed by the time of my visit.  I hiked to the other nearby Thái villages, but though they were not yet full of handicraft sales displays like Lác, there was little field activity and after just two nights I departed Lác for Sơn La, another 165 km west.  It was a pleasant ride through rolling hills swathed in thick forests, interspersed by settlements of stilted houses, backed by jagged limestone peaks that got craggier closer to Sơn La. 
reconstructed watchtower at Sơn La prison
       The city was not very big, consisting of three main streets radiating from a pond in the center of town, two commercial and one residential.  A small hill stands within the city limits, with a broadcasting tower, illuminated at night, on its crest.  In front of it stands the ruins of the former French prison, Sơn La’s chief tourist attraction.
       Sơn La was an active theater of resistance to French rule and the prison was used to incarcerate anyone even suspected of political activities.  Famous Việt Minh cadres Trương Chinh and Lê Duan spent time here.  The French themselves bombed the prison in 1952 and Việt Minh troops further ravaged it when they took control of the city.  Now it’s the city museum, with its original entrance intact and parts, like the watchtower and kitchen, reconstructed.  The rest is heavily damaged, but in the display room behind the kitchen is a scale model of the original, where one can see just how small the cells were and where the punishment dungeons lay.
Sơn La Prison gate
Black Thái woman on her way to the Sơn La market
       The site also includes an ethnic museum devoted to the province’s minorities.  The Black Thái dominate the province, but there are also villages of the Mường, Tày and Hòa (Chinese) in the city’s vicinity.  The hills are home to Hmôing, Dao, Si La and Khơ Mú, while elsewhere lie villages of the small minorities Xinh Mun, Kháng and La Ha.  The latter three, and to a great extent the Khơ Mú, dress and live like the Black Thái. 
harvesting rice near Sơn La
       Black Thái women still prefer their traditional clothing. The outfit comprises a long-sleeved pastel-colored blouse, fastened by rows of silver, butterfly-shaped clasps down the front, over a black silk sarong, with a simple cloth belt around the waist.  They wrap their hair in a bun and cover it with a highly embroidered scarf, which dangles over the neck.  The ensemble is almost like an ethnic uniform, but individuality is in the headscarf designs, no two of which are the same.  No distinction in dress exists for marital status or age.
Thái women in the 1920s
       Old photos show no basic change in the outfit for at least a century.  But there are variations.  For weddings the bride dons a long black cloak with colored vertical panels in the front.  For funerals they wear an extra jacket, usually a bright maroon red color embellished with lots of embroidery and appliqué, presenting a far more colorful ensemble than on ordinary days (or even weddings).  The Thái believe that death is not just a termination of life in this world, but also a transition to the next life.  So people mourn the passing of the deceased, but also celebrate the soul’s rebirth. 
       Vietnam’s Thái are animist and besides venerating their own pantheon of spirit-deities they also pay particular attention to the care of the individual soul.  Several rituals are designed to repair a damaged soul, call it back from wandering, insure its health, etc. Some may involve the participation of a female shaman.  She will dress in the standard outfit of blouse and sarong, but with two additions: a special four-cornered hat and a wide belt, appliquéd with little arabesques and fringed with triangular cloth pendants.
Black Thại woman at her stall in Sơn La
White Hmông woman, Điện Biện Phủ 
       The Black Thái began migrating into the area from southern China from the 9th century, continuing to settle around Sơn La throughout the first centuries of Vietnamese independence.  The Vietnamese did not directly administer the province and did not officially annex the northwest until 1337.  They then assigned it as a fief to the White Thái Đèo family in Mường Lay.  They were not very loyal vassals, however, and supported the Chinese invasion and occupation of northern Vietnam from 1408.  But when Lê Lợi drove out the Chinese and established a new Lê Dynasty in 1428, the Thái were more autonomous than the new emperor found acceptable.  So he campaigned for two years against them, until their submission in 1432.  
Black Thái houses near Điện Biện Phủ 
       Today Vietnamese form the majority in Sơn La city, but many Thái have also taken up residence there, running market stalls, restaurants and other businesses.  Their villages are a short walk from town and their women frequent the city markets.  They carry their goods in trays or baskets suspended from each end of a balance pole.
       Men leave the market activities to the women, but women also take part in house construction, though only the men do any required climbing.  In fieldwork, women do the weeding, but at planting and harvest time there is no real division of labor.  It was harvest time during my visit and both sexes did the same work of reaping and threshing and women as well as men handled the buffaloes that drove the plows over the newly cleared plots.
White Thái village near Mường Tè
       The only morning bus to Điện Biện Phủ left Sưn La at 4 a.m.  We were still in pre-dawn darkness when we approached the first town Thuận Châu, yet already many Black Thái women were walking single-file along the road, carrying their shoulder poles with baskets at either end, heading for the Thuận Châu market.  Seems to be an early riser culture, at least in the rural areas.
       Continuing past Thuận Châu the road rises gradually into a rather barren, Hmông-inhabited area to the Pha Đin Pass, which also marks the boundary between Sơn La and Điện Biện provinces.  We arrived here just after sunrise and on the descent into the Tuần Giáo valley I could see the Thái were already busy harvesting rice in their fields.  From Tuần Giáo southwest to Điện Biện Phủ is Black Thái territory, though the city itself, famous as the place the Việt Minh inflicted a crushing defeat on the French Army in 1954, is mostly Vietnamese-inhabited.
White Thại village along the Black River near Mường Tè
       Smaller than Sơn La, it is a major tourist attraction for Vietnamese more than for foreigners, with war relics scattered throughout the vicinity and an informative museum next to the cemetery.  The town market attracts two branches of the Hmông from the hills and Black Thái from nearby villages.  The Black Thái also dominate the valley north of Điện Biện Phủ, but then the road climbs into the hills, passing settlements of the Red Hmông, until descending to Mường Lay and the border of Lai Châu province. Formerly known as Lai Châu city, a branch road here leads northwest to Mường Tè district, home to White Thái in the valleys, La Hù, Hà Nhì and small minorities like the Cộng, Mảng and Si La in the hills.
       Near the junction is the ruined palace of the last autonomous ruler of the area—Đèo Văn Long.  Following Lê Lợi’s campaign the Đèo family still remained in power and Vietnamese authority in the Thái areas was tenuous at best.  In the 16th century White and Black Thái chieftains formed a loosed confederation called Sipsong Chutai, after the twelve (Sipsong) mường (Chutai) of its members.  From then on, northwest history is the struggle for power between the Đèo of Mường Lay and Black Thái chieftains to the south. 
White Thái house near Mường Lay
       In the late 19th century the Đèo family led forces to expel a renegade Chinese army from Sơn La and won the support of Black Thái chieftains.  Initially, Đèo Văn Trị led the resistance to the French forces, but was forced to surrender n 1890.  Afterwards the French appointed his family as governors of Sipsong Chutai.  The last of them, Đèo Văn Long, appointed 1940, was a notorious despot who worked closely with the French to insure the supply of opium.  He backed the French against the Việt Minh until forced to flee the country in 1953.
       The road past the Đèo mansion to Mường Tè is one of the least maintained in the northwest.  Because of the security restrictions, limiting a traveler’s exploration, and the fact the route doesn't continue to another destination, foreigners skip it.  I went there to meet the Hà Nhì, whom I’d been researching in Yunnan.  I met them in the town, but was not allowed to hike up to their villages in the hills.  Instead, I wound up spending much of my time in the large traditional White Thái village next to the town.
Thái water-wheel on the Black RIver
       It was more authentic than Lác, since there was no tourist trade to cater to, and all houses were traditional ones on stilts, with baskets of split bamboo stacked on the open-air balconies.  They had water-wheels in the river to convey water to their fields and an animist shrine at the edge of the village.  People were friendly and hospitable, if a little surprised by a foreigner there.
       After a few days I returned to Mường Lay and later proceeded to Phong Thổ for its Sunday market day. Both are White Thái areas, though the markets are more dominated by sub-groups of Hmông and Dao.  Lai Châu/Mường Lay was set up as the French colonial headquarters for the northwest and was later heavily damaged during the 1979 war with China.  A White Thái village lay beside the town, with water-wheels in the river and typical stilted houses on the banks. 
        With the construction of the Sơn La dam on the Black River, 50 km north of  Sơn La city, which opened in 2012, the village and most of the town were submerged.  No doubt the villagers relocated in a similar environment and carried on as before.  Vietnam’s Thái are a very conservative people. Ancient traditions still govern their lives, for these have always served them well in the past and people expect them to continue to do so far into the future.   
White Thái women carrying firewood home to Mường Tè

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Thursday, September 28, 2017

Making a New Hanoi—French-style


                                                              by Jim Goodman

 
Palais du Résidence-Superieur, the first French administrative building
     
In 1884 French military forces seized Hanoi.   Two years later, while the French army was still battling resistance beyond Hanoi, Paul Bert arrived as the first civilian administrator.  He and his staff set out to immediately impress upon the Vietnamese that they were a conquered people and that their new overlords were here to stay.  They launched an assault on places most associated symbolically with the imperial regime they had just displaced, starting with the Citadel.  To open a new residential area for the anticipated influx of colonists and administrators, the French demolished the walls and filled in the moats around them to make new streets.
St. Joseph's Cathedral
Hòa Phong Tower
       The next target was the examination ground on today’s Tràng Thi Street.  They built a military post in its place and widened the road on the south side of Hoàn Kiếm Lake, demolishing the lakeside houses, and, since they intended to introduce French currency, tore down the mint on Tràng Thi and turned the area over to French merchants for shops.  They renamed the street Rue Paul Bert, starting a trend they would continue as they built more new roads, naming them after colonial administrators or soldiers.
the former Báo Ân Pagoda
       The colonial adventure included mission civilatrice as part of its policy, with the spread of Catholicism a main factor.  So the French decided they needed a cathedral right away, too, both for themselves and for Vietnamese converts.  But instead of finding an appropriate empty lot, of which there were many, they chose to erect it on the site of Chùa Báo Thiên, one of the city’s most venerable pagodas, dating from the reign of Lý Thánh Tông, that had been standing there for over eight centuries.  The French leveled the pagoda, expropriated much of the compound of the Lý Quc Sư Temple next to it and constructed the Gothic style, twin-spire St. Joseph’s Cathedral.  It held its first services Christmas Eve, 1886, though it took several more years to finally complete. 
Chwvassiwux Fountain
      Across the lake the relatively new Báo Ân Pagoda was the next target.  In 1892 the French destroyed the entire compound to build a post office on the land facing the lake.  Only the Ha Phong Tower, which was outside the proposed new road, was left standing.  Beside the post office they erected a standing statue of Paul Bert, with a cringing Vietnamese mandarin below his right side.  Further up, they demolished the Temple of Reason, built to commemorate Vietnamese victories over the Chăm, to erect a new Town Hall.
       The new French buildings were in the European, neo-classical design, massive, ornate, and, in the mind of the government’s chief architect, Henri-Auguste Valdieu, were expected to overawe the local population and remind them of France’s might and majesty. This attitude partly stemmed from their perceived need, in the face of ongoing resistance to their rule, to overwhelm the conquered population with highly visible symbols of their own power. 
the French bandstand, used for Sunday concerts
       But the early French administrators also held a low opinion of Vietnamese culture and arts and expected the Vietnamese to recognize the superiority of French civilization.  They would build their own version of Paris by developing little-used portions of the existing city, but they would also introduce modern improvements into the old city, expecting the grateful residents to then realize the value of their “civilizing mission.” 
      The largely vacant area south of Hoàn Kiếm Lake was to be the main colonial residential neighborhood.  The French constructed wide parallel streets intersecting at right angles and houses in the French style.  Unlike homes in the old quarter, jammed together with shared walls, those constructed in the new French Quarter were two- and three-story mansions surrounded by a wall enclosing gardens and trees.
ex-Governor-General's Palace, now Presidential Palace
       As the government began constructing ministries and palaces further away from Hoàn Kiếm Lake, new neighborhoods began springing up, especially around the old Citadel in Ba Đình and on today’s Quán Thánh Street, leading to West Lake.  Still the French Quarter remained the social center.  It was close to the lake with its big, shady trees and mixture of old and new buildings, a favorite place to stroll.  The main business outlets serving the foreign community were there, as well as the Hotel Métropole, which would long be rated among the finest in Asia, and the Resident’s Palace just opposite.  In a small triangular park just up from the Métropole was the Chevassieux Fountain, built in 1901 in a blend of styles, with spouting dragons around the edge of the pool of a basically French-style fountain.  The bandstand, with its free Sunday concerts, was in the vicinity, too, so a colon in the French Quarter could wander around in neighborhoods near his home that resembled, and suggested, life in the mother country.
Long Biên Bridge
       Bert’s successor, Paul Doumer, sponsored the construction of yet more gigantic buildings intended to overawe the Vietnamese.  In 1901 he ordered a new Governor-General’s palace built on 20 hectares of land in Ba Đình, past the Citadel.  This involved demolishing a Lý Dynasty temple and expropriating private land without compensation.  Completed in 1906, in classical northern French style, four stories high, with rectangular windows on the upper floors and arched windows on the lower floors, all spaced evenly apart, low-angled tiled roofs, lavish ornamentation on the façade and the building painted a mustard yellow, it was the most impressive French building in the city yet.
Municipal Theater
       With the Red River Delta pacified by this time, he ordered the construction in 1903 of an iron bridge, 1.7 km long, across the river, for trains to reach the countryside.  Originally named after himself, it is now called the Long Biën Bridge, bombed during the American War, but restored to its original condition afterwards.
       At the same time, back in the French Quarter, at the east end of Rue Paul Bert, work began on the Municipal Theater, completed in 1911.  Budget constraints kept it from having annexes and more decorative stonework.  Nevertheless, it is still quite a large structure, with pillars on the front façade, a pair of domed, slate roofs, decorative balustrades, the walls a light yellow.  The interior was in the ultra-baroque style, opulent furnishings everywhere, marble floors, high ceilings and a grand staircase.  Commonly known as the Opéra, it could seat 870 patrons, at a time when the French population of the city was around 2500.
Ô Quan Chưởng--the last of the old city gates
       Besides creating neighborhoods for themselves, the French also imposed changes on Old Hanoi.  Admittedly, the city had suffered infrastructural neglect since the beginning of the Nguyn Dynasty.  The dikes were in sad shape and one of the first French actions was to commission their renovation.  They would later fill in parts of the Tô Lch River and the small ponds scattered throughout the old town.  They also demolished the city walls and all but one of the city entry gates
       Vietnamese mandarins, ostensibly working for the French authorities, lobbied to protect one city gate as a symbol of their heritage.  The French agreed to spare it, but not for that reason.  They kept it as souvenir of Francis Garnier’s ill-fated attempt to seize Hanoi in 1873.  This gate, Ô Quan Chưởng, still standing, was the one Garnier passed through to attack the Citadel.
the water tower on Hàng Đậu
       Most of the French projects in the old town aimed to improve sanitation and hygiene and make it easier to get around.  Besides demolishing the walls that separated the old town guilds, they widened the streets by lopping off the fronts of the houses.  In 1895 they installed electric street lamps and in 1900 electric tramways.  Besides filling in the ponds, they also built public urinals and constructed a water tower at the end of Hàng Đậu Street, which piped water to several collection points in the city. 
       French colons were not about to move into the old quarter as a result, but the administrators hoped that by improving the living conditions of the Vietnamese the latter would at least acquiesce to French rule.  Mandarins could occasionally resist the changes and save some ancient trees and the last city gate, but not often.  The French had their own ideas of what Hanoi should look like.
       After World War I this attitude became somewhat modified.  Reformers pushed new ideas like ‘association’ and ‘cultural relativism’ that were designed to incorporate indigenous styles into building designs and make adaptations that took into account the local climate and culture.  In 1923 the colonial government established a Town Planning and Architecture Service, with Ernest Hébrard its first Director.  He expanded the city south and west and created a new administrative zone in Ba Đình.  But it was in architecture that he made his greatest impact.
Hébrard's Cừa Bắc church
       In Hébrard’s view the existing French-style buildings in the city, with their mansard roofs, attics and tiny windows, were ill suited to local weather conditions.  They were also, like the Gothic St. Joseph’s Cathedral with its towering spires, out of synch with the rest of the city’s architecture.  The church he designed—Ca Bc, outside the northern gate of the Citadel—dispensed with Gothic features and exhibited an eclectic set of influences, especially art deco, Hébrard’s own favorite.  And for secular buildings Hébrard favored verandahs, canopied windows, bigger rooms for greater ventilation and indigenous decorative motifs.
       Four other major city buildings, all featuring Hébrard’s Indochinese Style, went up in the mid-1920s.   The Pasteur Institute, several blocks south of the French Quarter, most resembled a French building, in a pale mustard color, but had bigger windows and lay surrounded by gardens.   The long, three-story Ministry of Finance in Ba Đình featured roofed balconies at each level.  The University of Hanoi entrance gate had a double roof and a long, thin arch just above the door.
the former Bank of Indochina
       The masterpiece of the period is the Louis Finot Museum, now called the History Museum, just beyond the Municipal Theater.  With a tall, double-roofed tower in the front, the building has a long, two-story extension in the back, with columned verandahs and tile roofs supported by wooden brackets.  The façade is embellished with chiseled corbels and regular indented spaces of rectangular glass panels, evoking the parallel sentence boards on the pillars of a village communal house.
       In 1927 authorities set up the Hanoi School of Fine Arts to instruct Vietnamese in the principles of architecture.  Hbrard hoped to instill his Indochinese Style into the students’ consciousness.  But already a competing, international modernist style was appearing with the construction of the Bank of Indochina, completed in 1930.  This long, sleek building featured tall, dark rectangular recesses along the front façade and an entrance tower with a layered dome canopy and stone screens on its upper walls.
Pasteur Institute
       With the economic depression of the1930s fewer official buildings went up, but the newly trained Vietnamese architects found employment with both European and Vietnamese clients and constructed over a hundred villas in the French Quarter and around Ba Đình before the end of World War II.  They featured terraced roofs, curved facades, arched and circular windows and Vietnamese designs in ornamental plastering above doors and windows.  Many of these today serve as foreign embassies.
       They also worked in the southern part of the city, where the land space was far more restricted.  So Vietnamese architects adopted a modified Old Quarter tube-house style, with the fronts employing the features of the villas.  They combined elements of art deco, Western classical and native Vietnamese in a way that went beyond the characteristics of the Indochinese Style.
main entrance to Hanoi University
       After World War II the French were too absorbed in fighting the insurgency to do much building in Hanoi.  And as they faced defeat, some of the original animosity to Vietnamese culture returned.  In a last act of cultural vandalism before their evacuation from Hanoi, the French blew up the One-Pillar Pagoda, which had been standing there for over nine centuries.
       After independence the Vietnamese rebuilt the pagoda, though a little smaller, and demolished the Town Hall on Hoàn Kiếm Lake and replaced it with a very modern building.  But the other colonial administrative buildings they kept and used themselves.  For example, the Governor-General’s palace became the Presidential Palace.  The former Resident's Palace became the State Guest House for visiting foreign statesmen.
Ba Đình villa, Vietnamese-designed
Vietnamese version of the Indochinese Style
       In the 1990s, after more decades of war, isolation and privation, Vietnam’s economy began improving such that suddenly architects were busy replacing old houses with new ones.  Nowadays the results of their mixed architectural heritage are rows of houses with individual facades, balconies, multi-paneled windows, each house a different color, each sporting a different kind of roof, different exterior designs, no two alike.  Different from urban houses anywhere else in Southeast Asia, they exemplify the further elaboration of the Indochinese Style of decades earlier.
       With his patronizing attitude, Hébrard had assumed his Vietnamese students would adhere to the style he taught them.  But as with everything the Vietnamese import from foreign cultures, they added their own notions and wound up creating an indigenous style of their own.

the History Museum--the masterpiece of the1920s
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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Lost and Found: Chiang Mai’s Predecessor


                                   by Jim Goodman

Wat That Kao in Wiang Kumkam
       In the late 13th century, a small Tai Yuan state in the far north of present-day Thailand, under the ambitious King Mengrai, began expanding south.  Assuming power in 1261 when he was just 22, the following year he moved his capital from Chiang Saen to a new city on the Kok River that he named after himself—Chiang Rai.  The new kingdom was Lanna, which translates as ‘a million rice fields.’  The next 15 years he spent consolidating and incrementally expanding his control over his neighbors.  Then at the end of the 1270s he heard about the wealth of Haripunchai, capital of a Mon kingdom in what is now Lamphun.
        After a carefully planned campaign of subterfuge carried out by a secret ally within Haripunchai, Mengrai captured it in 1281.  He stayed there for over a year, then traveled throughout his newly enlarged realm to oversee new fortifications and to endow monasteries. He did not intend to make Haripunchai his own capital, preferring to maintain it as a major Buddhist center.  Instead, in 1286 he ordered the construction of a new capital, on an existing Mon settlement, further north, at Wiang Kum Kam, a few km south of contemporary Chiang Mai.
the original foundations of Wat Chang Kam, from 1290
        Haripunchai was the most sophisticated place Mengrai had ever seen.  His capture of it involved no destruction at all and he seemed determined to preserve it as he found it. He definitely absorbed its influence and sought, by building a city on its model, next to a river, surrounded by walls and moats, to make something just as splendid.  Wiang Kumkam lay on the south side of a bend in the Ping River, and thus on the right bank, as Chiang Mai is today. 
       The location was prone to flooding, though, and after a few years Mengrai scouted the area for a new capital, founding Chiang Mai in 1296. Wiang Kumkam continued to exist as a kind of sister city and in fact, most of its ruins date from long after the transfer of the capital to Chiang Mai.  Sometime in the 17th century, however, the Ping River changed its course, forcing the evacuation of its population, burying most of the city under 1.8 meters of sediment, and leaving it on the river’s left bank.
votive tablets unearthed at Wat Chang Kam
         For many generations Wiang Kumkam was just a memory that grew into a legend.  It was the Lost City, the Lanna Atlantis, the underground metropolis.  But nobody knew where it was.  Then in 1984 farmers in the area, while plowing their fields, unearthed some ancient votive tablets.  They turned them over to the Fine Arts Department of Chiang Mai University, who subsequently began excavating on the site.  It turned out to be Wat Chang Kam, the second oldest extant ruins in Wiang Kumkam, originally built in 1290.
       Only the foundations remain, but success here prompted excavations and restorations throughout the area.  At many of these sites just the foundations, and maybe parts of the columns, have been reconstructed.  A few contain well preserved chedis as well, and at Wat That Kao, renovators have restored a prominent Buddha statue by following the remnants of a lime-plastered, brick original found during the excavation.
Chedi Liam, from the west bank of the Ping River
statue of King Mengrai, Wat Phra Singh
         The most attractive remnant of Wiang Kumkam is Chedi Liam, at the western en d of the old city near the river.  Built in 1288, the first monument in the city, it copies the style of the Mon chedi in Lamphun’s (Haripunchai’s) Wat Chamadevi, dedicated to the city’s 8th century founding queen.  Multi-tiered on a square base, with standing Buddha images in niches all around each level, it is unique to temple architecture around Chiang Mai.  The compound, like Wat Chang Kam, also has a new and active temple today, with resident monks.  Other buildings include the assembly hall, ordination hall and a shrine to the four-headed Erawan, the Thai equivalent of the Hindu Creator God Brahma.
Buddha images on Chedi Liam
       If Mengrai had a palace in Wiang Kumkam it hasn’t been discovered yet.  Because of the flooding, Mengrai soon sought a new site and didn’t sponsor any more construction other then Wat Chang Kam.  Always an astute politician, he had earlier in 1287 forged alliances with the rulers of the small state of Phayao and the much larger Kingdom of Sukhothai.  Ostensibly, this was a response to the establishment of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in China, although the Mongols never did invade Thailand. 
the compound of Wat Chedi Liam
       The alliance did prove useful to Mengrai in another sense, for, when he sought to build a new capital, he solicited the advice of his allies.  He had already scouted the area and roughly selected a site between the mountain Doi Suthep and the Ping Rive.  It was to be set a little distant from the riverbank, but close to tits tributary he Nam Kha River and its natural reservoir, northeast of old Chiang Mai, which would supply water to the city and its moats.
       Wiang Kumkam was a rectangular city, measuring 800 meters by 600 meters.  Mengrai envisioned a much larger city for his new capital, but his allies recommended something a little smaller.  In the end Chiang Mai, which literally means “new city,” was nearly square, 1.2 kilometers by 1 kilometer.  Like Wiang Kumkam (and Haripunchai), moats and walls surrounded the city. 
Sriphum Corner, where construction of Chiang Mai began
       Geomancers and astrologers determined the date and place for starting construction, which began at the northeast Sriphum Corner on 18 April, 1296.  While workers were busy building the city, Mengrai stayed in what is now the compound of Wat Chiang Man, which later became Chiang Mai’s first temple.  Its construction began in 1296, the same year as the foundation of the city. 
         From 1296 Chiang Mai was the most important city in Mengrai’s Kingdom of Lanna.  He subsequently marched his army south against the Mon kingdom of Hanthawaddy, centered around Pegu (now called Bago) in Lower Burma, but the Mon king there offered submission and bestowed his daughter as Mengrai’s bride.  Campaigning next against Bagan, he secured their submission as well.  Back in Lanna, he promulgated a law code that served the country throughout its existence.
bronze Buddha head found in Wiang Kumkam
the reconstructed Buddha at Wat That Kao
       Mengrai died in 1317 when struck by a lightning bolt while in the market at what is now Chedi Luang, in the center of the city.  Lanna then extended from the northern border of Thailand down to Lampang, with allied states or vassals on its southern borders.  Mengrai’s dynastic successors continued to rule until after the Burmese conquest in the mid-16th century.
Wat E-Khang
       After his death, Mengrai became a kind of cult figure for the northern Thai, right down to contemporary times.  In Chiang Mai, the second oldest temple, now called Wat Mengrai, contains a tall standing Buddha whose face is allegedly modeled on that of Lanna’s first king.  A statue of him stands in the garden behind the temple.  Other Mengrai statues are in Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang.  The latter compound also contains the City Pillar, supposedly erected on the spot where lightning struck the king.  As the building is not always open, city folk constructed a new shrine a block north, which is always loaded with flowers and other offerings.
       Venerated just as often is the Three Kings Monument, another block north of the shrine.  This sculpture commemorates the famed 1287 alliance and depicts Mengrai of Lanna, Ngam Mueang of Phayao and Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai.  Elsewhere, Chiang Rai honors its founder with a huge statue of him in a popular park in the northern part of the city and a big new shrine has recently been built near the highway in Mae Chan district.  In Wiang Kumkam, Wat Phaya Mengrai, near Chedi Liam, is one of the excavated ruins, though only the foundations remain.  But at Wat Chang Kam, at the far end of the ruins, stands a shrine that claims to be the resting place of Mengrai’s spirit.  Thai tourists never fail to stop in to offer incense and prayers.
the chedi at Wat E-Khang
demon statue at Wat Ku Aisi
       Although after the founding of Chiang Mai Mengrai no longer paid attention to his former capital, Wiang Kumkam continued to exist as a kind of ‘sister city’ to Chiang Mai.  Members of the royal family had homes there and Mengrai even returned there for a while in 1311 to recover from an illness.  Royalty and nobility continued to sponsor the construction of more temples.  Its position on the river gave it good commercial connections and among the items excavated were Yuan and Ming Dynasty ceramics from China.  Even after the Burmese conquered Chiang Mai in 1558 Wiang Kumkam continued to function as a city.  Burmese policy at this time was to rule Lanna as a semi-autonomous vassal state and to respect local culture and patronize the religion, which was the same Theravada Buddhism of their own country. 
Wat Nanchang, the north-facing temple
       As a result, still more temples were erected in Wiang Kumkam in the 16th and 17th centuries until the Ping River suddenly changed course sometime in the mid-17th century, swerved west and inundated the city, forcing its abandonment.  All the residents moved far away and the area remained deserted until the beginning of the 19th century.  Wars with Burma had all but depopulated much of the north in the last decades of the 18th century.  After King Kawila from Lampang re-established Lanna in 1796, people began leaving their forest hideouts to make farms and villages again.  And those who settled in the Wiang Kumkam area had no idea an ancient city lay beneath their homes and fields until farmers found those ancient votive tablets in 1984.
Wat Huamong
       For the next twenty years archaeologists excavated and restored as much as possible in over two dozen sites.  Today it is an ever more popular tourist attraction in Chiang Mai, different from visiting ancient cities like Ayutthaya, Phimai or Sukhothai, where all the monuments are enclosed together.  At Wiang Kumkam the ruins lie scattered among village neighborhoods, with houses right next to them.
       The area is too big to cover on foot, so groups take tourist carts or buses and individuals explore by bicycle or motorbike.  Another option is to take a leisurely ride on a pony cart, which seats up to three and costs 300 baht (c. $9) for a tour around nine temples.  Traffic is very light throughout the area and various drink and snack shops exist along the roads and in the two new temple compounds at Chedi Liam and Wat Chang Kam. 
elephants at the base of a Wat Huanong chedi
       The pony carts start from the park’s official entrance, next to the highway around the corner from Wat Chang Kam. Those on bicycles or motorbikes, though, can also start from Chedi Liam and follow the signs indicating the name, direction and distance of the various ruins.  A section of the original moat and city wall remnants lie just east of Chedi Liam, with Wat Phaya Mengrai on the other side.  Further on the road passes Wat That Kao and its large reconstructed Buddha image.  It’s the only Buddha image in any of the sites, though bronze and stone sculptures have been excavated and are now displayed at Chiang Mai’s National Museum.
       The ruined chedi at Wat That Kao rises a little higher than its base, but two other sites a little north feature relatively intact, full-sized chedis,  They are in a different style than Chedi Liam and probably indicative of the type of chedis that used to stand in all the other excavated sites.  The older compound, Wat Pupia, holds the foundations of the viharn and ordination hall, a small water tank in front of the latter and the chedi towers behind the viharn.  The statues in the niches are gone, but some of the stucco sculpture around them remains. 
Wat Ku Magleua
       The other extant chedi is at Wat E-Khang, one of the last to be built in the city.  The original name has been lost, but because it was until recently a haunt of wild monkeys, local people began calling it E-Khang, after the Northern Thai word for monkey (khang). 
       Most of the ruins are just reconstructed brick foundations and the bases of vanished chedis, but even a few of these can be interesting.  Wat Nanchang is a rather large compound and, unusual for Thai temples, faced north, to the Ping River’s course at that time.  Wat Huanong, from the 15th-16th centuries, contains the foundations of several buildings, part of the entry gate and four extant elephant sculptures around the base of a chedi.  Wat Ku Aisi features a large demon statue.
       Other ruins, though without any sculpture or chedi, local people continue to venerate by adding  small modern sculptures and a makeshift altar.  At Wat Ku Khao, next to the tree-lined road to Lamphun, it’s a larger bronze seated Buddha.  For local people, they may not be very familiar with the ancient city’s history, but the excavators have uncovered many hitherto unknown holy places that they must recognize and venerate.  The buildings may be in ruins, but the gods are still there.

Wat Pupia
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