Monday, February 22, 2016

In the Shadows of History—a Visit to Chiang Saen

                                                           by Jim Goodman

Mekong RIver at Chiang Saen
       When I first moved to Chiang Mai in the winter of 1988, intending an indefinite stay, I wanted to also familiarize myself with various places in the north.  Chiang Saen was on my list because it lay beside the Mekong River and was just ten kilometers from the famous Golden Triangle, the junction of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.  Arriving at Chiang Saen in the early afternoon I headed there right away.
       It was moderately impressive, I suppose.  It was dry season, so a large triangular sandbar was visible next to the confluence of the Mae Sai River with the Mekong, and I wondered if that was the “Golden Triangle.”   Of course, the term actually refers to the tri-national border point.  On the Thai side a huge bi-lingual billboard announced this fact and Thai tourists liked to pose standing beneath it with their arms stretched overhead and fingers pointing to the message on the sign.  There wasn’t much else to do there, except maybe have a few drinks and fantasize what was happening in the two countries on the other side, both of which were closed to foreigners then.  Opium caravans?  Remnant insurgent armies on patrol?
modern temple, Chiang Saen riverside
       With all the souvenir shops and such, though, it was not a place to kick back and revel in the river scenery.  That proved to be easier back in Chiang Saen, where I had a riverside lodge and lots of room on either side to wander quietly along the bank.  The town was smaller than I expected, with no real downtown area, no tall buildings, a small produce market and hardly any traffic.   That was Chiang Saen in 1988.  Several centuries earlier, however, it was one of the most important urban centers in Northern Thailand.
       According to the Chiang Saen Chronicles, Tai migrants from Yunnan set up the first state there, called Wiang Nonok, near present-day Chiang Saen, over a thousand years ago.  It lasted until the mid-11th century, when the capital is supposed to have disappeared into a swamp, perhaps because of an earthquake, which scholars speculate may be the contemporary Chiang Saen Lake outside the town.  The Lawa then took over the area until displaced by Tai Yuan the beginning of the 13th century.  The Lawa retreated to distant hills, as they were to do a century later when the Tai Yuan conquered the Chiang Mai area.
typical Chiang Saen stilted house
      The victors called their new capital Ngon Yang and as more migrants came to live in the area they gradually expanded their realm west into the Mai Kok Valley and beyond.  In 1259 Mengrai was born in Ngon Yang but soon after he succeeded to the throne he left to found a new capital at Chiang Rai.  Years later, in 1291, he conquered the former Mon Kingdom of Haripunchai, moved there for a couple years and eventually founded Chiang Mai in 1296 as the capital of the Kingdom of Lanna.
Chedi Luang in 1988
       The administration moved with Mengrai’s changes of capitals, but much of the population of Ngon Yang stayed put.  That included members of the royal family.  When Mengrai died in 1317 his successor reigned from Chiang Mai, but when he died in 1325, the third king, Saen Phu, decided to stay in Ngon Yang, rebuild and refurbish the city, and rename it after himself—Chiang Saen.  It remained the capital of Lanna until 1350, when the Court removed permanently to Chiang Mai.  
       This was Chiang Saen’s heyday and the best of its historical relics, like Chedi Luang and Wat Pasak, date from this period.  At its peak the city had 76 temples within its city walls and another 63 outside of them.  Even after the capital moved to Chiang Mai Chiang Saen remained one of the most important cities in Lanna, especially as a border post.  The Chiang Saen garrison repelled an attack from Yunnan in 1422.  The invaders returned three years later, but a storm destroyed their river fleet.
       While Lanna’s fortunes waxed and waned in the 15th-16th centuries, life in the periphery city of Chiang Saen continued undisturbed.  This changed in 1600 when Burmese armies swept into Chiang Rai and Chiang Saen.  For the next two centuries the Burmese ruled over Chiang Saen and imposed a new social order.  At the top were the Burmese administrators.  Next were other Burmese, like traders and merchants.  Third was the local nobility, some of whom were entrusted with low-level administrative duties.  Last was everybody else who was living there.
Sukhothai-style chedi at Wst Pa Sak
       Among the extant ruins of Chiang Saen, none of them appear to date their construction after 1600.  Being Buddhists themselves, the Burmese overlords did not destroy any of the existing temples and chedis.  They may even have contributed to their upkeep.  But they didn’t sponsor any new ones.  Other places in Northern Thailand under two centuries of Burmese occupation, Lampang and Mai Hong Son for example, feature Burmese-style temples, but not Chiang Saen.
       Sporadic revolts against the Burmese overlords occurred throughout their occupation.  None of these were very serious or durable until 1727, when rebels from Chiang Mai advanced against Chiang Saen.  The Burmese garrison repulsed the attack.  A generation later, though, another Chiang Mai rebel force captured Chiang Saen in 1751 and held it for four years before the Burmese recovered it. 
14th century Buddha head
mythical kalan, Wat Pa Sak
       Whatever weaknesses existed in the Burmese military then certainly got rectified over the next decade.  In 1767 the Burmese conquered and destroyed their Thai rival Ayutthaya.  This was their apogee and after that their fortunes began to decline.  They were not strong enough to occupy all of Ayutthaya’s territory and soon faced revolts in Northern Thailand.  Only Chiang Saen remained manageable.  The Burmese response to revolts in northern Thai cities was to empty them of their entire populations.  Chiang Saen didn’t revolt, so that city was spared such a fate.
stone carvings, Wat Pa Sak chedi
       The native response was to continue efforts to drive out the occupiers and re-establish abandoned cities like Chiang Mai.  This provoked a furious Burmese attack in 1797, reducing the city’s inhabitants to near starvation, but Thai reinforcements, supported by the Chakri regime in Bangkok, eventually lifted the siege.  Northern Thai forces under Kawila counterattacked the Burmese and by the end of the century only Chiang Saen remained under Burmese control.
       The long and grueling campaign had devastated Lanna, both urban and rural areas.  Kawila’s initial task was to re-establish some kind of administration over the liberated lands and rebuild and re-populate the emptied cities.  Finally, in 1803 his forces laid siege to Chiang Saen.  The Burmese garrison held out for a year before the city’s capture.  Those not killed or taken prisoner fled across to Burma.  Kawila then ordered the entire local population out of Chiang Saen and re-settled them and the prisoners in other parts of the north.
Only one foot remains.
For the next seven decades nobody lived in Chiang Saen.  Nature took over the old city.  Seventy monsoons nurtured the growth of jungle vegetation that swarmed over the temples and buildings.  Teak trees sprouted in abundance in the temple compounds, crowding around the chedis and poking through the temple roofs.  The slightest earth tremors jolted loose the bricks on the buildings, causing then to crack, tilt or topple.
       In 1878, after hearing that Chiang Saen’s ruins had become a meeting place for bandits, the government in Bangkok decided it was time to re-populate the city and set up a local government and police station.  It arranged the transfer of 1000 people from Chiang Mai, 1000 from Lampang and 500 from Lamphun to Chiang Saen.  The result was little short of disastrous.  Rice was scarce and other food like fruit and chicken was unavailable.  Venomous snakes, tigers and other dangerous animals constantly threatened the free movement of settlers. 
       By 1913 Chiang Saen’s population was down to seventy persons, served by two restored temples, a district administrative office and a police station.  Many had died from the unexpected hardships.  Others had sneaked back to the cities from which they had come.  The town’s future looked pretty bleak, but somehow it survived.  It never developed into the kind of city it was in the past, but by the time of my excursion there in 1988 its contemporary residents far outnumbered the batch sent there to revive it in 1878.
"Tilting Chedi"
chedi in the jungle
    Yet it was still a small town, with the kind of ambience associated with small towns, very laid back, friendly, with nobody in a hurry to do anything.  Segments of the old city wall still stood and one could trace the boundaries of old Chiang Saen by walking around the wall foundations.  It surprised me that it was more or less the size of Chiang Mai within its moats.  But the rebuilt town itself, its residential and commercial areas combined, only occupied about 30% of its former area.  Other than a few stilted wooden houses here and there beyond the last residential neighborhood, the rest was forest and the ruined monuments of past glory.      
       The tigers had all left decades ago, so other than keeping an eye open for any kraits or cobras lying around, it was a safe stroll.  The forest begins where the residential suburbs end and the historic ruins lie.  The first one I encountered was Chedi Luang, the biggest of the ancient monuments, like an inverted cone 88 meters high, surrounded by teak trees even taller.  As part of renovating the city he chose to live in rather than Chiang Mai, King Saen Phu sponsored its construction in 1331 to house a relic of the Buddha’s breastbone.
chedi in the teak forest
       In a small clearing just past Chedi Luang lay Wat Pa Sak, first built in 1295 and expanded in the 1340s.  Of the main temple building only the columns remained.  The chedi behind it was modeled after a prototype from Sukhothai, a Thai kingdom southwest of Lanna, and built to contain relics of the Buddha’s right ankle.  While some of the stucco covering on the chedi walls had fallen off, the middle section still featured fine stone carvings of humans, mythical creatures, standing Buddhas and intricate floral and geometric designs. 
       The extant sculptural art at Wat Pa Sak kept me engaged there longer than at any other site.  After Wat Pa Sak the state of preservation of the monuments proved to be far inferior.  The atmosphere prevailed, though, and while nothing equivalent turned up on the route to match Wat Pa Sak, other attractions ensued.  For one, I came across a chedi perilously leaning to one side with a gaping hole in its center.  I nicknamed it the Tilting Chedi and wondered if it could withstand the next strong pre-monsoon storm.
       At another point the remains of a large sculpted foot rested atop a ruined brick mound.  Thick jungle stood behind it and I couldn’t discover another such foot.  But it did make me wonder if this was the remains of some sort of Buddha Colossus of Chiang Saen.  Elsewhere I spotted chedis all but obscured by trees and big bushes and on my way back to town passed a pair of ruined monuments right beside a house.  I wanted to ask its residents what it was like to live literally in the shadows of history, but couldn’t speak Thai enough to get beyond pleasantries.  Did it bring them any luck, for example, to be beside ancient religious sculptures, even if they were but remnants?  But I had to conclude my exploration without any answers to my conjectures.
the ruins next door
       Twenty years later I passed through Chiang Saen again, arriving after dark on a boat trip from Jinghong in Yunnan, China.  The boat docked south of the town.  I was burdened with luggage then, my left arm in a cast and no transportation was available from the port to the main part of the town.  On my difficult walk through the town from south to north I did notice that it wasn’t much bigger than two decades ago:  a few new bank buildings, a slightly bigger commercial zone and an extension into perhaps 10% more of the old city area.  Weather was bad in the morning, so I headed straight to Chiang Mai, without another look at the relics.  It’s not far.  I can always come back.  But I didn’t make that decision soon enough.
       Unfortunately, three years later, March of 2011, an earthquake struck the area, sent Chedi Luang crashing to the ground, damaged Wat Pa Sak and three other chedis.  (I don’t know if the “Tilting Chedi” was one of them.)  None of the town’s residents were killed or injured, so for them the tragedy was cultural, not personal, and so not especially disruptive.  Eventually funds will be found to restore the damaged monuments.  The population will expand and more trees will be cut down to make room for houses even more directly in the shadows of Chiang Saen’s history.  And the town’s atmosphere will still resemble what it basically was in 1988.  

monks on the river at Chiang Saen
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