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Exploring Chiang Mai’s "Earthen Ramparts"
Any visitor to Chiang Mai is immediately aware of the broad moats and city walls which surround the Old City. First established by King Mangrai in B.E. 1839/1296 A.D. and subsequently rebuilt in the 1960s, these warm brick ramparts add considerably to the northern capital's charm, and are as synonymous with Chiang Mai as Wat Pra Singh and Doi Suthep.
By contrast few people, whether visitors or residents, are conscious of Chiang Mai's outer city wall which snakes, largely unseen, hidden by houses and dense vegetation, through the city's southern and eastern suburbs.
As all students of Lan Na history will know, Chiang Mai was captured by the Burmese forces of King Bayinnaung in 2101/1558 and remained under Burmese domination until 2319/1776, when it was retaken by King Taksin of Siam. By this time the north was a shadow of its former self during the golden years of King Mangrai, and Chiang Mai - exhausted and depopulated by decades of almost continuous warfare - was abandoned for 20 years. Only in 2330/1787, in the 6th year of the reign of King Rama I, was a decision taken to resettle and revive the city as a bastion of Siamese power in the north. The task of re-establishment fell to Chao Kavila, ruler of Lampang, who was established as viceroy of the north at Chiang Mai in 2339/1796 and immediately began the task of resettling and defending the city.
Over the next four years, on Kavila's orders, Chiang Mai's city fortifications were restored and strengthened as a bulwark against frequent attacks from the Burmese. By 2343/1800 the main walls and gates enclosing the old city had been rebuilt, and Kavila was able to turn his attention to the rapidly expanding southern and eastern suburbs, located between the old city and the River Ping - an area which today includes the Thapae, Changmoi and Changklan Roads, and which constitutes Chiang Mai's busy financial and commercial centre.
For the defense of this region a high earthen rampart, faced with brick and reinforced in places with brick bastions, was built southwards from Jaeng Ku Ruang, the old city's south-western corner. Curving first to the east and then northwards, these new ramparts encompassed a broad sweep of land between the present Tippanet and Thapae Road areas, before finally swinging north-westwards to rejoin the old city wall at the north-eastern, Sri Phum corner. On the outer side of this new wall, as an additional defense, local streams were redirected to form a moat - in the west, flowing southwards from the old city moat, the waters of the Huai Kaeo, or Emerald Stream, and in the east, flowing southwards to meet them, the waters of the Klong Mae Kha.
The new outer defences were finished in and around 2343/1800, and seem to have played an important role in defending the city against Burmese attack in 2345/1802. In any case, following Kavila's restorations, the Burmese were never again to succeed in taking Chiang Mai.
During the course of the 19th century the south-eastern suburbs enclosed by Kavila's wall continued to flourish, eventually surpassing the walled section of the old city in terms of commercial importance. As a consequence, when the American traveller Holt S. Hallett visited Chiang Mai in 2433/1890, the outer town where the markets were located was the busiest area.
"After passing through the gates," writes Hallett, "we entered the market, which extends for more than half a mile to the gates of the Inner City, and beyond them for some distance towards the palace [subsequently razed to make way for the Yupharat School]. On either side of the main road, small covered booths or stalls are set up; but most of the women spread a mat on the ground to sit upon, and placing their baskets by their side, expose their provisions on wicker work trays or freshly cut plantain leaves. It is a very pretty sight in the early morning to watch the women and girls from the neighbouring villages streaming over the bridge, their produce dangling from each end of a pole of bamboo over their shoulders, or accurately poised on their heads..."
Today Kavila's wall is very much the poor cousin of the extensively rebuilt Old City fortifications, commemorated primarily in the name Thanon Kamphaeng Din - "Road of the Earthen Ramparts" - a formerly notorious red light area, today upwardly mobile, where the old fortifications are most readily visible, and where a few fading houses of ill repute still cluster beneath the earthen walls in the disapproving shadow of the prestigious new Mae Ping Hotel.
Yet for history buffs, or visitors who wish to explore another side of Chiang Mai, Kavila's wall is still there - often buried, it is true, beneath ramshackle shanty dwellings or concealed behind high temple walls and lush vegetation. Although less immediately impressive than the extensively rebuilt and essentially modern Old City walls, it is unadorned, much older, and completely authentic.
Some of the best-preserved sections of the outer wall are to be found in its western extremities, winding through, behind, and indeed under residential sections of southern Chiang Mai. Here the accompanying moat stream, formed by the waters flowing out of the main city moats, is relatively clear and clean. They run southwards, in the shadow of the old earthen ramparts, from a small spirit house close by Suan Prung hospital towards Tippanet Market. At this point a well-preserved brick tower - really Chiang Mai's fifth and least-known bastion - rises above the houses, topped with a shrine to the local spirit guardian, Chao Pu Chumchon Tippanet, the ancient brickwork held together by the massive roots of a venerable old tree.
Beyond this point, as the wall swings eastwards, is an area known to the local inhabitants as "Pratu Haiya", or Haiya Gate. Little remains of this once southernmost point of entry to Chiang Mai's fortified section, but the observant pedestrian or driver on Tippanet Road will notice yet another shrine where the remains of the crumbling outer wall are pierced by 20th century tarmac.
From Pratu Haiya the old wall is somewhat easier to follow, as its course is traced by narrow tracks - often suitable only for walking or motor bikes - leading through a maze of poorer districts lying behind Wat Nantaram. Here the accompanying moat stream takes a decided turn for the worse, as it meets the appallingly polluted, black and dead waters of the Klong Mae Kha before running away southwards. From this point the wall marches northwards beside the Mae Kha - now, happily, the object of serious municipal attention - until the best-known stretch, at Kampaeng Din, is reached.
At Kampaeng Din substantial sections of the outer wall are clearly visible. Houses - some of them quite middle class - alternate with slum dwellings, though the neighbourhood becomes obviously more affluent as it approaches the Night Bazaar, and the first tourist shops appear.
Beyond Kampaeng Din, really nothing of the old ramparts remain - though we know that, where they crossed Tapae Road - close by the Tantrapan department store - was the site of the original Tapae Gate, and that from this point, following the outer walls of Wat Saen Fang, they curved inwards along Sitthiwong Road, past the New Asia Hotel, to meet the Inner Walls by Wat Chai Sri Phum.
Should the Chiang Mai city authorities ever decide to restore sections of the outer wall, both as a tourist attraction and as a memorial to Chao Kavila - arguably, after King Mangrai, the northern capital's most illustrious ruler - then the Kampaeng Din area, together with the Tippanet Bastion, would be the obvious sections to select. In the meantime, however, except to those who live in their shadows, Chiang Mai's earthen ramparts are likely to remain largely unvisited and little known.