A Guide to Chiang Saen, the Oldest City in Thailand

Chiang Saen is an ancient Lanna stronghold with centuries of history
Chiang Saen is an ancient Lanna stronghold with centuries of history | © Boyloso / iStock / Getty Images
Iona Proebst

When exploring magical northern Thailand, don’t overlook the oldest city in the country. A small river town that straddles the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, Chiang Saen is teeming with temples and steeped in centuries of history. Below is a guide to help you explore this ancient Lanna stronghold.

History of Chiang Saen

Chiang Saen is the oldest city in Thailand, dating back to the seventh century

What at first might appear to be a sleepy rural backwater is the site of a former Thai kingdom believed to date back to the seventh century. Chiang Saen, or Wiang Hiran Nakhon as it was then known, was one of the main cities of the Lanna Kingdom and the capital before the establishment of Chiang Rai by King Mengrai in 1262. After a turbulent history, including being captured by the Burmese and then destroyed by King Rama I, Chiang Saen became a ghost town and still can’t be described as ‘booming’ to this day. As you explore the area, you’ll see ruins of the old ramparts and other glimpses of a bygone era.

What to see in Chiang Saen

Chiang Saen is home to many ancient pagodas, such as Wat Pa Sak

Modern Chiang Saen has a few surviving sites that date back to the empire, which include chedis, images of Buddha, old city walls and wí·hăhn (sanctuary) pillars, making the town particularly attractive to cultural enthusiasts and historians alike. Chiang Saen is roughly nine kilometres (5.6 miles) from the Golden Triangle, across the mighty Mekong River from the Lao town of Ton Pheung. Due to Chiang Saen’s location, it acts as an important stop-off point along the old Chinese-Siam trade route for river barges carrying various imports.

While you’re in town, check out the lake, the Chiang Saen National Museum or some of the impressive temples, such as Wat Pa Sak, Wat Phra Chao Lan Thong or Wat Phra That Pha Ngao. Alternatively, take a pleasant walk along the banks of the Mekong River, or sit and watch residents go about their everyday lives.

Evening street-side vendors offer delicious cheap meals, so sit at a plastic table or join residents on mats on the ground. There are also a few local-style restaurants north of the night market serving authentic Thai dishes.

Wat Phra That Pha Ngao is a beautiful Buddhist temple complex in the Chiang Saen District

Where to stay in Chiang Saen

Accommodation options are fairly limited in Chiang Saen, and if you are looking for luxurious lodgings, it’s best to stay closer to the Golden Triangle, which is home to many resorts. In Chiang Saen itself, a friendly and affordable option is the Chiang Saen Guest House. If you are looking for a mid-range accommodation with a tranquil atmosphere and stunning views over the Mekong River to Laos and Myanmar, try the Mekong Sunshine Resort.

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