Chiang Saen | Riverine Town by the Mighty Mekong

Chiang Saen is one of the places in Northern Thailand that is easy to love. A riverine town, next to a legendary waterway like the Mekong. Moreover, a place for grabbing snacks on the riverfront and viewing Laos on the other side of the river. Chiang Sean was not always a border town, though; in the old day’s rivers united people more than separated them. With increased inter ASEAN – China trade, the Mekong is bounding countries again

Legendary Mekong and Laos

Eating Chinese food in Chiang Saen

Four countries conduct trade here; Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and China.

Chiang Saen port is where Chinese freight ships unload their cargo(all these apples), and the crew will enjoy a heavy meal of Chinese dumplings and steamed pork when they go offshore. For good Chinese food. Try the Khio Siang Hai restaurant near the port.

It’s already possible to see the result of some ambitious investment plans in the area. It is part of building a new economic corridor. “Trin Nakara Golden Triangle has interested investors from Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, the United States and China with more than Bt40 billion investment” One part of the project is building the highest freestanding flagpole at 189 meters.

The ancient kingdom Yonok and then Chiang Saen

Chiang Saen is a pleasant place to hang around for a weekend, to be idle and calm down and explore the ruins of the early Northern Thai Kingdom of Chiang Saen. It is claimed that this was an early kingdom founded around 545 CE by Tai migrants from Yunnan in Yonok.

More reliable sources are available from the 14th century when Saen Phu, a ruler of the Northern Lanna kingdom, found the city 1328 with its present name, “a capital of 100 000”, Chiang Saen.

Chiang Saen once had around 140 temples on both sides of the city embankment. Today most of these ruins are piles of brick but highly recommendable is a visit to the ruins of Wat Chedi Luang. This was once the most important temple in Chiang Saen.

I have been visiting this stupa since 1998, and I hold it as one of the most beautiful ancient ruins in the North.

Chieng Sen is a mysterious old city. surrounded by a high, thick, strong wall with palisades on top of the brick, and deep trenches dug outside. How far the wall extends, and what area it embraces, it is difficult to say. The whole city is so overgrown with plantations of teak, and thick secondary growth, that one cannot see more than twenty yards ahead, except on the main grassy track; but it must be of wide extent, for the District Officer told me that there are actually now tiger and other game living within the walls, and that he had recently fired several shots at a rhinoceros.. It is sad to contemplate a great city, which once contained seventy – five temples, deserted by all, and now events ruins lost in the jungle; but old Chiang Sen has little hope of recovery now, for it lies off the main road and the cost of clearing the plantations and undergrowths of brushwood which now choke the city would be too great to repay the undertaking.

Reginald Le May, An Asian Arcady, Cambridge 1926, reprinted in Bangkok 1986

To dig a bit deeper into the area’s history, visit the Chiang Sean National Museum. It is open Wednesday to Sunday from 09:00 to 16:00 h.

The National Museum has a collection of ancient artefacts recovered from the archaeological site at Chiang Sean and other nearby areas. The museum boasts an impressive array of centuries-old Buddha images in different materials.

There is a souvenir shop where you can purchase books about the history of Chiang Rai and Chiang Sean.

The entrance fee used to be 100 baht for foreigners or 20 – 30 baht for Thais. Not sure about 2021.

A great morning trip is to drive or preferably walk the naga stairway to the hilltop that holds the Chomkitti Temple, 1,9 kilometres out of town. At the base of the hill on which Wat Phrathat Chom Kitti sits, a sacred well is said to have curative powers. The well is just off the main road. Note that women are not supposed to go near the well.

When you arrive in Chiang Saen, maybe you have already been to Sob Ruak, for the Golden Triangle views, opium museums and shopping. If not, you can do it on your way back to Chiang Rai. It is just about 9 kilometres from Chiang Saen.

If you have more time, go see the “Temple of the Teak Forest”. The temple derives its name from the 300 teak trees planted on the site around its foundation. Wat Pa Sak’s origins date back to the 13th or 14th centuries. The temple has an almost 13-meter high stupa with stucco motifs.

If you don’t fancy going anywhere much, enjoy the riverside promenade where papaya salad vendors shop. Enjoy some grilled chicken and have a beer. Just sit and watch the residents go about their everyday lives.

Other sights: Not far from Chiang Saen, you can also find Chiang Saen Lake.


We stayed at Maekhong View. The small two-star resort with great views and excellent roof height in the rooms also figures a lovely balcony. It was just opening up in June 2020 after the Covid lockdown. So at the time, the place looked a bit worn, and there was a lot of dust everywhere. However, the site has potential if they freshen it up a bit.

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