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Moats Of Chiang Mai

Moats Of Chiang Mai

Celebrating Chiang Mai’s Ancient Moats


By Andrew Forbes

Thailand's northern capital is not the only town in this ancient Southeast Asian kingdom to boast a network of moats. In the past, when Burmese armies regularly threatened Thai cities with siege, many towns were thus aptly defended. Ayutthaya was - and still is - ringed by waterways, and when these proved inadequate the capital was moved to Thonburi, though not for long. The far-sighted Rama I understood the defensive value of water, and moved his capital across the Chao Phraya River, to Bangkok, where he established the Royal Palace on Rattanakosin Island, protected by a network of three concentric moats - Khlong Lord, Khlong Banglamphu, and Khlong Kasem. The ancient cities of Sukhothai, Sri Satchanalai and Kampaeng Phet have moats. So even does Roi Et in the far north-east, albeit well removed from former Burmese attentions -  Chiang Mai is certainly not alone in this regard.

What distinguishes Chiang Mai, however, is the quality and nature of its moats. They are, quite simply, the most beautiful and most extensive in Thailand, surpassing even those of neighbouring Lamphun. Forming a nearly perfect square, they date in their present form from the late 18th century and serve to delimit the boundaries of the Old City. With a total length of just over six kilometres, grassy banks and shade-giving trees, they represent - at least in their quieter reaches - a spiritual oasis in the heart of the city where people can stroll, relax, converse, or simply contemplate the city battlements reflected in the still waters.

The moats are also a tourist attraction, making an important contribution to the ambience, character and overall income of the city. Beyond this, local people still use them as a source of food – sometimes fishing with home-made crossbows or catching snails with nets - whilst the local children splash and swim in the waters, especially during the hot season. And what fun would Songkran be in the northern capital without the moats? Truly, they are an integral part of Chiang Mai's way of life.

It was a matter of some local consternation, therefore, when just over a decade ago it was noticed that the moat waters were becoming noisome and stagnant. The Chiang Mai city authorities decided something had to be done, as a result of which during 1992 the moat was dredged and cleaned, and a new automatic filtering system was installed. These improvements seem to have worked well, and nowadays the waters fairly swarm with fish and even the occasional turtle.

A subsequent decision to strengthen the banks of the moats with reinforced concrete pilings proved more controversial. Advocates of this reform assured the public that after the pile-drivers had gone the banks would be restored to their original appearance, whilst the moats would be preserved for future generations. Opponents of the plan spoke darkly of lucrative construction contracts, whilst historical purists were concerned that the character of the Old City would be permanently altered.

Despite some initial concern as unsightly concrete piles were stacked apparently at random on every open piece of ground, the overall concept certainly appears to have worked. Section by section the moats were drained, whilst wooden platforms were erected to permit the construction workers to operate their equipment. For many weeks areas in the vicinity of the moat echoed to the rhythmic blows of steel on concrete, whilst lines of workmen passed buckets of concrete hand-to-hand. Earth scraped from the sides and bottom of the moat was used as fill behind the newly-erected concrete pilings and then - just in time for the rainy season - groups of women workers began to lay new squares of turf.

The result, in all sections of the moat renovated, has been a resounding success. No trees were cut down, and where venerable old limbs hung near the water the new retaining wall was designed to accommodate them. When the moat is filled to capacity the concrete pilings are all but invisible, and people - visitors, as well as locals - can sit on the fresh grass verges and dangle their feet in the water without the risk of falling in. 

Over the past ten years these improvements have continued. Fishing with home-made crossbows is discouraged and increasingly rarely seen. New and attractive pedestrian bridges have been built across the moats at strategic points to the south and west of the old city. Sections of the old city wall have been restored with remarkable taste, notably in the northwest of the city around Hua Rin Corner. The moats themselves have been cleared and dredged, much improving the inflow area where Huai Kaeo – the “Crystal Stream” for which Huai Kaeo Road is named – flows into the moats just opposite the Tokyo Hotel. Finally, fountains have been added to beautify the moats, improve the quality of the water by circulating oxygen, and – at the four ancient corners – providing an attractive multi-faceted fountain effect.

The banks of the moats, too, have continued to receive attention. Many new trees have been planted to increase shade and generally beautify this aspect of the old city. Most are fast-growing palms of various species, but the yellow-flowering cassia fistula which blooms in April – also known as Golden Rod, it is in fact Thailand's national flower – remains a constant feature.

A word of warning, though: this month is April, the time of the traditional Thai New Year Songkran festivities (April 13-15). The very centre of the Songkran celebrations in Chiang Mai is the Old City moat, which will be packed from dawn to dusk with stalls selling all kinds of refreshments, but especially beer. The moat sides are literally packed with revellers, while a never-ending flow of traffic – often pickup trucks filled with water drums and water-pistol wielding youths – wends its way, very slowly, around the Old City. If you want to experience Chiang Mai's Songkran festivities at their wildest and most extravagant, then go to the Old City moats. If you don't – then stay well away. You have been warned!


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media