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Kavila’s Chiang Mai

Kavila’s Chiang Mai

Exploring Chao Kavila’s Chiang Mai


By Andrew Forbes

For most visitors to Chiang Mai, the city is synonymous with Phra Mangrai, the great ruler who first established the northern capital in BE 1839/1296 AD, and whose memory will be honoured next year during the upcoming celebration of the city's seventh centennial. Less well-known - indeed, almost unknown to most young Thais - is the memory of chao  Kavila, the great northern warlord who repossessed Chiang Mai from the Burmese in 1776, and who subsequently rebuilt and restored the city on behalf of the Chakri dynasty.

In 1774, five years after the fall of Ayutthaya to the Burmese invaders, chao Kavila, Lord of Lampang, joined King Taksin in his campaign against the Burmese in the north. By 1776 Chiang Mai had been liberated, but was too ravaged and depopulated to function as the Lan Na capital. Accordingly, for twenty years Kavila ruled the north from Lampang, firstly on behalf of Taksin, and then the Chakri monarchy, until the re-establishment of Chiang Mai as the northern capital in 1796.

Kavila was a hard man - he had to be to drive out the Burmese - and a wise ruler. Twice, in 1797 and 1802, he saved the north from renewed invasion. He rebuilt the old city walls of Chiang Mai in around 1800, and he also erected a new line of earthen ramparts to defend the growing commercial areas outside the city walls in districts which now comprise Tippanet, Nantaram and Tha Pae.

Rama I counted upon Kavila to defend the northern frontiers of Siam, to provide troops for the defense of the kingdom as and when necessary, and to render annual tribute to Bangkok in the form of ritual (but valuable) gold and silver trees. In return, Kavila was confirmed as ruler of the North, and could call on central troops to assist him in case of Burmese attack. As well as being Lord of Chiang Mai, Kavila acted as viceroy of a huge area, with authority extending to Chiang Rai, Tak and Nan.

In 1802 Kavila felt strong enough to go on the offensive against the Burmese, when he raided Kengtung and carried off many families for resettlement further south. Quite a few of Chiang Mai's substantial Shan connections date from these events. By the time of his death in 1813, with his younger brothers ruling in Lamphun and Lampang, Kavila had effectively restored the ancient Kingdom of Lan Na - albeit in tributary status to Bangkok.

Kavila, then, more than any individual since Mangrai, was responsible for making Chiang Mai the city it is today. Yet who now remembers the great chao muang? And what signs remain of his long and golden rule? Happily, the answer to the latter question is, quite a few.

To begin with, for defensive reasons, Kavila rebuilt the old city walls, establishing four great bastions at the north-east (Sri Phum), north-west (Hua Lin), south-west (Ku Ruang) and south-east (Katam) corners of the city. These venerable historical monuments survive in excellent condition to the present day, and give the visitor a clear idea of how the city fortifications must have looked in Kavila's times. This is especially true during the festival of Loy Krathong, in mid-November, when flaming torches are fixed in place above the bastions, casting a flickering light on the dark, surrounding moats. It does not require much effort to imagine a host of Burmese, archers and riflemen, massed to the north-west of the city, earnestly - but vainly - striving to re-establish their hold on the Kingdom of Lan Na.

Less well-known, but equally deserving of a visit, are Kavila's earthen ramparts, which still snake, largely unseen, hidden by houses and dense vegetation, through the city's southern and eastern suburbs. 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 Crystal Stream, and in the east, flowing southwards to meet them, the waters of the Klong Mae Kha.

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 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.

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". It is this formerly infamous red light area, today upwardly mobile, where the old fortifications are most readily visible. Nearby a few fading houses of ill repute still cluster beneath the earthen walls in the disapproving shadow of the prestigious new Mae Ping Hotel.

For history buffs, or those 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.

Less well-known, but of equal interest, are Kavila's "secret weapons" against the Burmese. Many of those who travel to Chiang Mai will visit the White Elephant shrine at Chang Pheuak. Built by Saen Muang Ma, King of Chiang Mai between 1385 and 1401, the statues of two albino elephants, each protected by a simple whitewashed stable, stand close by Chang Pheuak bus station.  Venerated by the people of Chiang Mai, bedecked in flowers and wreathed in incense smoke, they are a familiar landmark of the northern capital.

Yet very few are aware that, just a kilometre or so away, two white mortar lions stand in similar white-washed dens on a small island surrounded by a tranquil, lily-lined moat. This second monument is as quiet and traffic-free as the White Elephant Monument is noisy and polluted. All the more surprising, therefore, that it is so little known, and so seldom visited.

To see the lions, continue north up Chotana Road beyond the White Elephant Shrine to the new and dusty super highway. Cross this monster with care and continue along Chotana towards Mae Rim for a hundred metres or so, then take the first turning on the left, called - appropriately enough - Soi Anusawari Singh, or "Lion Monument Lane".

A little down the Soi on the left hand side is Wat Kuang Singh - "Lion Lawn Temple". To the right, just before an extensive Chinese cemetery, is a small artificial island which may be reached by a low footbridge. Over the bridge, in caste metal, a sign announces Kum Singh - the Lion's enclosure, or more fancifully perhaps "Lion's Den" in Northern Thai.

Here, on a raised platform surrounded by trees, stand two lion figures in separate masonry dens, one facing approximately due north, and the other due east. In the centre of the dais is a well, and to the north-west corner of the island, facing the slopes of Doi Suthep, stands a row of spirit houses. The atmosphere is strangely tranquil for noisy Chotana, and generally the island will be completely deserted except, perhaps, for a sleeping samlor driver.

The two lions are guardian figures of Chiang Mai. They were erected by Kavila in 1801 with the avowed intention of overawing invaders and frightening them away from the city. Thus, according to one local account of the Anusawari Singh, the lions are a "symbol of super power," deliberately placed on the main Burmese invasion route to Chiang Mai, as a warning and threat to the attacking armies.

They certainly seem to have worked - for after their construction no Burmese army was ever again to succeed in capturing Chiang Mai. Of course, the lions may have been helped in their noble purpose by the city's new fortifications, completed by Kavila one year earlier in 1800, but who is to say for sure?

For visitors to Chiang Mai, other reminders of the great chao muang are plentiful. The city rejoices in a Kavila Memorial Hospital, a Kavila School, the extensive Kavila Barracks, and of course the Anusawari Kavila, or Kavila Memorial. All are located on the east bank of the River Ping, in the area between Sanpakhoi and the Railway Station.

 As the northern capital fast approaches its 700th anniversary, they serve as a timely reminder of a great northern leader. But for casual visitor and interested resident alike, nothing surpasses the "Earthen Ramparts" and the "Lion's Den" in terms of colour, tranquillity and local interest.


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